Matthew Jukes discovers a new breed of wildy expressive ‘young gun’ table wines among the historic fortified classics of Rutherglen, Victoria.
I recently had the honour of tasting alongside David Morris in my capacity as international judge at the Royal Adelaide Wine Show. On the evening of the judges’ dinner, in time-honoured fashion, everyone brought along a bottle for the team to taste. David’s bottle was a 1961 Topaque. This was a glimpse at an unblended, effectively unfinished, single vintage – an epic fortified wine. It left 30 or so judges dumbfounded by its beauty, power and poise. Of course, venerable wines like this are the legendary creations behind Rutherglen’s mystical wine aura. Rutherglen Muscats and Topaques (Tokays in oldspeak) are not only the greatest fortified wines in Australia but, to my mind, the greatest of their kind on the planet. The reverence with which wine critics and lovers speak about the old fortifieds of Rutherglen is truly wondrous. But why then do we (collectively) not drink many of these wines? Style-wise they are specialist – drunk at the end of heroic feasts and with special friends. They are not cheap so consumption of these magnificent and rare beasts is, not surprisingly, somewhat limited by occasion and also by expenditure.
Outside of Australia there is virtually no penetration into the various markets as many wine-producing countries have their own fortifieds (admittedly none come close to the Rutherglen style) that hog the limelight. What of the youth? Rare, ancient sticky and venerable wines are not necessarily the flavour of the month when tangy, edgy, stemmy reds and funky, aromatic, hipster whites crowd the shelves. So what does this old mining town have to do to alert people – both those who already are fans of the fortifieds and, crucially, people who are unfamiliar with the wines from this Elysian wine region – to its varied and fascinating wine gems?
When gold-mining abated in the mid-late 19th century a quiet wine revolution took over which set the scene for this town’s glittering future. It is clear to me that a new renaissance is happening in Rutherglen, driven by old retainers and young guns alike. Maybe, after decades of fastidious, monastic fortified production which still casts a spell on all who taste the wines, a groundswell of table wines may bolster Rutherglen’s vinous credentials. In preparation for this piece I popped off the stopper of a bottle of Morris Rare Liqueur Muscat – a wine I am fortunately very familiar with because I have included two wines from that estate in my 100 Best Australian Wines List 2015/16. With this potion casting its spell I opened my mind and palate to some of the newest and most exciting kids on the Rutherglen block and this is what I found.
All Saints Estate
All Saints Estate is a nudge over 150 years old and with ancient vines, a historic winery and a phenomenal barrel hall, this iconic castle property is justly famous for its grand fortified wines.
But I would like to draw your attention to some vital modern styles of wine made here by the youthful Brown family members. Their modernism and awareness is the driving force behind the brand; with their cunning eye for modern cuisine, design flair and attractive packaging they lead the vanguard of Rutherglen’s assault on the thirsty and increasingly aware public. The 2014 All Saints Estate Pinot Grigio is a case in point with its bright pear juice theme and sleek palate. This is not a wishy-washy PG but a chic, stylish wine with momentum and lift. Even their take on durif (petite sirah) is a game-changer. I have spotted a real move in durif, which I whole-heartedly welcome, from the tannic brontosaurus of years gone by to a more mobile beast. It seems that each winery is starting to imprint its own signature on this characterful grape. 2012 All Saints Family Cellar Durif has a distinctly Burgundian fragrance of cherries, plums and succulent red fruit. The palate gathers its skirts into a more robust core of dense fruit with barbera-shaped intensity and the finish is fit and grainy. Gone are the brutal tannins and that can only be a good thing. That the palate feels somewhat Frankenstein-like is exciting and rewarding. You could drink a few bottles, unlike the old days, and not pulverise your senses or your tannin receptors into submission.
