Australia and Italy lead the way in search for a fine sparkling red

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 May, 2015, 6:57am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 May, 2015, 6:57am

Like a heavyweight champ donning a demure string of pearls, the concept of sparkling red wine strikes many as just a bit off. Pale pink and sparkly by all means, we seem to feel, but red and sparkly? Never.

However, a sea change seems imminent. Beijing-based educator Fongyee Walker risked life and limb - "I'm going to get lynched for this," she was quoted as saying in the local press - at Australia's Limestone Coast Wine Show when she chose Majella's sparkling shiraz over the region's more widely lauded big reds for her international judge's prize.

Despite the upset, Walker stood by her choice, arguing that drinkability rules when assessing wine. Not wanting to damn it with faint praise, Walker went on to call sparkling shiraz an Aussie gem deserving more respect.

Admittedly, we wine commentators love nothing more than a lost cause to champion. The difference here is that popular support is ahead of the geek curve. Brown Brothers' sweet, lightly sparkling Cienna Rosso is one of its top sellers in Asia. It is, with all due respect, no connoisseur's wine. This is clear from the first glance at its curvaceous scarlet ribbon label to the moment its delicate fizz disappears down the throat. But the sweetness is cut with ample acidity and its crunchy tannins and herbal notes keep it out of tutti frutti land. Without years of being conditioned about how wine should taste, would we all enjoy this? Quite possibly.

Up until now, red and sparkling have been mutually exclusive categories in Hong Kong, with the former dwarfing the latter. Yet, at Spit, a recent conference for wine professionals, a panel of the city's top sommeliers named prosecco, cava and grower champagne as hot trends. Simone Sammuri of 121 BC noted that the once lambasted lambrusco, a chewy sparkling red that ranges from sweet to bone dry, is having its moment. Far from the confected Riunite of yesteryear, today's lambruscos are popular among the set who prefer their white wines orange and funky. Dry and savoury, these lambruscos really are the perfect match for a fatty platter of pork.

Along parallel lines, Australia's McLaren Vale has seen Master of Wine Tim Wildman assemble such oddball grapes as nero d'Avola, vermentino and muscat into his (I hear) aptly named concoction Astro Bunny. Odder still is the method. Unlike champagne, where bubbles are achieved by mixing still wine with yeast and sugar and bottling it for a second fermentation, Pétillant Naturel (that is, natural sparkler, and "Pet Nat" for short) is made by taking a partially fermented wine, bottling it, and letting it finish the job in the bottle. Fluorescent pink but dry and bready, Astro Bunny has been widely described as "intriguing."

The question remains whether there are serious sparkling red wines, better suited to a collectors' dinner than a hipster picnic. The question of age-worthiness, largely considered key to so-called "fine wine," is not preposterous. We've all heard the spiel about the antioxidant powers of red wine phenols and carbon dioxide is like botox for wine.

Once again, only South Australia and Italy have their hats in the ring (united perhaps by their love of pork products). Majella, the wine on which Walker shone a spotlight is, like all top sparkling shiraz, made with the same method as champagne (but we're only allowed to call it "traditional method"). The wine spends four years in the bottle on the lees, or dead yeast, which would qualify it for vintage status as a champagne (essentially, time spent on lees equals quality).

From Italy, two top lambrusco producers, Lini 910 and Medici Ermete, were at this year's Opera Wine event, where 100 top Italian producers are selected by Wine Spectator. Unlike shiraz, lambrusco is generally made with a second fermentation in the tank instead of the bottle, like prosecco. This preserves pretty fruit and floral characters from the various lambrusco clones, some of which smell like blackberries, others like strawberries and cherry blossoms. Lini 910 makes a traditional method sparkler also, but it lacks the charm of the tank-fermented version.

The problem with deciding whether there are genuinely top quality sparkling red wines deserving respect is that we can't even broadly agree on what defines quality in this style.

Fortunately, even the best of these wines are not expensive. So while the debate rages on and these wines continue to sweep up prizes, we'll happily dig into a plate of the aforementioned pork with a glass of lambrusco, sparkling shiraz or, better yet, both.

Sarah Heller is a Hong Kong-based wine writer