Australian History of Sparkling Red Wines



The Start of Australian Sparkling Red

John Wilson, a fellow sparkling red maker from the Clare Valley in South Australia has spent many hours researching the earliest years of the Sparkling Red style.

Originally called Sparkling Burgundy, the Australian sparkling wine was nothing like any other of the early French sparkling  wines. The French wines were possibly made from Pinot Noir or not even red grapes at all. The word "Burgundy" was also used in France to describe Chardonnay and some very light red wines. In Australia, chardonnay was commonly referred to as "White Burgundy".

John Wilson’s research found the first Australian Sparkling Burgundy was produced in 1881 by the Victorian Champagne Company. This Company was established by Melbourne doctor and parliamentarian, Louis Lawrence Smith, who employed the talents of French winemaker Auguste D'Argent. Their Sparkling Burgundy was described as being rose-coloured, which placed in very much in the European style, rather than the subsequent Australian style. The first commercial attempt it may have been, but it was short lived, as in 1884 the company went into voluntary liquidation and Auguste D'Argent died later in the same year.

In 1888, a French winemaker Edmund Mazure (then 27 years of age) was employed to manage the now long gone Auldana vineyard in the Adelaide foothills of South Australia. Edmund had spent a few years previously in French and Spanish wineries, coming to Australia via the Dutch East Indies. The Auldana vineyard grew mainly Shiraz grapes. Wilson suggests, and I would agree, that there is little doubt that Edmund Mazure used some of these Shiraz grapes to make Sparkling wine and deserves the honour of being the creator of the Australian Sparkling Burgundy. Mazure went on to start his own sparkling wine cellars, which was eventually named "Romalo"

By 1894 the Great Western winery, in the western part of  the state of Victoria, and currently owned by Southcorp, had made sparkling burgundy under their winemaker Hans Irvine, and had exhibited the wine in the Royal Agricultural Society's Melbourne Wine Show.

I recommend you to John Wilson's web site for a more detail.
You can find it at www.wilsonvineyard.com.au/newsletters/classic_clippings/vintage/vintage93.
Thanks for all your research John.

 

The Middle Years

In the 1920's Great Western had started entering Sparkling Burgundy in the Adelaide and Sydney Wine Shows; in competion with Minchinbury, a Sydney based New South Wales sparkling winery and Edmund Mazure's Auldana Cellars in Adelaide.

By 1934 Seppelts Great Western was the only winery producing Sparkling Burgundy: Australia was in the grip of a depression.

Antidotal evidence suggests Australian Sparkling Burgundy dropped down in demand during the late 1930's and 40's, with a resurgence in the 1950's. Norm Walker, now retired after 35 years making sparkling white and red by the Methode Chamenoise at Romalo Cellars recalls that during the 1950's, total production of sparkling red wine at Romalo Cellars was around 12,000 cases.

The 1960’s was a period  of quiet  consumption of Sparkling Burgundy.  The main drawcard at this time was the emergence of tank fermented Sparkling Pearl wines, and the start of the good quality Riesling.

The Cold Duck era from 1971 to 1975 was not a good time for Australian Sparkling Burgundy. The idea for the Cold Duck fad was brought here from the USA. Within a short time, various concoctions of sweet, thin red wines, lightly or heavily carbonated hit the market. The prices became cheaper and cheaper, dragging down the sales of genuine Australian Sparkling Burgundy to a point where sales stopped dead.

Even the most serious players in the Australian Sparkling Burgundy market (including Seppelt's Great Western), stopped laying down new stocks ( tirage stocks). The sales of Sparkling Burgundy at Romalo Cellars had dropped from 1951 to 1976 and Norm Walker had stopped making the style, concentrating instead on its burgeoning Seaview white sparkling wine. By 1985, Norm Walker was making 300,000 cases of Seaview "Champagne".

During this time I was at Roseworthy College doing Agriculture and then Oenology, graduating in 1973. In those years, winemaking did not have the popularity it has now; I am Graduate No. 128 in the history of the College! I spent many hours during these Roseworthy years drinking 10 year old Romalo Sparkling Burgundy (at $2.00 per bottle) with my winemaker friend Malcom Ray.

Little did I know then I would be part of a huge resurgence in Australian Sparkling Red.

The Middle to Later years

I spent my first winemaking years (1972 - 1976) in the Clare Valley of South Australia making classic dry white and red wines from fantastic grapes. But as all winemakers do, by 1983, I was stretching my abilities and had started making trial batches of sparkling red from Coonawarra Shiraz. Coonawarra is a premium Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon grapegrowing area in the South East of South Australia - on the map about half way between Adelaide and Melbourne. The early experimental tirages were stirred in a 200L drum and filled into bottles by hand. I started making trial my sparkling shiraz by the "Methode Champenoise" (MC) and to this day I still use this intensive, time consuming method. The method involves secondary fermentation, ageing, and subsequent disgorgement all from the one bottle, thereby giving superior finished wines. By 1985 I was making more sparkling red, and in early 1988 I released by first commercial Non-Vintage (NV) RumballSparkling Shiraz, which I called SB4 Sparkling Burgundy. The "SB" merely designates the blend Number, not a specific vintage year.

