Rutherglen’s glorious tokays and muscats

Rutherglen’s luscious, luxurious Tokays and Muscats may not the underpriced secrets they used to be. But they are, at least, as stunningly, deliciously brilliant as ever and readily available.

They’re wines to savour slowly and, like good Cognac or single malt Scotch, half the pleasure is in the aroma. And that means that one glass goes a long way.

I’ve had the fortune to judge some of our greatest fortifieds at many wine shows over they years, notably at Cowra with Rutherglen legend, David Morris, leading the panel. But the greatest display I’ve seen was in Rutherglen just after the local wine show a year or two back.

Show Chairman, Chris Pfeiffer, organised a couple of wine workshops for about sixty winemakers and grape growers in town for the celebrations and the old muscats and tokays proved irresistible.

After a morning’s warm up on shirazes and shiraz blends, we moved to the serious business of fortified wines. Industry luminaries David Morris, of Morris Wines, and James Godfrey, of Seppeltsfield, led the session. But with venerable old Rutherglen families like Buller, Killeen, Gehrig, Campbell and Chambers in the audience, we were never going to go short on experience.

Before slipping into the truly luscious stuff, a little foreplay on a range of fino, amontillado and oloroso sherry styles seemed appropriate. Samples of fortifying spirits and current vintage base wines showed the building blocks. But a taste of mature Australian and Spanish versions of the three styles reminded us of how rewarding it is to drink these extraordinary wines.

Fino, the most delicate of the sherry family, matures at length in old oak barrels under a protective layer of ‘flor’, or yeast cells. The pale lemon coloured wines that emerge give no hint of their often-considerable age. However, the intensity and complexity of aroma and flavour are remarkable in their special savoury, tangy way.

And with the removal of Australia’s ‘minimum 17 per cent alcohol’ law in 1995, the best local versions – bottled at around 15 per cent alcohol – have a delicacy equal to that of the original Spanish styles.  Two that appealed strongly on the day were the readily available Seppelt DP 117 Fino (made by James Godfrey) and, from Spain, Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla – a particularly delicate, sub-category of fino. Lightly chilled, these are superb aperitif wines.

Of the richer, darker Amontillado styles, the older Australians – Seppelt DP898, Seppelt DP102 and Morris 35 Year old – showed the wonderful, drying nutty finish of prolonged barrel ageing. These are simply glorious. The Spanish Gonzales Byass Elegante Amontillado was a touch lighter in colour with a lovely, honeyed rich palate and very fine, dry finish. Amontillado is the classic consommé or soup wine.

The old Oloroso’s were remarkable, the Aussies showing medium brown colour with the distinctive olive-green meniscus of great age. These were intensely rich and sweet with powerful, aged nutty flavours and grippy drying finish. Fruitcake, nuts and a roaring fire is all these need. Of the two Spanish versions, I preferred Hidalgo Secco Napoleon – a subtle but intense dry style of some delicacy.

Palates suitably titillated, we moved to Rutherglen’s great Tokays and Muscats, working through contrasting samples of current vintage wines, various blending components and, finally, the finished, bottled product.

Within a familial regional theme, both the Tokays and Muscats show considerable style variation from make to maker. This became increasingly clear as we stepped up through the formal quality grades comparing the Morris and Seppelt product.

Even the current vintage base wines, barely fermented and fortified, showed an essentially different winemaking approach: the Seppelt samples, largely because the maker opts for a low pH winemaking approach, were significantly paler than the Morris wines and notably firmer, and less rounded in the mouth. This is neither good nor bad – just a style difference.

Now, Rutherglen Tokays and Muscat have four formal classifications. The progression is: Rutherglen, Classic Rutherglen, Grand Rutherglen and Rare Rutherglen. While these are based on richness, complexity and flavour, increasing age is, perhaps, the biggest single quality factor behind increasing quality. Broadly then, ‘Rutherglen’ will be the youngest commercial material and ‘Rare’ the oldest.

However, the wines are skilful blends containing components of varying age, from various sized oak barrels, from various parts of the winery. This can be complex, as David Morris demonstrated with samples from the 1993 vintage drawn from barrels at different heights in the stack.

The winemaker’s art is in blending numerous components, some of very great age (we tasted one syrupy-rich 70 year old sample) to produce consistent bottlings from year to year.

In the end, though, whether you prefer the slightly more subtle fruit character of Tokay or the powerful grapiness of Muscat, Rutherglen’s fortified specialties reliably grow in intensity and interest as you move up the formal scale.

At the tasting, however, just as we’d exhausted our superlatives on Seppelt and Morris ‘Rare’ Tokays and ‘Muscats, the organisers knocked our socks off with extraordinary ‘Museum’ bottlings. These are truly heavenly and deserve to be savoured drop by drop from brandy balloons that capture their profound, aged, luscious complexity.

While you won’t find the museum wines in bottle shops, you could get lucky at a cellar door tasting in Rutherglen. But you can buy the wonderful ‘Grand Rutherglen’ and ‘Rare Rutherglen’ versions in bottle shops. They are great and unique Aussie wines that go beautifully with Christmas pud, fruitcake and nuts.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007