21 September 2020
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Glorious sparkling shiraz

Angus Hughson
26 October 2009

They worked day and night; prospectors scratching at the dry, dusty ground in search of precious gold. It was the 1860s and Victoria was consumed by a gold rush, the likes of which it had never seen before, nor since. When the ore was finally exhausted, the miners departed as quickly as they had first arrived. But some lingered just long enough to begin the famous tunnels, or drives, at what is now the Seppelt winery at Great Western in Victoria.

Little could they know at the time that these drives would one day help to create Australia’s greatest gift to the world of wine; sparkling shiraz, that deeply coloured sparkling ruby that knows no equal.

At the time sparkling red was probably furthest from owner Joseph Best’s mind. Rather the tunnels, that eventually reached almost five kilometres in length, were made to store still wines in barrel at a cool temperature before they made it into the mouths of an adoring public. Yet sparkling wines from Champagne were making an impression on the continent and soon the locals, eager to please their colonial masters, decided that they too could make a bubbly that would stand on its own as one of the world’s great wine styles.

Soon thereafter sparkling shiraz was born, not at Seppelt but at the old Auldana winery, located close to Penfold’s historic Magill Estate. But it wasn’t long before Seppelt got in on the act and the great tradition of fine Seppelt sparkling burgundy had begun. Of course we can’t call it burgundy anymore – the French have well and truly seen to that. But burgundy really is the best name for the top echelon of these wines because they are supple and seductive wines of great complexity and poise.

Yet sparkling shiraz could have been lost to the world forever had it not been for winemaker Ian McKenzie. By the early 1980s, the notorious Cold Duck had bought Australian sparkling red to its knees. They couldn’t give the stuff away, even the very best of the best. But then Ian stumbled across scores of old Seppelt sparkling burgundies, piled high, deep in the ancient drives, some of which went as far back as the 1953 vintage.

Give a wine lover an old bottle and there is only one thing to be done – crack the cork and try your luck. Night after night, the pop of sparkling wine bottles were to be heard, and what stunning wines they turned out to be. Sure, the odd bottle was not up to scratch but among them were irreplaceable Australian treasures; still vibrant, youthful and with some bubble left too. There was only one thing to be done – spread these gems around the nation and bring sparkling shiraz back from the dead. And that is exactly what the owners did and it wasn’t long before these old wines were enthralling winelovers again as they had many years before.

There is something very special about Australia’s sparking shiraz, which makes it a definitive Australian style. In the great wines of champagne chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier combine to create a symphony. The chardonnay giving finesse, the pinot noir structure and body while meunier adds a little fruit sweetness. But in sparkling shiraz it is one grape that does it all with spicy aromatic complexity perfectly balanced by fine acidity and tannin, plus that beautiful generosity of fruit that marks all shiraz from around the globe. And while other nations have their own versions, such as the sweet yet savoury Italian lambrusco, there is little doubt that our own sparkling shiraz eclipses them all. And sparkling shiraz still holds one incredible ace in the pack – an ability of the top wines to age slowly and with significant grace.

Whether it is the bubble, tannins or some other mysterious factor but stick the best wines in a cellar for twenty years or more and they come up an absolute treat. As a case in point, reputably the greatest vintages of Seppelt sparkling burgundy come from the 1944 and 1946 vintages and a tasting of the 1946 a couple of years back left an indelible memory with me. It was a pure, complex and subtle beauty; still vibrant and delicious and, while showing considerable age, still had plenty of life in the tank - if only we could all be so lucky at over 60 years of age.

So why then aren’t these wines coveted around the globe, or even here at home?

Limited production is certainly part of the story, as you can almost count the serious sparkling red producers on a single hand. But there is also the issue of occasion. Champagne as well as sparkling whites and rosés fit any celebration, while sparkling of the red variety is a bit lost on its own and is more of a food wine – the magic partner being turkey with a little cranberry sauce.

Today, the wines from two regions stand above all others: Great Western and the Barossa Valley. But for me, the wines of Great Western in Victoria still reign supreme, showing greater elegance and finesse. The entry-level Seppelt Original Sparkling Shiraz 2005 ($20) is a smart and well-priced introduction to the style with plush fruit laced with spice and finishing with a little grip on an extended finish.

Another wine worth looking out for from Seppelt is their Silverband Sparkling Shiraz NV($35) – a multi-layered and gently spicy wine showing earthy and leathery characters with a finely structured yet powerful palate.

But start saving your pennies because there is another wine in the pipeline which should eclipse all comers, the rare Seppelt Show Sparkling Shiraz 1996, which is due to released in the next year or two. The rumour is that this stunning wine is up there with the top releases under this prestigious label.

Important information:This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

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