The Landmark Tutorial 2010, a fortified focus: wines with the wow factor

Fortified wines dominated Australian winemaking until surprisingly recently.  In 1960, 80% of Australian production was fortified!  These days, sales of fortified wines account for a tiny proportion of the domestic market (3.8% in 2006-2007).

In 2008, leading fortified producer, Campbell’s Colin Campbell, chaired a steering committee charged with finding ways to halt this decline.  The brief included finding alternative names for Sherry and Tokay, which the Australian industry had agreed to relinquish in return for improved access to the European market.  The new names for Sherry and Tokay are, respectively, Apera and Topaque. The new Apera descriptors replacing Fino, Amontillado and Oloroso are Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, Sweet and Cream.  Tokay labels are being phased out over a ten year period, while the new Apera label must be used from September 2010.

One of the committee’s findings entirely resonates with my experience of both tasting and presenting Australian fortified wine, namely that is has “‘wow’ factor once consumers experience the products for the first or subsequent times.”  This, the final Landmark session, presented by Campbell and young gun Stephen Chambers, contained plenty of wow moments – a fitting climax in a week characterised by excellence.

Click here to read the commitee’s report, “Fortified Wines: The Dawn of a New Era.” It’s an eye-opener about the challenges which face fortified wine producers the world over.

Apera (Sherry)

NV Seppeltsfield Flora Palomino Extra Dry Fino DP117 (Barossa Valley) –  according to Campbell, Australia was big on production of “Fino” in the 1920s and 30s and Australian production techniques influenced Spanish Sherry for the better.  Pale yellow with green glints.  A lovely nose with fresh cut apples and flor*, savoury smoky/seaweed/ozone hints, a sweet edge too (mirin?), though in the mouth it’s bone dry.  Rounder than its Spanish equivalent, it will win points from some, but not others.  I’d prefer a bit more bite.

*Incidentally, Chambers pointed out that, in Victoria’s underground cellars (a legacy of the gold mining industry), producers have no problem securing the humid conditions favoured by flor.

NV Morris Miafino Palomino (Rutherglen) – a deeper yellow colour with a brine, mirin and nam pla/savoury umami notes.  Greater depth, richness and length.  Lots going on here within a still friendly but well-defined structure.

Vintage Fortfied (Port)

1998 Reynella Vintage Port Shiraz (McLaren Vale) – Shiraz is seen as Australia’s traditional Port variety. Compared with the Douro, inevitably this single varietal wine is relatively simple and sweet (also compared with the Stanton & Killeen).  A bright ruby hue with spicy, black fruits, powdery cassis and dried fruit notes (currant) framed by bony tannins.  Needs more time to shed the primary fruit.

1998 Stanton & Killeen Vintage Port (Rutherglen) – the late Chris Killeen, “Prince of Port,” pioneered an elegant, drier style by blending Shiraz and Durif with Portuguese varieties Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca picked at lower ripeness.  Paler than the straight Shiraz, it shows more tertiary, spicy complexity and, with its slightly caramelised, developed character and liquorice, put me in mind of a really young, vigorous Portuguese Colheita (single vintage tawny Port).  Good but I preferred the 97 and 2005 vintages which I’d tasted earlier in the year – you’ll find my tasting notes, and for the 2002, below.

Tawny

NV Seppeltsfield DP 90 Rare Tawny Shiraz/Grenache/Cabernet Sauvignon/Mourvedre (Barossa Valley) – DP 90 denotes the cask number for this eye-catching, palate preening wine with saffron glints to its tawny hue.  A glorious nose shows spice, kid glove, savoury nam pla, Medjool dates and maple syrup, which follow through on a brighter, plumper fruited mid-palate than is typical for the Douro. The finish is long and beautifully articulated by a fine nutty spine.  Lovely balance.  Very good.  And since I mention cask, Campbell confirmed that new oak is never used for fortifieds – old cognac and sherry as well as table wine barrels are typical.  Chambers pointed out that, because of the spirit, wood tannin extraction is higher so it’s important to blend it away.

NV Grant Burge 20 Year Old Tawny, Grenache/Mourvedre/Shiraz (Barossa Valley) – a still youthful looking tawny with a reddish hue to its core and a yellow rim.  Sweeter in style than the Seppeltsfield with plum cake, raisins, dates, glacé cherry and whole blanched almonds to its generous mid-palate.  Long and powerful – a feast in a glass!

1910 Seppeltsfield Para 100 year old Vintage Tawny Mataro/Shiraz/Grenache (Barossa Valley) – wow, this puts me in mind of an equally rare aged solera Madeira such is its concentration and sheer intensity. A savoury nose smacks of age with nam pla and deep throaty spice notes to its underlying treacle toffee and dates.  In the mouth it shows an incredible concentration of dark spices (fenugreek, clove, liquorice), almost painfully intense, with sweet and sour tamarind and jaggery notes.

