Rutherglen Muscats: Fortified Liquid Delights From A Historical Australian Wine Region
by Ken Gargett
A little while ago, at a “bring the bottle you would want to drink if we all get through COVID” lunch held by a local wine group, a friend tossed in a bonus at the end of the day.
We knew it was a fortified wine, but no other information was offered.
For me (and I assure you that it is very rare that I can pick something quite so confidently), even though I had not tried the wine for several decades, it was instantly identifiable. Unmistakable. An old Baileys Muscat (turned out to be a 1963, which I did not pick nor even know the winery did vintage Muscats back then).
Not long after I first got excited by wine, I had traveled down to Victoria to catch up with some friends during the university holidays. One had arranged for a few of us to travel up into Victorian grazing country to stay with his friends for a few days. These days with COVID-19, one can hardly even consider traveling to Victoria. Hopefully soon.
We were to stay, I was told, on his parents’ property. Unfortunately, our friend had not provided all the info that might have been useful. We each turned up with what we in Australia call a slab of beer (basically a carton of 24 cans of one’s preferred brew) as that was what one did when visiting other students, although I’m not sure that all of them survived the trip.
Dress was student casual. Or so we thought. Whoops.
Turns out our friend had failed to advise us that this was not your typical few days with student buddies, but rather a very formal invitation to stay with the friend’s parents. And a dinner was anything but casual (think eighteenth-century British aristocracy and you are getting close).
The property was truly breathtaking. Turned out that one of their neighbors, on a far less impressive spread, was the then Australian prime minister. I’ll never forget that several rooms had Persian carpets the size of tennis courts.
Forgive all that preamble. It all leads to the formal dinner, where several of us were woefully underdressed. At the finish, we were each served a small glass of fortified wine.
Until then everything had been a bit special and I had hopes we might be on the right end of a cracking port. No such luck. A Muscat.
I’ll confess that I knew nothing at all about Muscat other than that it was what was enjoyed by those who resided under bridges, or so I thought. I was pretty sure that this must be a mistake and that I must have misheard.
No. Out came the Muscat. I knew I was certain to be deeply disappointed. Not for the first, nor the last, time I could hardly have been more wrong.
I remember it as though it was yesterday. The aroma from this small glass was the most alluring, enticing, extraordinary thing I had ever smelled in my life. Indeed, the nose of a great Muscat is for me one of the three great aromas one can find in the world of wine – the other two are that of a first-class, mature champagne and of a great Burgundy.
The Muscat was the Baileys HJT Muscat. H, J, and T were the initials of the winemaker, Harry Tinson, who made some legendary fortifieds in the 1970s and ’80s. Although HJT was technically a different wine to the 1963, the similarities were incredibly strong. I have never forgotten that HJT; indeed I managed to buy one or two back then at the outrageous sum of $5 a bottle.
Rutherglen: a short history of a wine region
I come to this piece with a double confession: I am an absolute devotee of the extraordinary Muscats, and other fortifieds, of Rutherglen in Victoria. Also, technically, Baileys is from Glenrowan, not Rutherglen, though they are close (some may feel that this is a bit like saying Chablis is close to Montrachet) and located in northeast Victoria.
And very similar in style. Glenrowan is more famous as the home of Australia’s most legendary bushranger, Ned Kelly, and his gang.
And so to Rutherglen. This, as mentioned, is a wine region in the northeast of Victoria, the small state nestled in the southeast corner of mainland Australia. Around three hours north of Melbourne, Rutherglen is close to the New South Wales border.
Once home to larger producers, Rutherglen is now represented by small, multigenerational families, some now sixth or seventh generation, producing a range of table wines and some truly unique and extraordinary fortifieds.
The table wines? In fairness, some perfectly decent offerings, usually bold reds – including several examples of Durif, complex whites, but they rarely set the world on fire.
It is the fortifieds that thrill. These are the ultimate decadence in a bottle.
The region began back in the 1850s/1860s, though at the time the gold was in the ground, not on the vine. But wines for the hopeful miners was a thriving business. When phylloxera wiped out numerous Victorian wine regions in the 1890s, Rutherglen could have been lost for all time, but the local community banded together and held strong, ensuring that wine growing remained an important industry for the region.
