Australian Sparkling Shiraz: Holiday Spirit from Down Under

Have you booked your ticket home for the Holidays yet? If not, you might want to get on that. Have you bought Auntie Ingrid her extra special Christmas gift? If not, you should get on that too.

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And what will you be serving at that special family dinner? You know you’ve got a reputation to live up to, and they’re going to expect nothing less than a little known, concentrated, crowd pleaser. Mom has the turkey covered, and your sister knows her way around a mashed potato. But you’re in charge of the wine.

If you haven’t hit the store yet, here’s an idea: forego the predictable chardonnay; resist the urge to splurge on a pricey California cab. Instead, trying something unique, fun and perfect for the season -- a sparkling red wine that’s sweet enough to please and bubbly enough to giddify – an Australian sparkling shiraz.

Shunned by wine snobs, but adored by the masses down under, this concentrated berry wine will please a wide spectrum of crowds. It’s exotic, in that rarely do you see sparkling red wines, Australian no less, that are palatable (and don’t worry, these are a long way removed from Cold Duck). With some exceptions, they taste fabulous, with lots of fruit and blackberry, and occasional spots of pepper and chocolate. And you can’t go wrong with bubbles.

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Australians make their sparkling shirazes the same way the French make champagne, which is to say, it’s a fairly complicated process. Instead of pinot and chardonnay though, they start with Shiraz grapes, and perhaps a bit of cab franc or cab sauvignon. The early parts of the process involve conventional winemaking -- the harvested fruit is fermented in steel tanks and then blended and bottled. It gets unconventional though, once the winemaker adds yeast and sugar to the bottle, then caps it, trapping the product of secondary fermentation (namely, CO2 gas). While the French like to show pictures of their centuries-old A-frames full of inverted champagne bottles – dutifully settling the lees in the bottle necks and being “riddled” (or ¼ turned) daily by little old men on bicycles, the Australians are likely to acknowledge their sensible, efficient use of gyropalettes. After months or years of regular rotation, bottle aging, and a final dramatic release of frozen lees, the bottles are topped, and corked with a tell-tale mushroom stopper. Then, the festive Australian bubbles are ready for release.

The bad news is that the Aussies like to keep their special sparklies to themselves, and not a lot is exported. Of those that are available, they can get pricey quickly. One of Wine Spectator’s newest darling producers, Mollydooker, makes a Goosebumps that retails for around $55 per bottle. There are a few bargains to be found however. Karen McNeil likes the version produced by Seppelt (retails for ~$35), and Tim Schultz recommends the Fox Creek Vixen Sparkling Shiraz, which retails for about $20 at places like the Jug Shop in San Francisco. Just be sure to shop early and stock up. You’re not the only one with a reputation to live up to.