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Uniquely luscious: Five top Rutherglen Muscats

Wine Australia’s Rutherglen Muscat webinar: left to right, showing the progression through the classification to Rare – Campbells, Chambers, Stanton & Killeen, Pfeiffer, Morris

To ‘moderate’ was my challenge for Wine Australia’s Rutherglen Muscat webinar last week.  Rutherglen Muscat is one of the world’s headiest, most immoderate fortified wine styles!  Yet, as the five benchmark examples so very ably reinforced, with stunning fruit quality, balance and length, these unique fortified wines sustain the longest of finishes.  Never have such small (sample) bottles packed such a flavour punch.

Speaking to their balance, as Jen Pfeiffer (Pfeiffer Wines) emphasised, it’s a misconception that Rutherglen is hot.  Cold air from the Victorian Alps descends into the flat valley at night, lingering there, said the winemaker, producing a diurnal difference of 20 degrees (between day and night time temperatures).  This, together with long dry autumns, holds the key to balance, to which I’d add the purity of the spirit (95-96 alcohol by volume).  Highly rectified and ultra-neutral, it was beautifully integrated in all the wines.

At harvesting, it’s not about raisined fruit, Pfeiffer added.  Rather, “dimpled berries are the magic” which hold the key to intensity and all important balancing freshness, without which the wines could be mawkish.  Intensity is enhanced by ageing in barrel in dry, warm conditions – traditionally with a corrugated roof.  The conditions result in a generous ‘angel’s share,’ with around 10% evaporation a year for younger wines, down to 1-2% for older wines (which become more viscous), said Pfeiffer.

Morris’ traditional cellar, with corrugated roof and dirt floor; photo credit Sarah Ahmed 2013

Pfeiffer was one of my distinguished panel of four Rutherglen muscateers, alongside Jane Campbell (Campbells), Stephen Chambers (Chambers) and Wendy Killeen (Stanton & Killeen). As you can see, the line up also included a Morris Rare Rutherglen Muscat.  Highlighting the specialism, fortified wines represent about a third of total wine sales for these famous five.  Well might Campbells (indeed, the region as a whole) be proud that a Rutherglen Muscat – Campbells Rare Rutherglen Merchant Prince was Australia’s first wine ever to receive 100 points from The Wine Spectator. Something of a steal at £55.80/half bottle, I think given the teeny tiny production and aged blend components.

I contacted David Morris before the webinar to find out how he was getting on now the business in back in family ownership.  The Casella family acquired Morris Wines from Pernod Ricard in 2016 and, the fifth generation winemaker reflected, “[F]amily ownership seem to understand and  embrace the fortified production modelling, compared to corporate ownership.”

To date, he said, there have been no changes to the production or style of Morris wines or ageing and stock numbers.  Rather, he added, “[I]f anything ,they have indicated a requirement for more high end Muscat (Rare), and they are looking at planting more Muscat and Topaque, and this will be using our existing clone , grown in our vineyards. The sales and marketing teams are expecting sales to grow at a significant rate.”

With 654 years of winemaking experience between them, these multi-generational family-owned and run businesses have wonderful reserves of mature Muscat to draw upon. Meticulous cellaring of extensive reserves and a mastery of the art of blending is another hugely important facet of making world class fortified wine.  After the tasting, I think the 40 viewers who received samples would be inclined to agree with Morris that the future looks good for Rutherglen Muscat.

Below you’ll find my notes on the wines.  You can watch a video of the webinar here.  It includes some great first-hand insights into the region, the wines and food and wine matches, including cocktails featuring Rutherglen Muscat.  Check out the recipes on the Rutherglen wine region’s website here, where you will find more in depth information about Australia’s fortified wine capital.

Campbells Rutherglen Muscat

On the first tier of the Muscat of Rutherglen Classification, wines simply entitled ‘Rutherglen Muscat’ average 3-5 years’ old; Campbells Rutherglen Muscat averages 5 years old and is a modified solera blend.  It is a bright amber/caramel-coloured hue, with a hint of fresh buttermint and dried rose petals to nose and palate.  Smooth, very moreish, with barley sugar, dried fig, rum and raisin and brandy-soaked white currants, which make for a succulence.  It has remarkable freshness/balance given the sweetness (220g/l); lingering, with a hint of savoury cured leather and a long, sucking barley sugar finish.  17.5% £12.99/half bottle at Waitrose  

