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What’s the perfect wine for the American palate? It must be refreshing yet full bodied and deep. It also has to be flavorful enough to drink on its own, but pair well with a variety of foods. And, since Americans like a celebration, a little bubbly festiveness wouldn’t hurt. This category of wine actually exists, although it is decidedly un-American. It’s a sparkling version of Australia’s most famous red wine, shiraz. Those who are not wine connoisseurs have probably never heard of it, and wine connoisseurs generally scorn it (most having never actually given it a swig). Both groups are missing out. While at its worst, sparkling shiraz is fizzy, sweet plonk; at its best it’s a versatile and delicious treat that can pair well with Buffalo wings, a grilled steak, or Thanksgiving dinner (though for the past two years, my fellow Thanksgiving diners couldn’t refrain from downing it all before the turkey was even out of the oven). But, in all honesty, it’s strange and alien stuff unlike any other wine you’ve ever had before. While some people love it and some people hate it, no one is ambivalent about it. In an effort to spread the word and taste the examples available locally, I reassembled the “normals” after a long hiatus. The normals, as regular readers know, are a group of friends who are willing to tell me what they think of wines that I graciously provide while quietly enduring biting insults to their taste, intelligence, and looks. It seems that every big area store carries one, and only one, version of sparkling shiraz. The wines we gathered — four in all — had two things in common: They were all around $25 a bottle, and they were all produced by the traditional “champagne method,” meaning that the wines produce their carbonation naturally through a secondary fermentation in the bottle. For the most part, the normals’ preferences were consistent. They were least enthralled by the Hardy’s and Rumball sparkling shirazes. Reactions to both of these non-vintage wines (meaning that the grapes could have come from any year) were well summed up with “soft, luscious” “sparkling grape juice.” While inoffensive, the wines were boring and too sweet, especially the Hardy. But the other two wines, a 2003 Majella and a 2003 Leconfield (both hailing from the Coonawarra region of Australia), were much better received. They were exceedingly fruity, but the fruitiness did not overwhelm the flavor, as the wines also showed significant herbaceousness (especially rosemary) and overtones of “wet dirt,” “gaminess” (the Leconfield), “spice,” and “Roquefort cheese” (the Majella). Both had a touch of sweetness, so they pair well with spicy foods, but the sweetness was tempered by good acidity, making the wines “refreshing” and “tangy.” In short, the Majella and Leconfield are great examples of the genre, and I highly recommend them. To round out the sparkling-shiraz picture, I tried two additional brands on my own. First, I bought a very inexpensive example at an unnamed wine-warehouse store. Somewhat to my surprise, the Omni did not taste like the $10 wine it was; I would have guessed $4.99. Imagine a blend of Coke and rancid grape juice with a splash of vodka. If you have some in your wine cellar, keep it there — forever. Second, on a recent cool night I popped open a bottle of one of the most cultish of Australian wines, Rockford winery’s “black” sparkling shiraz. This bottle, purchased at a little back-alley wine store in Adelaide, Australia, is extremely difficult to track down and sells for well more than $100 a bottle. The “black” is a multivintage wine that is designated by its disgorgement date (the date that the yeast and sediment are removed from the bottle after secondary fermentation) — in this bottle, 2001. The wine carried its years well, having nice overtones of cloves and caramel. Beyond that, the wine displayed flavors of mineral and toast as well as stewed and black fruit. Although the wine was very good and a great pleasure to drink, it did not live up to its elevated price tag and overly esteemed reputation. While I won’t predict an impending run on the short sparkling-shiraz stocks in the area, one may be warranted. Most of what is available in the area is worth trying and will let you decide whether you are in the camp that loves or hates sparkling shiraz. And maybe you will find it’s the perfect wine for your palate.
Phillip Dubé is an attorney at D.C.’s Covington & Burling.

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