Simão & Co
A name new to me popped up in my tasting, in the form of Simon Killeen’s brand Simão & Co. Only a year old this fledgling company is already making waves. Without heading off into the ‘natural wine’ sunset (never to return?), Simon has managed to keep the integrity of his fruit while giving his wines a pulse and an attitude that will captivate the modern wine-drinking classes. 2015 Simão & Co. Ugni Blanc is made from vines planted in 1919! Fermented on skins and weighing in at a slight 12.8% alcohol this is a wine with a great nose, beautifully bright and floral, followed by a tense, driven palate. The acid on the finish is positively masochistic. I have never tasted ugni blanc like it in my life. This is usually a low IQ grape used for making joke whites for immediate drinking in France. In distilled form, of course, it makes Cognac and Armagnac, but this is not comparing apples with apples. Simon’s ugni blanc is, quite simply, the finest and most intriguing version of this grape I have ever seen in white wine form!
2014 Simão & Co. Old Vine Shiraz also comes from vineyards planted in 1919. The trendy take here is the use of 30% whole bunch fruit and these glorious grapes apparently come from the famous Taminick Vineyard. The nose is once again explosive (an SK trademark) and the ‘bunchy’, stemmy, floral notes are urgent, hectic, rushed and nervy. While this assault on the senses provokes a quickening of the pulse it is difficult to pin the core Shiraz flavours down. I expect that these grapes are usually employed to make bigger wines and now that they are being coaxed into producing a different shape of red they will take a while to adjust. Regardless, this is a wine that will amaze drinkers with its panache and not inconsiderable cheek! 2014 Simão & Co. Vintage Fortified is a pretty, fiery, youthful port. Using very fine base wine this cracker is built for the medium-term, but you must allow it some time to slumber before ripping its stopper out. Power, richness, profound depth and admirable length make this wine a guaranteed investment proposition. For a bloke that drinks a lot of Portuguese port, this wine impresses me greatly.
I gently unscrewed the top of 2013 Scion Vineyard Durif wondering what style of wine I was going to encounter. I am getting used to the fact that this grape is a shape-shifter and when I tasted Rowley Milhinch’s version I was enamoured. Rowley is the great-great-great grandson of George Francis Morris, the founding father of Morris Wines, and his angular 13.2% alcohol, sour, prickly Italianate wine is refreshing and grainy, like a youthful nebbiolo. I love this verve and attack and while there is no doubt that this wine will age incrementally for a decade I am too thirsty and would throw convention out of the window in my quest to drink this stunner with the right grub (Indian lamb curries, gamey pasta dishes and Raschera cheese)!
Stanton & Killeen
My next port of call was seventh generation wine dynasty Stanton & Killeen, and the two reds I tasted were fabulous. The 2013 Stanton & Killeen Durif paraded a more traditional frame with a sturdy 14.9% alcohol underpinning a polished ‘super-Tuscan’ palate. Forgive me for these Euro-references but I feel that this swaggering red deserves to be differentiated from the others in this article and this is the Venn diagram zone I would drop it into by virtue of its balanced, sleek chassis and stunningly louche oak. This is a wine I would show to the rest of the world as a modern/traditional style: one foot in an RM Williams boot and another in a Tod’s driving loafer. 2013 Stanton & Killeen The Prince Reserva is a bonkers Portuguese amalgam of tinta barroca, touriga nacional, tinto cão and tinta roriz. It is not half as big as a Douro Valley red and this is important as those wines are often so leaden that they slump on the palate like an immovable object and then seep into your soul, depressing your mood as they go. The Prince does what a prince does, beautifully. He is charming, erudite, dashing and mesmerising. This is a Douro-style wine that thanks God for its origin. Rutherglen has dealt The Prince a red-fruited hand, not a black one. Sour, refreshing tannins lift the finish and they delight the palate, too. This is a recipe I would like to see again. It ignores type and rewards invention. It is true to its origins and yet stays faithful to folklore. Well played S&K – I am a devoted acolyte of your fortifieds and now I am a keen follower of your red wine too.
It’s only fair that David Morris’s durif should be heard and 2010 Morris Bin No. 158 Durif, as one might expect, harks back to days of yore. With my natural aversion to nose-bleed tannins, you might expect me turn my nose up at the biggest wine of the line-up but this wine is the oldest, too, which clearly helps the tannins, so it shows impeccable gloss and delicious mid-palate sweetness! This is a beautiful, flamboyant wine that would knock any Californian petite sirah into a cocked hat. While many of the durifs today are striving to find their own identity this one relaxes into tradition and overlays that with élan and theatricality.