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Red Alert! Why You Should Be Drinking Sparkling Red Wine

Having shaken off the unrefined image of their 1970s counterparts, sparkling reds are back, and they’re more elegant and complex than ever

If your knowledge of sparkling red wine begins and ends with light and quaffable Lambrusco, it may surprise you to hear that there are many different expressions—or varieties—of sparkling red, in shades that vary from deep rosé to ruby, and with flavor profiles ranging from soft fruits to spice and chocolate.

Like their still counterparts, sparkling reds get their distinct color from contact with the skins of red grape varieties, and the bubbles are there thanks to a secondary fermentation. They can also vary just as dramatically in style, from dry to semi-sweet.

Bottle of red sparkling wine in the outdoors
A sparkling red wine with blueberry, redcurrant, and red cherry aromas, Bolney Estate’s Cuvée Noir is redefining English winemaking. Image: Chris Orange

A Sparkling History

Far more engrained in winemaking history than many people realize, sparkling red wine has a story almost as long as wine production itself, from happenstance carbonation in ancient civilizations to the emergence of méthode champenoise.

It has roots in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where winemakers have used Lambrusco grape varieties to create bubbly reds since Etruscan times. After falling out of favor following the boom of mass-produced Lambrusco in the 1970s and ’80s, it is now back on the radar of wine savants as a more artisanal product.

Away from the Old World, the entry of sparkling reds to Australia dates back to the late 19th century. The first production of sparkling Burgundy, as it was known, was in 1881 through a partnership between a Melbourne doctor and the French champagne maker Auguste D’Argent, who together formed the Victorian Champagne Company.

This was followed in 1893 by the creation of a sparkling Shiraz by French winemaker Edmond Mazure at Auldana in Adelaide, and the beginning of Hans Irvine’s time with Great Western winery, where, with Charles Pierlot, he also made use of the local Shiraz grapes. Benno Seppelt took charge of this historical winery in 1918, and to this day Seppelt Great Western is known for its sparkling reds.

Black Shiraz - bottle and glass copy
Tinted love: Wild, earthy, and full of black fruit notes, Rockford Wines’ sparkling Black Shiraz from Australia is one of the benchmarks of its style.

New World Wonders

Of the younger antipodean wineries, Rockford Wines has commanded plenty of attention for its sparkling Black Shiraz. Described as “an essence of Australia’s fine wine narrative,” this is the only sparkling wine—red or white—in Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine VII.

Sparkling reds carry the same flavor sets as their non-sparkling counterparts but are more sensual to taste—Bill Williamson

In recent years, an increasing number of New World wineries outside Australia have begun creating their own interpretations of sparkling red, combining the freshness of their secondary fermentation’s bubbles with the fuller flavors of red grapes. Napa Valley’s celebrated sparkling wine producer, Mumm Napa, for example, offers two red expressions: Sparkling Pinot Noir, which is so popular it has a waiting list, and Cuvée M Red.

“There is a more robust structure on a sparkling red, which can hold up to some really diverse food pairings,” says Tamra Lotz, winemaker for Mumm Napa. “The fact that it’s a rare gem in the sparkling portfolio makes it that much more desirable—our sparkling Pinot Noir is reserved for our Club Vivant members first before selling out fast online and at the winery.”

Wine and bonfire
Bright sparks: Napa Valley’s sparkling wine producer, Mumm Napa, is popular for a reason, blending traditional French winemaking techniques with classic values to make the celebrated Sparkling Pinot Noir and Cuvée M Red wines.

Each year, Mumm Napa ferments some of its Pinot Noir on the skins with the purpose of making a red wine that will lend color to its rosés. The team then ferments a little extra to blend this club favorite, bottle-fermenting the wine with less sugar for a softer mousse and aging it on the lees for only a short time to place the fruit center-stage.

“It’s a very difficult wine to make,” says Lotz. “Achieving the correct balance between the depth and richness of a complex red wine and the elegant méthode traditionnelle requires exceptional grapes and winemaking artistry.”

Effervescent Charm

In California’s Sonoma County, Australian winemaker Bill Williamson of Williamson Wines produces small-batch Bubbles Sparkling Malbec and Bliss Sparkling Shiraz.

“Most wine drinkers are unaware of the quality these wines bring,” he says. “Serious sparkling reds take a lot more time to make than still reds. The result, however, really justifies the effort. Sparkling reds carry the same flavor sets as their non-sparkling counterparts but are more sensual to taste. The flavors are pronounced yet soft, while the dry, tannic finish of still wines is replaced by effervescent charm.”

Man pours sparkling red wine into glass
Simply red: Williamson Wines is a company that sticks to traditional French methods when creating the Bubbles Sparkling Malbec, but it turns to the owner's Australian heritage when making the Bliss Sparkling Shiraz.

Williamson’s Bubbles begins as a full-bodied Malbec, spending two years in French-oak barrels before undergoing the méthode champenoise process for three years. However, the Bliss Sparkling Shiraz draws most on the winemaker’s roots. “Sparkling Shiraz is a keystone of Australia’s wine heritage,” he says. “Bliss Sparkling Shiraz ensures our American friends can enjoy this very Australian wine nurtured by generations of winemakers.”

Back in Europe, the wealth of sparkling reds produced across Italy is being expanded by wine from new producers in more surprising locations. England is known for its sparkling whites, but in West Sussex in the southeast, the award-winning Bolney Estate is setting itself apart by also producing Cuvée Noir.

Made from 100 percent German Dornfelder grapes, this distinctive bottling, made through the traditional method, has blueberry, redcurrant, and red cherry aromas with a hint of spice. The result is a highly rated cuvée—the latest in a new generation of sparkling red wine. In winemaking regions across the globe, innovative wineries producing styles like these are building on centuries of tradition to reinvigorate and enhance an often-misunderstood wine category.

Banner image: Mumm Napa’s Sparkling Pinot Noir