If you find yourself feeling blue this holiday season, there’s a reason (beyond the many, many other reasons holidays can bum us out). Chances are, there’s a hole in your sparkling wine life—the total, or near total, absence of sparkling red wine.
But don’t feel bad. There’s a reason for that absence. We actually loved sparkling red wine in the ‘70s and ‘80s (it briefly dominated the U.S. wine imports market). But what we drank back then was cheap, fizzy, High C-sweet stuff. And that association—that sparkling red wine is sweet, frivolous, effervescent garbage—burned its way into our collective wine-snob memory and the stereotype has continued to be pervasive in our drinking culture.
In truth, sparkling reds are far more complex than all that. For instance, Lambrusco, the very stuff we swilled in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But that was just one, not great, iteration. In fact, Lambrusco is a wine of incredible variety (the name means “wild vines,” and it basically grows, and replicates, like wildfire). The result is a wine with a 2,000 year-old legacy, variations “dulce” (sweet) and “secco,” styles light and dark, with way more complexity than any bubble gum juicy memory suggests.
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As for that complexity: if you veer toward dolce Lambrusco, you’ll still get residual sweetness, but a good bottle will have less fruit-punch-to-the-face and more light berry notes, hints of violet and rose, with little to no tannin. As Lambruscos lean dryer, you’ll get additional notes ranging from cocoa and dark berries to black tea. Modern versions can be so complex, you might even find notes of bananas and Twizzlers in a bottle of high-end, dry Lambrusco. Your best bet is to start with a good mid-range bottle, like the Lini 910 “Lambrusca” Lambrusco Rosso Reggiano.
Before you run out to the store, that’s not the end of the sparkling red wine story. There is such a thing—and bear with us—as Sparkling Shiraz. Pretty much exactly what it sounds like, it’s a sparkling version of the red wine produced in Australia. And while it’s super popular in Australia, the wine’s still slightly looked down upon Stateside—red and fizzy are a conundrum and most of what’s available at an average liquor store won’t be high end.
That said, like good Lambrusco’s, a decent Sparkling Shiraz should effectively combine some unexpected elements, in this case the broad shouldered, full-bodied, high-alcohol heft of a Shiraz with tingling, tickling effervescence and just a whisper of off-dry sweetness. In richer versions, you’ll get darker-spectrum berry and classic Shiraz spice flavors, braced by moderate tannins from oak aging, and yes—lifted!—by an (ideally) fine carbonation. There are younger iterations, like The Chook Sparkling Shiraz, showing a bit more forward, juicy fruit with just an edge of oak.
The last sparkling red (there are more) we’ll introduce you to is actually noticeably sweet, and not quite as red as Lambrusco or Sparkling Shiraz. But when done well (and you may have to shell out closer to $20 for this), any residual sweetness should be moderate, and part of a delicate, balanced, ideally dreamy flavor profile. We’re talking about Brachetto D’Acqui, a sparkling ruby-hued varietal (meaning it’s made with the Brachetto grape) from the Piedmont region. Brachettos are made by keeping the skins in contact with the juice for just a couple of days, and are aged briefly, so the whole thing ends up lighter, with spring berry flavors and, well, spring floral notes. Even in a sweet Brachetto D’Acqui, the bubbles should keep things clean, and your palate refreshed enough to go for another sip. (Don’t worry, it’s really low alcohol.) A nice starter bottle would be something like the 2012 Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui, with a berry-patch rosiness and moderate sweetness. Always good for summer, but perfect for a weirdly warm winter, when sparkling wine is needed most.