Gourmet Traveller WINE - Great wine drives: Rutherglen

Monday, August 29, 2011

Just a short spin outside of Melbourne lies the historic region of Rutherglen on the banks of the mighty Murray River. With this two-day itinerary you can explore the wineries behind the famous fortifieds and cutting-edge reds.

A few doors down from the Rutherglen town funeral parlour there’s a business called Curl Up & Dye. It’s a hairdressers. The two are unrelated and it’s nothing to do with food or wine, but it gives an insight into the kind of place Rutherglen is. No nonsense. A wry sense of humour. A place that seems inherently Australian.

Until recently, instead of the word “inherently” it was de rigueur to use the word “traditional”. Rutherglen is a hot old region with sweet, treacly fortified wines dating back decades, if not centuries. When I travelled to Rutherglen to research a piece for this magazine a handful of years ago, family winemaker Stephen Chambers at the Chambers Rosewood winery spoke to this issue directly. “Our fortified wines are great, and we are struggling to keep up with demand for them, but our table wines need a lot of work. We recognise that.” He was talking of his own winery but it was a quick summation of where the region was at in general at that point.

Times have changed. In 2011 the wines of the Rutherglen region seem generally fresher, more modern, more interesting and more drinkable in their youth. In short, Rutherglen wine has its mojo back. I’ve visited the region many times over the past 15 years but I’ve rarely found it as interesting wine-wise as I did recently. Even the label designs and general packaging have taken a great leap forward. It’s exciting – Rutherglen has really spruced-up its in-built authenticity. This means it’s once again a wonderful region to visit.

This is very good news, because it has always been a fun place to spend time. It’s easy to get around and is relaxed and welcoming as a rule. The mighty Murray River is never too far away, particularly when you’re in the vicinity of the St Leonards winery, and the region’s red soils and river red gums give the place a sense of timeless rusticity.

Rutherglen is cool in winter, but it’s one of Australia’s warmest wine regions in summer; that river sure can come in handy. It was a gold rush area so there are beautiful, old Victorian buildings scattered throughout. And it’s an easy place to reach: just two and a half hours north-east of Melbourne, most of it on the Hume Highway, or roughly 40 minutes by car from Albury Airport.

On busy weekends – and most especially for the annual Winery Walkabout events (held in June) – Rutherglen can be packed with visitors, but in general it is relaxed and slow paced.

The region is most famous for its luscious, impossible-not-to-like fortified wines – most often called muscat and topaque (formerly tokay). These wines aren’t just world-class in their style; they are world-beaters. Not many Australian regions can make such a claim. Another specialty is dense, rugged, cellar-worthy reds made with the durif grape. And indeed it’s durif that makes the region such a great place to go for stocking your cellar. Shiraz does well here, and so too cabernet, and an increasing number of white varietals, most notably marsanne, roussanne, viognier and fiano.

For all these positive impressions, it is interesting to note that when I approached the tasting counters of the first three cellar doors I visited and asked to be served “whatever you recommend”, the initial wines poured at each were made from non-Rutherglen grapes. They were all good-value whites that were drinking well (it was easy to see why they were served first), but each was produced with fruit from either the King Valley or Strathbogie Ranges. It shows that Rutherglen still has a way to go in reclaiming its pride. I can’t imagine the same request in the Barossa Valley being met with anything other than Barossa-grown wine.

However, it’s a minor gripe. The wider truth is that Rutherglen has not thrown the baby out with the bathwater – it still makes and sells the most amazing fortified and traditional wine styles. And if you know where to look, there’s some great modern stuff going on too.

DAY 1

The Rutherglen Wine Experience and Information Centre (57 Main Street, Rutherglen, 1800 622 871) is one of the best visitors centres you’ll encounter. You can get sit-down coffee and a meal, and apart from the usual maps and advice, there’s a display outlining winemaking techniques and the region’s key winemaking figures. It’s the perfect first stop. While you’re there be sure to ask about any food hamper packages on offer in the region. It’s also a favourite haunt of (casual) cyclists keen for maps of suggested routes that take in set lists of winery destinations. This place is so handy that even before you plan your trip, you can hit the website for a showcase of the region’s accommodation options.

From here you can head just a few hundred metres up the road to your first vinous destination for the day, the Anderson Winery (Chiltern Road, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 8111). Howard Anderson knows a thing or two about all manner of winemaking-related things, though his enduring love is for sparkling wines – both white and red. He once worked at Seppelt Great Western and has clocked up his 40th year of sparkling winemaking; not a bad innings and still going strong. The 2002 Anderson Cellar Block Shiraz, a sparkling wine, is testament to all he has learned along the way, though if you’re visiting first thing in the morning, another sparkler, the 2002 Anderson Chenin Blanc, might be just the ticket.