At that time, it was home to some of the largest wine estates in the world. No longer. While table wines are important to the producers, the fame comes from the fortifieds.
The unique combination of high altitude (Rutherglen is in what is known as the Victorian high country), soils (as a generalization, fine sandy loam, red loam over clay – the locals call this Rutherglen loam – and bands of shale and quartz), climate and varieties, together with the skills of local blenders and the amazing stocks of old material that has built up over decades, is what allows this region to produce wines others can’t even imagine.
Rutherglen is a region that sees warm to hot days with searing summer temperatures and yet often very chilly nights and cold winters. Autumn tends to be dry, important to prevent any disease sneaking into the bunches. This is basically a continental climate, allowing for slow and even ripening and for the grape bunches to hang on the vines for lengthy periods, building flavors.
The first vines planted in the region went into the ground in 1851 thanks to John Lindsay Brown at Gooramadda (Browns Plains), who got cuttings from the German growers at Albury. Brown was famous for the instructions to his fellow vignerons: “Dig, gentlemen, dig, but no further than six inches, for there is more gold to be found in the first six inches than further below.”
In 1859, George Morris established the Fairfield vineyard and winery. It was to become one of the country’s biggest wine producers and the genesis of the Morris clan (in 1885, it was the largest producer in the southern hemisphere). Today, David Morris runs the family operation, Morris Wines, although ownership is now out of family hands.
After gold was discovered in 1860 (it had been discovered nearby a decade earlier), James Scott planted vines at St Leonards and established a hotel to sell his wines. He sought the most modern technology for the day, but it was George Sutherland Smith and John Banks of All Saints fame, who built the nearby All Saints Castle, who made the more impressive impact. Their Great Hall was the largest wine storage facility to be found in the southern hemisphere at the time. Numerous other producers followed.
By 1884, Rutherglen was the largest wine-producing region in Victoria with around 3,000 acres under vine across 50 vineyards and 1,870 people working in the local industry. It was producing one-third of all Australian wine.
After the phylloxera infestation of the 1890s a program of grafting vines to resistant rootlings began, and over the next 30 years more than five million were planted, re-establishing the region to something like its earlier prominence.
By 1925, the region had expanded to around 7,000 acres. Australia was exporting approximately 750,000 gallons (around 2,840,000 liters) of wine a year to England. Most of it was coming from Rutherglen.
The significance of fortified wine
What is often forgotten in these days when fortifieds are so often nothing more than a curiosity is that until the 1970s Australian wine consumers drank more fortifieds than they did table wines.
In 1950, fortifieds still made for 86 percent of all wine production in Australia (these days, they make up about two percent of the market). British tastes, the key export market, as well as local preferences, ensured that fortifieds were in high demand. So it made perfect sense for any region that could excel at fortifieds to make them.
Rutherglen was one such area. Its Muscats, Tokays (as they were known then), and Tawny Ports were popular at home and abroad. In those days most regions offered vintage ports, but aside from a few from producers like Hardy’s and Chateau Reynella they were little more than big, rich, sweet, alcoholic reds.
Over the next few decades, the region became one of small family wineries. As the interest in fortifieds declined – the rise of table wines partly inspired by the immigrant community gravitating to enjoying a bottle of wine with dinner and providing the example to the rest of the country, the issues of drunk driving, and more – they were forced to accept that the glory days had gone. Those who have persisted have done so through hard work and quality wines, most especially those extraordinary fortifieds.
To promote their region the locals hosted a festival in 1967, the first such event held in this country. It was financed by a $50 loan from a supportive local, but the results astounded even the most optimistic among them. Some 5,000 people arrived to enjoy the first Rutherglen Wine Festival. The following year, more than 12,000 turned up. It morphed into the Winery Walkabout and is still wonderfully successful in attracting consumers and visitors to the region, at least in non-COVID years.
Winemaking will take any advantage new technology offers, but it certainly does not forget its roots. Foot stomping and hand plunging are widely used. The region offers experienced winemakers with skills in blending old fortifieds and young, emerging winemakers bringing innovation. Fortifieds might seem a tad old-fashioned, but this region is working hard to ensure we’ll be enjoying them for decades to come. This is a skill that must not be allowed to die.
