While I think of sparkling reds, especially sparkling shiraz, as one of the distinctly-Australian gifts to wine, there are Italian red bubbles as well. This week, I did a tasting organised by the Canberra District Vigneron's Association of 16 sparkling reds, with an Italian in the mix.
Before the tasting, sparkling red winemaker Damien Cofield (Cofield Wines in Rutherglen) talked about the history, characteristics, techniques, challenges and diversity of the sparkling red category.
The tasting was done in three brackets, with the tasters knowing what wines were in each bracket but not which glass (single blind tasting). Small tasting glasses were used rather than flutes. Prices are what the organisers paid at retail. The alcohols should be read as highly questionable on many of the wines, or the products of some serious intervention. The notes are as I took them at the time.
1. Ulithorne Flamma sparkling shiraz NV, McLaren Vale, 13% alc., $29.95.
- Boot polish, clear bottle age, some leather, prickle of something wild/feral, earthy, mulchy smells. Cloves, purple fruits. Brett. Nice creamy bit of texture. Slightly sickly sweet but also dried out finish. Decent length.
2. Chandon sparkling pinot/shiraz NV, Victoria, 14% alc., $22.90.
- Pongy in pond style. Brett? Crisp fruits and acid. Creamy texture. Nice lingering finish. Colour showing some age. Evident tannin.
3. Lini 910 sparkling lambrusco rosso NV, Emilia-Romagna, 11%, $24.95.
- Interesting sweet red fruits. Italian? Aromatic. Looks cool climate. Crisp, dry palate. Real contrast to proceeding sweeter wines. Crunchy. Lots of interest here. Flavours of stalks, stems, pips, and a bit of green tannin. Charmat?
4. Ashton Hills 2002 sparkling shiraz, Clare Valley, 13%, $58.
- Subdued, dusty nose. Some red cherries, mulberry. Dullish at edge. Strange disjointed palate and line. Confected notes combine with olives. Leather through finish. Lightest colour of bracket. Medicinal notes.
5. Robert Stein, sparkling shiraz brut NV, Mudgee, 13%, $22.95.
- Herbal and tobacco smells. Most persistent mousse of bracket. Tastes like there is some cabernet/merlot in the base wine. Aged elements, but also some brisker, livelier notes. Not sure about the sweet finish.
6. Cofield sparkling shiraz 2006, Rutherglen, 14%, $28.
- Roughish bubbles, drying texture. Not sure about fruit stripping by brett. Oxidised. Not keen (but liked by group).
7. Quarry Hill 2006 sparkling shiraz, Canberra, 14.5%, $25.
- Nice to smell. Brisk and bright purple. Fine mousse with persistence. Dry. Good length. Has crust.
8. Rumball SB18 sparkling shiraz NV, Coonawarra, 12.5%, $19.50.
- Clove. Pepper. Mulchy. Light. Older. Brett. Leather. Too sweet. Lacks weight and intensity.
9. Moppity Vineyards Hilltops Reserve sparkling shiraz NV, 13.5%, $42.50.
- Crisp, red/purple fruits. Somewhat aggressive bubbles. Nice lift (viognier). Complexity and freshness. Length. Lip smacking. Nice wine.
10. Mount Langhi Ghiran Cliff Edge sparkling shiraz NV, Grampians, 14.5%, $35.
- Mouthfilling rush of bubbles. Drying, evident tannin. Almost burg-ish in being mid-weight but intense. Purple fruits, savoury notes. Bit of creamy texture.
11. Morris sparkling shiraz/durif NV, Rutherglen, 13.5%, $15.30.
- Lighter than #7 and #10 above. Bubbles and acid a bit rough. Young? Lighter, drying, tannic. Not sure has old bones. Good length.
12. E&E Black Pepper sparkling shiraz 2004, Barossa Valley, 14%, $53.50.
- Nice smells. Fruit, leather, cloves. Popcorn and tamales. Drying finish, good length. Nice ripe tannins. Big and sweet. Touch of sweet/sour going on, but some savoury (near salty) notes. Dried herb. E&E?
13. Primo Estate Joseph sparkling red NV, shiraz/cabernet/fortified, McLaren Vale, 13.5%, $61.20.
- Slightly smoky smells. Cherry, leather. Complex. Funk. Age. Joseph?
14. Leasingham Classic Clare sparkling shiraz 1996, Clare Valley, 14.5%, $50.
- Rush of peppery fruit. Classy. Grilled meats, game. Castagna? Jangled on second look a bit. Hints of grippy tannin not 100% ripe.
15. Craiglee sparkling shiraz NV?, Sunbury/Geelong, no details on alcohol or price.
- Good spice. Slightly dropping colour at the edge. Leasingham? Nice, direct nose. Complex, layered palate. Length, layers, great integration on finish. Bit too sweet.
16. Castagna sparkling genesis syrah viognier 2005, Beechworth, 13.5%, $110 ($75 ex winery).
- Great colour. Bright, vibrant purple. Fine bead. Persistent mousse. Classy. Smooth, creamy textures. Age and lees time? Maybe just too much bubbles at the moment. Has some confected, candy/jube notes, but not distractingly so. Craiglee?
So what did I get out of the tasting?
- There are some good sparkling reds out there, across a range of price points, including wines that are not over-sweet.
- The lambrusco was my favourite wine of the first bracket. It stood out from the others for its different profile of grape and gamey flavours. Most of the tasters did not like it at all.
- The category could really do with some more ethical transparency and better information for consumers. Labels should disclose accurate alcohols and residual sugar. NV wines should have a date of disgorgement to allow reviewers, stockists and consumers to identify batches.
- I was very pleasantly surprised to see how popular the 2006 Quarry Hill sparkling shiraz was with the tasters. This sounds a little silly, but I couldn't pick it blind because the wine I first thought it was looked too good to be ours (and it was ours).
- There were disappointments, such as the 2002 Ashton Hills and the Rumball, and wines I loved that most other tasters did not (the lambrusco, the Primo Estate Joseph). It made me wonder if the challenge of the category is that it is both a boundary-crosser and within it there are so many stylistic options that even interested consumers can trip up or have very different preferences.
- Brettanomyces is still an issue in the category, driven by both poor handling of old oak and the need to drop sulfur during the secondary ferment. Better barrel hygiene and more use of filtration could help, as would a willingness to let the wines see some younger oak.
- Too many of the wines lacked attractive, lifted aromatics. To me, this dimension of the style is often neglected, including at the point of making decisions about the expedition liqueur.
I enjoy, and buy, quite a bit of sparkling red. I suggest the category needs more focus (like rose, why make it as an afterthought, with lower quality or surplus fruit? Why not plan to make it, with dedicated fruit managed appropriately?). There is too much fear of tannin, of new oak character and of dryness. Wines are over-sweetened, with high dosage adding 1% or even 1.5% alcohol to base wines that are already north of 13.5% (unless intervened with through dilution or alcohol removal). Yes, chilling brings out oak and tannins, and some sweetness helps to balance, but more sugar does not make more balance.
But it is good to know there are decent sparkling reds out there for not just the Christmas season.