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Geek Treat: Sparkling Shiraz at 2012 Hospice du Rhone

2012 June 17

2012 Hospice du Rhone

SPARKLING SHIRAZ AT 2012 HOSPICE DU RHONE – Hospice du Rhone, Paso Robles, California (4/28/2012)

For my first of several posts on this year’s 20th annual (and last) Hospice du Rhone event in Paso Robles, what better way to start than with sparkling wines? This being Rhone world, the sparklers are made from Syrah.

Sparkling Shiraz is very much an acquired taste, and no country seems to have acquired the taste except that of its origin, Australia, where it remains highly popular (like Vegemite). It’s not the kind of light and/or minerally sparkler most of us are looking for when we reach for a sparkling wine. It’s often heavy, black fruited and, with a little age, meaty and savory. Those flavors can, however, make it a remarkably good pairing with salumi and charcuterie.

These wines, which were once known as “sparkling Burgundies” in Australia, are made in the same way as Champagne, but starting with Shiraz as the base wine, instead of light, high acid, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. Some Aussie red sparklers are also made with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot.

The wines are first fermented to dry in tank or barrel. The resulting wine is then bottled with small amounts of sugar and yeast to spark the secondary fermentation. The bottles are then capped with a crown seal, like a beer cap.

Because the base wines are quite tannic and the carbon dioxide resulting from the secondary fermentation accentuates the tannins, the wines would be virtually undrinkable without the addition of a little sweetening wine on disgorgement. The sweet wine, together with a little sugar syrup, used for this “liquoring” is typically fortified wine. Once the wine’s balance has been adjusted by this liquoring, the wines are stoppered with a Champagne-style cork and left to continue to develop in bottle.

The best I’ve ever had was the ’98 Rockford Black Shiraz, which a collector friend in Los Angeles brought back with him from one of several trips to Australia. I rated it 94+ points, and it had an incredibly long finish.

Since we see very little of the higher end sparkling Shirazes in America–from wineries like Barossa Valley Estate, Elderton, Kaesler and St. Hallett–it was a major geek treat to sample this fascinating tasting of 11 purple and black sparklers put together by J.J. Buckley’s Chuck Hayward for the Hospice du Rhone Grand Tasting. Most interesting of all was the four vintage vertical of E&E Black Pepper. Who knew sparkling Shiraz could age into something as complex, savory and interesting as the ’93 proved to be?

2012 Hospice du Rhone

The Barossa Valley Estate E&E Black Pepper Sparkling Shiraz flight, our second flight detailed below, included the 2005, 2003, 1995 and 1993 vintages. The wine was first made in 1990. The wines were all sent from the winery’s library exclusively for this tasting. The wines are not exported to the U.S., but Chuck says J.J. Buckley will have access to the latest vintage, probably the ’05, in the next three to five months.

E&E’s sparkler begins with a six-day ferment on the skins. The parcels of Shiraz selected are then barrel aged for 18 months in French and American oak, 30% new–the same treatment as the E&E Black Pepper Shiraz. After blending, they mature the base wine for 12 more months in old French oak. After 30 months total maturation, the wine goes through traditional bottle fermentation, lees aging in bottle, riddling and disgorgement. On disgorgement, the liqueur is added for the necessary balancing sweetness.

In the first flight, the stars were the Aramis O’Aristocratis and the St. Hallett The Black. The Kaesler, which had a little fortified Touriga Nacional added for sweetening on disgorgement, was also quite good.

The ’05 Aramis was the first bottling of this sparkler, and it’s never been imported to the U.S. It sells for about $65 Australian dollars (the Aussie-U.S. dollar exchange rate is currently about even).

Elderton releases a sparkling Shiraz once every decade or so in celebration of a special event. 2009 marked the 30th year since the Ashmead family purchased the Elderton Vineyard from the descendants of Samuel Elderton Tolley in 1979. For this bottling, they selected a small parcel of Shiraz from the great 2008 vintage. Primary fermentation took place in open concrete tanks. It was aged for nine months in old American and French hogsheads. The secondary fermentation was in bottle, by traditional methode champenoise. It was only available at the cellar door and quickly sold out. Our bottle was sent over exclusively for this tasting.

