It is October. I head west from the Hume as the sun breaks over the rolling hills behind me. Its golden glow spreads over the tapestry of green. Dotted between the fields, vineyards and livestock are magnificent Victorian federation buildings. It’s clearly a region that enjoyed wealth from the mid 1800’s gold rush. Entering Rutherglen it’s easy to see the town’s past wealth – this region was second only to Ballarat in the gold days. The town that is today a vibrant community of about 2500 once serviced around 30000. Heading just west of the township is surreal. Clustered together within what seems a stones throw are all the major names in finest fortified wines that we have grown up knowing – Stanton & Killen, Buller, Campbell’s and within a few kilometres Morris. There is something special going on here – a small patch of this vast country that nowhere else can emulate. Unique soil, minerals and growing conditions produce world class Muscat and Tokay that compare only with the best that comes from the fortified homeland of the world – Portugal. It seems bizarre that only a few kilometres away in the neighbouring wine growing regions of Beechworth and King Valley it cannot be repeated. In fact, it doesn’t seem like they can produce the same quality even on the other side of town.
First stop, Stanton and Killen, where I’m introduced to Wendy Killen. I am amazed that a family planted and run vineyard and winery that is a major exporter and one of Australia’s premier fortified makers is so hands on and family run. This is a James Halliday Red 5 star rated winery – the highest rating in Australia. It was established and planted in 1864 by Timothy Stanton. I proceed to have 4 hours with head wine maker Andrew Drumm. The aroma of this place is almost intoxicating – a combination of old wood barrels and sweetness – magnificent. After a full
tour, including inspecting storage barrels still full of wine from the middle of last century, we head to the lab. Here we work on our Master’s Blend mix – a perfect combination of their very finest fortifieds blended to a tasting profile to suit the requirements of our community. An amazing experience – Tawny for its “port” flavour, tannin and structure, blended with a percentage of aged Muscat to add a raisin sweetness, thickness and lusciousness and just 15% of a very old Topaque which perfectly integrates the flavours and adds depth. After trying over 20 combinations, this was it! It was amazing how much variation the smallest changes in percentage made! This blend is now available as a premium “community blend’ – available in 5 litre bulk drums.
Next stop – Buller wines, and I am surprised. Buller is one of the biggest names in the fortified industry and they dominate the Dan Murphy shelves – yet their establishment is surprisingly humble. It has had a chequered history in recent years. The business went into administration in 2013 and was taken over by the local Judd family. Nowadays, their cheaper wine is produced in the Swan Hill region and only the high end fortified is from the premium Rutherglen vineyard. Thankfully, the takeover included the purchase of all the old storage barrels, so the legend continues. It’s another Halliday 5 star rated establishment – and I’m in for a treat! Entering the tasting room I introduce myself and am taken through a standard tasting. Buller also does a full range of table wines – including Durif’s which are the best that this country produces. Durif is a high tannic, intensely inky dark and brooding wine which obviously likes the same soil and hot, dry growing conditions. We have included their delicious Nine Muses Shiraz in the current subscription. These guys also produce a magnificent Pedro Ximenez, the dark , intense Spanish Sherry that has gained a following for use in cooking – but seriously, it’s better than that, it’s an incredible drop!
Dave Whyte, the head wine maker takes me on a tour of the storage barn – an old shed full of the largest, oldest barrels I have ever seen. One large barrel is full of wine from 1940 – and it is stored very close to the roof on the 2nd floor. In summer its temperature rises dramatically and winter it lowers. This is apparently part of the maturation process. I am then taken on a full tasting flight of the oldest and rarest wines. Amazing and unbelievable! You simply can’t sip and spit this stuff, it’s like liquid gold! All of these products are in the hundreds of dollars a bottle.
As I leave Rutherglen, the thick syrupy sweetness lingers and I ponder a tiny part of our vast country so close to other wine regions yet so very unique. An area that looks innocuous and low key with the simplest of wineries and facilities – still run by small hands-on family’s, producing pure magic. I can’t help pondering how fortunate we are. This really is the lucky country.