One of my favourite wineries in the region is just across the road – the Jones Vineyard and Winery (Jones Road, Rutherglen, (02) 6032 8496). It’s a cellar door which manages to mesh rustic century-old tradition to modern quirks with great aplomb. Winemaker Mandy Jones is unassuming but hugely talented as her gutsy 2008 Jones Vineyard and Winery Shiraz shows with fresh oak and fresh fruit flavour. There’s a fair chance that you’ll meet her at the cellar door. There is also beautiful wooden furniture and art on display here – it’s not just a place for us wine nerds.

If you’re like me, you’ll be hungry after a couple of visits – you’re still close to town, so it’ll be hard to resist a stop at the famous Parker’s Pies (86-88 Main Street, Rutherglen). I never resist. Move past the standard pies and sausage rolls and lash out on either the Bobbie Burns wrap (chunks of beef steak, mushroom and red-wine sauce in puff pastry) or the Jolly Jumbuck wrap (saltbush lamb in a mint and rosemary sauce in puff pastry). I’d eat 10 of them if I could get away with it.

Unless it’s a weekend you’ll need to make an appointment at Scion Vineyard (74 Slaughterhouse Road, Rutherglen, 02 6032 8844) but you’re unlikely to regret it should you do. Scion is a new star of the Rutherglen region. Janice Milhinch and her son Rowland Milhinch only started Scion (“from bare earth”) a decade ago, though they are part of the extended Morris clan. From the start they’ve been keen to pay homage to the traditions of Rutherglen wine, with their own personal twists. Less alcohol, more elegance is Janice’s way of describing their goal. There is a general thoughtfulness to the Scion wines that is difficult to define, but easy to taste in the wines. Expect to find individuality writ large here – in the best sense of the word. I found myself swooning; I even liked the off-dry Fleur table white made with muscat grapes.

Take the short drive back to town and then out to Campbells (Murray Valley Highway, Rutherglen, 02 6033 6000). None of the distances involved in the Rutherglen region are great so you can visit wineries in your own order. Campbells is just out of town on the highway though it’s not just popular because it’s easy to find, but because the wines are so honest, reliable and good. Campbells is celebrating 140 years of winemaking and judging by the great shape the current wine range is in, they have many more decades ahead of them. The elite topaque and muscat wines are really super, and across a range of red table wines the quality is excellent. A visit to Campbells is a must if you’re in the region.

I’d say the same of nearby Buller Wines (Three Chain Road, Rutherglen, 02 6032 9660) though a good many of the table wines here are made from grapes sourced from regions other than Rutherglen (King Valley and Swan Hill predominantly). Most of the non-Rutherglen wines here are under the Beverford and Black Dog Creek labels. The Buller family have been making wine at Rutherglen since the 1920s and such fabulous history can still be tasted in the (often great-value) fortified wines. Some of the old classics of north-east Victorian wine are made using the rare mondeuse grape variety and Buller makes a varietal version which is available for tasting here.

Sneak one more winery in before lunch – Warrabilla (6152 Murray Valley Highway, Rutherglen, 02 6035 7242). It’s a 10-15 minute drive to Warrabilla and if you’re looking for subtlety or elegance it probably isn’t worth your effort. But if you want big rich monster reds, you simply cannot afford to miss it. Shiraz, durif and cabernet sauvignon are the work horses here and the prices are in inverse proportion to the concentration of flavour and alcohol. You might even find a good cleanskin for an impossibly cheap price.

You’ll need to refresh your palate after Warrabilla. Two main options are to head back into town or toward Waygunyah and the excellent lunch choices of the Pickled Sisters Café at Cofield Wines or The Terrace restaurant at All Saints.

I opted for the Pickled Sisters Café (Distillery Road, Wahgunyah, 02 6033 2377) for a wild mushroom risotto with thyme and garlic and didn’t regret the choice. The Pickled Sisters is one of those restaurants that has become something of a regional institution – as one local noted, “I’ve never heard anyone say that they were disappointed with the Pickled Sisters”.

Pickled Sisters is in the building beside Cofield Wines (Distillery Road, Wahgunyah, 02 6033 2377). I used to head to Cofield when it was in more rustic digs because I have long had an affection for the winery’s sparkling shiraz. The cellar door is a more modern building now, though I found the current 2007 spark-ling shiraz release a little too gamey for my liking. An interesting development at Cofield is the new range of Minimal Footprint wines – a varietal durif, malbec and shiraz. The malbec and the shiraz are grown organically and what I’ve tasted has been fresh and fruit-driven. For a long time Rutherglen was seen as off the pace and falling behind in terms of the wider wine community; initiatives like this suggest the opposite is occuring here. The Minimal Footprints wines are all definately worth seeking out.

