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Exploring the World of Red Sparkling Wines

Who says bubbly can’t be red?

Janice Williams By January 13, 2022
red sparking wine in flute glasses
Red sparkling wine in champagne flutes. Photo by brazzo/istock.

The shimmering gold bubbles of Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco can be mesmerizing. There are few things as dazzling as the pretty pink hues of a fresh bottle of sparkling rosé. But sometimes, the mood calls for a bubbly that’s a bit more dark and elusive — sparkling red wine. 

Yes, that’s right. Sparkling wine comes in shades of red, just like its still wine cousin. And red sparkling can be just as complex and captivating in flavor and texture as its pink and gold rivals.

“I love red bubbly,” says Katherine Cole, host of the award-winning podcast, “The Four Top,” and author of five wine books, including the most recent, “Sparkling Wine Anytime: The Best Bottles to Pop for Every Occasion.”

Cole adds, “I find sparkling red wines generally to be more tannic and flavorful than their white peers because they have that extra oomph from the time the skins spent macerating in the juice, imparting pigment, texture, and flavor.”

How sparkling red wines are made

The most significant and noticeable difference between sparkling red wine and its fizzy white counterparts is its color. 

“Most people don’t realize that most white sparkling wine is made at least partly from red grapes, Pinot Noir being the most prominent variety. The juice is pressed off the skins before the pigment has time to color the wine,” says Cole.

Red sparkling wines, however, spend longer on the skins, which gives them their color. From there, the winemaking process is the same.

High quality red sparkling wines, like their counterparts, go through a traditional method, or méthode traditionnelle, which means undergoing a secondary fermentation. The base wine is poured in a bottle along with yeast and sugar, and the bottle is sealed with a crown cap. During the second fermentation, carbon dioxide develops. The wine is then left in the bottle for a period of time, in contact with the dead yeast cells, known as lees, which impart some of their flavors.

Eventually, the lees go through a process called riddling, during which the bottle transitions from a horizontal position to vertical so that the lees slide to the neck of the bottle. The lees are frozen and disgorged, and the remaining bubbly is resealed with a cork.

Other sparkling wines are made according to the Charmat method, meaning they undergo their second fermentation in pressurized steel tanks. The lees are removed via filtration, and the wine gets bottled with a cork.

“I’m about Vernaccia Nera these days. It’s basically the Grenache of Italy, and it’s made in the Charmat method. That’s a really popular Italian method. That’s how they make a lot of Prosecco and other bubblies. They’re trapping the gas within the tank,” says Jessica Green, a certified sommelier and owner of Down The Rabbit Hole Wines, a wine shop in Long Island, New York. 

The winemaking technique used will impact the style, flavor, and even the color of the sparkling red wine. For instance, the lees that develop during the traditional method can sometimes leach color from the wine while it is bottle aging, which can cause red sparkling to appear incredibly dark. Meanwhile, red sparklers made using the Charmant method may appear lighter in color and drier in taste since the lees are removed. 

“This is dependent on the grape variety, though,” says Cole. “Traditional method sparkling Shiraz from Australia can be nearly as dark as it’s still counterparts.”

Regions and grapes to look for

Any and every red wine grape variety has the potential to become a sparkling wine, which means fizzy reds can be made anywhere on the map. However, some regions have a penchant for producing excellent sparkling red wines, the most notable being Italy.

“There is a tradition in Italy of making a fresh, young sparkling wine out of the local red grapes in many parts of the country. These wines can be quite rustic and unusual,” says Cole. “Very few of these wines are exported, but if you’re able to try a bottle, it’s bound to be delightful.”

The most widely recognized Italian sparkling red wine — and perhaps, most sold in American wine shops — is Lambrusco, a red grape variety native to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. These lightly-colored red sparklers can range from dry to sweet and exude fresh and fruity characteristics as well as spicy and tannic flavors. 

Vernaccia Nera, a red variety from Serrapetrona within the Marche region, can show similar attributes. “Compared to something like a Lambrusco, where you get more strawberry notes, Vernaccia gives more dark cherry and sometimes cola flavors. It’s not necessarily sweet but has a profile with more dark fruit notes,” says Green.

Looking for a dessert-style sparkling red wine? Seek out Brachetto d’Acqui, made with the aromatic Brachetto grape from Piedmont. These wines tend to be low in alcohol and on the sweeter side. Drinkers who enjoy a rich and candied Moscato d’Asti will likely “dig this juicy, fizzy, fun red quaffer,” according to Cole.