Styles of fortified wine
As mentioned, there are several styles of fortifieds – what were once known as Muscat, Tokay, and Tawny Port being key. We’ll get to name changes shortly. Muscat is generally seen as the top of the pyramid but we would be remiss to ignore Topaque (Tokay).
The changing of the guard, or at least the renaming of these Aussie classics, followed the usual reasons pertaining to clashes with European names, sometimes more valid than at other times (Prosecco, I’m looking at you – at the obviously insincere attempts by Italian authorities to rewrite history, but that is for another time).
Tokay was seen as likely to cause offence to Hungary’s national treasure Tokay. Indeed, that was how Aussie Tokay originally got its name. Back when labeling was somewhat laxer than in recent years, this fortified was dubbed “Tokay” as locals thought, for reasons somewhat unclear, that the grape might be Hungary’s famous Hárslevelű. In 1976, a French ampelographist identified it as Muscadelle, the third grape of Sauternes.
Hence, a new name was needed: Topaque was the result. I know some like the name more than I do but no matter. Muscat, made with what is otherwise a fairly minor variety, Muscat à Petits Grains Rouge (which means “Muscat with little red berries”), remains Muscat as it is named after the variety. It is one of some 200 different varieties of Muscat worldwide, but it is the only one used in Rutherglen.
Good Topaque offers a slightly more elegant style of fortified with more citrus and cold tea notes. They are perhaps more honey than molasses, though in truth there are times when Muscat and Topaque are a little difficult to tell apart. A great Topaque can be just as thrilling as the best Muscat.
Australian sherry became Apera. “Tawny Port” is now simply Tawny, while what was “Vintage Port” is now called Vintage Fortified. The changes applied as of June 2012.
In days gone by, the range of fortifieds from Rutherglen was a bit of a mishmash and a lucky dip. The knowledgeable plundered the wines, cherry-picking the very best. One had to know one’s producers and where the wines sat in that producer’s hierarchy. Those who did, picked up some extraordinary bargains. Even today, and even though prices have risen considerably, this is still a market category offering amazing value.
The confusion that existed, and lack of consistency across the region, led to the eminently sensible decision to bring in a classification system in 1995. Prior to its introduction, a buyer rarely had any idea if the Muscat they were buying was a few years old or a few decades. The producers of both could name their wines a “classic,” for example.
The system was not purely an age statement, though that was part of it. “Richness, complexity and intensity of flavor” are also important. The makers recognized that merely because a wine has spent a long time in a barrel doesn’t mean it will be good. Locals judge which wines fit in which category.
On the one hand that is a bit like politicians judging other politicians, but the makers here are very keen to ensure that the reputation of Rutherglen is untainted. That can’t happen if they do not keep a rigid control on which wines qualify for the best classifications.
The four levels of the Rutherglen classification system
In ascending quality, the four levels are as follows.
Rutherglen Muscat: This is the base of the pyramid. The wines are usually around three to five years in age and with residual sweetness of 180–240 grams/liter. They should offer “fresh raisin aromas, rich fruit, clean spirit, and great length of flavor on the palate.”
Classic Rutherglen Muscat: Look for a “greater level of richness and complexity.” These wines should have an average age of six to ten years with a level of residual sweetness sitting at 200–280 grams/liter. These should “impart the distinctive dry ‘rancio’ characters produced from maturation in seasoned wood.”
Grand Rutherglen Muscat: With an average age of 11 to 19 years (oddly specific) with residual sweetness between 270–400 grams/liter. These wines offer a higher level of “intensity, depth, and concentration of flavor, mature ‘rancio’ characters, and a complexity that imparts layers of texture and flavor.”
Rare Rutherglen Muscat: These are the gold standard, rare indeed, and often very expensive (which does not mean that they are not amazing value). These wines have a minimum age of at least 20 years, often decades more, and a level of residual sweetness between 270–400 grams/liter. They are blended from the richest and best wines in a producer’s cellar and offered in tiny quantities. They should be “wines of breathtaking complexity, texture, and depth of flavor.”
Of course, as well as the different categories, each producer has its house style.
