Sparkling shiraz is an Aussie wine you won’t find anywhere else in the world so it’s great for curious wine drinkers. But on-premise, is there any point to this niche sparkler? By Ben Canaider
Spurgler. Spurgling. That was the portmanteau colloquialism for Australian sparkling red when I first started typing about wine towards the end of the 20th century. For about 100 years before that, our domestic or local sparkling red had been mostly made from shiraz (a bit like our port) but up until the late 1980s, it had always been known as sparkling burgundy. Hence spurgling. (Why it was called sparkling burgundy was probably similar to Hunter Valley shiraz, which had been called Hunter River burgundy for decades. Back then, we understood wines by way of homage to French wine regions and their wine styles.)
But back to sparkling red wine. It was in the early 1980s that Spurgling had an NDE—a near-death experience. People weren’t drinking it so much anymore, as every real estate agent and life insurance saleswoman had discovered chardonnay and cabernet—partly because those wines were the so-European cafe-lifestyle trends of the day, and partly because they were two French words that any real estate agent or life insurance saleswoman could actually pronounce.
However, two Barossan winemakers had other ideas. Rockford’s founder Robert O’Callaghan and his equally distinguished winemaking neighbour Charlie Melton both knew of the unique and special qualities of Australian sparkling red, that stretched back to the days of Seppelt Great Western in the 1890s, and then the winemaking genius of Colin Preece in the 1950s, also at Seppelt.
They knew how these wines could age, how they could transform, how they stood out both in the cellar—and in the glass.
O’Callaghan made Rockford Black Sparkling Shiraz; Melton a sparkling red—the latter’s first vintage in 1984. The quality and the character of the wines, combined with the wine style’s history, inspired a new generation of admirers, curators, collectors and drinkers. These wines were a million miles away from the sorts of sparkling reds that had dominated a not-insignificant part of the domestic wine market in the 1970s.
Orlando’s Cold Duck was such a wine—and a wine that needed neither a sommelier nor a wine typist to tell you what to drink with it. My favourite though was probably the mythical but at the same time all too real sparkler from Yalumba: Rene Pogel. It was produced in the early 1980s, but had to be withdrawn from sale following a scandal about its name. I can’t say anymore but if you spell the wine’s name backwards, you might see where the problem lay, as it were…
Sparkling red wine continues to bubble away in an increasing number of Australian wineries to this day. Rockford’s Black Sparkling Shiraz is now the undoubted Spurgfather of the category. Unsurprisingly, Charlie Melton still makes a sparkling red “whenever I can get around to it”, as he comments.
Melton was in his fabulously unchanged, bucolic and happy manner when R&C talked to him about sparkling Australian red wine, and what was up…
Firstly, he identified the two styles of the wine that matter. One is really old base wine material dosaged with even older and more epic liqueur. He points to Primo Estate’s Joseph Sparkling Red NV as a prime example of this. Jo Grilli makes this in a very complex, layered, secondary fruit manner, with the old base wine material speaking volumes. For an Australian sparkling red, it borders on the savoury rather than the fruit-sweet.
The quality and the character of the wines, combined with the wine style’s history, inspired a new generation of admirers, curators, collectors and drinkers.
The other way to do it—as Melton does—is to use really good young material left on lees for years. His other secret is to add some cabernet to the shiraz blend, which gives the wine a tighter, firmer structure.
Melton is the first to concede that such wines really are a niche category. He puts them in the same category as vintage port—important, superb and a necessary wine style but with a small, no-matter-how-loyal band of devotees. Nevertheless, since 1984 he’s made sparkling reds and sold them and continues to do so.
Who’s showcasing sparkling red wine?
Through cellar door, through exclusive customer mailings and winery clubs, through a few restaurants that can afford to carry the inventory and want to showcase a unique Australian wine, sparkling Australian wines work. Having said that, prices for these niche, high-end, high-quality sparkling reds demand—indeed, require—a certain sort of customer… The Primo Estate example is $90 RRP.
While Australian wine drinkers are still so infatuated with spending anything labelled ‘champagne’, I certainly wonder how Australian sparkling red wine can garner a more profitable on-premise presence.
Using it for Spring Racing Carnival high days, serving it with cold chicken (or roast duck) might be one way; featuring it on your Christmas and Yuletide menus as a wine-by-the-glass degustation option, to add colour and movement might work. It also works during the depths of winter—sparkling red and duck curry get along rather well.
Oh and now I’m at the end of this and I must say I’m a little disappointed because I do admire and like the wines above-mentioned so much. I only wish I could prosecute a more compelling on-premise argument for their purchase and spruiking and sales.
Wine lists and liquor licence inventories are ever more pragmatic in their attitudes, however, and I can’t let sentimentalism mislead our readers. Yet perhaps the trend will return; perhaps the next generation of wine discoverees will come across sparkling Australian red wine and help it along once more.