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For most wine lovers, the mere thought of sparkling reds is likely to bring forth raised eyebrows and sad shaking of the head. Examples can be found worldwide, but they are usually too sweet, bog average, or weird curiosities. Perhaps bit of fun, but undeserving of a place among serious wines.
There is one country where at least some wine lovers understand that sparkling reds have a serious history and where they are seen as potentially excellent wines. I speak, of course, of Australia. Although even here there are many who would dismiss them without further consideration – the exception is Christmas, where a good sparkling red is seen as the perfect wine for the roast turkey (tradition insists that most of us still go to the old favorites like roast turkey for Christmas lunch, even though it is likely to be served in the searing heat that the Australian mid-summer in late December usually provides).
I’ll confess I am a fan. Love these wines. Not every day, but what would you want to drink every day? (Okay, a great champagne and you’d have no complaints from me!)
Many years ago, I wrote an in-depth article on these wines. Researched high and low, spoke to winemakers, went to original sources, checked history, all for a tiny magazine that disappeared without trace. I’ve no idea if the piece even made it into print, and the computer on which it resided was lost long ago. A lot of work wasted.
Fortunately, my very good friend James Smith had done something similar for his book, Bubbles, Bottles and Colonial Bastards: A Short History of Sparkling Wine in Australia 1840-1990, and he has kindly allowed me to “steal” from it. We both relied a lot on the prior efforts of Dr. John Wilson from the Clare Valley, who had also researched the topic years earlier.
Short history of Australian sparkling Burgundy
The style in Australia was originally known as “sparkling Burgundy” and is often still affectionately referred to as “Spurgles” in accordance with our national need to shorten every name.
Many decades ago, sparkling wine from Burgundy was far more common and popular than it is today, although it’s rarely seen Down Under. Indeed, for all those who turn their nose up at the very idea of a sparkling red, Hugh Johnson mentions a sparkler made from the famed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti vineyard back in the 1800s in his The Story of Wine. Now that is a wine I would have loved to have seen.
The earliest mention of “sparkling Burgundy” in Australia was in 1878, a wine made by Dr. L.L. Smith’s Victorian Champagne Company. Smith had brought over an expert champagne maker, Auguste D’Argent, to make his wines. Described as “rose-colored,” it is believed to have been made from Pinot Noir from Smith’s L.L. Vineyard at Nunawading.
Although information is scarce, it seems that the wine might have been more for fun than any serious effort. Whatever it was, it was not enough to save the Victorian Champagne Company, which closed its doors in 1884.
It would be a decade before further attempts at a “sparkling Burgundy” were made – through Hans Irvine of Great Western in Victoria and Edmond Mazure of Auldana in South Australia. Mazure was described by one reporter as a “vivacious little Gaul.”
It is believed that Mazure produced the first Shiraz-based “sparkling Burgundy” in 1894 at the Auldana winery near Adelaide. Dr. Wilson went on record suggesting that this wine was part of the “inter-colonial” rivalry that existed back then. Mazure was attempting to best the Victorians. Not sure that much has changed.
Mazure did not have access to Pinot Noir, hence the use of Shiraz. These days, Shiraz is the preferred variety for the style, although it seems that you can find examples from every red grape if you look (of course, many of these are small-production efforts that sell at cellar door and are not exported).
It is also worth mentioning that back then, and for many years later until label integrity became an important issue, a great deal of the red that Aussies drank at home was called “Burgundy.” It was made from Shiraz or other varieties and had little in common with the genuine article. There was also a lot of “Hermitage” consumed, largely based on Shiraz though it could have been any variety.
The Auldana vineyard dates back to 1846, established by Patrick Auld, wine merchant. Auld was also a member of one of the more famous Australian expeditions, that of John McDouall Stuart, which first crossed Australia from south to north, taking him all of 1862. Auld is a famous name in Australian wine, and the current Pat Auld runs Cumulus Vineyards in Orange. His sons, the sixth generation, have their own wine business.
Mazure was appointed to run Auldana by Sir Josiah Symon, who took possession after Auld’s death in 1886. It is believed that while there he introduced what would become the traditional Australian style of “sparkling Burgundy.”
During his tenure, a young man named Hurtle Walker worked with Mazure, joining in 1904 at the age of 14. He moved on to the Romalo Cellars at Magill (Magill is the site of the Penfolds headquarters today) and worked with his son, Norm, making sparklers, including “sparkling Burgundy.”
Norm became famous for his efforts at the Seaview Winery, and Norm’s son, Nick, is part of the excellent Clare Valley operation O’Leary Walker, which has a sparkler dedicated to Hurtle. Norm Walker apparently sourced much of his base Shiraz from the famous Wendouree vineyards in the Clare Valley.
This was a time before the Federation of Australia, when competition between the states/colonies was fierce. And this extended to commercial operations within them. Wineries were no exception.