The Kaesler was likewise sent over from the winery’s cellar just for this tasting. It is not exported to the U.S., and Chuck reports the winery may be discontinuing sparkling wine production. Only 470 cases were made of this one.

The Langmeil is bottle fermented, left on its own lees for 18 months and liquored with Langmeil’s vintage fortified Shiraz. It is only available at the cellar door and was sent over specially for this tasting. Family members told Chuck, “We don’t sell it in the States as we only make 250 cases and drink most of it ourselves.”

Majella’s are among the few sparkling Shirazes regularly seen in the U.S., and I’ve never been a fan. I find them oakier and heavier than the black sparklers I’ve had from better producers. This ’06 isn’t in the States yet, but will reportedly be available here in six months or so. It’s fermented on its “lees” for four years. It is then disgorged and sweetened with vintage Aussie port.

2012 Hospice du Rhone

The tradition of Seppelt sparkling wines started in 1890 when Hans Irvine employed Frenchman Charles Pierlot from Champagne to begin making methode champenoise sparkling wines in Australia. Under the Great Western label these sparkling wines became famous, sweeping the Australian show circuit from the 1940s to the 1960s. The base wine is from Victoria, a cool growing region compared to Barossa where the other sparkling Shirazes in this tasting were made. The ’04 has not yet been released in Australia and was sent over exclusively for this tasting. These wines have never been sold in the U.S. and will probably never be exported.

The St Hallett base wine is a solera, consisting of several vintages, from ’87 to ’98. Each year new barrels are selected to join the solera. Once blended the wine is placed on tirage for 18 months before disgorging. Magnums of this sparkler are available on St Hallett’s website for $85 Australian.

For my complete tasting notes, see below.

Aramis to St. Hallett

  • 2005 Aramis Shiraz O’Aristocratis Sparkling – Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
    Black red violet color with lots of foam; tart berry, tart black fruit, mineral nose; complex, tart berry, tart black fruit, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (14.5% alcohol; disgorged June 2009) (91 pts.)
  • 2008 Elderton Shiraz – Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley
    Dark purple red violet color with bubbles; violets, ripe berry, blackberry nose; poised, ripe berry, violets, lavender palate; medium-plus finish (includes Command grapes; aged 9 mos in used American and French oak; 13% alcohol; disgorged November 6, 2009) (90 pts.)
  • NV Kaesler Shiraz – Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color; tasty, complex, ripe berry, black fruit, tar palate; medium-plus finish (includes Old Bastard grapes, solera from 1998, liquored with 2002 Touriga Nacional) (91 pts.)
  • NV Langmeil Shiraz Sparkling – Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley
    Dark purple red violet color with a head of foam; violets, tart berry nose; tart berry, oak palate; medium-plus finish (disgorged Nov. 2010; 13.7% alcohol; left on its own lees for 18 mos and liquored with Lamgmeil vintage fortified Shiraz) (88 pts.)
  • 2006 Majella Shiraz Sparkling – Australia, South Australia, Limestone Coast, Coonawarra
    Opaque black red violet color with a head of foam; oak, roast plum nose; oak, roast plum palate; medium-plus finish 86+ points (fermented on its lees for 48 mos, then disgorged and liquored with vintage port; 14.5% alcohol) (86 pts.)
  • 2004 Seppelt Shiraz Show Sparkling Great Western – Australia, Victoria, Western Victoria, Great Western
    Opaque purple red violet color with lots of bubbles; tar, earthy, tart roasted plum nose; tar, tart roasted plum palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points (not yet released in Australia; disgorged April 2011) (90 pts.)
  • NV St Hallett Shiraz The Black NV – Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color with some bubbles; violets, tart black fruit, tart berry nose; rich, ripe berry, ripe black fruit, violets palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (14% alcohol; 22 grams residual sugar; pH 3.2) (91 pts.)

