Geographic isolation engenders resourcefulness. As well as entire rooms that smell like caramel and sultanas.
Let’s start with the resourcefulness.
When Scottish friends George Sutherland Smith and John Banks decided in the 1860s that they couldn’t wait for materials to be shipped in to them to build All Saints, a winemaking property on the bank of the Murray River in Rutherglen’s Wahgunyah, they did what any self-respecting Aussies would do; they did it al themselves. Smith and Banks went ahead and established their own brick kiln so they could make their materials; presumably in a hurry to finish, fingerprints can still be seen in the bricks where Chinese workers laid down the material that had just barely cooled.
The result of their ingenuity is a structure that was once believed to be the largest winery in the southern hemisphere, an imposing building modeled after the their home country’s Castle of Mey (All Saints Estate was purchased in 1992 by the Brown family of Milawa, and Brown descendants Eliza, Angela and Nicholas now run the show), and built “on the back of money made running paddle steamers up the Murray and selling dry goods to miners” according to their PR folks.
The surfeit of caramel and sultanas come to us by virtue of All Saints hosting a tasting of Rutherglen’s now most famous wine export: “stickies” in Aussie slang, fortified dessert wine to the rest of the wine world. For my visit, All Saints had poured, for a comparitive master-class tasting, glasses of nearly every Rutherglen producer’s Topaque offerings, from the simpler Rutherglen level all the way through to what are called “Rare” with good reason: they’re made in tiny quantities, and aged somewhere around thirty years in barrel.
It was the Rares in which I was most interested, because… well, because I’m not above that sort of thing but primarily to tell you what they taste like, even though the chances of finding them stateside are fairly… rare…
Anyway… the smell… ahh, that smell… that was like heaven for those of us with a vinous sweet tooth, and only to be matched later when I visited nearby Rutherglen producer Morris for a similar tasting of Rutherglen Muscats.
But before we get to the best of the bunch of all things rare, delicious, and sticky, let’s talk about the changing state of things in Rutherglen.
Some Background: How To Make Liquid Gold
Australia’s most famous stickies come in two main “flavors,” both undergoing similar treatment, and the major difference being whether or not the white grape muscadelle or the slightly more Muscat a Petit Grains Rouge. “Muscadelle is the more challenging of the two,” Morris winemaker David Morris told me, “and because of the minimal fermentation, getting the maceration time right is essential for the ‘bigger’ styles.”
These are late harvest wines, made from raisined grapes, that undergo minimal fermentation and are fortified to about 17% abv on average with a 96% neutral grape spirit (which is sourced from within Australia, with spirit tastings are performed annually). The addition of the extra alcohol not only helps to make the Rutherglen magic, it also adds a sh*tload of paperwork, tracking, and tax expenses (which I’m pretty sure is part of the reason why the Rare levels of these wines are regularly $200 or more for a half bottle on the export market).
With high alcohol and grape sugar levels (courtesy of warm Autumns with cool nights), the wines tend to be very stable and are long agers. This allows for four different levels of Rutherglen wines which are blended Sherry-style in solera systems, mixing newer wines with similar wine that might have been aging for several decades in barrel.
The classifications, established for Muscat in the 1990s, are not regulated, but most (though not all) producers in the region have adopted them voluntarily. The idea was to create levels that consumers could get their heads around (as Crane put it, “there should daylight between them.”):
1) Rutherglen – the simplest style, usually seeing 3-7 years of barrel aging, made from fruit-forward, younger vine fruit.
2) Classic – The “benchmark” style, and what most Rutherglen producers strive to make their most individualistically identifiable. Expect up to 15 years of barrel aging and more noticeable “rancio” characteristics.
3) Grand – Older juice, and up to 20 years barrel aging in casks of varying sizes.
4) Rare – The focus of our efforts here today, and generally made from the oldest juice the winery has on hand, having been laid down in barrel for over 20 years.
Part of the reason that these are such general guidelines is that the Aussie producers are an independent lot, and getting them to coordinate on anything that involves regulations is a bit like herding very stubborn and intelligent cats. The other is that the long history of the area means that some of this wine is aging in casks of all shapes and sizes and states of (dis)repair.
From my experience, this doesn’t hurt the wine any, but it does seem that it would require fairly herculean efforts to standardize the vessels or to guarantee the exact length of time that any of the wines have been aging in any one of them. In the meantime, wine quality & accuracy of classification are “determined by individual Muscat producers confirmed by annual informal tasting.” Based on what I tasted, none of the producers I will highlight below in the tasting notes are out to screw over anybody with their Rares, though there seems to be no way of proving that the wines are indeed over 20 years old. Have a little faith, okay?
