Sunday, 24 October 2010

Kind hearts and tin roofs

The story may be apocryphal, but it’s said that someone sent Robert Parker a bottle of Rutherglen Muscat. He was so blown away that he awarded the wine 100 points. The next year a grower sent Parker a bottle of their top Rutherglen Muscat. His shocked response at having shot his bolt so early was to lament that ‘if I had more points to give’…..
Rutherglen is about 350km north of Melbourne and is to the west of the Victorian Alps region of the Great Dividing range. This is important for the regions macro climate as the winds come down from the mountains bringing cooling air.
The geology and topography of the region is due to the action of the Murray Darling river system. As the glaciers melted it worked its way down from the mountains bringing large amounts of gravel and alluvial matter, this was deposited across the Rutherglen in patches around the heavier clay mounds that are what pass for hills in the area.
There are only eight producers of Rutherglen Muscat in the region and all except Seppelt are family owned. The region was founded in the 1860’s and experienced a boom, fuelled by immigration and brought in labour from China. Prior to Phylloxera hitting the area it was the second largest viticultural area in the colony. The early half of the 19th century was not the happiest of times, several wars and a general decline in the market for fortified wines conspired to leave the region in danger of becoming a curio.
Colin Campbell and his brother arrived on the scene at around this time. Born into the 4th generation of the Campbell family, they were never given a choice as to what their career path was going to be. Colin had been sent to agricultural college and subsequently to Roseworthy, then returned to the Rutherglen to look after the wine making, his brother the vineyards. Their first task was to be saving the region.
John Campbell arrived in the Rutherglen from Scotland in 1860 on the Merchant Prince, initially he was attracted by gold prospecting, (un)fortunately the gold soon ran out. Inspired by a French vigneron who declaimed ‘dig gentlemen, dig, but no further than 6 inches down, for that is where the real gold will be found’. Soon the Campbell patriarch had assembled the 3rd largest estate in the colony, his son assumed the task of replanting the estate after the devastation of Phylloxera, and Colin Campbell’s father had to keep the estate running through the lean years, principally through expanding the other agricultural activities of the farm.
Early settlers would speak of ‘the tyranny of distance’, the Rutherglen was a long, long way from Melbourne, three weeks by cattle train. It was for this reason that the two Scottish settlers who built the All Saints Castle had to make all the bricks from local mud, all the early buildings were roofed with corrugated iron, the most economical material to transport over the long distances. This was to have a major impact on the style of wines produced.
Rutherglen Muscat, and Rutherglen Tokay are amongst the most distinctive wines produced in Australia, along with Hunter Valley aged Semillon and Sparkling Shiraz they have no analogue in the rest of the world.
Their wine making takes in aspects of Port, Madeira, Sherry, and Mistelle production. Produced respectively from Muscat a petit grains rouge, a local clone of the well known varietal, known with characteristic Australian elan as Brown Muscat, and Muscadelle, the varietal used in small amounts to add interest to dry whites from the Entre Deux Mers.
The grapes are left on the vine to become raisins, following their harvest (occasionally over several tries) they are left to macerate together. The purpose of this is to get the sugar and flavour out of the raisined grapes by steeping them in the juice of the non raisined grapes. Osmotic pressure across the grape skins causes the raisined grapes to swell and gradually the batch approaches homogeneity. There are stylistic differences across the houses over whether any fermentation is allowed to take place in the Brown Muscat (the lower sugar levels of the Muscadelle mean that everyone prohibits ferment with it), with some pressing at the first sign of activity and others leaving the grapes to bubble a bit. Adding the high proof (96 degrees) neutral alcohol to un-fermented juice retains more of the sugar and fresh aromatics, where as allowing up to a few degrees of natural alcohol darkens the resultant wine (higher phenolic extraction due to the solvent action of the alcohol) and adds a more vinous complexity. In this sense the start of the process has similarities with either Port production or that of a Mistelle.
Once the fortified juice has been transferred to the ancient ageing barrels the real magic can begin.
The Muscats and Tokays of the Rutherglen are defined by the architecture of their region. The tin roofed huts get hot, real hot. Once the early wine makers realised the beneficial effect the heat was having on their Muscats they started to build new shacks, angled north westerly to get all the days sun, with low roofs to concentrate the heat. At All Saints their Church Shed will regularly reach 55 degrees centigrade.
The maturation of the wines is another area where house styles differ, Morris work exclusively from barrels where as Campbells only work from their large Solera system. However regardless of the system used the wines are sent off into the sheds to drift off into a hot but peaceful slumber. By a strange quirk of geographical positioning the humidity/heat balance is such that the alcohol and water in the barrels evaporates at almost exactly the same rate, unlike in the Barossa, where Seppelt send their wines to mature and the alcohol creeps up year by year. This means that the 4-10% volume loss per annum merely concentrates the wine. With both sugar and acidity levels rising in tandem, this lends the finest most ancient wines a searing powerful acidity that balances the sugar levels (often as high as 280g per litre).
Stylistically Tokays are not quite as sweet as the Muscats, and show a different aroma palette. More savoury they have black tea, walnut, salt caramel, coffee and rancio characters, where as the Muscats initially have the fresh floral characters of the grape along with caramel, honey, and raisined notes but then develop all the gorgeous richness of oxidative ageing, the chocolate notes, the unctuous christmas cake characters, nutmeg, clove and candied orange peel accents.
Within each group there are four quality levels: Rutherglen Muscat/Tokay, Classic, Grand and Rare, however it is up to each different producer which wines he wishes to bottle in which category.
A note on nomenclature, due to EU trade agreements the region of Tokaji heglia has reclaimed rights to the usage of the Tokay name. The Rutherglen producers have been given until 2018 to phase out the usage of Tokay. Writing as someone who has an intimate knowledge of the region of Tokaji I have great sympathy for them, and I fully understand why they should wish to prohibit the use of their regions name for other wine styles. After all it is no longer considered acceptable to label your sweet wine a Sauternes. The producers of the Rutherglen are understandably aggrieved to have to stop using a name which they have used for well over a hundred years. However it was chosen in the first place because Tokaji was such an iconic wine, whose history dates back to the 1600s.
Despite all this I can’t help but feel that an exception should be made, Tokay is a drop in the ocean production wise and the quality can be exceptionally high
p.s. The name that was decided upon was Topaque, and yep it actually hurts to type it.

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