Wines of the Month

April, 2000

Southern Stickies

When most wine drinkers think of Australian wine, their first thought is probably about a monster Shiraz or a lush, oaky Chardonnay. If they think a little harder, they might come up with Cabernet Sauvignon or possibly one of the many blended wines which use Rhône grapes, Bordeaux grapes, or even a mixture of both. Fortified dessert wines (often called "stickies" Down Under) probably end up pretty far down the list, if they even appear at all. That's both good and bad. It's bad because Australian producers are making some very good fortified wines that deserve more attention than they get. However, it also means that the wines are easily available at very reasonable prices.

Most Australian fortified wines available in the USA fall into three categories: Tawny "Port", Liqueur Tokay and Liqueur Muscat (more about these names later). These non-vintage wines are made in styles somewhat similar to Tawny Port or Sherry (while Australia makes some Vintage Port-like wines, they are not widely available in the USA). The fermentation is stopped before completion by adding neutral grape spirits, and the wine is aged in barrels, often in a solera system, for many years. The aging is often done in a very hot environment -- leading to comparisons with Madeira -- causing the development of "rancio" characteristics. Rancio is often perceived as a somewhat nutty or buttery character, and gives a sensation of richness on the palate.

With the similarities in styles and production methods, one might be tempted to speculate that these wines are produced in one part of Australia. However, Rutherglen, near the border of Victoria and New South Wales, is the center of production of Liqueur Muscats and Tokays, while the premier "Port" producing regions are hundreds of miles away -- the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia.

Australian Tawny "Ports" are among my favorite values in fortified dessert wines. While these wines have nothing to do with true Port, being made from different grapes in a completely different part of the world, they are very enjoyable drinks on their own terms, and are usually less expensive than true Tawny Ports of similar quality. Australian tawnies are often based on Grenache and/or Shiraz, but may also contain other grapes. Some of my perennial favorite value wines include: Chateau Reynella "Old Cave", Hardy's "Whiskers Blake", Yalumba "Clocktower", and the slightly more expensive, but well-worth-the-money Yalumba "Galway Pipe".

While I have never been much of a fan of Liqueur Tokay (I've always preferred to spend my money on the Tawny "Ports" and Liqueur Muscats), the Veritas Tokay Barossa Valley '90 I tasted at the February WLDG Offline has begun to make me change my mind. Liqueur Tokay, like the Tawny "Ports" has nothing at all to do with any of the various European wines and grapes with similar names. Tokay is actually made from the Muscadelle (no relation to Muscat) grape, which is best known as a minor component of the sweet white wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Most Liqueur Tokays that I've tried have tended toward flavors of coffee, toffee, raisins and spice; they aren't for lovers of fresh, fruity wine, but they can be good examples of the flavor profiles acquired by long oak aging. Yalumba Old Sweet White is a fairly widely available example of this style of wine, and if you have the money, you might want to try to find the highly regarded, but more expensive, Chambers Tokays.

Liqueur Muscats are arguably the most distinctive of Australia's fortified wines, and are my personal favorite. Unlike the above two wines, the name actually indicates something about the wine -- Liqueur Muscats are made from a dark-skinned clone of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, known locally as "Brown Muscat". It would be difficult to come up with a classic comparison for this wine. The closest Old World counterparts I've tried were a Muscat Sherry (fairly similar) and the Portuguese Moscatel du Setubal (not as similar). The best Liqueur Muscats combine the sweetness, richness and aged flavor profiles of Liqueur Tokay with the fresh, lively floral aromatics and orange-peel flavors characteristic of the Muscat variety. Like the Liqueur Tokays, these wines can be syrupy, so if you don't have a serious sweet tooth, you may want to stick with the Tawnies. Yalumba is one of the most widely available good producers of Liqueur Muscat. A few years ago, I had a Brown Brothers Liqueur Muscat, which at around $7 for 750ml had to rank as one of the all-time great dessert wine bargains; unfortunately, I haven't seen it since then. And Chambers is legendary for their high-quality Muscats, though the best aren't cheap.

Finding these types of wines is becoming a bit more confusing these days. Because of European objections to the use of the words "Port" and "Tokay", some Australian producers are beginning to phase out the use of these borrowed terms. For example, Yalumba markets an "Antique Tawny" which doesn't have the word "Port" on the label, and their "Old Sweet White" doesn't mention "Tokay". However, while this new policy may make life a little more difficult at first, I think it is an excellent one. Australian fortified wines aren't the same as the European wines whose names they borrowed, but they are very good wines that deserve recognition on their own merits. Maybe you'll have to look a little harder for your stickies, but believe me, they're worth the extra effort.

Seppelt D.P. 57 Show Tokay Rutherglen NV -- At first there is almost no nose, but after a few minutes the wine begins to show aromas of raisins, vanilla, coffee and toffee, with a little alcohol showing through. Very viscous, and feels rich in the mouth. Flavors of toffee, coffee, honey, raisins, spices coat your mouth. The wine has just barely enough acidity to avoid being cloying, and has a long, full aftertaste with more toffee, raisins, some nutty rancio character and smoke. Could be more concentrated.

Rosemount Old Benson Fine Old Tawny Port S.E. Australia NV -- Big nose of plum, prunes, licorice and spices, along with just a touch of alcohol and menthol. Mouthfilling flavors of prune, spice, buttered nuts, toast and vanilla. Smooth, rich mouthfeel. Balanced, with well-integrated flavors, and a notable absence of heat, despite the whiff of alcohol on the nose. Sweet, but not overly so. Finishes with more plum and prune flavors, along with anise, walnuts, and just enough acidity to keep things fresh and lively.

Yalumba Muscat Museum Release Victoria NV -- Enchanting aromas of orange blossoms, orange peel, coffee, toffee, and spice. Feels rich, with mouth-filling flavors of coffee, toffee and candied orange peel, along with some butterscotch and cloves. An intriguing slight hint of rosemary also comes through. Long finish, with mouth coating caramel, toffee, coffee and spice flavors. Very similar in style and flavor to the Yalumba Museum Show Reserve Muscat of a few years ago, though not quite as complex or intense. Still, this is an excellent dessert wine.

As always, comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2000 by Marcel Lachenmann.