In Victoria, Great Western had staked its claim as a leading producer of sparkling wines, preceding Auldana by around three years. There is a theory that the push by Auldana to provide a sparkling Shiraz was largely its way to distinguish itself and provide a point of difference.
Wine shows, just as popular then as now, created new categories to cover this new style of wine, and Auldana did very well with its sparkling Shiraz. Hans Irvine at Great Western released his first “sparkling Burgundy” around ten years after Mazure first did so. Irvine’s winemaker was Charles Pierlot. It also did very well in shows, both in Australia and offshore, winning gold at the 1895 Bordeaux Exhibition (this, allegedly, with a Pinot Noir, although there is a suspicion that it might actually have been Pinot Meunier).
After Federation (January 1, 1901), both wineries aggressively targeted the valuable Sydney market.
Into the twentieth century: Shiraz
The famous Seppelt family took over Great Western in 1916 (changing the name to Seppelt in 1918) and it is believed that some time after that they moved to the use of Shiraz. This is not just some bit of historical trivia – Seppelts’ “sparkling Burgundy” was crucial to the interest in this style and, subsequently, to its very survival.
Around this time, Minchinbury also emerged. These days, it is seen as very much the cheap and cheerful option. But for many years, Minchinbury and Great Western vied for the position as our top fizz.
By the time of the Great Depression, only Great Western still produced this style and it was not until the 1950s that there was any form of revival. Despite that, the Seppelt Show Sparkling Burgundies from 1944 and 1946 have become legendary wines, and on the very rare occasions they appear at auction they attract huge prices. The 1964 and a few others from that decade are similarly revered. These were made by Colin Preece, one of Australia’s most famous winemakers.
Revival might have been a little too rosy a description for the state of this style in the 1950s. It was hardly much better than on life support, basically comprising Minchinbury, Great Western and Romalo, which made wines for themselves and others. Then in the 1970s came a wine that has gone into legend, though not in any good way: Cold Duck.
How Detroit “wine” became a thing in Australia
Now, if you asked any Aussie under 70, they will have heard of Cold Duck, but they are unlikely to have sampled it. Which I understand is a good thing. They are even less likely to know that the Australian version was based on an American wine.
The American version was created in the 1930s in that well-known wine region, Detroit. It was based on a recipe that supposedly, in turn, is based on Prince Clemens Wenceslaus of Saxony mixing the leftover dregs from wine bottles with champagne. One would have thought that a prince from Saxony could simply have opened another bottle of wine, or indeed champagne, but perhaps times were tough. The result was originally known in German as Kaltes Ende, meaning “cold end,” but somewhere along the line this morphed into Kalte Ente, meaning “cold duck.”
Orlando, a highly respected Australian producer, made its version as a sweet sparkling red. Despite being wonderfully popular for a period, few things have damaged the reputation of a wine style quite as extensively. Terrifyingly, it had also registered a series of names for future products – Cold Turkey, Cold Chicken, Cold Gander, and Cold Stork – but, mercifully, the world was spared.
Even more fortunately, another cheap and not terribly cheerful effort called Rene Pogel didn’t last long (spell it backwards and the less enlightened attitudes of certain winemakers/wineries at the time then become appallingly obvious).
Some years ago, I recall speaking with Ian McKenzie, the famous chief winemaker from Seppelt as of 1983 and subsequently with Southcorp (a former incarnation of Treasury Wine Estates). He was a fan of the style, but several decades ago it was almost extinct. Even Seppelt had not made any for a decade before McKenzie’s arrival. Aside from Great Western, he mentioned that there were only two others making tiny quantities of sparkling red. I’d guess Rockford in the Barossa was perhaps one and the other was likely to be Rumball – Peter Rumball is devoted to the style, making nothing else.
McKenzie was actually responsible for releasing many of the old stunners from the 1940s and 1960s as they had simply been resting untouched in the Seppelt drives. Supposedly, he found these wines quietly minding their own business and tried a few. He was blown away. McKenzie and his winemaker, Warren Randall, after the discovery of the older vintages in the drives, made the decision to allocate 5,000 liters of Shiraz from the 1982 vintage to reintroduce the style.
If you try an old sparkler like this, you’ll find that almost all – sometimes the lot – of the fizz is gone. No foamy explosion. They are like complex mature reds. What you will get is a slight prickle from the carbon dioxide, which will have kept the wine fresh.
Rumball was trialing these wines by 1983. He released the first under his own name in 1988. As was common, he labeled the early wines “sparkling Burgundy,” but with the incoming regulations dropped the “Burgundy” and moved to varieties.
The style enjoyed a burst of popularity some years ago with many wineries offering examples. Most were just available at cellar door, but some have entered the mainstream. I’d be surprised if there was a region in Australia that had not produced a sparkling red – some much more successfully than others – and a red variety that has not at least been trialed.
