You can hear Darth Vader from Star Wars saying,
“Come over to the dark side. Together we can rule the universe.”
The dreaded Muckie Beastie, or, as Americans call it, Cold Duck (R.I.P.), swept the land like black death in the 1970s almost driving the rest of Australia’s sparkling reds into extinction. Although not really related to other fizzy reds that had roamed the country with no natural predators for almost a century, Cold Duck soiled their habitat and drove the indigenous sparkling Australian red underground. And, yes, it was the United States’ fault!
Sparkling shiraz, or sparkling Burgundy, is as complex as Test Cricket but easier to understand and definitely not as !#x*!x*# boring. It’s made in the traditional way; sugar and flavor, ripe warm-area shiraz (no cool-climate stuff here), picked and vinified as dry red table wine, and often matured in large old oak ovals. (Some producers finish primary fermentation in barrel before transfering to old oak.) Then the base wine goes through the entire Methode Champenoise (secondary fermentation) in bottle, and subsequent maturation for several years on yeast lees, before liquoring with Australian vintage Port (vintage-declared fortified shiraz).
The first sparkling shiraz was made by Frenchman Edmond Mazure, who presumably used two Champagne varieties — pinot noir and pinot meunier — to make a fizzy red that he christened “Sparkling Burgundy” in March 1893. Mazure’s sparkler was followed by one made by Hans Irvine, at Great Western in central Victoria, who’s concoction was “Commended” (read bit better than “thanks for coming”) at the Melbourne Wine Show in 1894. By 1895 the Adelaide Wine Show had a non-Champagne sparkling wine class, in which Mazure’s wines won — and won well. The wines weren’t fizzy jokes; they were, and still are, serious stuff.
Before the first World War, some of Bordeaux’s most famous chateau’s offered sparkling reds, naturally from the typical cepage (blend) of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Leading Burgundian vineyards also turned part of their production to sparkling red pinot noir. After two world wars, however, there was barely a trace of evidence that these wines ever existed. But in Australia, master winemaker Colin Preece, at Seppelts Great Western, kept the style alive and made some truly great sparkling Burgundies from shiraz.
Today, sparkling shiraz, or Black Beauties as some call it, is hip again in Australia. Generation Xers are adopting the drinking habits of their parents — many of whom are too embarrassed to admit ever liking sparkling red (Cold Duck) in the seventies. It’s been said it’s a love or hate thing. But no one I know hates them. Just thrust a glass in anyone’s direction, and see how long it lasts. With the same potential for greatness and a uniqueness akin to Hungarian Tokay Aszu, American zinfandel, Spanish Sherry or German riesling, Australia’s sparkling red has waited more than a century to enter center stage. Let’s hope there’s no old Cold Duck in some vintner’s fridge waiting to fly again, because I’m sure 30 years from now my friends won’t be able to lie to their children about their drinking habits to resurrect the dead duck.
Seppelts current release, the 1986 Show Reserve Great Western Sparkling Burgundy, is the business, benchmark stuff. At about $50 a bottle, it has all the hallmarks of its long-lived predecessors. Seppelt’s everyday 1994 Sunday Creek is no slouch either. Another Australian benchmark is Rockford’s Black Shiraz. The wine is consistently excellent. Always rich, never too heavy, never too sweet or too tannic. Other serious contenders are: Peter Rumball’s Shiraz, The Wilson Vineyard Clare Valley Bin 93 Hippocrene, Mick Morris’ Rutherglen Shiraz Durif, the occasional Craneford Eden Valley Sparkling Shiraz, Charles Melton Barossa Sparkling Red, All Saints Rutherglen Cabernet, Haselgrove’s McLaren Vale Garnet, Alkoomi’s Frankland Sparkling Shiraz, E & E’s Sparkling Barossa Shiraz, Brown Brothers Sparkling Victorian Shiraz, Thomas Fernhill Sparkling McLaren Vale Shiraz, Leasingham Classic Clare Sparkling Shiraz, Mitchell’s Sparkling Peppertree Clare Valley Shiraz, Karl Seppelt’s Eden Valley Grand Cru Sparkling Shiraz and Fox Creek McLaren Vale Vixen.