Anyone nurtured on the 1960s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies will remember the deeply intoned lyrics in the show’s jingle, “black gold, Texas tea.” Though not as lucrative as Jed Clampett’s black gold (slang for oil, for those of you who missed the show), when it comes to sparkling red wines one could intone, “black bubbles, Australian tea.” There is something quintessentially Australian about these deeply opaque sparkling wines that are requisite at Aussie summer barbecues. Once cheekily labeled “sparkling burgundy” despite its non-burgundian origin and dubious varietal composition, today most Australian black bubbles are produced from the dark, thick-skinned grape, Shiraz.
Good quality sparkling Shiraz producers employ the same techniques used to make Champagnes such as Dom Perignon or Le Grand Dame, except that they utilize still red wine as the base instead of white. Due to red wine’s naturally tannic character, sparkling reds have an unfamiliar astringency that for some wine drinkers is an acquired taste. Most Australians have acquired the taste.
Only a handful of wineries in America produce sparkling red wines, with Australian-born winemakers at Geyser Creek and Wattle Creek, and Domaine Chandon taking its lead from its Aussie sister winery. No country has embraced sparkling red wine as enthusiastically as Australia, but red fizz can also be found in Germany, France and Italy. Italy’s lightly fizzy, sweet Lambrusco from the Emilia-Romagna region – the same region famed for parmesan cheese — had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. If you are old enough to remember the first-runs of the Beverly Hillbillies, then you might also remember Reunite brand’s smashingly successful marketing campaign “Reunite on ice.” When a wine supplier suggests drinking their wine with ice cubes, you have a good indication of the wine’s quality, which explains why many wine connoisseurs still shudder at the thought of red wine with bubbles. A much sexier red sparkler from Italy’s Piemonte region is the sweet Brachetto d’Acqui by Bava, which is best served in champagne flutes as an aperitif or a post-dinner treat.
Winemakers in France’s famed Champagne region are not legally permitted to produce sparkling red wine, though some champagne houses make a suspiciously deep-hued sparkling wine labeled as rosé. More commonly, France’s red-toned bubblies are crafted from Pinot Noir grapes ripened in the cool Loire Valley.
While Champagne producers fret over acidity levels in their white bubblies, when it comes to sparkling red wines, texture and fruit richness are the keys to quality. To temper Shiraz’s tendency to be tannic, Australian growers keep the dark grape clusters on the vines until fully ripe, which means the wines will ultimately have higher alcohol levels than most sparkling wines, ranging from 13-14%. Serve sparkling Shiraz slightly chilled with char-grilled tuna, roasted turkey or spicy pizza. Top producers include Charles Melton, Domaine Chandon, Banrock Station or Peter Lehman’s Black Queen Sparkling Shiraz. Also look out for E&E, Majella, and Seppelt and Green Point, which is produced by Domaine Chandon.
If you’ve shunned black bubbles during the past decade due to bad memories of cherry cough syrup concoctions labeled Cold Duck, have no worries mate, the Australians have changed the field. As you pour sparkling Shiraz into your champagne flute, expect a bubbling violet-hued liquid redolent of blackberry, blueberry and cherry fruit and a tongue-tingling prickle on your tongue. There is no “bubbling crude” being produced in Australia, so “Y’all come back now, y’hear?”