Reviewed by Jim McMahon

After our stint in Alsace we headed across to the Champagne region which lies north-east of Paris. Private and public visits (which included tours and tastings) to Moet & Chandon, Boizel and Pol Roger in Epernay and Lanson in Reims were the highlights of our visit. The weather was beautiful for April as it was on my last visit five years ago around the same time: lots of sunshine but brisk.

The Avenue de Champagne in Epernay is a cobbled street lit up at night with each Champagne house (maison — there are 360 of them), all those famous names shining brightly. Each maison has its own baroque style setting, some with gardens and flowers in bloom to match. In some houses the underground cellars go on for miles. During World War 2, many of the more famed houses were taken over by German forces but the cellars also acted as schools, hospitals and places to hide. Today, thousands of tourists flock to this part of the world.

Right in the middle of the Avenue de Champagne sits the equivalent of a TAFE college and it too is lit up and is just as majestic as many of the Champagne houses themselves.

There are 15,000 or more growers in the Champagne region and between them they own 90 per cent of the vineyards. At each harvest, they produce 349 million bottles.

The three main grape varieties permitted in the Champagne-making process are pinot noir, which accounts for 38 per cent of plantings, followed by pinot meuniere at 32 per cent and chardonnay at 30 per cent. Each variety adds something to the blend: pinot noir adds body and backbone, pinot meuniere adds roundness to the wine while chardonnay is more delicate.

We saw prices in the bottle shops and restaurants for Champagne for as little as €11 ($16) to more than €1000 ($1460). Needless to say, we dined and drank well as you do in this part of the world. We stayed in the Comfort hotel close by which is styled on a magnificent chateau and all for €89 ($130) per night including breakfast. It was a perfect retreat.

Australia, by the way, is now the sixth biggest importer of Champagne: last year we imported 6,023,165 bottles of the stuff; the number one importer was the UK at 30,786,727 bottles. Interestingly, in comparison the most expensive bottle of Australian sparkling wine, Arras Late Disgorged 2001 Vintage, made by legendary winemaker Ed Carr, costs us around $130 per bottle — sacre bleu! Source: Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne — 2014.

The Riverina-based Calabria Family Wines has recently released their 2012 Pinot Bianco. What is pinot bianco, I hear you say? It is a white-berried member of the pinot family with sisters grigio and nero. Pale straw in colour, the nose offers perfumed tropical fruit. The palate is dry, crisp and fresh with melon, white peach and grapefruit, and displays a herbaceous savoury mouth-feel. The wine has a nice textural feel with savoury spicy notes on a dry acid finish (rrp $15).

The Richland 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is vibrant purple with an inviting pink rim. The blackcurrant and wild berry flavours dominate both the nose and palate. Oak plays a minimal role. The medium-bodied finish is dry with soft velvety tannins; it gives the fruit lift on the palate. A stablemate is the Richland 2013 Pinot Grigio which is green straw in colour. The fragrant green apple and citrus found on the nose are more than evident. The mouth-watering acidity on the palate is refreshingly dry with green apple and lemon/lime, together with grapefruit flavours. Both wines have an rrp of $12.

Not sure if I’ve tried the Coonawarra Rymill 2013 The Yearling Sauvignon Blanc previously (I know their stablemates, the cab sauvignon and shiraz well). Pale green straw in colour with lovely green hues around the rim, the nose is awash with guava and grapefruit while the palate picks on the same flavours with added passionfruit and an abundance of citrus. The finish is dry as a bone with refreshing acidity and citrus dominant (rrp $16).

Pinot Gris is a style I’ve come to love and admire, having judged and drunk a fair amount of it on my recent visit to Alsace, France. Here I offer you the Tim Adams 2013 Pinot Gris. It displays a slight pink colour with a slight bronze tinge. The nose is fragrant with white pear, honey, peach and mineral notes while the palate is nicely textured and mouth-filling — white pear and lychee flavours come through as do the slight off-dry ripe fruit flavours. The fruit-driven finish is dry, with good acidity (rrp $23).

Coonawarra-based Zema Estate has been established since 1982 and their 2009 Cluny is a regular favourite on the wine shelf. Red/crimson in colour, the fragrant bouquet of mulberry, blackberry and raspberry dominate. The palate is laden with ripe fruit from hand-pruned vines coming off the world-famous terra rossa soils. This blended wine is consistent, year in and year out. A medium-bodied wine with well-integrated tannins on a mineral, dry, acid finish (rrp $25).

What’s the difference between a “reserve” cabernet and non-reserve cabernet? It all depends on your palate and what you perceive quality to be, with other factors including region of origin, vintage conditions, type of oak used, best parcels of fruit etc. At the end of the day it will be your palate that decides. Berton Vineyards 2010 Coonawarra Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is inviting to the eye with its deep black colour and vibrant pink hue. The bouquet is loud and intense, with blackcurrant at its core together with plum, clove and ripe blackberry. The palate is soft and fruity with well-integrated oak and vanilla/cashew. This medium-bodied wine displays a long and voluptuous dry, mineral finish. A steal for $17 (rrp).

Jim McMahon teaches hospitality at Sutherland TAFE.