Rutherglen's Fortified Wines
Visiting Rutherglen was on the must-do list for my trip to Australia, despite being over three hours from Melbourne and another six to Sydney. Once the centre of the Victoria wine industry, remote Rutherglen is now best known for its world-class fortified wines made from Muscadelle and Muscat. These are some of the most extraordinary wines in the world, intense, long-lived, and not quite like any other. I had to go there to see in person how these wines are made. Doing so gave me an even greater appreciation of the time and dedication required to make these wines.
I visited two producers: Stanton & Killeen, who have been going for seven generations since 1875, and Pfeiffer, who are just on their second generation. History is important here, not least for the styles of wine produced. Fortified wine, here as elsewhere, is often a blend of different vintages going back decades and more. Chris Pfeiffer started with 400l of stock in the mid-1980s and now has 160,000l of wine that he has built up over the last thirty-five years - and he is one of the newer producers. Winemakers have to nurture these wines, passing them on for future generations, and ensuring that the wines produced reflect the past as well as today. This may seem a romantic notion - and it is such romance about fortified wines which appeals to me - but this is a practical, everyday concern which requires the investment of maintaining wines for decades, as well as blending them together to create a consistently high-quality wine. The production of table wine seems short and easy in comparison.
I came for Muscat, tasted a lot of dry table wine, and came away with a new-found appreciation for Australian ‘port’. This term can no longer be used, but Australians have been making their own style of port for generations. Under pressure from the EU, they renamed it Tawny. This can be misleading as the wines are not always tawny in colour, but I think it's a good thing that Australians were forced to rename the wines as it emphasises how unique the Australian styles are. Tawny is very different from Portuguese fortified wines: depending on their age, the wines are intense, oxidised, often amber in colour, with lots of toffee and dried fruit aromas. They are made all over Australia, not just Rutherglen, and style varies according to producer. Outside Rutherglen, Yalumba's Tawny Museum Reserve, made from Grenache and other Rhône grapes, is a great entry into this style of wine. Within Rutherglen, Pfeiffer have just released their first Rare Tawny, with an average age of 25 years, which is an extraordinary example. Such a wine is best thought of in comparison to a Scotch whisky: the long barrel ageing, deliberate oxidation affecting the colour and aroma, and a leathery, nutty, sweet texture.
This is another style that has undergone a forced name change, this time in response to the Hungarian wine industry. Australians traditionally called this style Tokay (pronounced toe-kay), which Hungary protested was too similar to Tokaji (toh-kai). Both styles are sweet, but other than that they have little in common. It's a great shame that the name was switched to Topaque, as this doesn't really evoke the aromatic, complex nature of the wines (not that Tokay did either). These wines are seriously underrated. Made from the Muscadelle grape, which produces erratic yields, the wines are unique, with cold tea and fish oil aromas. These may not seem pleasant attributes, but it's the best way to describe the tangy, viscous quality of the wines. The wines change a lot with age, fresh and aromatic when young, darker and more developed with age. These changes best evoke how wines develop in Rutherglen, as a young Topaque is hugely different from the oldest wines.
In an obscure category, Muscat is what Rutherglen is most famous for. Made from Brown Muscat (red-skinned strains of the Muscat variety), the wines maintain the floral, grapey aromatics even through the oldest wines which can be decades old. The wines are even stickier and sweeter than Topaque or Tawny; they also lack the tangy nature of Topaque and have lower acidity, instead being more robust and forward in their fruity aromas. In appearance, Muscat is at first darker than Topaque, though they share a similar, almost black colour when old. That colour comes from deliberate oxidation which takes place in cellars that aren't protected from the warm outside conditions. Such exposure to heat not only changes the colour, but adds nutty, toffee, caramel, dried fruit aromas. All of these wines are intense, sweet, and rich. The oldest wines are the most complex, but require little more than a glass before the syrupy sweetness overcomes the palate. Drink them with dessert (the older the style, the richer the dessert), smoke them with a cigar, or let the richness soak into the stomach after a heavy meal. These are food wines, and should be appreciated as such. Any restaurant, especially within Australia, that doesn't offer one of these wines as a digestif or as an accompaniment to dessert is falling short.