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Unravelling The Mystery of Muscat in Rutherglen, Australia

Unravelling The Mystery of Muscat in Rutherglen, Australia

Rutherglen scenery

Cellar doors, restaurants, accommodation in Rutherglen, Australia

Sign at Rutherglen

The Muscat Mile in Rutherglen

From blending her own muscat to cycling between wineries and sampling fine cuisine, BRONWEN GORA does it all in Rutherglen, an Australian wine region like no other where reinvention is the name of the game.

When someone who doesn’t like sweet sticky liquors discovers a kind they adore, there is something special going on. This was my conclusion after three days in Rutherglen, the north-eastern Victorian town renowned worldwide for exceptional muscat – a tipple that has changed my tastes forever.

The excellence of Muscat of Rutherglen is due equally to the region’s unique terroir and its producers’ passion and skill. This wine simply cannot be copied. The winemakers of Rutherglen are descendants of 1850s Gold Rush settlers, up to seven generations deep, and as such unsurpassed in knowledge of blending muscat. Now their united effort is propelling muscat from the past into the glasses of 21st century clientele and transforming Rutherglen into Australia’s most progressive wine region in the process.

Muscat at Rutherglen
Muscat at Rutherglen

Arinto or Saperavi?

This collective dedication has made Rutherglen seriously good fun to tour. At cellar doors across the region, our small group learns the mysteries behind muscat’s exquisite flavours, even blending and bottling individual take-home samples. Many wineries offer rare and uncommon wine varietals – Arinto or Saperavi anyone? – and innovative liquors like no others we’ve tasted. The more adventurous among us have a ball, cycling between wineries and to destinations such as the chic main street eatery Thousand Pound Wine Bar. This wine bar brings city style to the country with stunning cuisine while the next day we kick-start with freshly ground coffee and sourdough straight from the ovens of family-owned Valentine’s bakery. We stay in Moodemere Estate’s luxurious modern cottage with vineyards on one side and filtered water views on the other (and a bath!). Here you can wake to birdsong and recline on the deck sipping Lake Moodemere Estate’s exceptional 2019 Old Vine ‘Hazard’ Shiraz, an exceptional drop so soft and luscious that it’s my new favourite red wine. In the ensuing few days we learn even Rutherglen’s water tower is shaped like a wine bottle. It stands to reason.

Muscat of Rutherglen mark of authenticity

Scion wines
Scion wines

Our ‘Muscat Mile’ experience starts in the towering main hall of the castle-like All Saints Estate, where winemaker Nick Roberts introduces us to muscat’s four main styles: Rutherglen Muscat (average age 3-5 years), Classic (6-10 years), Grand (11-19 years) and Rare (20 years-plus). As we progress through each style, I come to appreciate this rich thick nectar for the first time, understanding how sweetness is balanced out by quality and the depth and viscosity of each style increases. Nick explains how each year winemakers of Rutherglen gather at the all-important muscat classification, a mass tasting to decide which of the region’s latest muscat wines will fall into what category. Classifications rely not only on age: also taken into account is complexity and intensity of flavour. Only when a muscat has gone through this intensive day-long tasting process and been classified can it bear the “Muscat of Rutherglen” mark of authenticity. (Beware imposters!) The MoR stamp assures the highest quality.

Muscat barrels in Rutherglen
Muscat barrels in Rutherglen

After our revelatory tasting experience, Nick treats our group to a range of cocktails using the youngest of the muscats and showing one of the ways in which Rutherglen is rewriting muscat’s reputation as an old person’s drink.

“Muscat was once considered one of those bottles of wine you’d see on your grandfather’s liquor cabinet,” Nick says as we sip away on muscat cocktails and find ourselves reaching for another. “But since so many of Rutherglen’s winemakers have re-packaged under a nice modern label we’re appealing to a younger crowd.”                              

hip sip
Hip Sip Muscat appealing to a younger crowd

Thieving muscat at Pfeiffer Wines

Over at Pfeiffer Wines we have another kind of immersive muscat experience. First, we learn to ‘thieve’ muscat straight from the barrel using a wine thief just like a real winemaker before an extensive tasting session that ends with the highly enjoyable exercise of blending and bottling our very own muscat to take home. It’s like a combined home science and chemistry lesson for adults, alcohol flowing from glasses to beakers to measuring cups and bottles amid much laughter spliced with moments of intense concentration. There are only a few spills. By now we fully appreciate the precious rarity of this region’s decadent amber fluid.

Cloudy but blue skies in Rutherglen

Just as delightful is discovering all kinds of rare and uncommon wine varietals at Rutherglen’s myriad vineyards – Arinto (a Portuguese variety grown by only four others in Australia) and Alvarinho at Stanton & Killeen, Saperavi at Anderson Wines and GG&T, a white of CSIRO sultana-crosses Goyura and Tullilah (who knew the CSIRO grew grapes?) blended with Gewurtztraminer, at Campbells. “It’s so exciting to see what we can do with different wine styles,” enthuses Campbells Wines’s Jane Campbell, neatly summing up the Rutherglen philosophy.

Over at Rowdy and Sally Milhinch’s Scion Wine estate, we are introduced to After Dark, a delicious semi-sweet fortified durif (durif!) described on the label as perfect with dark chocolate or mixed with gin and aperol over ice and garnished with orange for a Negroni with a twist. I buy a bottle on the spot. Most of us do.

mount ophir georgie james
Mount Ophir accommodation image by Georgie James

Muscat X

Equally, as tempting is Correll from Jones Vineyard (also another of Rutherglen’s fine dining destinations), an aperitif of fortified white wine blended with orange and spices. Divine served chilled with soda. Most endearing is to learn the vineyard owner Mandy named Correll after her mother. Scion has produced another beauty – “a contemporary spin on Rutherglen tradition” called Muscat X. The blend of fortified brown muscat matured in ancient oak casks was designed to be served on the rocks, neat or in cocktails. Cofield Wines plies us with sparking pinot noir. We are hooked.

Our Muscat Mile tour wraps within Buller Wines extensive premises. Here we drink more muscat (!) under the Calliope label before being introduced Three Chain Road, Buller Wines’ spin-off range of gins hand-crafted by distiller Dave Whyte in his “best mate” – a pot still he calls Winston. Along with classic London dry gin styles Dave serves us his rare muscat gin – gin infused with, yes, muscat – and the Heathcote gin infused with shiraz. All are delightful and, along with the winery’s excellent cuisine, a fitting end to our tour of a wine region to which I will be returning for sure.

The end of the Muscat Mile?

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thousand pound eatery
Thousand Pound Wine Bar Image by Kristoffer Paulsen

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