When I was negotiating my perilous teenage years in the 1960s, sparkling burgundy had an extremely unsavoury reputation. It was thought of as a tool of seduction. As wine-writer Mark Shield expressed it, sparkling burgundy ‘hit its zenith in the 1950s, when it developed the reputation of being a “leg opener”, but the sexual revolution in the ’60s made it a case of overkill.’ One of Shield’s friends claimed his father had told him that his conception was the result of sparkling burgundy and proximity to the sea.
The sparkling red style was an Australian invention and, according to wine historians, owed little to any wines being made in France at the time. The history of sparkling burgundy has been extensively researched and most accounts quote from Dr John Wilson of Clare, whose findings were covered in some depth in James Smith’s book Bubbles, Bottles and Colonial Bastards.
The first known mention of ‘sparkling burgundy’ was in 1878. The wine was made by the Victorian Champagne Company’s French expert, Auguste d’Argent. However, it’s argued that the wine was not a true antecedent of the sparkling red style we know today, being pink rather than red. Wilson suggests that the emergence of the full-bodied red wine we now know as sparkling burgundy can be dated to the 1890s when both Hans Irvine of Great Western, Victoria, and Edmond Mazure of Auldana in South Australia pioneered the style.
According to Wilson, Edmond Mazure’s wine, produced in 1894, was almost certainly Shiraz-based, setting the style for Australian sparkling burgundies of the future. The first Great Western sparkling red, however, was made from Pinot. Irvine won an award in Bordeaux in 1895 with his 1893 Sparkling Burgundy. Back then, the French weren’t so sniffy about other countries pinching their regional names. Great Western continued the production of sparkling burgundies after its acquisition by Seppelts but switched to Shiraz as the basis for the wine.
Soon there were separate categories for sparkling burgundy at wine shows and the style became popular. In 1909 The Telegraph, Brisbane, described it as ‘wine dear to the heart of the connoisseur ‘. It became associated with over-indulgence and, at times, unfortunate behaviour. In 1895, sparkling burgundy was credited with causing a politician’s “purest claptrap” to be taken for pearls of wisdom. It was blamed for Stuart Tomkin’s 1950 collision with a tram. And in 1944, a Victorian woman drank so much of the stuff she even got married without realising it. The Daily Telegraph reported that:
Monica Margaret Flaherty drank a lot of whisky and sparkling burgundy at Bacchus Marsh (Vic.) on February 15 1942 – the day before her wedding night. She says she didn’t know it was to be her wedding night and woke up next morning unaware she had been married.
It had its uses on ceremonial occasions too. In 1951, the first lift in the Northern Territory, at the Hotel Alice Springs, was solemnly launched by being sprinkled with sparkling burgundy
While the wine had many makers in the first half of the 20th century, only Great Western, Lindemans and Penfolds persisted with the style during its doldrum decades. The revival began in the early 1980s, when someone at Seppelts discovered a treasure trove of vintage bottles in one of Great Western’s underground drives. The inaugural National Sparkling Burgundy Day was promoted in 1991. Shortly after that, the B-word became a no-no because of new trade agreements with France and the day became National Sparkling Red Day.
Now our Australian sparkling reds have an established place in our wine culture, particularly paired with Christmas turkey.