While these particular styles are some of the most prominent red sparkling wines in Italy, rosso frizzante, or fizzy red wine, is abundant all over the country, Cole notes.

“Croci, a very traditional producer in Emilia-Romagna’s Gutturnio subzone, in the hills outside Piacenza, makes an earthy red bubbly from Barbera and Croatina. And Col Fondo, the increasingly chic ancestral-method version of Prosecco, isn’t just a white wine. Zanotto, for example, makes a rosso version that’s a blend of the indigenous Italian Marzemino with Cabernet Sauvignon,” Cole says. “A friend recently turned me on to a red frizzante from the Sorrento Peninsula, otherwise known as the Gulf of Naples. It’s made from the indigenous grapes Piedirosso, Aglianico, and Sciascinoso and is a very fun wine.”

And then there’s Australia. 

“There are some fabulous sparkling Australian Shirazes out there,” says Cole.

Sparkling Shiraz has been made in Australia for more than a century, and the style is taken seriously by winemakers. The most iconic wines are made using the traditional method, and typically hail from Victoria, Western Australia, and the Barossa Valley.

Often served at the Australian Christmas table, sparkling Shiraz comes in a range of styles, but the classic wines tend to be rich and dry, but with plenty of cherry berry flavors. Like many traditional method sparkling wines, they can be cellared.

When to drink sparkling red wine

“Drinkers looking for something out of the box and those who may be new to wine may find sparkling red wine really enticing,” says Green, noting that the wine’s overall fun and easy-drinking structure may be particularly appealing for those who are looking to advance their palates. 

Sparkling red wines are often enjoyed as aperitifs, and a glass of Brachetto d’Acqui is sure to steal the show during dessert. However, the wine style has the character to stand up to food too.

“Sparkling red wines tend to be lower in alcohol, higher in acid, and friskier on the palate than their still counterparts. At the same time, sparkling red wines tend to have more fruit, body, and structure than sparkling whites and rosés, so they’re really versatile with food,” says Cole. 

4 sparkling red wines to try:

bottle of Paris Rocchi San Ginesio Vernaccia Nera Spumante Secco 2019

Paris Rocchi San Ginesio Vernaccia Nera Spumante Secco 2019

“It’s so delicious,” Green says of Paris Rocchi’s ripe and refreshing sparkling red wine. Made in the San Ginesio DOC, within Italy’s Marche region, the brightly aromatic wine displays raspberry and black cherry flavors with a frothy mouthfeel and surprisingly dry finish. “I last had this wine while it was still warm out, and it was great for barbecues and picnics. But I immediately thought it would make a great holiday wine or something to share before or during a nice dinner,” Green says.

bottle of Alberto Quacquarini Vernaccia di Serrapetrona Vino Spumante Secco NV

Alberto Quacquarini Vernaccia di Serrapetrona Vino Spumante Secco NV

Dry with tiny and persistent bubbles and a deep ruby color, Alberto Quacquarini’s Vernaccia is made unlike most Italian sparkling red wines within the Serrapetrona countryside. The winemaking process includes three fermentations, and grapes harvested in January and October are blended to create a sparkling red wine that Cole says is “intensely aromatic, creamy and full-bodied” with tart cherry flavors and a crisp finish.

bottle of Braida Brachetto d’Acqui 2020

Braida Brachetto d’Acqui 2020

The Italian winery Braida has produced award-winning wines in the Monferrato area within the Piedmont winemaking region since the 1960s. While the winery makes various dry and sweet styles of wine, Cole insists not to overlook Braida’s sweet Brachetto, especially if you’re in the mood for dessert. Fragrant with rose petals and ripe red fruit aromas, this wine is vibrant and rich with strawberry and dried fruit nuances, while notes of hazelnut and fig linger in the delicate finish.

bottle of Iovine Penisola Sorrentina Terra Del Gragnano Frizzante Rosso

Iovine Terra del Gragnano Penisola Sorrentina Frizzante Rosso 2020

The folks at Iovine have produced wine in the Sorrentine Peninsula, within Italy’s Campania region, as far back as the 1890s. This deep purple, fizzy blend of Piedirosso, Aglianico, and Sciascinoso is one of the winery’s standouts with its mousey, bubbly mouthfeel and flavors of blueberry and black cherry that persist through the long and dry finish.