Australian Fortified Wines

Seminar 12: ‘Fortified’ presented by Colin Campbell and Stephen Chambers

If you had to name the most underappreciated category of Australian wine in existence today, it would have to be the country’s beautiful fortified wines. Sadly, this is both the case internationally and also domestically in Australia, apart from among the dedicated bunch of followers who have already had their eyes opened to the wonders, for example, of Victoria’s Rutherglen Muscats and Muscadelles (Rutherglen being the most famous region of production).

On first glance, the fate of Aussie fortifieds is similar to what occurred in the United States in the 1950s when the wine industry turned from fortified wines, especially sweet fortified wines, toward table wines and a new wine drinking culture was born (as of the 1960s and thereafter).

But, in reality, the general parallels stop there. The US’s relationship with wine was clearly affected by Prohibition (1920-1933), a ‘dry’ patch, which, despite various temperance movements, never hit Australia – although was nearly passed in New Zealand. Moreover, Australia continued its fortified industry, especially in the production of Sherry-style wines, well into the 1960s. Today, whilst fortifieds are still produced in California, they are no way near the quality of what Australia still produces in this category across a wide range of grapes and styles (even given some of the impressive fortifieds being produced in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley from Portuguese varietals and, of course, from Zinfandel).

A number of wineries in South Australia and elsewhere were also set up in the 19th Century specifically to produce fortified wines not only for domestic consumption but for export to the UK. The demise of Sherry, at least as an honestly- made quality product, in Britain in the late 19th Century – following the famous ‘Sherry boom’ – was partly a result of fortified wines turning up from other parts of the globe (so-called Hamburg Sherry, Australian Sherry, South African Sherry etc.), thereby creating competition and a predictable price war, during which time the British public also came to fear the notion of additives in Sherry proper (especially gypsum). This essentially destroyed the market for everyone.

Following recent negotiations with the European Union, a number of new terms now apply to Australian fortifieds that take some remembering. Since 1st September 2010, for example, bottles of so-called Australian ‘Sherry’ may no longer be labelled or described as such. The new approved term is ‘Apera’ (whilst the related stylistic term Fino is not allowed period). What used to be called Rutherglen Tokay, a fortified wine whose grape of production is Muscadelle, is now to be referred to as ‘Topaque’ (someone had a sense of humour here as it requires knowledge in advance to see any relationship between name and grape varietal – opaque it is, ‘Tokay’ it was). All of this applies only to wines destined for export into the EU, of course.

This session, the last at the Landmark and a formidable one to end on, was hosted by Colin Campbell (of Campbells winery) and Stephen Chambers (of Chambers), two legendary producers based in Rutherglen, whose wines made up the core of the seminar.

I had been fortunate to taste old examples of Australian Tawnies (often made from Shiraz, Grenache or Mataro) before as well as some examples of Rutherglen Muscat, which goes through a fascinating process in terms of maturation – essentially a cross between Madeira’s canteiro heating method and Sherry’s solera system of fractional blending.

What was different about this tasting experience was not only the phenomenal line-up of Aussie fortifieds side by side, but the chance to test the consistency of the categories Rutherglen producers have assembled in their own four-tier system (adopted since the late 1990s). This applies to both Muscat and Topaque which can be labelled as follows: 1. by varietal and region as a standard bottling, 2. ‘Classic’, 3. ‘Grand’ and 4. ‘Rare’.

These tiers, marked on the label as appropriate, indicate progressively richer, more complex styles of wine based on longer maturation in barrel and with a degree of selection between barrels. The Muscat of Rutherglen Network has also formulated a Code of Practice where wines have to be no lower than 17% abv post-fortification and a minimum of 160 g/l sugar.

Fascinating to taste, in the first part of the seminar, were the two ‘Sherries’ – sorry, ‘Apera’ wines. Both compelling, the NV Morris Miafino Palomino, Rutherglen was especially captivating: stylistically different from Fino from any part of the Jerez DO in terms of this wine’s being richer and admitting some slight fruit character, but with the pronounced flor and other complex flavours you would expect from Fino or Manzanilla Sherry.

