Rutherglen muscat and topaque

Here’s the second of my promised posts on the Rutherglen wine region.  The first post was on  Rutherglen’s renaissance and can be found here.  This post is all about what Rutherglen is famous for: fortified muscat (grape: muscat à petits grains) and fortified topaque (grape: muscadelle).

Viticulture and winemaking

Rather than recite facts from the texts, here are thoughts on the viticultural and winemaking aspects of Rutherglen fortified wines from speaking with winemakers and producers in the region in April.  Sadly for likely cost of my MW studies, it seems this is a vastly more efficient way of extracting information.  So then, getting stuck into things, muscadelle and muscat are both raisined on the vine and picked very late.  This year, for example, harvest for some was still going on in late April.  Muscat (a reddish/brown coloured grape) normally comes in a bit earlier than the muscadelle (which is a white grape).  Muscats become more like raisins on the vine, and the muscadelles more like sultanas.  Once out of the vineyard, fermentation takes place on skins in stainless steel to around 2-3% abv, the raisins are pressed out and then the fermenting must fortified by the addition of 96% grape spirit.  The spirit usually comes from Tarac in South Australia, who are regarded as producing high quality pure spirit that does not impart flavour into the wine.  Once fortified, the finished wine sits around 17-18% alcohol, with over 250 grams per litre of residual sugar.

The wines then go into a wood maturation process.  Barrel sizes vary from very small to very large and it seems there is no one agreed style.  Chris Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Wines for example does not favour overt wood influences, but with ageing taking place over such long periods, it seems inevitable that practices vary.  Blending takes place using a modified solera system, with the extent of topups depending on the style of the producer.  The ageing process takes an awfully long time, and contributes to loss of water and some alcohol too, which concentrates the wines in barrel.  Around 2.5-3% is lost each year.  Oxidative reactions caramelise the wine and the PHs can be high.  In terms of generalities, raisin and roses are seen in the muscats, and treacle in the topaques.  In older wines, mocha and caramel is seen in the muscats, and more butterscotch in the topaques.  In terms of producer styles, Buller, Chamber and Morris are at the bigger end of the scale, while All Saints, Campbells and Pfeiffer are lighter and more elegant.  Stanton & Kileen is in the centre, towards the bigger group.

In 1996, the key producers in the region got together to draw up a 1996 classification of Rutherglen fortified wine.  There are now only seven left in this group, an unappreciated (on my part) indication of the scarcity of this unique wine style.   The classification has four levels: Rutherglen (3-5 years average age; 180-240g/l residual sugar), Classic (6-10 years average age; 200-280g/l residual sugar, Grand (11-19 years average age; 270-400g/l residual sugar) and Rare (20 years+ average age; 270-400g/l residual sugar).

Reflecting on this, and considering for the moment the current fashion for medium bodied Beaujolais and pinot noir styles that are sent to market a few months or a year after vintage, here’s a style that requires producers to withhold their wine for sale for in some cases decades.  This requires a certain patience on the part of producers and consumers alike, and I think respect too.  There are few wine producers that could withhold wine for sale for these lengths of time, all the while losing 2.5-3% each year to the heavens.

The tasting

And now for the rather extraordinary part: tasting through each producer’s fortified muscats from “Rutherglen” right through to “Rare” under the expert guidance of Chris Pfeiffer.   I did not undertake an equivalent exercise for muscadelles although I gladly would: it was genuinely challenging to taste so many fortified wines and sensibly seek to mark out the individual differences.

Here are my notes and observations.

Bracket 1 – “Rutherglen”

All Saints
– raisin aromas.  Viscous, good length, raisiny on the palate.
Campbells – more caramel, barley sugar and butter aromas.  Balanced palate.
Morris – back to raisins, this time supplemented by currants.  Some heat on the palate, long length.
Pfeiffer – more florals – jasmine as well as currants.  Good length on palate and lovely balance.  Quite elegant.
Stanton & Killeen – butter, caramel and petrol aromas.  Caramel and slight cloy on the finish.
The Pfeiffer wine was the pick of this group for my palate.

Bracket 2 – “Classic”

All Saints
– aromas of butter, florals and green herbs.  Rich caramel texture on the palate.  Quite full bodied.
Campbells – fresh caramel, cooked caramel, lactic aromas.  Full bodied palate that is well proportioned and with good length.
Morris – raisin, small currants and floral aroma.  Good length, quite long.  A bit of heat on the finish in this wine too.
Pfeiffer – raisin, lactic and floral aromas.  Very good length on the palate.
Rutherglen Estate – more raisiny nose, with some spirit evident.  Good length, sweet finish.
Stanton & Killeen – lactic, wood aromas.  Very caramel on the palate.
The Campbells and Pfeiffer wines were the pick of this group.

Bracket 3 – “Grand”

Oh, the step up!

All Saints – floral, subtle currants.  On the palate, caramel and long length.
Buller – spirit aroma and caramel infused palate.  Long length, but some heat on the finish.
Campbells – lactic, butter and caramel aromas.  Balanced palate with good length.
Morris – spirit and raisins on the nose.  Balanced, concentrated palate with spirit in the background
Pfeiffer – floral, small currant aromas.  Long length and balanced spirit on the palate.
Stanton & Killeen – aromas of butter and small currants.  Caramel, butter and long length on the palate.
While all are good, if I had to choose, the Stanton & Killeen, Pfeiffer, All Saints and Campbells wines all deserve a place in your cellars.

Bracket 4 – “Rare”

Things get a little silly now. These are wondrously intense wines deserving of special occasion drinking.

All Saints – florals, delicate.  The first “wow” of the set.  Great length.  Subtle.  An outstanding wine.
Buller – raisin, heat and robust.  Good but not quite in the same league as the others for my palate.
Campbells – currants and long length.  Wow again.  Outstanding.
Morris – spirit, raisin aromatics.  Great balance and long length on the palate.  The best of the Morris wines.
Pfeiffer – florals, small currants, elegant.  Deft touch.  Long length and raisins on the finish.  Just shy of the Campbells and All Saints Rares.
Stanton & Killeen – butter, raisin and good length on the palate, with some heat.

Wow, what a stunning set. While the average quality level is very high indeed at this level (and frankly at all the levels), the All Saints and Campbells Rare wines in particular stand out for their soaring quality.

Takeaway observations are (i) the Grand wines are where the value is, (ii) the Rares are all brilliant but demand a special occasion and (iii) producer variation is considerable – there is no one style of Rutherglen muscat.

Note: I attended Rutherglen as a guest of Winemakers of Rutherglen

Leave a comment