De Bortoli Liqueur Muscat NV Riverina


20 December Aldi have reduced the price to just £8.99 for 50 cl!

16 December From AU$19.99, £11.99, HK$149 and NZ$30.99 for 50 cl 

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Moscato may have had its day in the spotlight of fashion but there is one sort of Muscat that could not be more different from light, frothy Moscato and it is one of Australia’s great gifts to the world. 

(In fact, given that there is likely to be a world surplus of Muscat grapes once Moscato finally goes out of fashion, perhaps we’ll see wine producers in other countries try their hand at this quintessentially Australian wine style? Although, on reflection, given you need to invest in many years’ cask ageing and also need a very hot climate, maybe this is not so likely.) 

Liqueur Muscat is an Australian speciality. Made from raisined dark-skinned Muscat grapes, fortified and then aged for many a year in old barrels, ideally through hot summers, the result is one of the wine world’s stickiest stickies but with its sweetness enlivened by the concentrated and often rancio effects of all that cask ageing.

Rutherglen, and to a lesser extent nearby Glenrowan, in the far north east of Victoria on the New South Wales border (see our Australia map) is the Pauillac equivalent of the Liqueur Muscat kingdom. Here the Liqueur Muscat, along with a similar one based on Muscadelle grapes now known as Topaque, can be long-lived and extremely complex, as was demonstrated in this major tasting of the wines of the main players in 2012. But these wines tend to be, rightly, relatively expensive.

De Bortoli Liqueur Muscat NV Riverina is a bargain version of this uniquely Australian wine style. De Bortoli is a fascinating company. Headquartered in a vast industrial winery in Griffith (formerly known as Bagtown) in the heart of Riverina, it was established in the 1920s by Vittorio De Bortoli, an emigré from Treviso so poor that he started out living under a rainwater tank (water is a key resource in Riverina).

The business thrived on supplying pretty basic wine from Australia’s irrigated inland vineyards (see Max Allen’s recent update on their status) but extremely efficiently with the construction of the (then) ultra-modern Bilbul winery on the outskirts of Griffith under the direction of Vittorio’s energetic son Deen. In 1972 table wine outsells fortified wines for the first time.

In 1982 Deen’s son Darren, a qualified winemaker, creates Noble One, a botrytised Semillon produced in Riverina that has become a classic on the Australian wine scene. Five years later the De Bortolis, with considerable prescience, buy in to the Yarra Valley and in 1990 Darren’s sister Leanne and her husband Steve Webber, now one of Australia’s most respected winemakers and wine judges, established the De Bortoli Yarra Valley Estate, source of a series of top-quality cool(er) climate wines, especially Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (see, for example, this wine of the week and this video record of my enforced stay at the estate just after the great fires of 2009).

But today’s wine of the week harks back to the Riverina tradition of making fortified wines and very good value it is too. I’m afraid it does not seem to have made it to the US but can be found at Aldi (who, unsurprisingly, have the best price), Tesco and a number of independents in the UK and in both Hong Kong and New Zealand and of course, least expensively, throughout Australia. It is sometimes called Show or Show Reserve, and is exported in useful half-litre, screwcapped bottles. Be aware, however, that De Bortoli sell casks (boxed wine) of a something called Premium Liqueur Muscat in Australia (and possibly New Zealand) for as little as AU$20 per four litres. This is quite a different wine. The wine I am recommending is sold as Show Muscat in half-litres in Australia.

The wine on sale in the UK, made by Julie Mortlock, who was recently shortlisted as Sweet Winemaker of the Year in the International Wine Challenge, is a super-sweet 18 percenter. It's made a bit like a port from grapes that had notched up a must weight of about 17 degrees Baumé (about 32 degrees Brix). After the fermentation was stopped by adding spirit, the wine was aged in oak for eight years so is a greenish pale walnut colour. The minute I had unscrewed the top off the half-litre an intense pruney smell wafted forth. This wine may not have the intensity of the finest, oldest Rutherglen examples but it's hugely sweet and satisfying with a finish that's far from sickly. In fact there is real lift at the end, even though no hint of rancio. It starts off extremely sweet but the overall effect is beautifully balanced and fresh. I didn’t find it terribly persistent but it was very satisfying on its own and should be great with cheddar and chocolate, I would have thought – provided these two foods are served separately.

Great for this time of year in the northern hemisphere, it keeps well in an open bottle for a week or so – and I have also enjoyed this sort of wine, chilled, in much higher temperatures.

Our picture shows Emeri De Bortoli with her four children, second and third generations of De Bortolis (left to right Kevin, Emeri, Darren, Leanne and Victor) in the workmanlike fortified barrel room at Bilbul in Riverina, New South Wales. 

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