Of the Tawnies, the NV Grant Burge 20 Year Old Tawny, Grenache/Mourvedre/Shiraz, Barossa Valley was superb, benefitting from two decades of oxidative handling in barrel; but, as with the best Tawnies made anywhere, still retaining distinct dried red fruits along with the nutty aromas of oxidation. The real show-stealer of the Tawnies, however, was the 1910 Seppeltsfield Para 100 year old Vintage Tawny Mataro/Shiraz/Grenache, Barossa Valley, the ‘Para Liqueur’, as it is known, a wine only ever released after one century in barrel (the 1911 is, therefore, the latest release). I had been fortunate to taste the 1909 vintage prior to this tasting and, although they had much in common given the handling involved, I found the 1910 to be even better here (but this is splitting hairs given the superlative quality of these unctuous and complex wines).

We then saw the consistency that really does apply to the above mentioned Rutherglen four-tier classification system, in the cases of the Chambers and Campbells wines made from Muscadelle and Muscat respectively (across standard bottlings to Classic to Grand to Rare). Although it depends on preference, it’s fair to say that the Muscadelles – or Topaques – are more ‘approachable’ and ‘lighter’, although I use both terms advisedly. It would also be rash to think that Rutherglen Muscat is solely where all the excitement and complexity lies (I especially liked the NV Chambers Rare Rutherglen Topaque Muscadelle). But both the Chambers and Campbells wines were stunning across the board.

Perhaps most remarkable, however, was the final wine: the 1928 Morris Rutherglen Muscat a Petit Grains Rouge. Of course, the 1910 Seppeltsfield Para 100 year old Vintage Tawny Mataro/Shiraz/Grenache, Barossa Valley was equally grand and compatible in terms of quality. But, for a single expression of fortified Muscat, this wine with its dark brown, viscous appearance and astonishing aromas of dark soy-sauce, iodine, seaweed, glue, dried fig, coffee, chocolate, Indian spices (sotolon) and the most incredibly balanced palate – combining surprisingly ‘refreshing’ acidity for the style with very high alcohol and considerable residual sugar – was, quite simply, spell-binding.

All in all, this was one of the top sessions at the Landmark and possibly the most memorable given the treasures, so rarely encountered, it unveiled. Whilst these are not the easiest wines to track down, I would heartily recommend trying to source an Australian fortified, whether it is a Tawny red blend or a single varietal Muscat or Muscadelle from Victoria. You won’t be disappointed and the quality-price ratio is phenomenal for these wines as well.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Wine Australia for the opportunity to taste such a remarkable cross-section of Australia’s greatest and most upcoming wines as well as the chance to learn from some of Australia’s most talented winemakers and luminaries. I would also like to thank Pamela Heiligenthal and Marc Hinton for the chance to share some these experiences in this 13-part series on Enobytes.

Photo: Fongyee Walker making the case for Fortifieds. (Credit: Edward Ragg)


About the Author:

Based in Beijing, Edward Ragg reports on the ever-changing and developing wine industry in China and abroad. Edward Ragg is co-founder, with his wife Fongyee Walker, of Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting, Beijing’s first independent wine consulting company. A former Captain of the Cambridge University Blind-Wine Tasting Team and a Landmark Tutorial Scholar (2010), he has judged at the International Wine Challenge (UK), Shanghai International Wine Challenge, China Wine Challenge, Wine 100 (Shanghai) and was guest international judge at the 2012 McLaren Vale Wine Show. Ragg holds the WSET Diploma and qualifications from The Court of Master Sommeliers and Society of Wine Educators. He is a WSET Educator and WSET Level 3 Assessor. A writer in a number of fields, his books include A Force That Takes (Cinnamon Press, 2013), Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction (Cambridge University Press, 2010), and Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic – co-edited with Bart Eeckhout – (Palgrave, 2008). He contributes regularly to poetry magazines and wine journals (selections from his poetry can be found in Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam [2012] and the Carcanet anthology New Poetries IV [2007]). He is Associate Professor in English at Tsinghua University and brother to Michael Ragg, MD of Burgundy producer Mischief & Mayhem.

One Comment

  1. […] Edward recently wrote aboutt Australian Fortified Wines after he and Fongyee attended the 2010 Landmark Tutorial. To view the article and the tasting notes of various Australian Fortified Wines, please click here. […]

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