Sparkling Shiraz: A Confession

Paul Blow

A friend brought a stranger over to dinner at my house recently. Politely, the new guy came bearing wine. Knowing that I write about wine and that my wife is a sommelier, he wanted to bring an interesting bottle and decided on something esoteric: sparkling Shiraz. My wife thanked him profusely and took the bottle away, never to look at it again.

In fine-wine circles, to admit that one likes sparkling Shiraz is tantamount to prattling on about your devotion to A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila at a PBS fund-raiser. In this country, sparkling Shiraz is just not cool, not even kitschy cool. So when I tell you that I enjoy sparkling Shiraz, I’m not winning irony points from wine hipsters. And I get no points from my wife, either.

Most Americans think that sparkling red wine is weird. And most big-city sommeliers won’t touch Shiraz, much less sparkling Shiraz. It’s too big, too alcoholic, too lacking in finesse. All of these things may be true, but they’re not reasons to avoid sparkling Shiraz.

The only place it is appreciated is Australia, where a devotion to the heavy, carbonated, oaky red wine is sincere and die-hard. Some of the country’s finest wineries, such as Rockford, sell it for more than $100 a bottle. “We not only take it seriously,” Sparky Marquis, founder and winemaker of the cultish Aussie winery Mollydooker, tells me, “we reserve some of our finest fruit to make it.”

Mollydooker’s sparkling Shiraz is called Goosebumps. Bring your nose to a glass full of the crimson, fizzy liquid and you get the aromas of toasty new oak and meaty, leathery Shiraz. Then try it: The wine is as rich and velvety as anything you’ve ever put in your mouth. It’s heavy in flavor, yet lightened by a profusion of fine bubbles. While most of what you smelled was oak, what you taste is cherries and strawberries, chocolate and violets.

There are a few things to look for in judging the quality of a sparkling Shiraz, and they are the same things you should care about in any red wine or bubbly. For one, it shouldn’t be too sweet. Sparkling Shiraz should be barely off-dry, just sweet enough that you don’t feel any astringency on the finish. While you want a nice expression of red fruit, it’s also important that the wine tastes like Shiraz, not watermelon Jolly Ranchers. So make sure it’s got some spice and complexity. And, just as in a good Champagne, the carbonation should be fine. If the texture from the bubbles is coarse and clumsy, the wine’s not good.

The Aussies know that their delicacy is not highly thought of in other countries, and as a result we don’t see a lot of the really high-quality stuff over here. If you’re not familiar with the brands, the best way to blindly judge quality is price: A good sparkling Shiraz should cost over $20. With softer acidity than Champagne or white wine, it’s really easy to drink. And, like other sparkling reds such as Lambrusco, there’s no better match for a plate of cured meats.

It’s also considered that elusive good match for Thanksgiving turkey. Of course, I’ve yet to try this, as I always spend Thanksgiving with my wife. But one day, when she’s gone, I’ll pull out that bottle of sparkling Shiraz that our new friend brought over. I’ll drink it in secret and dispose of the bottle discreetly.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.