Australia is not the only winemaking nation to produce red wines that fizz, but we are the ones who Spinal Tapped it.
While many regions happily push bubbly wines beyond pale pink to deeper red hues – think Italy’s maligned but often delicious Lambrusco, for one – only we Australians turn it all the way up to 11 and dive into a realm where “none is more black”.
These wines are misunderstood almost as much at home as they are abroad, are frequently dismissed by the arbiters of vinous cool and appear on the pages of fancy restaurant wine lists about as often as endorsements from Methodist ministers.
They represent a mere sliver of the modern Australian wine market, but within this small space there resides great history, some unique winemaking practices and, most important, some sublime drinks.
Where most sparkling reds are bubblies that just happen to carry colour, the Australian sparkling red style flips that idea on its head.
The best examples are serious red wines first and foremost. They just happen to effervesce as well. No pale pinks or chaste blushes here. These are sparkling wines that take us to visceral realms, showing off carnal crimsons and priapic purples in the glass.
Practical factors shaped the style rather than philosophical ideals.
When Edmond Mazure set out to make a “sparkling burgundy” wine at his Auldana cellars in Adelaide’s foothills in the 1890s, the option of being technically correct and using pinot noir as the Burgundians would have wasn’t an option.
They had pinot noir. What he had was shiraz.
Everyone was drinking shiraz because Australian wines were erroneously labelled as burgundy.
They were rich, robust, deeply coloured and forthrightly fruit-driven wines that bore resemblance to the red wines from Burgundy only in the way they were wet, alcoholic and poured from a bottle.
Mazure couldn’t replicate the Burgundian choice of grape variety, but he could deploy the winemaking methods from farther north in Champagne.
Putting a rich red wine through a secondary fermentation in the bottle – the methode champenois – was virtually unheard of at the time, but Mazure persisted and an Australian classic was born.
Adding some older wines to the blend, as they would when making non-vintage champagne, layers these wines with more intricate details, and using classic old Australian fortified wines as a dosage liqueur after extended bottle maturation gives these wines a charmingly old-fashioned softness.
For every bottle of the stuff sold, there’s a dozen theories as to why they don’t sell more, and this time of year is when most efforts to boost sales get rolled out.
There’s a longstanding cliché that these wines are the perfect match for a Christmas turkey, but that’s like people who try to matchmake their ugly single friends because they don’t think they can do any better.
At Christmas everyone is reminded why they roast a turkey only once a year, and sparkling reds have been collateral damage.
These are wines with a greater purpose than that, an ideal option for any time you want the dark fruit flavours of red wine in a slightly softer, gently fizzier form. And you want it chilled.
So remember, classic Australian sparkling reds are just like puppy dogs given as gifts. They’re not just for Christmas. They’re for life.
Mitchell Sparkling Peppertree NV, Clare Valley, $40
A blend containing vintages from the Peppertree vineyard stretching back 17 years, bottle fermented and left on lees for 18 months before dosage with eight-year fortified shiraz.
This is textbook stuff, able to express vivacity of youth with the complex cragginess of age all at once.
Licorice, black plums, eucalypt bark and dark raspberries. Well-worn leather and a bit of baked earth. It’s beautifully soft and supple, dangerously easy to drink and a timely reminder of just how good these wines can be.