In 1994, with the release of the SB16, I changed the name "Sparkling Burgundy" to Sparkling Shiraz. This was a time when the French winemakers were demanding names like Champagne, Chablis and Burgundy not be used as descriptive words for wine-styles in Australia. I was very happy to oblige the french, considering that the sooner I (and Australia) developed alternatives which were truly Australian, the better. This could not have been more relevant to a wine that could be truly called one of Australia's unique wines.

Gradually through the 90's the popularity of sparkling reds grew, first in Adelaide (my home town), then Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Sydney. Traditionally sparkling reds were drunk on Christmas day in Australia, with cold or hot roast turkey. Sometimes in Australia the temperature can get to 40oC (104oF), so cold turkey with salad is a common Christmas lunch.

1997 was a great year for Coonawara Shiraz and so this became the first year I tiraged a Shiraz basewine for a Vintage Sparkling Shiraz. There has been a vintage wine laid down in very year since 1997, except 2001, from which there was not a good enough wine worthy of the 10 years ageing on the yeast lees, to which I aspire. These vintage wines will reflect the absolute traditional Australian sparkling shiraz style as was made from 1886.

In August 1999 I started exporting the NV.Rumball Sparkling Shiraz to Japan. Sales to Japan have grown to about 40% of the sales of Sparkling Shiraz. The Japanese just love the Aussie style!

USA started in Oct 2000. There were initial trials and tribulations; now the USA has settled down to steady growth. The more people in the USA that "discover" sparkling shiraz = turkey = Thanksgiving, the more that will enjoy my wine.

2001 saw the first (M1) NV Rumball Sparkling Merlot made. The wine was released in Australia in late 2002, and has been steadily growing ever since. The Sparkling Merlot is not released outside of Australia as this time. The grapes for this wine initially came from McLaren Vale, then Langhorne Creek, but now Coonawarra.

Small amounts have also been sent to various countries - United Kingdom, Singapore, Hong Kong and Sweden.

The period 2002 to 2005 has been a time of great investment in resources: better Shiraz and Merlot grapes from Coonawarra, new disgorging and tiraging machinery and bottle handling equipment to assist tired hands and backs. The result has been fantastic. I can now make better sparkling reds for the same price - not many can lay claim to this feat!


The Now

There are currently approximately 60 different sparkling red wines on the market in Australia. These represent a total Australian amount produced of some 350,000 dozen (my estimate).
Many of the producers are small makers (less than 250 dozen) with the main volume, 80%, ($13.99 AUD per bottle and below) produced in large wineries. This large volume of wine is mainly made by the Charmat (fermented in tank) or transfer (fermented in any shape bottle and later transferred to the bottle you see on the shelf) methods.
Personally I still prefer the Methode Champenoise (MC) for any sparkling wine, including sparkling reds. The wine is fermented in, and stays in, the same bottle throughout the making of the sparkling red. The MC process allows maximum time on lees, giving better middle palate and balance to the wine. MC also gives finer bubbles, as bubbles reduce in size the longer the contact with the wine. This then gives a more creamy palate to the wine. Look for the words "fermented in THIS bottle" on the label. These statement gives you a guarantee of the authenticity of the Methode Champenoise.

To date I have made 100,000 dozen of sparkling reds for myself and probably an additional 30,000 dozen in the early years for other people - all by Methode Champenoise and all by hand with my dedicated staff.

The Future

As people from countries other than Australia discover this truly unique style of wine, the popularity of sparkling reds will grow.

There are rumours in the USA that ex Australian winemakers have started making sparkling reds, and whilst I don't expect countries such as Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore will be making the great wine, the style will grow as people find the tremendous match that sparkling shiraz is with food. If everyone in the USA were to do as the Aussies and enjoy a bottle with the roast turkey (at Thanksgiving in the USA), then a whole new world of sparkling red would open in the USA.

France will eventually accept that these Australian Sparkling Reds are as unique and special in the world of wine as Champagne from the Champagne region and start making a French version.

In the end this Fair Dinkum (Aussie for genuine) Aussie wine is a great lot of fun, and very tasty with all sorts of food.

It is a wine of discovery, so go and discover - you will love the experience!

Lastly, I will keep making these wines for as long as I can. I wish I had the knowledge of these Sparkling reds when I was just starting winemaking as I surely would have started off with Sparkling Shiraz straight away!

For all those people that keep asking, the first Vintage Sparkling Shiraz will be released maybe late 2006.

My Best Wishes to all my faithfull Sparkling Red drinkers,
Peter Rumball.
Adelaide, South Australia