Mine is going down nicely, probably because this year’s effort received rather more “feeding” with cognac than the year before.
Even so I am enjoying its complex flavours of dried fruit and stickiness that seems to be perfectly enhanced by a slab of Wensleydale cheese. I have also discovered an excellent accompaniment for this mid-afternoon treat, and that is Rutherglen Muscat.
Rutherglen is a rather special place on the borders of Victoria and New South Wales in south-east Australia. It lies on a plateau, within sight of the Alpine ranges. This means that daytime temperatures are warm, even hot, but at night the cold Alpine air settles around the vines, which helps retain acidity in the grapes.
The 1800s saw a small gold rush to this area but once the gold ran out, people stayed and vines and wine became the main focus. This is one of Australia’s oldest wine regions, and because of its heritage, it is a region of family producers, many of whom have been there for several generations. Their vines are old and in a charming way, so are their wineries and ageing sheds, giving a snapshot of Australia as it used to be.
There are around 200 varieties of grapes all bearing the name Muscat, and most of them have a characteristic grapey flavour.
They usually have a qualifying name attached to “Muscat” and this shows their position in the quality hierarchy. Rutherglen is planted with Muscat à Petits Grains Rouge, known locally as “Brown Muscat”, which is close to top in that hierarchy. It has a musky, floral, grapey taste and because the vines arrived so long ago, it is more or less specific to Rutherglen.
Rutherglen Muscat is a fortified wine, which means that fermentation is stopped after just a few days, retaining most of the sugar of the grapes. Despite its sweetness, the natural acidity shines through on the finish, leaving a savoury, complex taste, which is never cloying.
It is the kind of wine to serve as a winter weather boost, with a few top quality chocolates, or poured alongside Christmas cake, chocolate brownies, sticky toffee pudding or even cheese and meaty pâtés. It is also delicious poured over vanilla ice cream.
The key to making quality Rutherglen Muscat is the ageing. As the grapes ripen on the vine, they are left longer than those used to make table wine. “They should be dimpled, not dried,” said Jen Pfeiffer, of Pfeiffer Wines. “That retains all the acidity and fresh flavours, while still allowing the grapes to retain all their vital sweetness.”
After handpicking, the grapes are crushed and fermentation starts, usually in open vats with regular plunging of the cap of grape skins. “We have to watch the fermentation like a hawk, it can go really fast,” said Jen. “We have three to maybe five days of fermentation before adding a 95 per cent pure neutral spirit to stop it. The quality of spirit is very high, adding nothing to the flavour, just raising the alcohol to around 18 per cent.”’
Then comes the vital part, ageing this new sweet wine, in old casks of varying sizes, ranging from 5,000 litres down to small barrels of 225 litres. Each producer decides on how to age each wine, usually tasting it on a regular basis and moving to a different sized barrel as the wine ages.
“We lose quite a lot through evaporation,” said Stephen Chambers, winemaker at Chambers Rosewood wines. “It can be as high as 10 per cent a year in the early stages, but as the wine gets into balance then it goes down to one or two per cent.”
What ageing does is concentrate the acids, sugar, glycerol and viscosity and develop all the complex flavours which start out with raisin, fig and walnut and can mature into coffee, chocolate and spice.
A few years ago I walked into a warehouse full of ageing Rutherglen Muscats and the aroma was almost overwhelming, but delicious. Unlike the lofty lodges of Portugal which have north-facing windows keeping a breeze gently cooling the pipes of port, this was a warm warehouse, with heat radiating down from its corrugated iron roof.
Rutherglen Muscats are classified according to how long they have been aged. After three to five years, they are simply labelled Rutherglen Muscat. Between six and eight years ageing allows the designation Classic, which changes to Grand after 11 to 15 years in cask. After 15 years it becomes Rare, which also describes its availability on the shelves.
As well as talking to the winemakers in Australia, I tasted through a range of their wines.
Here are my suggestions to discover some of these historic flavours:
Campbell’s Rutherglen Muscat, Bon Coeur Fine Wines (01325 776446), half bottle, £14.84 currently down to £11.99, also available at Waitrose, £12.99: Aged for the full five years on a solera system, so younger wines refresh the older ones, this has pure raisin fruit flavours and notes of creamy toffee and figs.
Stanton & Killeen Rutherglen Muscat, Field & Fawcett, York, £13.95: This company was founded by Timothy Stanton who set off from Suffolk in 1855 to find gold in Australia. Instead he found this “liquid gold” of Rutherglen Muscat which has luscious, ripe raisin fruit with floral notes and orange marmalade character. Step up to the Classic version, aged for 12 years for a richer, rounder textured wine with layers of caramel, mincemeat and figs, available at Cellar Selected (01422 416200), £18.90.
Chambers Rutherglen Muscat, the Grassington Wine Shop, half bottle, £14.95: Old vine grapes, made into wine and aged in very old casks, which add no flavours to the wine, just hold it in suspension, ageing and gaining complexity. Delicious.
Grand and Rare Rutherglen Muscats: These are, as described, grand and rare. I have not been able to find them in Yorkshire, but wine merchant Mr Wheeler (Mrwheelerwine.com) has the absolutely sublime Pfeiffer Grand Rutherglen Muscat at £49 for 500ml.
Expect a silky texture, with chocolate, spice, malt and toasted fruit. Mr Wheeler also stocks the Rare Rutherglen Muscat from Pfeiffer at £69 for 500ml.