Back to all articles
  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
6 Dec 2018

6 December 2018 We're re-publishing this account of an extraordinary tasting six years ago, in anticipation of my forthcoming list of recommended sweet and strong wines to be published on Saturday.

21 March 2012 The notes below on the 50 current bottlings of one of the world's great wines were taken at a rather extraordinary, and extremely unexpected, tasting for just me and Australian wine writer Max Allen in Melbourne last month. See Rutherglen ambush for more details. 

The sweet, fortified 'stickies' of Rutherglen are hugely distinctive wines, and – along with Hunter Semillon – the style is one of Australia's unique gifts to the world of wine. These dental nightmares owe their extremely high sugar levels to the hot, dry climate of Rutherglen in the north east corner of the state of Victoria where nights are cooled by the Victorian alps – and autumns are (generally) so reliably dry that grapes can be left on the vine to shrivel and notch up extreme Baumés. It is not unusual for one of these wines to have a residual sugar level of 250 g/l.

The two principal grapes for these wines are Brown Muscat, a particular red-skinned version of the small-berried Muscat (the one responsible, for example, for most French vins doux naturels) and Muscadelle, known for years in this part of the world as Tokay – until the Hungarians objected. So now, as recounted in this wine of the week, it has been officially renamed Topaque.

The wines are fortified early to retain the sweetness, like port, and aged in very old casks for differing lengths of time according to style, but the ages specified below are more impressionistic than actual. A blend designed to taste like a 10-year-old wine might be a blend of much older and much younger wine for example. Very important in fashioning the wine is exactly where it is aged. Some of the eight members of the Rutherglen Network, the close-knit association of producers, have hotter and /or drier cellars than others. Some, like the Morris cellar shown above, are little more than tin-roofed shacks. Floors may be dirt or concrete, with effects on the ambient humidity and temperature.

Most but not all producers maintain old stocks as soleras, and there is heritage involved in the people too. Several of the producers were founded in the mid-19th century and at least one winemaker is seventh generation. See details of all eight here.

A stylistic classification of the wines has been drawn up thus, in ascending order of apparent age, and price:

Rutherglen The foundation of the style; displaying fresh fruit aromas, rich fruit on the palate, clean grape spirit and great length of flavour. Should taste approximately like a five year old.

Classic A maturing style imparting greater levels of richness and complexity; exhibiting the beginnings of 'rancio' characters produced from prolonged maturation in oak. Should taste approximately like a 10 year old.

Grand A mature style with greater intensity and mouth-filling depth of flavour, complexity and viscosity; producing layers of texture and flavour with seamless integration of the flavours of fruit, grape spirit, and mature oak. Should taste approximately like a 15 year old.

Rare The richest and most complete wines; displaying deep colour, intense fruit and 'rancio' characters, rich viscous texture and extreme depth of mellowed complex flavours. Should taste approximately like a 20+ year old.

The Topaques generally have slightly more obvious acidity and a certain greenness of both colour and aroma while the Muscats are even sweeter and can have a reddish tinge, though the older the wines, the more the difference between the two styles are eroded.

The Rutherglen Network members were obviously cheered by the fact that sales of fortified wine, representing only about 4% of all wine in Australia, had risen last year although they admitted that the recent revival of Seppeltsfield in South Australia may have played a part in this.

Note that these wines are ready to drink when they are bottled, which is why the drinking dates below are all the same. Though of course it is difficult for us consumers to distinguish between different bottlings of the same producer's offering of a single style.

At the tasting we tasted by style but the notes below are sorted alphabetically by producer (sur)name, by grape variety and then in ascending richness. I may have been even meaner than usual with my scores. There is, quite literally, nothing to compare them with, so I was marking them by their own high standards.

ALL SAINTS


BULLER WINES


CAMPBELLS

  • Campbells, Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Savoury nose. Quite subtle and already with some age impression. Tastes too old for the classification? Treacly edge. Refreshing finish. The driest.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16.5
  • Campbells, Classic Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Orange with greenish rim. Macerated raisins on the nose. Again, drier and tangier than the norm. Very lifted and the start of rancio character. Treacly finish.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17
  • Campbells, Grand Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Dark brown with a yellow rim. Positively savoury on the nose. Very luscious texture and almost painful concentration and acidity. This tastes extremely old! Treacle. I wouldn’t mind a bit more sweetness here. But it is certainly dramatic.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17
  • Campbells, Rare Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Very shiny blackish brown with orange/yellow rim. Rose-petal nose. Really rather charming and interesting and there is a strong green streak. A bit astringent but oval with lots of interest here.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17.5
  • Campbells Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Transparent. Lifted and not that obviously Muscat on the nose. Racy and quite savoury with even a little dry note on the end. Like dried fruit peel – something southern Italian pasticceria about this.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16
  • Campbells, Classic Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Fox red. Very lifted and actually not all that Muscatty. Fresh fruit, very nice balance – great refreshing drink - but much more obvious acidity than in most Muscats so not that grapey – quite like the Topaque.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16.5
  • Campbells, Grand Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Dark brown. Heady floral nose. Sweetness completely trumps the acidity and rancio. Lively and racy despite all that maturity.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17.5
  • Campbells, Rare Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Brown black. Not sure I would sense this was a Muscat on the nose. Very concentrated with a hint of old oak there. Dry finish. A real elixir but a bit painful.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16.5

CHAMBERS ROSEWOOD

  • Chambers Rosewood, Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Mid tawny. Slightly musty wood on the nose. Sweet and quite heavy. Raisiny. A bit of spirit on the end.

