Few wines can elicit a response on first tasting quite like Rutherlgen Muscat. The multitude of aromas, the incredible depth of flavour on the palate, and a finish that seems to linger for an age... the first sip of Rutherglen Muscat is a memory that stays with a wine lover for life.
There are more than 200 varieties in the muscat family, but only one is used to make Rutherglen Muscat - the high quality Muscat a Petits Grains Rouge (muscat with little red berries). The local winemakers refer to it simply as Rutherglen Brown Muscat.
The Making of Muscat
To make the world's richest wine it stands to reason that you need ripe fruit. Very ripe fruit. Rutherglen enjoys a particular advantage in this regard, with our climate perfectly suited to the task of ripening muscat. The period around vintage (March, April, May) is renowned for being mild, sunny and stable in and around Rutherglen; often referred to as an 'Indian Summer'. This allows the muscat fruit an extra period of 'hangtime' on the vine, resulting in the impossibly high baumes (measurement of natural fruit sugars) required for Rutherglen Muscat.
Soil and topography play a role also. Whilst the key flavours of muscat are common to all, certain vineyards and soil types promote certain characters. The lighter sandy soils following the Murray River (known locally as the Wahgunah Belt) often produces more highly perfumed wines with delicate fruit characters. The grey/brown Rutherglen loam found on higher grounds generally results in richer, heavier and headier wines.
In the winery the fruit is sensitively handled and fortified with a natural grape spirit. From here the wine starts a journey in barrel that may last as few as 5 or as many as 105 years. Young, fresh and fruity Rutherglen Muscat is ofen bottled at around five years of age (see The Classification below). The very best muscat is essentially impervious to age, and can develop in barrel for many generations as a base component for future blends.
Rutherglen Muscat is rarely bottled as a single vintage wine. More often it will be a blend of many vintages that have been ageing in the winery. The ageing process can vary from winery to winery, but most employ a modified solera system; a graduated ageing process where wine is transferred slowly from barrel to barrel over a number of years before finally being bottled.
The Makers Mark
Climate is the key reason why muscat works so well in Rutherglen, but history plays a big role also. You simply cannot replicate more than 150 years of family winemaking, and many of the regions wineries have precious stocks of muscat handed down through three, four and even five generations.
And of course the value of time lies not just in the wine, but the knowledge that accumulates over that period as well. Each muscat house has been able to hone their craft over a long period of time, and develop a highly identifiable 'house style'. Skilled winemakers in the district need little more than a quick sip to place the origins of a wine; they have their makers mark all over them.
Rutherglen Muscats are classified under four descriptions that 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 still higher plane of development, displaying a new level of intensity, depth and concentration of flavour, mature rancio characters, and a complexity which 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.
Many consider muscat to be a fantastic after dinner wine, and they are perfectly correct. It is one of few wines with the intensity to stand up to chocolate based desserts and works well with the richer flavours of coffee, caramel, vanilla, butterscotch and the like. The young and fruity muscat (such as that found under the 'Rutherglen' classification) can also pair well with fruit based desserts, sorbets and ice cream.
Cloth cheddar, washed rind and even powerful blue cheeses also make for a perfect pairing with muscat, especially when matched with quince paste and freshly shelled nuts.
What is not as well understood is how well muscat can work with savoury items. Great served over ice as an aperitif to kick start the appetite, with soups, terrines, pate, charcuterie, roasted figs, even spicy curries where the sweetness of the wine serves to counter the heat of the dish. Try serving muscat with something savoury at your next dinner party...experimentation is half the fun.
Tokay or Topaque
Lovers of Rutheglen Muscat will no doubt be aware of its equally profound though lesser known stablemate, Rutherglen Topaque. The history of Topaque in Rutherglen can be a little confusing, at least in terms of nonclemature. The wine was originally termed Tokay in the mid 1800's, and whilst no definitive reason is known one can only assume that early vignerons saw similarities with the great Tokaji wines of Hungary produced from furmint and harselevelu.
In the 1970's a visiting ampelographer identified Rutherglen Tokay to be the same as muscadelle, a minor white variety grown in Bordeaux, and despite its name not actually part of the muscat family. By that stage Rutherlgen producers had a 120 year history producing Tokay, and it made sense to continue using the name for both producers and consumers.
In the early part of the twenty first century it came to pass that the use of the word Tokay on labels was to be phased out due to its similarity to the Hungarian term Tokaji; one of a number of labelling agreements that would take place with countries in the EU. A major research project was undertaken to develop a new name and Topaque was selected as the preferred option. The phase out is not enforced until 2016 so you may find the wine labelled as Rutherglen Topaque or Tokay; importantly the wine in the bottle is as good as ever.
In terms of flavour profile Topaque is often considered to be a lighter, finer wine than Rutherglen Muscat with flavours of candied fruits, honey, toffee and a distinctive cold tea character, as opposed to the heavier raisin and chocolate notes of muscat. All other aspects of its production are near identical to Muscat, and in terms of quality Rutherglen Topaque is deemed every bit as good. The best way to appreciate the difference is to try for yourself!