I don’t know why, but even though I’ve visited nearby Pfeiffer Wines (167 Distillery Road, Waygunyah, 02 6033 2805) on many occasions, I’ve never taken the one-minute stroll down to the historic Sunday Creek bridge. Clearly I’m too wine obsessed. This wooden bridge was built in 1905 and particularly in the early-ish mornings and late afternoons it’s about as idyllic a country setting as you can imagine – I felt compelled to mutter (to myself), “Ah, the serenity”. The water the bridge spans was teeming with carp the day I was there which made me, strangely enough, think of white wine (not that you’d want to eat carp). Pfeiffer have crackerjack releases of riesling, marsanne, chardonnay and gamay – the latter a pink and delicious example. The 2009 Pfeiffer Wines Shiraz is a good choice too.

Head back to your accommodation, take a rest and prepare for dinner. The bad news is that the terrific Beaumont Café in the main street of Rutherglen is no more; the good news is that regional champion Tuileries restaurant (13-35 Drummond Street, Rutherglen, 02 6032 9033) has recently been made over and is clearly the prime spot to dine in the region. There’s a wine bar, too, and the restaurant is on song. Tuileries has accommodation, and in any case it’s at the end of the main street so with any luck it will be walking distance from your digs.

Don’t forget that the Tuileries building also houses the Rutherglen Estates cellar door. Here’s an example of what I was saying: there are lots of fresh, different, alternative-variety wines up for tasting here, many of them well priced and well flavoured.

DAY 2

You’ve covered a lot of ground but you’ve still got some gems in store. There are no real stand-outs in terms of breakfast so take it at your accommodation if you can. Then head direct to Valhalla Wines (All Saints Road, Wahgunyah, 02 6033 1438) for a fresh look at what Rutherglen wine can do. You’ll find deliciously affordable white and red blends for around $16, and more serious, punchy, slurpable reds around the $25-$30 mark. All the wines are good in their individual styles. You get the feeling that they’re serious about having fun at Valhalla and it’s always a welcoming feeling to have. In the warmer months they offer wood-fired pizzas with many of the ingredients grown on the property.

Whiz past All Saints and head to the St Leonards winery (St Leonards Rd, Wahgunyah, 02 6033 1004). I’m biased towards St Leonards because it’s one of the places that made me fall in love with wine. It’s the atmosphere here as much as anything: a lagoon of the Murray River within stone’s throw; gum trees and birds; an old winery with more than a whiff of authenticity to it. St Leonards and All Saints share the same owners but each spot has a charmingly unique and alluring character to it.

And indeed, a visit to the castle-like All Saints Estate (All Saints Road, Wahgunyah, 02 6035 2222) is now essential. It’s been a long, hard road but the table wines at All Saints are the best they’ve been in a very long time, particularly the marsanne and premium reds. All the All Saints wines have been made off-site until recently, and since some of them have come back home, the quality has leapt. This place can get very busy so pre-book a table at The Terrace restaurant for lunch and settle in for a full tasting beforehand. There is a beautiful cheese room on site too – perfect for an after-lunch indulgence, perhaps.

To finish the cellar-door trail on a high – three icons of fortified Australian wine: Morris, Chambers and Stanton & Killeen. All three make table wines, too, and Morris in particular is renowned for its good, affordable table reds (shiraz, durif, cabernet sauvignon). And the fortified wines of these great producers cannot be challenged.

From All Saints drive back along All Saints Road and then onto Jacks Road for the Stanton & Killeen (02 6032 9457) cellar door. The full and diverse range of wines is usually on offer but it’d be a rare visitor who doesn’t have at least half an eye on the estate’s famous vintage Port-style wine (now known simply as Vintage). If you have any bottles of this estate VP in your collection the staff are knowledgeable on how back vintages are travelling – and often have some available for tasting. There’s a timelessness at Stanton & Killeen that is easy to admire.

As of course there is at the nearby Chambers Rosewood Winery (Barkly Street, Rutherglen, 02 6032 8641). There are a substantial number of wines available for tasting here, including a wine made with the rare gouais variety, a parent of chardonnay – and various kinds of sherry, as well as the highly prized muscats and topaque wines. In terms of international recognition, they don’t come much more lauded than Chambers.

Which leaves just enough room for a visit to Morris (Mia Mia Road, Rutherglen, 02 6026 7303). Rutherglen legends don’t come much bigger. And when you visit it will take you roughly three seconds to understand why. Morris is everything that is good about the combination of history and winemaking. The place reeks of it – literally. You step through the doors and can smell the heady scent of toffee and raisins soaked in liqueur emanating from the huge vats all around. You’ll get a friendly reception here and if you can walk out without at least a few bottles of muscat or tokay/topaque tucked in your bag – then you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

To wrap up this jam-packed tour of Rutherglen I’d suggest… a counter meal. Or something slightly fancier, at an historic hotel in the main street of Rutherglen. The Victoria Hotel (90 Main Street, Rutherglen, 02 6032 8610) has both indoor and outdoor bistro meals and an indoor restaurant, Mrs Brown. It’s an institution and, really, a prime way to finish any day spent exploring the wonders of this brilliant region.