Muscadelle stickies have been known as “Rutherglen Tokay” because the Aussies were making it from what was thought to be the Hungarian grape harslevelu from which Tokaji is made (this was debunked in the 1970s when testing revealed what they really had on their hands).
But you won’t be seeing that name around much longer on Rutherglen wine labels; as of 2005, Hungary has won the battle for place of origin naming rights, and Aussies were forced to change the name (starting with any wines bound for the export market). The new moniker, Topaque, was a result of a renaming focus group, which explains why it’s so lame. Fortunately for us, the wine is still the same.
The wines made form Muscat a Petit Grains Rouge (same classifications generally, the differences from Tokay, in grossly oversimplified terms, being in the primary fruit aromas) are still called Muscat, which at least is only somewhat confusing since the most famous examples of Muscat from other countries are very different, grapey, fruity animals indeed (though those offerings lack the telltale caramel-like color that marks Rutherglen’s best dessert wines).
Let’s Get To The Goods, Shall We?
Here are the tasting notes; try not to drool over the keyboard too much. Prices are liable to be around $200 per half-bottle for each of these, and all are non-vintage. Starting with the muscadelle wines, here were my faves from the Topaque Rare tasting lineup:
Campbells Rare Topaque (Rutherglen)
Campbells Rare conjures up a vision of a quality 30 year Tawny Port, married to an Amontillado Sherry and eating figs and raisins and nuts while drinking spiced rum. It’s powerful stuff, with a long-lasting, spicy finish and nose that you can smell from twenty paces. Sweet, yes, but with great balance even in its take-me-to-your-boudoir lusciousness.
Chambers Rare Topaque (Rutherglen)
Dark as night, and probably the darkest wine in the entire Topaque roundup tasting, there are intense notes of rum, spices, and dried figs. It’s also one of the palpably sweetest dessert wines I’ve ever had, though not cloying thanks to its sherry-like notes and overall poise. Gorgeously concentrated, spicy, and topped off by a nutty finish that I would describe as “amazing” if I were into giving you vague descriptors (oh, wait…).
Pfeiffer’s Rare Topaque (Rutherglen)
Speaking of Sherried notes, if you dig Sherry but want a little more sugary bombast from time to time, this is your style of sticky. In Rare terms, Pfeiffer’s offering is svelte and elegant, emphasizing the nutty, spicy and even dried herbal notes rather than the sticky-sweet citric fruits and fig. But there’s enough rum-like action to let you know you’re still in Rare-ville, here.
The Muscat (Muscat a Petit Grains Rouge) category was no less enamel-ripping but also no less impressive; my faves:
All Saints Rare Muscat (Rutherglen)
This wine is a focus for All Saints and English-born winemaker Crane, and the effort of focus pays off in the final product. Crane specifically focused on changes to the solera system to achieve more aromatic lift and overall freshness, the result of which is an aromatic spice grenade explosion, with a blast radius including your nose if you’re anywhere near this wine when the closure gets popped. Intensely concentrated, candied toasted nuts evolve to notes of toffee, while the palate will make you do a double-take with its poise; it’s got verve, and liveliness, but comes off like a great Sherry in the finish and Crane’s freshness focus hints at nut-and-caramel dessert pairing possibilities that the stronger, more assertive Rares didn’t readily conjure up.
Morris Rare Muscat (Rutherglen)
How many kinds of caramel can you pack into a dessert wine glass? Several, apparently; soft caramel, burnt caramel, dark caramel – they’re all here at some point. So are rum raisins, prunes, plums, figs and an almost perfumed note of spices. Morris has made one for the big boys here, no holes barred, no quarter asked and none given.
Stanton & Killeen Rare Muscat (Rutherglen)
This was not only the oddest of the Rare lineup for me, but also (and probably therefore) one of the most compelling. There are balsamic notes on the nose, reminiscent of a liqueur, and the plummy fruits are blue rather than black. the palate offers tangy raspberry notes, and for a second you might think you were drinking a really decent LBV Port. But the toasted nut finish is what makes this wine – it lasts practically forever, and I think I might have caught a small whiff of that finish still lingering halfway through my return flight from Sydney (okay, not really, but you get the point…).