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Geoffrey Dean pays tribute to Australian fortifieds on his tour Down Under

Published:  27 December, 2012

Finding ourselves as we do in the midst of the Twelve Days of Christmas, replete with mince pies, Christmas pud and other rich offerings, it is timely to pay tribute to Australian fortifieds. They have been making them Down Under since the 19th Century, of course, but on a pre-Yuletide visit to Rutherglen in northern Victoria, it became clear that the bar there is being pushed higher and higher.

Campbells' top liqueur Muscat (the Prince Merchant Rare) has already been accorded a perfect 100 points by Wine Spectator a couple of years ago, but the extraordinary quality levels reached - greatness in some cases - by so many other Rutherglen fortifieds was clear. Stanton & Killeen's vintage port, comfortably the best in Australia, has been rivalling the leading port houses of the Douro for some time now, while their own liqueur muscats and topaques (formerly known as Tokays before Hungarian objection) are world-class wines. Campbells' Isabella Rare topaque is another. Chambers and Morris are traditional frontrunners of longtime pedigree, while Pfeiffer Wines, relative new kids on the block, are producing some fine examples of sherry (or 'apera' as the Aussies are obliged to call it).

The real surprise from Rutherglen is how good so many of their table wines are. These, too, will go well with the northern hemisphere's mid-winter cuisine. Some of these wines are quite outstanding, like Stanton & Killeen's The Prince, a red blend of Portuguese varietals, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cao and Souzao.

Simon Killeen, whose father Chris died in 2007, takes up the story. "The 2008 was the first time this particular wine was made," he said. "It was named after Dad as his nickname was the 'the Prince of Port.' He would have hated it as he would have wanted to make a fortified instead!" Instead, Simon, just 22 at the time, crafted a superb table wine with gorgeous fruit, soft tannins and 12.8% abv, using no new oak and giving notice of his potential as a highly talented young winemaker. The Prince 2009 has sold out, but the 2012, is due to be released soon. Definitely a buy.

Durif (aka petite Sirah) is a grape that is very much a Rutherglen specialty, and both S&K and Campbells produce a ripper of a single varietal. The latter's 'The Barkly' 2009 was exported to the UK and has real intensity of flavour with beguiling complexity. At 15.5% abv, it will not suit everybody, but it carries its alcohol remarkably well. "I couldn't pick it earlier as the flavour development wasn't there," said Campbells winery operations manager, Tim Gniel.

Barkly was actually the old name of the settlement that became Rutherglen in 1860 during the gold rush. A Scottish entrepreneur named Wallace, who was opening a new hotel for the influx of miners, was told he could rename the town after his native one if he bought everyone a drink at a packed bar one night. He did, and the Aussie Rutherglen was christened.

While the Barkly Durif sees only only old oak, Campbells' flagship 'The Brothers Shiraz' 2009 is matured in 100% new oak (70 French, 30 American). Made by Malcolm and Colin, fourth generation Campbells whose great great grandfather founded the winery in 1870, it needs time, but the S&K Jack's Block Shiraz 2004, produced from vines planted in 1921, is drinking beautifully now. Full-bodied but very well-balanced, it has nicely-integrated tannins and a long finish.

While Campbells and S&K both date back to the 19th Century, the Pfeiffer winery is a hundred years or so younger. "Our wines are probably some of the prettiest in the district," argues owner, Chris Pfeiffer, whose daughter Jen is winemaker. "S&K have more extract while there's more sweetness in Chambers and Morris."

Across the state border in South Australia, Chris' cousin, Martin Pfeiffer, owns boutique Barossa winery, Whistler, which is making some top quality fortified Merlot. The attractive flat-shaped bottle won the best packaging prize for a small winery this year, 12 months after Whistler winemaker, Troy Kalleske, picked up the same award for his own fortified Shiraz. Both wines are selling like hotcakes.

Domestic consumption of Australian fortifieds has certainly fallen but demand, both local and international, is strong for quality offerings from the land Down Under. The good news is that Aussie producers - from the Rutherglen household names to the likes of Bleasdales in Langhorne Creek and John Kosovic in the Swan Valley - keep hitting highs that should continue to delight global consumers for decades to come.

* Geoffrey Dean is travelling across Australia covering cricket for The Times and touring the wine regions for Harpers as part of his studies for the second year of his Master of Wine.