Fortified wines – examining an Australian classic

27 Jun 2017
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Fortified wines are one of the heroes of the Australian wine sector. While Portugal is known for its Port and Madeira and Spain for its Sherry, Australia produces the world’s finest Muscat, Topaque, Vintage and Tawny fortified wines.

Liquid gold

Australia has a long and distinguished history in fortified wines, winning international awards for its fortifieds since the 1870s. Australia’s liquid gold rush began with Australia’s first gold medal in Europe at the 1873 Vienna Exhibition. That success continues today. At the Decanter World Wine Awards 2017, Australian fortified wines won 10 (or 15 per cent) of the 66 gold or above medals awarded to Australian wine. This included one of the four fortified wine Platinum Best in Show medals, the competition’s highest award, for De Bortoli’s Show Liqueur Muscat.

At the International Wine Challenge 2017, Morris Wines Old Premium Rare Liqueur Topaque was one of five wines short-listed for the Champion of Champions Trophy that will be announced on 6 July in London. All Saints Estate won the Regional Trophy for the Rare Rutherglen Muscat.

Unparalleled heritage and unique character

The awards acknowledge the unparalleled heritage and uniqueness of Australia’s fortified wines. For example, Seppeltsfield remains the only winery in the world to release a 100-year-old, single vintage wine each year; it has released a Tawny every vintage from 1878 to the present. At Morris Wines, the average age of the components in the top of the range Morris CHM Rare Liqueur Muscat is estimated at close to forty years.

Australia’s most expensive wine is a fortified wine – the Seppeltsfield 1879 Para Tawny, which retails for $9400 a bottle at Le Clos, an online retailer in Dubai.

There are also five fortified wines in Langton’s Classification of Australian wine.

James Halliday’s Wine Companion says that Australia’s fortified wines ‘...arguably represent the best value of all Australian wines given the cost of production, notably in the amount of working capital tied up for decades’.

Jancis Robinson has described Rutherglen Muscat as ‘…some of the most extraordinary in the world, and nowhere else has the vine stocks and arid climate to grow and mature anything like them’.

Fortified wine currently accounts for 2 per cent Australian wine sold globally. Back in 1950, it accounted for 86 per cent of Australian beverage wine production, then fortunes faded for fortified wine when preferences switched to table wines in the 1960s.

Reinventing a classic

Some people associate fortified wines like Cream Sherry and Port with their grandparents but those perceptions are changing as producers have started to market their wines in new and innovative ways.

Eliza Brown, Wine Australia Board Director and CEO of All Saints Estate, St Leonard's Vineyard and Mount Ophir Estate in Rutherglen, says that one of Rutherglen’s key marketing strategies is to reintroduce fortifieds to a younger market using fortified wine in cocktails.

‘We are looking at wine in three dimensional ways: exciting and different serving formats, mixers and rituals that will find new and diverse customers and markets.’

Rutherglen classification system

The Winemakers of Rutherglen use a tiered system to classify Rutherglen Muscats. As described on their website, the four descriptions mark a progression in richness, complexity and intensity of flavour. Although age is only one factor in determining a wine's classification, it does provide some clue, especially for the Grand and Rare wines:

  • Rutherglen Muscat – is the foundation of the style; displaying the fresh raisin aromas, rich fruit, clean spirit and great length of flavour on the palate, which are the mark of all the Muscats of Rutherglen. Average age 3–5 years. Residual sweetness 180–240 grams per litre.
  • Classic Rutherglen Muscat – displays a greater level of richness and complexity; produced through the blending of selected parcels of wine, often matured in various sizes of oak cask to impart the distinctive dry ‘rancio’ characters produced from maturation in seasoned wood. Average age 6–10 years. Residual sweetness 200–280 grams per litre.
  • Grand Rutherglen Muscat – takes the flavour of Rutherglen Muscat to a higher level of development; displaying a new level of intensity, depth and concentration of flavour, mature rancio characters, and a complexity that imparts layers of texture and flavour. Average age 11–19 years. Residual sweetness 270–400 grams per litre.
  • Rare Rutherglen Muscat – is rare by name and by nature; these are the pinnacle Rutherglen Muscats. Fully developed and displaying the extraordinary qualities that result from the blending of selected parcels of only the very richest, and most complete wines in the cellar. Rare Rutherglen Muscats are only bottled in tiny quantities each year, but for those privileged to taste them, these are wines of breathtaking complexity, texture and depth of flavour. Minimum age 20 years. Residual sweetness 270–400 grams per litre.

Figure 1: Australian fortified wine exports 20122016

Demand on the rise for Australian fortified wines

There are signs that demand for Australian fortified wine is growing around the world. In the last 12 months, exports to Asia grew by 50 per cent to $2.2 million and to Europe by 11 per cent to $1.1 million.

Fortified wines also achieved a higher average price than table wines. In the last 12 months, the exports of bottled fortified wines averaged $9 per litre compared to $6 per litre for bottled reds and $4 per litre for bottled whites.

Fortified wines are also growing in the domestic retail market. According IRI MarketEdge Liquor, the value of fortified sales in Australia grew 1.4 per cent in the year ended 30 April 2017, compared to a year ago (year ended 1 May 2016). Muscat was the strongest growing segment within the fortified category, up 8 per cent over the year.