As for identifying the top producers of Muscat, there is a “Muscat of Rutherglen Network,” which includes All Saints, Buller, Campbells, Chambers, Morris, Pfeiffer, Seppelt, and Stanton & Killeen. The tasting notes below include the best wines from all of these producers, bar Seppelt.
Rutherglen Muscat is unique. The closest thing is perhaps a top-notch Pedro Ximenez sherry, though the Muscat is likely to be more ethereal and elegant (if one can attribute elegance to something so incredibly concentrated and powerful). Some wines are uniquely Aussie – Hunter Semillon, Clare Riesling, sparkling Shiraz – and this is one of them.
As mentioned, Muscat is made with Muscat à Petits Grains Rouge, also known as Rutherglen Brown Muscat. The best are a blend of a number of years, aged for different periods – not just old material as often quality young components will add freshness to a blend.
As in every region, methods vary. Some use old oak only (Morris is an example), while others may include material aged in new oak (although not many admit to it); some add acidity, while others refrain; some macerate the skins for extra flavor; size of oak can vary between 60 liters up to 50,000 liters.
Time of picking the grapes influences the final wine and may result in a sweeter or drier style – late harvesting is crucial to the style, providing grapes in a partially raisined state. Usually, the longer the better and the grapes can sometimes reach 20° baume.
As Mick Morris, David’s father, once said, they try and “get the maximum fruit and flavor and also look for complexity and balance.” Crucial to great Muscat is a winemaker’s ability to blend the different components, very similar to what a chef de cave does in champagne, making those blends.
After pressing, the grapes go through partial fermentation before the addition of grape spirit puts a halt to that, which of course retains sweetness in the final wine. They are then aged in what often becomes a form of a solera. As a generalization, the flavors one finds in top Muscats include raisins, chocolate, Turkish Delight, nuts, plum pudding, coffee beans, fudge, toffee, florals, butterscotch, figs, caramel, and much more.
These wines are a wonderful match with a number of different foods: dark chocolate, nuts, and glacé fruits are all popular. I’ll confess that as soon as I finished my “formal” tasting, out came the Parmesan to enjoy with leftovers.
Rutherglen makers and the rare!
The small coterie of Rutherglen makers responsible for these gems really deserve full pieces on each of them.
The wines are all under screwcap except the All Saints, which is under a glass stopper. Bottles are all either 375 ml or 500 ml. Alcohol content ranges from 17.5 to 18.5 percent.
Prices vary but can extend up to AUD$250 for a half bottle. One of the problems of reviewing these wines is that they attract such high scores that it all seems a bit unreal, but one can only score them as one believes they deserve (I would have liked to give every single one 100).
Another problem is that a tasting like this means absolutely no spitting. It just wouldn’t be right.
In 1984, Chris and Robyn Pfeiffer purchased a century-old distillery. The property has 70 acres of vineyards and 220 acres of bushland. Chris had worked with Lindeman’s.
They were joined by daughter Jen in 2000, and she has already carved out an illustrious career. Like all producers, Pfeiffer’s makes a range of table wines – 22 different varieties, including plantings of what is believed to be the only pre-phylloxera Pinot Noir vines sourced from a Burgundian Grand Cru – as well as fortifieds. It goes without saying that for me the stars of the ranges for all these producers are the fortifieds.
When making the Muscats, partial fermentation takes place on skins. Pressing, then fortification with a neutral grape spirit, leave an alcohol level at 17.5 percent. The resulting wine goes into barrels, which can range between three and 30 years of age.
The barrels and casks are all sizes – from 180 to 4,000 liters. The old casks came from Leo Buring (a famous old Aussie winery, the remnants of which are now part of the Treasury Wine Estates empire) – and originally sent to Australia as part of the German reparation payments from World War 1.
Jen Pfeiffer is very careful to monitor temperatures, believing them key to these wines. She notes that they lose some two to six percent from each case each year – the so-called angel’s share – due to evaporation, as do all producers. They work with a modified solera system and blend on taste.
Pfeiffer Grand Muscat (AUD$84): a tawny red-brown color. Aromas are ripe and gloriously grapey. Hints of salted caramel and nuts. Slightly spicy. Lovely plushness on the palate. Nice flick of acidity. Mouthcoating richness. Very long with mid-intensity on the finish. A clean, non-cloying finish. Impressive. 95.