WINES FOR THE BOOT

2008 Valhalla Wines Shiraz, A$25

This is an excellent example of the increased drinkability of young Rutherglen reds. This will cellar medium-term but it’s a soft and juicy style with lots of dark berry flavour. Smoky oak makes a positive contribution, too.

2010 Valhalla Wines Three Little Birds, A$16

This blend of viognier, marsanne and roussanne is a dry, neutral, spicy style – the kind of red the Rutherglen region should champion. It’s juicy and fresh and easy to drink and while it’s not complicated, it has an inbuilt savoury and spiciness that is appealing.

2010 Pfeiffer Wines Chardonnay, A$19

Chardonnay is rarely equated with Rutherglen but winemaker Jen Pfeiffer has put together a delicious drop here. It has some bready complexity but it’s essentially peachy and punchy with a nice kiss of cedary, sawdusty oak. Like the value of this, too.

2009 Baileys of Glenrowan Rutherglen Durif, A$25

Baileys wines are famously estate-grown at Glenrowan but this venture into Rutherglen is mighty impressive. If you’re heading back to Melbourne you can pick this up direct from the winery just outside the official Rutherglen region. It is full of chocolate and licorice, blackberry and iodine. This is a plush, smooth wine that can easily be enjoyed young; though it will cellar well over the next decade.

2009 Campbell’s The Sixties Block, A$25

It’s grown on an experimental block of vines planted in the 1960s. It’s made from an eclectic group of grape varieties – tempranillo, shiraz, graciano, tinta cao, sourzao and carignan. It’s almost guaranteed to be quirky and complex but the bonus is that it’s high quality too. It’s a rustic wine with notes of sweet raspberry and rusty nails. It’s both savoury and refreshingly acidic. A unique drop.

2009 Campbell’s Bobbie Burns Shiraz, A$20

This is the 40th anniversary release and it’s a ripper. Great value, too. Tastes of sweet blueberry, iodine and chicory, and feels flush with flavour from go to whoa. This will drink well both young and with a number of years under its belt.

2009 All Saints Estate Pierre, A$30

This is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, and it’s a beauty. All Saints has taken the great leap backwards in recent years, rejuvenating its old winery and re-employing the old wax-lined concrete vats and the 120-year-old wooden basket press. Great move – and this wine benfits directly. It tastes of licorice, malt, mulberry and mocha. It’s medium weight but flavoursome and interesting.

2005 Stanton & Killeen Vintage, A$32

Australia’s best vintage Port-style wine. It’s made using shiraz, touriga nacional, durif, tinto cao, tinta roriz and tinta barocca grapes and tastes of dried fruits, orange peel, dust and sweet toffee. The key thing here is the mix of luscious sweetness and intriguing, lively sourness. Given its status, and cellaring ability, the price is a steal.

2010 Rutherglen Estates Fiano, A$22

Fiano has a real future in Rutherglen’s hot climes – and Rutherglen Estates has been proving the point quietly over the past few years. This is fresh and citrusy with dried herb and stone-fruit character. There isn’t a huge amount of flavour here but that’s a strong point; it has a pleasantly dry versatility.

2009 Warrabilla Reserve Durif, A$24

Warrabilla stands on its own in Rutherglen terms. Full-throttle, high-alcohol reds are its raison d’être, but when it gets it right the wines defy the stereotype. This release is all black berries, tar and chocolate. It finishes warm but fruity and is a good example of the Warrabilla style.

2007 Cofield Minimal Footprint Organic Shiraz, A$28

How great it is to see an organic red being produced in such a traditional region like Rutherglen. It’s an elegant expression of a regional red, with flavours of plum, earth and tar. As a four-year-old it tastes fresh and juicy; with an unfettered feel in the mouth. It is well worth a shot.

2008 Scion Durif, A$49

Intense, elegant and lengthy. A lip-smackingly delicious, high-quality, regional hero of a red. It tastes of iodine, tar, roses and cedary French oak. There is nothing ungainly or overdone about this; it’s a wine of pure, oozing quality. A great addition to Rutherglen.

Morris Liqueur Tokay A$17/500ml

A sweet and malty and remarkably intense wine. Toffee and mocha-like flavour and that trademark raisiny lusciousness. It is one of the few ever-reliables of Australian wine.

- CAMPBELL MATTINSON
This article is from the August/September 2011 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.

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