Rutherglen Topaque (Tokay)

NV Chambers Rutherglen Topaque Muscadelle – this entry level Topaque is made from wines up to eight years old and focused on fruit expression, Chambers says the spirit is as neutral as possible.  Pale amber/straw in hue it’s quite delicate with floral and orange peel hints to its peach and caramel palate. While the previous wine would have been aged in smaller and smaller barrels as it aged (which results in higher evaporation/concentration), this wine did the opposite, progressing from 900l to 4500l barrels as it aged (which keeps the wine fresher and fruitier)

NV Chambers Classic Rutherglen Topaque Muscadelle – deeper in colour, “Classic” denotes a slightly richer wine that’s been aged for longer and this is tawnier in colour with mahogany hints.  The flavour spectrum is a little darker and spicier too with cassia bark, tea leaf and dried herbs to its soft, round demerara-edged baked peach and dates palate.

NV Chambers Grand Rutherglen Topaque Muscadelle – and another notch up in the concentration and richness stakes with the “Grand.”  Deep mahogany with lovely spice box notes on the nose which catch the back of throat.  In the mouth it’s licorous, rich and datey with sweet and sour tamarind; long and persistent.

NV Chambers Rare Rutherglen Topaque Muscadelle – Rare is the ultimate classification and deep brown with a narrow amber rim, this is much more complex and concentrated, fleshy even with Medjool dates, toffee and chocolate all of which sounds sweet and rich, but this is beautifully balanced, long and seamless in delivery. Chambers and Campbell agreed that Muscat retains its varietal characters over time while Muscadelle changes dramatically, with age becoming harder to tell apart from Muscat.

Rutherglen Muscat

NV Campbells Rutherglen Muscat a Petit Grains Rouge – Campbells use a 5 stage solera process, removing only 5% in a year, provided always that it’s up to the mark (i.e. seamlessly matches the house style).  The entry level wine is reddish tawny in colour with a floral, orange blossom perfumed nose and palate; spun sugar sweetness reinforces its delicacy and lift.

NV Campbells Classic Rutherglen Muscat a Petit Grains Rouge – a deeper colour and, though floral, it’s starting to show tertiary spice, sweet hay and dried fruit with raisins, dates, soft brown sugar and fruit chutney.  Very soft and smooth, viscous and round.

NV Campbells Grand Rutherglen Muscat a Petit Grains Rouge – showing serious age here with less puppy fat and a delightfully intense and lively thread of aniseed spice.  Great balance too with a succulence to its licorous mouthfeel.

NV Campbells Merchant Prince Rare Rutherglen Muscat a Petit Grains Rouge – this year, the Merchant Prince rare scored 100 points in The Wine Spectator, apparently the first Aussie wine ever to accomplish this feat.  Mahogany with carraway spice and hints of nam pla on the nose.  In the mouth it’s concentrated, rich and smooth with dark toffee, molasses even.  Emollient yet penetrating, this is a lingering wine with a beautiful mouthfeel.

1928 Morris Rutherglen Muscat a Petit Grains Rouge – cloaks the glass (pictured) with its saffron, red and mahogany layers.  A little “spirity” on the nose with PX fistful of raisin levels of concentration.  In the mouth, this is serious stand a spoon in it territory, buttery almost cod liver oil in texture but let me tell you, the most marvellous “medicine” – truly fortifying, in fact could induce sustained periods of hyperactivity!  It really is the essence of  Muscat, retaining the vareity’s floral, raisin quality.  Permeates every pore of the tongue so as lingering as lingering gets.  Tactile.

And there’s more!

Click here for my tasting notes on more Rutherglen fortified wines from Morris, Campbells, Stanton Killeen, tasted at the inaugural The Big Fortified Tasting in April 2010.  Below are my notes on other vintages of the latter’s Port (now called Vintage Fortified), tasted in May 2010.  Though Western Australian fortifieds from Swan Valley did not feature at Landmark, you’ll find my tasting notes of some of its top drops here, also a report of a fun visit with leading biodynamic producer Talijancich.

2005 Stanton & Killeen Vintage Fortified (Rutherglen) – a blend of Shiraz and Durif with Portuguese varieties Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão and Tinta Roriz (no Tinta Barroca this time).  It’s a deep, inky hue with a narrow rim.  Lovely floral notes on nose and palate with well defined blackcurrant/cassis and cherry/kirsch and a subtle edge of treacle toffee.  Well supported by ripe but firm tannins and bright acidity, I suspect this relatively dry, vigorous wine has a long life ahead.  On day two, the floral notes (rock rose) and liquorice fruit spice really come to the fore.  Very good and, with time, I’d expect it to build in flavour and dimension – another 97 (see below) in the making?

2002 Stanton & Killeen Vintage Port (Rutherglen) – a blend of Shiraz and Durif with Portuguese varieties Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca from a cooler vintage.  Less concentrated in colour and flavour with malty, earthy ripe raspberry, blackcurrant and plum with liquorice and eucalyptus hints.  That dark toffee edge comes through on the finish.  Good but much less compelling than the 05 and 97.

1997 Stanton & Killeen Vintage Port (Rutherglen) – a blend of Shiraz and Durif with Portuguese varieties Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão and Tinta Barroca (no Tinta Roriz here).  Maintaining its colour really well (especially in comparison with the 98 tasted at Landmark), with little difference between rim and core.  A seductive nose shows chocolate and sweet raspberry, spice and eucalypt.  The palate is equally layered and intense with dark spicy notes – treacle toffee and gingerbread – to its concentrated core of cassis.  Great texture and oomph and seemingly even ballsier on day 2.  Terrific.

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