Chambers Rosewood Vineyard Old Vine Classic Rutherglen Muscat

On the second tier of the Muscat of Rutherglen Classification, wines entitled ‘Classic Rutherglen Muscat’ average 6-10 years’ old; Chambers Old Vine Classic Rutherglen Muscat averages 7 years old and is a modified solera blend, sourced from vines aged 15-100 years old (hence the label). As you expect climbing the classification ladder, with older wines, this wine has more opacity and complexity.  It has a marked difference between the saffron rim and still ruddy core, so I wonder if there was a touch of significantly older material?  Chambers’ drier house style distinguishes this Classic Rutherglen Muscat too.  It is intensely spicy to nose and palate, with a subtle hint of wood acidity/volatile acidity and phenolic chew – part of the savoury balance (fermentation characters, said Stephen) and mouthfeel of the wine, anchoring rich flavours of medjool dates and dried fig.  Lifted nutmeg, anise and cinnamon stick notes bring complexity, lift and layer.  Lovely and lingering,  Mid-weight and lifted, you would never guess it has 269.5g/l residual sugar.  18.5% £18.17/half bottle discounted case price at The Fine Wine Company 

Stanton & Killeen Wines Classic 12 Years Old Rutherglen Muscat

Fun to contrast the house styles here, with another classic (as the label suggest, this one averaging 12 years old).  Reflected in a more graduated difference – shading  – between the rim and core, Stanton & Killeen’s Classic is plusher, with more breadth and fruity depth.  It is a medjool date hue, with a gold rim.  Stanton & Killeen used roto-fermenters, which perhaps accounts for the lovely grainy, demerara texture and pear skin notes – almost a cedary/peppery quality – to this wine.  A good foil to that plushness.  Flavours of medjool dates, dessicated apple and pear tapee with pronounced nutmeg spice roll over the tongue.  Roast hazelnut, a round nuttiness, together with singed tatin flavours chime in on a seamless, long, beautifully modulated finish. 282.5g/l residual sugar; 18.5% £17/half bottle The Wine Society 

Pfeiffer Wines Grand Rutherglen Muscat

Whilst, like most producers, Chambers, Stanton & Killeen and Campbells vineyards are on classic Rutherglen red loams over clay, being located closer to the Murray river, Pfeiffer’s Sunday Creek Vineyard’s sandy alluvial soils over Murray gravel account for the elegant Pfeiffer style and floral lift of the range.  On the penultimate tier of the Rutherglen Classification (which represents just 3.24% of the five producers’ sales), wines entitled ‘Grand Rutherglen Muscat’ average 11-15 years’ old; Pfeiffer Grand Rutherglen Muscat averages 18 years old.  It has a bright, ruddy mahogany sheen, with a yellow rim.  With longer in barrel, the Grand tier is typically quite a step up from Classic – you need the fruit quality and richness (more sweetness) to last.  Complex and well-structured, this Grand was aged in seasoned barrels of 3-30 years old and different shapes and sizes.  It reveals buttermint, dried fig, a cured leather rancio character and is rich and involving going through, with creamy praline, a lick of toffee apple and cassia bark spice.  With Pfeiffer’s hallmark lift, the fruitcake flavours have a distinct orange peel/candied orange lift, with lifted orange blossom honey to the unctuous but silky, long-lingering finish.  Going back to the glass at the end, the aromas are just glorious. RRP £53/half bottle.  Mr Wheeler stocks Pfeiffer Wines Rutherglen Muscat (not the Grand)  at £17.95/half

Morris Wines Rare Rutherglen Muscat

The pinnacle – top tier – of the Rutherglen Classification is ‘Rare’ (which represents just 2.93% of the five producers’ sales), with an average age in excess of 15 years’ old; Morris Rare averages over 20 years old.  An outlier, located in Rutherglen’s east, beyond the reach of Lake Moodemere’s irrigation pipe, Morris vineyards are dry-farmed.  Being east, the cooling Alps’ night-time influence is more pronounced and Morris typically pick later than their peers, attaining great richness and flavour intensity.  The soils are a bit different too, with quartz.  Morris Wines Rare Rutherglen Muscat’s deep mahogany hue and sheer intensity and viscosity point to significantly older blend components.  On the swirl, a single halo ‘tear’ forms around the glass, only slowly releasing a flow of closely spaced tears.  Glass-coating as well as mouth-coating, it leaves a cloak of saffron on the sides of the glass and the deepest of impressions on the senses.   Rich, unctuous and moathcoating, with throaty spice box (straight to the back of the net), especially black cardamom, which resonates throughout and long after the sip (no swallow with these wines).  A feast in the mouth, it has a dark, dense, deep rich procession of flavours –  molasses, date syrup, a fistful of raisins, dried figs, olive oil and baking spices steal over the palate in a smooth, unbroken wave (no distracting dustiness, spirit or volatile acidity here).  Cocoa nibs, bitter chocolate, mocha and smoky espresso notes, together with the spice, provide savoury balance.  Motile, this muscular powerhouse remains poised, with great clarity and flow.  Unrelenting, it holds your taste buds captive.  Outstanding.  What an experience.  312g/l residual sugar; 17.3%  £82.50/50cl discounted case price The Fine Wine Company 

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