Buller has a much longer history, celebrating its centenary this year. Its famous Calliope Vineyard is named after the surviving ship from the 1889 Great Hurricane of Samoa, told in verse by one of Australia’s legendary poets, Banjo Patterson: “Ballad of the Calliope.” This small country winery made headlines when the high-profile American wine critic Robert Parker gave a couple of 100-point scores for its fortifieds.
Again, a solera system is used, but only small quantities are made – never more than 1,000 bottles in total of Rare Muscat and Topaque. The base of the wines used for Rare Muscat comes from components originally laid down in the 1940s, freshened up with some more recent material.
Buller’s Calliope Rare Muscat (AUD$250): color is more burgundy/maroon. This is seriously complex and exhibits what is obviously old material, beautifully balanced with a touch of freshness. Stunning stuff. Lifted aromas, grilled nuts, stone fruits, raisins, dates, honey, fragrant florals, molasses. Like plum pudding. A wine that dances but also has some serious weight. So concentrated and complex. A wonderful fortified – they don’t get much better. 98.
Mentioned above, this estate has been in operation since 1864 in a heritage-listed castle. Now owned by Eliza, Angela, and Nick Brown (perhaps as well known for his amazing wines as appearing on reality TV – and I’m sure he’ll enjoy the reminder), the Rare is described as 45 years, but first it is hand-harvested, de-stemmed, and crushed into picking bins before being tipped into the press. The juice is then fortified, which kills the yeast and puts a halt to fermentation. It is then aged in a range of oak barrels between 50 and 100 years of age and 144 to 5,500 liters.
All Saints Estate Rare Muscat (AUD$120): dark red/tawny rim but otherwise basically opaque. Spices, black cherries, marmalade, figs, chocolate pudding, hints of toffee, espresso. Has that defining rancio character. Licorice on the very long finish. A wine that is both dense and yet appears to be ethereal. Balance is immaculate. This is perhaps not as concentrated or intense as some but more than makes up for it with the length, the balance, and that lovely cherry/chocolate note. Again, simply wonderful. 98.
Perhaps the best known of all the Rutherglen fortified makers, possibly because it has had a variety of corporate owners who have been able to give it a wider audience, Morris has a long and distinguished history.
George Francis Morris planted a vineyard near Rutherglen in 1859, which expanded to more than 200 acres within 25 years. George’s son, Charles Hughes Morris, sold his prize-winning horse Fairfield in 1897 to allow him to establish another vineyard at Mia Mia. In 1953, Charles Henry Morris, known to all the world as Mick (to be honest, until researching this piece, I always thought that Mick was his true name) took over, followed by his son and the current winemaker, David.
Like all of these wineries, it is dripping in bling, but not much has been quite as impressive as Morris winning Best Fortified Producer in the World for 2020 at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London.
Morris’ current Rare, which at around AUD$90 is a ridiculous bargain, is mostly a blend from the 1970, 1972, and 1974 vintages.
Old Premium Rare Muscat (AUD$90): magenta with a dark orange/purple rim. There is an immediate malty note that seems to me to be part of the “DNA” of the Morris style. A glorious wine. Chocolate, cassis, coffee beans, butterscotch, and a note like a licorice milkshake. This sits at the more elegant and slightly fresher end of the spectrum than some. Finely balanced and with great length. This Rare really left one wanting another glass. 99.
Colin Campbell passed away a year or two ago, a very sad day. Aside from being an exceptional winemaker, Colin was universally acknowledged as one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet. The estate is, fortunately, in good hands with fifth-generation Jane as managing director and Julie as winemaker – Colin’s daughters.
Campbells was originally established in 1870. Today, it benefits from the foresight of ancestors who filled their large old casks with first-class material. Indeed, the Merchant Prince, the Rare Muscat, was the first Australian wine to ever receive 100 points from the prestigious magazine Wine Spectator.
Campbells uses a modified solera system, mostly with mature puncheons (450 liters), but as ever the real skill is in the blending across the decades of material.
