When Brut Elite Cuvee 1501 was adjudged to be Australia’s finest sparkling wine at this year’s Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships, it was yet another gong in a long list of awards that Tasmania-based winery House of Arras has racked up in the past 25 years. Arras winemaker Ed Carr could be forgiven for resting on his laurels, but far from it, as Geoffrey Dean found out when he met up with him for a one-on-one tasting in London. Since Carlyle Group’s purchase of Accolade Wines last year, the moves are being made for Arras to become a truly global brand, with production to increase by as much as 50% in the mid-term future.
Amongst the wines Dean tastes are EJ Carr Late Disgorged 2004, Brut Elite Cuvee 1501 and House of Arras 2008 Grand Vintage
The Australians, competitive souls that they are, love nothing better than a winner, but few know that their most awarded winemaker was born not Down Under but in England. A native of Yarmouth, Ed Carr was taken to Australia at the age of eight by his emigrating parents, and the rest is, as they say, history. His House of Arras sparkling wines have totted up so many gongs that it is easy to lose count, but more major awards last month took their staggering tally in domestic and international wine shows to 86 trophies and 225 gold medals.
The self-effacing Carr is the antithesis of a brash Australian, but even someone as modest as him could not hide his delight at the latest recognition of his skills at the 2019 Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships (CSWWC) in London last month when the House of Arras Blanc de Blancs 2009 won a gold medal and the Brut Elite Cuvee 1501 was adjudged best Australian bubbly. “It’s brilliant to get a gold, and to be selected as an exemplary style is pretty special,” Carr told The Buyer, with whom he had a one-on-one tasting in the capital soon after the presentation dinner.
More on the tasting later, but first the welcome news for drinkers that House of Arras is looking to increase production from its current annual output of 250,000 bottles, 97% of which is sold in Australia. That means greater availability for overseas markets, particularly Europe and the UK, with exports potentially rising to around 10%.
“We’re looking to expand further, but although we have a growth plan, we want to be conservative, and each vineyard has to prove itself,” said Carr, the only non-Champenois winemaker to receive a lifetime achievement award from the CSWWC. “The next wave could be as much as 50% in the long-term, with increases in stages. This year, we’ve seen more fruit on the market in Tasmania, which will help us. We want to export more as Carlyle are very supportive of this brand and see it as a global brand.” Last year, the Carlyle Group, a global equity firm, bought Accolade Wines, whose large stable includes House of Arras.
The increase in production, Carr insisted, would have no effect on House of Arras’ long minimum time on the lees. That is four years for non-vintage, seven years for vintage, and ten years for late disgorged vintages (although the much-lauded House of Arras E.J.Carr Late Disgorged 2004 saw as many as 13 years on the lees). “We’re holding our nerve on lees time,” Carr chuckled.
House of Arras dates back to 1994 when Hardys appointed Carr to make the best possible sparkling wine.
“We felt Tasmania would be the place we’d end up,” Carr confessed. “We’d made sparkling wine in all the best locations in Australia, but had favoured high latitudes. We looked at places like Orange with its very wide diurnal range, but that continental high altitude didn’t really suit the style that we wanted. Southerly vineyards, particularly in Tasmania, have long autumn days and maybe softer sun; you get cooler days but warmer nights. We are on a very diverse mix of soils in Tasmania from clay through to sand, and our approach has been to work from multiple sub-regions as they are all immensely different.”
With House of Arras relying on contracted growers for 50% of its required fruit, relationships with them are key.
“Our growers are very quality-oriented,” Carr continued. “They are on three to five-year rolling contracts, and get the market price but a significant bonus potentially. We meet with them once a month to discuss canopy management. They want to be part of something quality and produce the best-quality fruit possible. We’ve tailored our winemaking to focus in on structure and acidity, and have that dry freshness as well. The longevity of these wines has surprised us – the ten-year old being still as bright as a bush.”
Carr brought that wine, the 2008 Grand Vintage (65% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir; 5 g/l dosage; RRP £35) to our tasting. Very long and with notable concentration, its bready, brioche notes helped build its multi-layered complexity, but what really marked it out was its sea-spray oystery character. “You don’t see that with mainland Australian sparkling wines,” Carr mused. “It’s not soil-related, so it must be the maritime influence.” 2008 was especially good in Tasmania owing to some late rain that growing season, which reset the vine balance in Carr’s view.
The long and concentrated Brut Elite Cuvee 1501 is a multi-vintage blend of 55% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Meunier. with dosage of 5g/l and an RRP of £30.The latter grape is one that Carr feels has real potential in Tasmania. ”Australia has overlooked the value of Pinot Meunier as it’s been interpreted as a lesser variety,” he declared. “We’ve found that it brings wines on a bit earlier and works really well in those younger styles. We’ve had some really good results. You can’t buy a clone of it as it would take forever, so we are using one that came from the Yarra Valley that is actually known as the ‘unknown clone’. You can’t find any records of how it got into that vineyard, but we had it tested and it’s Meunier. We’re now propagating that on our own Piper’s River site. We might increase the percentage to 20% but we’re waiting for the vines to get older.”
With top-end Chardonnay from two east coast Tasmanian vineyards that ‘really cuts it for the style we want to make’, and some refined, flavourful Pinot Noir from the Upper Derwent and Coal River Valleys, Carr juggles his fruit with consummate skill. His piece de resistance is his EJ Carr Late Disgorged 2004 (two-thirds Chardonnay, one-third Pinot Noir; disgorged March 2018; 4g/l dosage), which comes from another excellent year in Tasmania. It carries a £100 RRP but is one of the New World’s greatest bubblies.