Rutherglen is a region with more than 150 years of tradition and next generation who will be responsible of maintaining traditions while forging new paths.
When it comes to promoting things, Australia loves to show off on a grand scale. Whether it’s promoting Australian wine or tourist attractions, bigger is often deemed to be better. For example, the big pineapple on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, the big prawn in Ballina, the big Merino in Goulburn and, dominating the Rutherglen landscape in Victoria, the big wine bottle. In fairness it’s actually a water tower dressed up with wire mesh to give it the appearance of a bottle, but it remains a symbolic reflection of the region’s claim to fame for rich, larger-than-life fortified and red wines.
Rutherglen: a new kind of gold mine for Victoria
Rutherglen’s history is written in gold and vines. Victoria’s wine industry emerged in response to the 1850s gold rush when prospectors flocked to areas like Geelong, Bendigo, Ballarat, Beechworth and Rutherglen itself. The prosperity brought by gold saw a new demand for goods and services, and the vineyards and wineries of Victoria were put to work supplying Melbourne’s new, wealthy wine connoisseurs. Rutherglen, in north-east Victoria, played a key role in this output, and its legacy remains steeped in the area’s history. Initially, Rutherglen gained fame for its dry red table wines, made in a ‘Claret’ or ‘Burgundy’ style, as was the fashion of the time. In the mid-1800s, Lindsay Brown was one of the first to plant vines in Rutherglen and is famous for allegedly saying, ‘Dig gentleman dig, but no deeper than six inches, for there is more gold to be won from the top six inches than from all of the depths below.’ Wealthy merchant George Morris was another of Rutherglen’s first significant landowners, buying a farm that was later planted to 650 acres of grapevines. The railway line that transported gold to Melbourne soon began carrying carriage loads of wine and Morris became the first Australian to win gold for an Australian wine in Europe at the Vienna Exhibition in 1873. Buoyed by the success of Victoria’s wine industry, a Dr Harkin established another large vineyard in Rutherglen with his sights set on the region’s post-war prospects as a burgeoning wine region. The Chambers family eventually purchased Harkin’s property and remain its custodians to this day.
The sweet taste of success
Rutherglen’s winemakers soon found that the 19th century market - largely led by British tastes - was hankering for rich, sweet fortified wines rather than dry table wines. These liqueur-style wines became Rutherglen’s signature and the style has endured. Jancis Robinson has called these traditional styles of Rutherglen Muscat and Topaque 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.’
Collapse and invasion
Fortunes and fashions wax and wane, of course, and in the late 1890s an economic collapse hit Victoria. The root-sucking vine louse phylloxera decimated the Victorian wine industry and effected vines were ripped out of the ground and burnt – the only known cure in the pre-grafting age. In 1899 phylloxera was discovered in Rutherglen, leading to a vine-pull scheme that would last two decades. In response to the crisis the Victorian government was spurred into action, installing a viticultural expert as head of the Rutherglen Viticultural College to manage the post-phylloxera revitalisation of the industry. Vineyards were replanted with vines grafted onto imported American phylloxera-resistant rootstock. By the time grapevine rootstocks were re-established across Australia, South Australia had already captured the market for dry table wines - particularly the big, bold reds styles for which Rutherglen had become so famous for. But Rutherglen winemakers had something that South Australia couldn’t match, their speciality sweet, fortified styles that were so suited to the region’s mild, sunny continental climate and rich, loamy soils. It was on the basis of these extraordinary wines that Rutherglen survived and thrived.
Rutherglen: classification, weather and wines
Rutherglen fortified wines are categorised by a self-regulated classification system. The basic examples from 3–5 years old are labelled as ‘Rutherglen’, showing fresh raisin aromas with clean, clear spirit. The next category is ‘Classic’ for wines with an average age of 6–10 years, with more richness and complexity with rancio characters often from maturation in old oak casks. The ‘Grand’ classification earmarks wines between 11–19 years old while ‘Rare’, produced in tiny quantities, is reserved for wines with a minimum age of 20 years. The use of the name Tokay in Australia was banned by labelling laws in 2005 to avoid confusion with the great Tokaji wines of Mad, Hungary. Australia came up with an alternate, non-geographic name for the style, Topaque. Topaque is made from Muscadelle grapes, a Bordeaux white varietal, and is traditionally lighter in style than Rutherglen Muscat, with aromas of candied fruit, marmalade, honey, caramel and hints of cold tea. The grape used to make Rutherglen Muscat is Muscat a Petits Grains Rouge, known locally as Rutherglen Brown Muscat.
Traditional dry wines from a traditional dry region
With its hot, dry climate, Rutherglen is still renowned for its impressive red table wines, and it enjoys great success with the classic varietals including Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Durif is an iconic Rutherglen red, and something of an oddity on the Australian wine scene. It can be described as Shiraz on steroids thanks to its dark, inky intensity and distinctive well-built tannin backbone that leads to a long cellaring life. Step inside the original wineries of Rutherglen and you’ll find old-fashioned basket presses, open concrete vats, rustic corrugated iron-roofed sheds and centuries-old hand-hewn casks overseen by laconic, down-to-earth winemakers who call a spade a bloody spade. In contrast you’ll also find winemakers who are branching out to test their skills on new varietals, bringing a new style of wines to this traditional winemaking region. New varietals being successfully grown in Rutherglen include Viognier, Savagnin, Roussanne, Marsanne, Fiano, Gewürztraminer and Tempranillo.
The families of Rutherglen
Some of the original, long-standing names of the Rutherglen region are still in existence to this day: Chambers Rosewood (1858), Morris, Gehrig (1859), Mount Prior, St Leonards (1860), All Saints Estate (1864), Campbells (1870), Stanton & Killeen (1875) and Buller (1921). More recently these ancient stalwarts of the industry have been joined by Pfeiffer (1984), Cofield (1985), Anderson (1992), Rutherglen Estates (1996), Valhalla (2001) and Scion (2002). Valhalla Estates specialises in Rhône-style varietals following traditional methods such as hand-plunging, basket pressing, small-batch fermentation and minimal fining or filtration. Scion wines appeared on the scene in 2002 bringing a new approach to the historic traditions of the region. Their handcrafted range reflects a contemporary image yet with a direct link to the region’s rich history. Scion’s winemaker, Rowly Milhinch, is the great, great, great grandson of Rutherglen pioneer George Morris. Another link to Rutherglen’s past can be found at Lake Moodemere Estate, where winemaker Michael Chambers can trace his past six generations back to settler William Chambers. In a move to appeal to younger consumers, All Saints/St Leonards launched a new fortified range of Tawny, Muscadelle and Muscat called ‘Hip Sip’, with what has to be among of the most striking, contemporary label designs in the category.
Rutherglen: an historic region with a great future
Rutherglen is a region where tradition has endured for more than 150 years and the DNA of its regional brand identity is linked to the rich, robust fortified wines. Rutherglen is a region where you can see history, taste a rare liqueur Muscat made from a solera containing wines more than 100 years old and experience new-wave styles like Fiano, Arneis or Viognier-Marsanne-Roussanne blends. Rutherglen’s future is in the hands of the next generation who will be responsible of maintaining traditions while forging new paths. With its mix of tradition and innovation, its mix of styles and willingness to move with the times without forgetting the lessons of the past, its future looks bright.
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