Australians are more in love than ever with the best champagnes that money can buy.
Australians are world-renowned for their love of a beer or three, but it's our appetite for a more rarified tipple – French champagne – that is casting us in a refined new light.
We're now drinking more than five million bottles of bubbly a year, placing us well inside the top 10 countries in the world for its consumption.
But it is Australians' growing interest in the top end of the market that has caught the attention of the winemakers of the French region of Champagne, which produces the vast majority of the world's top sparkling wines.
One of Australia's foremost champagne experts, wine critic Tyson Stelzer, says Australia is well and truly on the radar of champagne makers, known as the Champenois.
“(Australians) are not just looking for a product because it has a name or because it has cachet, they are able to discern quality,” he says.
“When you talk to the Champenois they are saying 'we are amazed by Australia because you are not drinking the high-proportion of cheap non-vintage champagne, and the small proportion of vintage and prestige cuvee that the Yanks and Brits are drinking'.
“In Australia, remarkably, there is great popularity for the vintage champagnes and prestige cuvees, much more so than other countries. So the Champenois love us because we're prepared to trade up from the basic wines to something which has a little more value and cachet and therefore spending more.”
That popularity is one of the reasons Stelzer began to compile The Champagne Guide, to help further educate Australians about the proliferation of fine drops available.
The first edition, released in 2011, was predominantly aimed at introducing Australians to fine champagne. Just released in its third edition, the 2014-15 guide is now a truly global publication and one of the most comprehensive of its type in the world.
The impressive glossy 360-page tome is packed with reviews and ratings for 79 champagne makers from Dom Perignon, Krug and Bollinger to Pol Roger, Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot, plus more than 550 of their individual varieties or vintages.
For the record, Stelzer awards top marks – a 10 out of 10 – to the renowned champagne houses of Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger, Krug and Salon. Individual vintages are rated on a scale from 80 to 100 – 80 representing “horrid” and 100 being “the pinnacle”.
Only four bottles win Stelzer's perfect score – Billecart-Salmon's 1998 Le Clos Saint-Hillare, Dom Perignon's 1996 Oenotheque and a pair from Krug, the 1998 Clos d' Ambonnay and 2000 Clos du Mesnil. All, unsurprisingly, sit in the top price bracket of more than $300 per bottle.
There are other champagne guides in circulation but Stelzer says they're typically released at longer intervals, and frequently made obsolete by vintages released in between editions.
This means he has to retaste literally hundreds of individual varieties for each new edition. “All 500 cuvees were tasted recently, all this year, because I want to give consumers a perspective on what's real and current,” he says.
“At the same time, I'm trying to get under the surface of champagne, uncover the stories of what it is about the places, the people and the production that make these champagnes taste the way they do.
“I'm not focusing on the history or the marketing spiel, I'm trying to communicate to people what it is about this glass of champagne that makes it smell, taste and bubble like it does.
“There are not many voices in the English language who are writing about champagne. I could see consumers hungry for this information, so the privilege of being able to translate those stories into something that is accessible is a wonderful thing.”
The Champagne Guide 2014-2015 by Tyson Stelzer is published by Hardie Grant and is available in e-book ($34.95) and hardback ($49.95) editions.