Peter Ranscombe continues his 12 wines of Christmas with “stickies” from Rutherglen in Australia.
ONE of the most fun aspects of writing about wine from a Scottish point of view is tracing how our ancestors and our place names pop up around the globe.
Arguably the most famous of those connections is Rutherglen, the South Lanarkshire town that gave its name to a settlement on Victoria’s border with New South Wales in Australia.
The Victoria gold rush in the 1850s brought an influx of miners seeking their fortune, and brewer and hotelier John Wallace was given permission to change the name of the “Barkly” mining camp to Rutherglen after his home town.
It wasn’t beer but wine that put Rutherglen on the global drinks map, and sweet fortified wine in particular – a switch from solid gold to “liquid gold”.
In the days before secure closures and inert gases, fortifying wines with spirit was the easiest way to stop them from turning into vinegar and made them easier to transport around the world – hence the popularity in the past of Madeira, port, and sherry.
Rutherglen’s fortified wines are made from muscat a petits grains rouge, and then aged for many years in various sizes of oak barrels, ranging from tiny 60-litre casks all the way up to massive 50,000-litre vessels.
Those barrels are stored in warehouses, with the casks at the top of the piles ageing more quickly than those at the bottom, thanks to heat rising.
Just like in our own Scotch whisky distilleries, the angels take a share of the liquid, with Rutherglen losing up to 5% of its muscat’s volume each year – over the course of 20 years, the angels can enjoy up to half of each barrel.
Since the 1950s, tastes in the UK have switched from sweeter fortified wines to drier table wines, but Muscat of Rutherglen has remained a staple on many restaurant wine lists and supermarket shelves thanks to its unique style.
Its success is due in part to its producers joining forces to develop a clear classification system, stretching from “Rutherglen Muscat”, with an average age of three to five years, through “Classic” (six to ten years) and “Grand” (11-15 years) to “Rare” at an average of more than 15 years of ageing.
A recent online tasting illustrated that distinctive flavour ladder in action.
Campbells Rutherglen Muscat (£13.75 for 375ml, Wine Line Scotland)
Founded by a Scotsman, John Campbell, in 1870, this winery’s bottle is an excellent introduction to Rutherglen, with all the floral aromas and peach and red apple flavours from the muscat shining through. Sweet flavours of golden syrup and brown sugar sit alongside the fruit on the palate, with a fresh finish, which is the hallmark of Rutherglen at all levels. These younger Rutherglen muscats are now finding their way into cocktails too, mixed with soda for a “Muscat Cooler”, and added to Kahlua and espresso for a “Muscat Espresso”.
Chambers Old Vine Classic Muscat (equivalent to £18.17 for 375ml, Fine Wine Company)
Shifting up a gear, the “Classic” category brings with it nuttier notes on the nose, along with prune, fig, peach, and vanilla. It’s spicier and more warming on the palate, with a graininess to its tannins that would lend itself to accompanying harder cheeses.
Stanton & Killeen Classic Muscat (£17 for 375ml, The Wine Society)
Stanton & Killeen’s 12 year old has chocolatey notes on the nose, with a luscious texture, and more dark chocolate wrapping around the peach and demerara sugar on the palate. These “Classic” Rutherglen muscats are now often being served with spicier dishes too; their sweetness lends itself to balancing hotter dishes. A great accompaniment to chocolate or toffee desserts too.
Pfeiffer Grand Muscat (£49 for 500ml, Mr Wheeler Wine)
Stepping into “Grand” territory brings with it a jump in complexity – we’re going from the equivalent of our ten- or 12-year-old single malts here into older Scotch territory. Winemaker Jen Pfeiffer has built up a cult following through her bottles for Naked Wines and I remember her stall being one of the busiest at the firm’s tasting inside Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. Her “Grand” uses wines from 1986 for its base vintage – yet it still has a remarkable amount of freshness. A more delicate mix of cedar, nut, prune, caramel, and dark chocolate, yet still displaying its red apple and peachy notes.
Morris of Rutherglen Old Premium Rare Muscat (equivalent to £82.50 for 500ml, Fine Wine Company)
Luscious and mouth-coating, yet still retaining freshness after more than 20 years of ageing. Molasses, toffee, caramel, fig, and brown sugar are all brought together with a warmth and spiciness that adds to its complexity. Lots of walnut on the finish too.
Tomorrow: the 12 wines of Christmas continue with the Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand.
In the meantime, catch up on yesterday’s article about Argentina and then read more of Peter’s vinous adventures on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.