Campbells Merchant Prince Rare Muscat (AUD$140): dark purple in color. One sniff and sip and this is obviously a wine to drink on bended knee. Toffee, raisins, butterscotch, soft old leather, rancio, black olives, dates, and molasses. To be honest, I walked away to leave it for a moment before returning to see if it really was as good as I thought. It was.
The liquid moved down the sides of the glass at the pace of slow volcanic lava and the flavors exploded out of it like an eruption. Bright acidity. This was so complex, so long and so good. 100.
The chance to enjoy a fortified with Chris Killeen was something no one I know ever turned down. A stellar winemaker and always with unparalleled insight, Chris was also a highly regarded judge. He passed away in 2007.
The Stanton & Killeen story began around 145 years ago and today is in the hands of the mother/daughter team of Wendy (Chris’s wife) and Natasha Killeen (seventh generation).
Back in the 1850s, the Stanton family emigrated from England to try its luck in the Victorian goldfields. Fortunately for us, they turned their attention to liquid gold and established a vineyard. Droughts, depressions, and phylloxera could not stop them. Eventually, Norman Killeen married Joan Stanton – Chris’s parents – and in 1968, the business was renamed “Stanton & Killeen.”
Stanton & Killeen’s Rare has an average age of 25 years with the base material from the best vintages of the 1960s and then barrel matured. Material for Rare does not come along every year, just exceptional vintages. Residual sugar is an amazing 353 grams/liter.
Stanton & Killeen Rare Muscat (AUD$145): the color is a vibrant, dark, blood red. Aromas of chocolate and salted caramel, stone fruits, marmalade, treacle, nuts, butterscotch, Middle Eastern spices. Christmas plum pudding in a glass. Wonderfully fragrant. Layered beautifully. Cushiony, great concentration. A wine of immaculate balance and extraordinary length.
The intensity is maintained for the full length with a gentle fade, but the flavors, as they do with so many of these wines, remain in the mind for long after. A scintillating fortified. 99.
Chambers is now in the extremely capable hands of sixth-generation Stephen Chambers, who succeeded his famous father, Bill, though one suspects a watchful eye has never been far away. Their fortifieds have achieved legendary status for good reason.
The winery was originally established in 1858, by William Chambers. He had left England and moved his family to Australia after a disagreement with an employer (must have been one hell of a disagreement!). His sons had worked in vineyards in France and so it was into the wine industry they dove.
Generations down the track, Bill took over after graduating Dux at Roseworthy Agricultural College. He maintained the soleras that had been established by his grandfather, and the resulting fortifieds have always been considered among the elite. American critic Robert Parker has bestowed 100-point scores on several of these wines. The Chambers vines range in age from very young to over 100 years.
From Chambers, we have both a Grand and a Rare.
Chambers Rosewood Grand Muscat (AUD$60): if the price tag of the Rare is a little off-putting, or perhaps it rules itself out of everyday drinking, this is one of the great bargains in the world of wine.
Orange rim surrounding an old teak color. Layered and complex. I suspect that there would be plenty of producers in Rutherglen and elsewhere who would crawl over broken glass for this to be their top wine, not just the “next best” (if one can categorize it as that).
Walnuts, coffee beans, mocha, a rich dark chocolate cake with lashes of icing. It would be easy to simply sit and smell this wine, just disappearing into it. Fresh, balanced, clean, and so long – it really is. Stunning. 97.
Chambers Rosewood Rare Muscat (AUD$250): for many, this is considered the pinnacle of all Rutherglen fortifieds. Who am I to disagree? The solera dates back some 60 years. Dark burgundy in color. Coffee beans, figs, licorice, plum pudding, leather, molasses, raisins, toffee, Turkish Delight, black cherries, chocolate. Look hard and even a hint of roasted meats and nuts. Amazingly complex. Incredibly long. Perfect balance. Serious concentration but retains its elegance.
A wine that sings and dances. The length has to be experienced to be believed. The only wine I can think of that compares for length are the Seppeltsfield 100-year-old vintage Tawnies. The taste lingers for so long, but the memory much longer. Just wow! 100.
These wines are truly astonishing. They are a must for every serious wine lover’s bucket list. The ultimate in hedonism and decadence.