    Drink 2012-2014
    15.5
  • Chambers Rosewood, Classic Topaque NV Rutherglen

    An oddity available in Oz only. Dark brown with a greenish rim – older than the rest? But not much nose...? Very syrupy texture. The rancio aromas transport me straight to Funchal! Lots of ancient appeal here and great balance but it does seem older than the category. ‘Had a mixed and interesting life this wine. Originally started in the early 1990s and it has been a result of discards from the Grand and Rare’. Their Rutherglen Topaque is definitely older than their Rutherglen Muscat.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17
  • Chambers Rosewood, Grand Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Blackish brown. Intriguing nose – hint of coffee - though introvert and not aromatic. A tiny bit musty and starting to be quite dry and chewy but with massive sugar and alcohol. Bit hot on the end. Refreshing finish.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17
  • Chambers Rosewood, Rare Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Thick dark brown. Like fermented treacle toffee. Very chewy finish. Quite demanding.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17
  • Chambers Rosewood Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Pale rosy tawny. Again some old oak on the nose here. Very sweet and thick. Lots of personality here but both sticky and dry on the end. Tastes too complex for a Rutherglen wine. Maybe should be Classic?

    Drink 2012-2014
    16
  • Chambers Rosewood, Grand Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Dark brown. Rancio but quite muted. Very sweet with strong tea-leaf aromas. Edgy and racy and interesting even if quite astringent. Treacle toffee and finishes quite dry. Prune juice.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17
  • Chambers Rosewood, Rare Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Brown black but with enormous sweetness and rather metallic dryness and austerity in the end. Really taken to a limit of concentration and with a hint of some curry spice – cumin. Just too much like hard work. Too dry on the end.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16.5

MORRIS

  • Morris, Classic Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Pale dark tawny with some green at the rim. Very broad and smooth. Butterscotch and markedly malty. Chewy and vital finish. Long.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16.5
  • Morris, Grand Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Fox red and dark brown. Light fresh nose. Very vibrant and with definite rancio. Some malt and nicely balanced. Much more intense luscious fruit than most.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17
  • Morris, Rare Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Almost black! Rose petals. Almost as though there is some Muscat in there. Lovely palate impact though no great persistence.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17.5
  • Morris Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Mid fox red. Darker than most. Treacly and very sweet but with a great tang on the end. Rather a grunty Muscat.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16.5
  • Morris, Classic Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Dark reddish tawny. Edge of liquorice and treacle. Very very sweet! Wading through molasses here. Very intense. Seems really very old. Too old for the category? Lot of texture.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16.5
  • Morris, Grand Muscat NV Rutherglen

    15 years average. Much blacker and denser than most. Hot tin roof on the nose – and not that much varietal aroma. Extremely sweet and thick and concentrated syrup of figs. Really out on a limb. What on earth is the Rare going to taste like?! A little acid on the end but overall an extraordinary relic!

    Drink 2012-2014
    18
  • Morris, Rare Muscat NV Rutherglen

    20 years average. Extraordinarily dark. Intensity but balance too. Very sweet indeed – a total tooth-rotter – but you can see the Muscat and rose petals still. Then a bit acidic and concentrated on the end, but an exceptionally good wine that might just require a special category of its own; Very Rare Indeed. Arguably the Grand is better balanced.

    Drink 2012-2014
    18

PFEIFFER WINES

  • Pfeiffer, Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Orange tawny. Lift and that green streak of Muscadelle. Fresh fruit and a slightly dry finish. Refreshing and a burnt molasses finish. Bit chewy on the end.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16
  • Pfeiffer, Classic Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Orange and quite pale – especially relative to the rest. Quite savoury and with lot of acidity and saltiness. Relatively light but well balanced.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16.5
  • Pfeiffer, Grand Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Not as deep and dusty as some and with quite a lot of acidity on the finish. Lots of acidity and not too demanding. Not extreme. Big and almost blowsy and sweet and fruity – less intense than most.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17
  • Pfeiffer, Rare Topaque NV Rutherglen

    Paler than most. Mid level of dark tawny but these wines are simpler than old wines from older houses.

    Drink 2012-2014
    17
  • Pfeiffer Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Transparent red tawny. Not 100% clean on the nose. Relatively light bodied and quite chewy on the end. Different and more angular than most.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16
  • Pfeiffer, Classic Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Quite light. Rose petals and green vegetation on the nos. All Pfeiffer wines lighter and more transparent than most. Very pure chocolate and roses flavours. Dry finish.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16.5
  • Pfeiffer, Grand Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Sweet and rosy and transparent on the nose. Fresh and fruity and easy – like fermented Christmas cake with the merest hint of woodiness. Drying finish.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16.5
  • Pfeiffer, Rare Muscat NV Rutherglen

    Paler than most. Tea leaves and refreshment on the nose. Nothing like the intensity on the palate of most of the others and quite acidic rather than luscious. Clean and refreshing though.

    Drink 2012-2014
    16.5

RUTHERGLEN ESTATE


STANTON & KILLEEN