Great winemakers come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are born into the discipline, having grown up in families steeped in viticulture. Others achieve greatness by studying winemaking at college or by turning their hobby into their job. For a small handful, though, the first steps on the path to viticultural greatness are thrust upon them due to a totally unexpected twist of fate.
Ed Carr, head winemaker at Australia’s House of Arras, spent his early childhood in the UK seaside town of Yarmouth before his parents emigrated to Australia, where he took a degree in food chemistry and microbiology. On graduating, he had absolutely no plans to work in the wine industry.
‘I assumed that I’d end up working in a lab, doing QA [quality assurance] testing,’ he says. ‘I started in dairy, then a job came up at a winery, and because it was such a small place, a lot of the testing was close to the winemaking facility,’ explains Carr. ‘So I progressively got more and involved with the wine itself.’
It was pure serendipity that that first winery made sparkling wine, as well as still whites and reds, and that Carr’s microbiological expertise made him the obvious person to turn to when the winery realised it was having a problem with its secondary fermentation processes. His winemaking career grew from there, to the extent that, more than three decades later, he became the first non-Champagne winemaker to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine Championships.
Carr was, in more ways than one, lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. His involvement in the world of sparkling wines came at a time when Australia was just beginning to develop its credentials as a source of high-quality fizz.
‘Australian sparkling wine began moving in two directions from the mid-80s onwards,’ says Carr. ‘There’s the volume stuff that’s made to a price point, and the premium sector, which took off as people started pushing to make cool-climate, traditional-method sparkling wines.’
Tasmania might be classed in the wine atlas as one region, but the truth is there are lots of subregions, each with different characters
Having established his bona fides as a sparkling wine specialist, Carr pursued his growing interest in the style. He started off at Penfolds as senior sparkling winemaker before, in the early 1990s, moving on to work at fellow Aussie giant BRL Hardy. Part of his brief was to focus on building a premium sparkling wine brand – and so the House of Arras was born.
Right up until the mid-1990s, Carr had been sourcing fruit from a number of cool-climate sites across Australia, ranging from the Adelaide Hills in South Australia to Tumbarumba in New South Wales. He’d visited Tasmania in 1988, when there were only 46 hectares under vine; today the figure is closer to 2,000ha.
The island wasn’t a commercially viable proposition at the time. ‘But,’ says Carr, ‘when we got access to some Tassie fruit in 1995, it gave us an instant wow factor. It was proof of what we were hoping to find – Tasmania really stood out for the finesse and the minerality of its fruit.’
So impressed was Carr that by 1998 he was sourcing all of his grapes for House of Arras from the island. One of the main attractions was the diversity of terroir available in a relatively small area, and soon after the initial vintage, Carr began a full-on exploration of the island’s hills, valleys and coastline that continues to this day.
‘Tasmania may be classed in the wine atlas as one region, but the truth is that there are lots of subregions, each with slightly different characters,’ he says. ‘Because this isn’t Champagne, with a history that goes back hundreds of years to tell you what the best sites are, you don’t really know what you’re going to get until you’ve made wine from a particular location. You can look at the temperature data, but each vineyard is so different in its aspect, its soils and all those other variations that make up its terroir. Exploring these differences is what’s so exciting about Tasmania.
‘Take Pipers River,’ Carr continues. ‘The cold climate and high altitude there work really well for the early-ageing Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay works best on the mid-east coast, where it becomes very tight, refined and mineral. Pinot Noir works best on inland sites with sandy, rocky soils. As young wines, they are very pale, very fine, with tight cherry and raspberry characters,’ he says. ‘But as they age, they develop notes of stone fruit and lychees and this honeyed character.’
Arras now owns two Tasmania vineyards: the Bay of Fires, in the northern Pipers River region, and another in the southerly Coal River Valley. The winery also leases another southern vineyard in the Derwent Valley and contracts more of its fruit from a loyal team of growers based around the island. Carr uses this diversity of terroirs to build complexity into his wines, then adds further depth by playing with the winemaking tools afforded to any producer of sparkling wines – blending and ageing. ‘The wines here have such great longevity,’ he explains. ‘When we first started making wine here, it took us four years to realise that, and we thought we were really clever to have kept the wine on its lees for that length of time.’
Long maturation has remained a key theme at Arras over the course of its development. The complexity that comes with the interplay of aged characters and primary fruit has always been at the heart of Carr’s game plan for the Arras wines. It’s a theme that he works with across the entire range, resulting in wines that show richness and depth – often helped along with a little bit of oxidative oak ageing. Little wonder that Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan MW refer to Arras as ‘the Krug of Australian sparkling wine’ in their World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine.
Even the non-vintage Brut Elite cuvée spends four years ageing on lees prior to disgorgement. (As a point of reference, the regulations for non-vintage Champagne stipulate a minimum of 12 months on lees, while vintage Champagnes spend at least three years maturing in bottle.) The result is a wine that reunites precision and focus with a fine mousse and the mellow toastiness that comes with bottle age.
But the Brut Elite’s four-year slumber in bottle pales into insignificance alongside the revelation that the Museum Release Blanc de Blancs spends an astounding 15 years on its lees prior to release. Arras’s most celebrated bottling, the EJ Carr Late Disgorged, also benefits from an extended period of maturation of at least ten years, depending on the vintage. (The 2006 spent 14 years on lees.) At its heart, this cuvée is an extension of the Grand Vintage, the winery’s first bottling, a wine Carr refers to as the heart of the Arras range. ‘The [EJ Carr] Late Disgorged evolved from a long-term assessment of the Grand Vintage in tirage,’ he explains. ‘We tend to find that there’s a sweet spot in our wines at four years of age, eight years and then ten or more years.’
As Arras approaches its 25th anniversary in 2022, Carr is keen to explore Tasmania’s potential further, and he relishes future opportunities to tweak the Arras line-up. ‘Even though it’s still a way off release, we’ve really expanded our magnum programme,’ he says. ‘And we’re going to be making a rosé version of the Brut Elite.’
But the project that excites Carr the most is a technical tweak that will probably pass largely unnoticed by Arras’s customers. ‘We’re six years into building a reserve stock for the Brut Elite. It’s a long-term game, playing off the balance between what you want to sell and what you want to put into the reserves,’ he explains. ‘Tasmanian vintages are consistent enough that we’re not looking to reserve wines to compensate for tricky years, as you might in Champagne. What we’re looking for is that higher degree of aged character, which will add more complexity to the wines.’
Anyone looking for reasons as to why Arras has enjoyed ongoing success for a quarter of a century need look no further. Carr’s enthusiasm about the qualitative potential of such a subtle change speaks volumes about the precision, creativity and curiosity necessary to create wines at the very top level. The British-born adopted Aussie’ accidental career has turned out to be just the boost that Tasmanian fizz needed to achieve greatness.