Merlot, Chambourcin, and Durif are just some of the surprising grapes making this style, though Shiraz from areas like the Barossa and McLaren Vale does dominate. We have even seen sparkling GSM (Grenache, Shiraz, Mataro) blends. One thing to note is that winemakers seem far happier to use crown seals on these wines than they are with “normal” white sparklers.
Six of the best Australian sparkling reds with tasting notes
Today, there are some crackers available. The style tends not to be as sweet as in its early days, but there is usually considerable sweetness, generally between 20 and 30 grams/liter. It is just that the best are well balanced with the acidity and the sugar seeming to almost disappear. Good ones will exhibit considerable complexity, which often comes from significant quantities of reserve material used in their construction.
The foaming purple liquid might surprise first-time drinkers, and they may think that these wines are merely frivolous, fun, and festive. But producers like Rockford, Primo Estate, Charles Melton, Seppelt, and more are serious wines deserving of the care and attention one would give to any fine wine.
Here are six of the best. Sourcing them might be difficult, but good wine retailers should be able to assist. The Seppelt will come in around AUD$100, the Rockford and Primo Estate Joseph a little below, the Melton a touch less again, and the Zema and Lehmann both excellent value.
The Rockford, Melton, and Lehmann are all Barossa; Seppelt is Great Western in Victoria; the Primo Estate Joseph is multi-regional though McLaren Vale plays a significant role; and Zema is Coonawarra.
If there is one red sparkler that is generally acknowledged as the king, it’s NV Rockford Black Shiraz. The highest compliment I can offer is that it is a wine that I buy every year (you have to have been on the mailing list for some time before you get an allocation, though it will very occasionally appear at retail and is beloved of great wine lists).
Rockford Black Shiraz NV is not just a great Australian wine, it is a great wine. I love it.
It started back in the late 1970s when winemaker Robert Callaghan made a base wine from around 200 dozen old Aussie reds he had in the cellar. Opened them up and tipped them in. Open fermented and matured in old oak (basket presses used when needed), this effectively forms the base of the solera for the wine. Disgorgement dates are offered but many fans then also age the wine under cork.
It is no surprise to learn that O’Callaghan mastered his craft at Seppelt with McKenzie.
Expect a wonderfully plush, richly flavored, and approachable wine with great length, exceptional balance, and endless complexity. Black cherries, chocolate, Christmas cake, mushrooms, spices, a hint of soy, licorice, and more. For me, 96. If you are not a fan of these wines, you’ll think I have lost my mind. If you are, you’ll never doubt it.
Charlie has been making delicious sparkling reds since 1984, as he says, “Whenever he gets around to it.” He leaves quality material on lees for many years and has been known to include some Cabernet.
The latest Charles Melton Sparkling Red NV, disgorged 2019, was all plum pudding, sultanas and raisins, chocolate, and leather. Real intensity. There is sweetness but it is more than acceptable. Excellent length. A hedonistic style with cassis on the finish. 94.
This Merlot spent 18 months in French oak before being made as a sparkler. The dosage, cleverly, is a dollop of vintage port.
Inky purple with notes of mulberries, florals, black cherries, and old leather. Plush and soft with some sweetness on the finish and notes of cassis. Good length. 90.
If Rockford has a serious challenger, Primo Estate Joseph Sparkling Red NV is it. Exquisitely packaged in the elongated bottle, the material is a mix of Shiraz, Cabernet, and old fortifieds. Dosage is 20 to 23 grams/liter. Also working as a form of a solera system, it comes from a hogshead of the best Joseph Moda Cabernet Merlot from every year since 1991 and the Primo Estate Shiraz from 1989, mixed with a blend of museum vintages from the past four decades.
Length and balance are impeccable.
Expect impressive complexity and the proverbial peacock’s tail of explosive flavors with coffee, licorice, black cherries, dark berries, leather, cloves, spices, chocolate, and more. Some cigar box notes linger and there is a compelling creamy texture. 96.
Peter Lehmann recently moved on to the new Black Queen vintage, but you might still find this one. Black olives, licorice, chocolate, truffles. Soft and cushiony with decent length. Not the complexity of the best (or the price) but a joy to drink. Will continue to improve. 90.
An Australian icon, it is only offered in the best vintages with fruit from the estate only from its three premium vineyards – St. Peters, Imperial, and McKenzie. The base wine is then fermented in large French oak barrels, usually 5,000 liters, for 12 to 16 months (14 months for this vintage), before its secondary fermentation and subsequent aging in the bottle for the best part of a decade before disgorging.
Dosage for this vintage is 21 grams/liter. Inky black/purple. Cashmere plushness. The expected alluring black cherry and Christmas cake notes. Leather, aniseed, black olives, truffles, dark chocolate. There is an appealing umami/beef stock note. Finishes with a wonderful richness.
Decadent and delicious. 95.
Sparkling full-bodied reds may not be your thing, but if they are you’ll never regret it.
And thanks again to my friend James Smith for his assistance with this piece.