E & E Vertical

  • 2005 Barossa Valley Estate Shiraz E & E Sparkling – Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley
    Very dark red violet color with bubbles; tart plum, preserved plum nose; tart black fruit, preserved plum palate; medium-plus finish (14% alcohol; disgorged Oct. 2010) (89 pts.)
  • 2003 Barossa Valley Estate Shiraz E & E Sparkling – Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley
    Dark red violet color with few bubbles; tart black fruit, stewed black fruit nose; tasty, tart black fruit, roasted black fruit palate; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; disgorged June 2005) (90 pts.)
  • 1995 Barossa Valley Estate Shiraz E & E Sparkling – Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley
    Bricking dark red violet color with few bubbles; earthy, tar, roasted plum nose; mature, roasted plum, pepper palate; medium-plus finish (disgorged Oct. 1999) (89 pts.)
  • 1993 Barossa Valley Estate Shiraz E & E Sparkling – Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley
    Bricked dark red violet color; aromatic, mature, charcuterie, prosciutto, mushroom nose; mature, complex, charcuterie, prosciutto, mushroom palate; medium-plus finish (disgorged Oct. 1997) (92 pts.)
m4s0n501
5 Responses leave one →
  1. June 17, 2012

    Richard, I’m so glad you wrote about this tasting and appreciate the depth of information on vinification that you provided. I really enjoy good Sparkling Shiraz but, as you mentioned, in this country it’s both a rare and guilty pleasure. Chuck and his friends at the Aussie wineries really did attendees a favor by providing the wines at Hospice du Rhone and I was delighted by the opportunity.

    I’m fortunate to have brought back some lovely bottles from my various trips to Australia. I’m sorry to say those wines are long gone now, but they were a joy to drink. The most memorable — one of the most memorable wines I’ve tasted of any type actually — was the 1990 Seppelt Show Sparkling Shiraz. I had the pleasure of sharing it with Chuck actually, a good 18 years after the vintage.

    It was everything you’d look for in well-aged Shiraz: leather, dried meats, semi-dried black fruit, earth, spice, etc. Complexity beyond words. It was just lightly bubbly at that point and much more savory than sweet. A genuinely great wine.

    • Richard Jennings permalink*
      June 18, 2012

      Fred,
      Thank you for your very kind comment. I bet that ’90 Seppelt was terrific. I’m glad Chuck got to share it with you.

      –Richard

  2. June 19, 2012

    Thanks Richard, a great article on an admittedly geeky portion of the wine industry. As you might imagine, I’m all over it!!

    One thing I admired about the wines we poured was that most bottles used crown seals instead of corks. Another example of how Australians place a strong emphasis on the quality of their wines. I hate cork taint!!

    The history of sparkling shiraz in Australia is quite fascinating. The following link will take you to an essay written by John Wilson of Wilson Winery of the Clare Valley that is definitive and comprehensive.

    http://www.nicks.com.au/Index.aspx?link_id=76.1224

    • Richard Jennings permalink*
      June 19, 2012

      Chuck,

      Thank you for the kind words, and for providing the opportunity for this expedition into one of the wine world’s more exotic, but often endearing, creations. I do remember you pulling a cork or two at the event. Any recollection just how many of the 11 had crown seals?

      Thanks for the link to John Wilson’s piece. It does give some colorful background on the development of these wines, although there still seem to be a lot of questions unanswered as to exactly why they developed when they did.

      I was amused by Wilson’s use of the Australian phrase “Buckley’s chance,” in his first paragraph, given your current employer. I assume that phrase–which in Australia means basically “no chance”–isn’t used much around the office. I don’t know how it came to mean “no chance,” given that the historical person who gave rise to the phrase, a convict named William Buckley, actually did survive due, seemingly, to somewhat miraculous chance. He was convicted in England and transported to New South Wales where he managed to escape, was given up for dead, but was ultimately found to have lived in an aboriginal community for 32 years. On his discovery, he was eventually pardoned, and went on to live to the age of 80 before being killed in an accident.

      –Richard

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