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While the term “muscat” is used elsewhere to describe the world’s oldest domesticated family of grapes (from which we get the likes of moscato), in Australia it means just one thing – muscat liqueur, which inevitably comes from a single, tiny town in Victoria.
''The pinnacle of Australian fortifieds, Rare Rutherglen Muscat takes you on a breathtaking journey of texture and flavour, with complexity and intensity to match any fortified in the world.''
The term “muscat” is about as broad as any in the wine trade. The muscat family of grapes includes over 200 different varieties used for both winemaking and eating, including that most sweet and accessible of whites, moscato. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that it is the world’s oldest domesticated grape.
But thanks to the efforts of a small town in north-eastern Victoria, the term muscat has taken on an altogether different meaning down under. When Australians speak of muscat, we refer to a delightful – and decidedly local – fortified wine liqueur.
From mines to wines
The mid-19th century marked the height of gold fever in Victoria. Discoveries in Bendigo and Ballarat saw the hunt for gold stretch across the state, and before long some of the precious metal was found in the north-east, 10km away from the New South Wales border marked by the Murray River.
With many drifters arriving in the area to chance their luck in the mines, the township of Rutherglen was soon established. But after a few years of fruitful digging, the gold supplies began to dwindle. While many a miner simply moved on to the next resource-rich spot, others who enjoyed the area decided to hang around try their hand at other methods of making money.
Thankfully, the warm, dry climate provided the perfect growing conditions for a wealth of grapes, and winemaking began in earnest. But one variety soon proved far more popular than the others.
A muscat love affair
Muscat a Petits Grains Rouge. It’s a mouthful, but one that Rutherglen’s early wineries made so easy to swallow. The palate of the mid-to-late 1800s tended to be fonder of fortified wines than unfortified, and this particular variety of muscat, which originally gained prominence in France’s Rhone Valley, lent itself to fortification more than most. A brown strain adept at accumulating sugar, when paired with the area’s warm dry climate – further adding to its sugar content – fortified wine magic was created.
Word of Rutherglen Muscat soon spread throughout state and country, with the quality of the produce unmatched in Australia. But it was the European phylloxera plague of the late-1800s that saw Rutherglen wines gain international prominence. With their vineyards decimated by the disease, European nations – most notably Britain – began large-scale importation of Australian fortifieds, quickly developing a taste for them. And none was more in demand than those from Rutherglen.
The popularity of the produce saw a wealth of wineries spring up during this time, with many surviving to this day. There are now 18 established member wineries that make up the Winemakers of Rutherglen, charged with upholding the quality that has become synonymous with Rutherglen Muscat over the course of almost two centuries.
Classifying the muscat liqueur taste
The taste of muscat liqueur changes markedly as it ages. Rutherglen Muscats are classified under the following four descriptions:
- Rutherglen Muscat: Aged 3-5 years, with a residual sweetness of 180-240g/L. Light and clean with a bouquet of raisin and fresh fruit. A simple but lengthy profile.
- Classic Rutherglen Muscat: Aged 6-10 years, with a residual sweetness of 200-280g/L. Richer and more complex, the rancio character that defines Portuguese wood-aged fortifieds is now present, as well as orange peel and nut.
- Grand Rutherglen Muscat: Aged 11-19 years, with a residual sweetness of 270-400g/L. Another step up in intensity and complexity, a deep oakiness begins to come to the fore. Fruit cake and toffee make themselves known.
- Rare Rutherglen Muscat: Aged 20+ years, with a residual sweetness of 270-400g/L. The pinnacle of Australian fortifieds, Rare Rutherglen Muscat takes you on a breathtaking journey of texture and flavour, with complexity and intensity to match any fortified in the world. Expect to find every one of the flavours mentioned above, as well as cold tea, mocha and the most subtle pangs of citrus.
But which wineries best deliver on Rutherglen’s rather imposing reputation? The best known of the area’s labels – All Saints Estate – was established in 1864, and is still home to some of the finest examples of Rutherglen Muscat. Other producers worth keeping an eye out for include John Gehrig, Rutherglen Estates, St Leonards, Valhalla and Warrabilla.
For the finest muscat experience possible, the extra investment that a Rare Rutherglen necessitates will more than pay itself back, particularly if it’s enjoyed very occasionally.
Muscat liqueur titbits
- The Rutherglen area has recently seen the establishment of a few new wineries for the first time in decades, with the likes of Calico Town and Lilliput Wines offering contemporary takes on an Australian classic.
- With some wineries established in the 1850s, Rutherglen is one of the oldest winemaking regions in Australia, and many original vines survive to this day.
- Rutherglen’s original vintners inadvertently planted phylloxera-resistant vines, allowing the area to export all over the world during the phylloxera plague.
- Despite being a fortified wine powerhouse of worldwide renown, the town of Rutherglen is home to only around 2000 residents.