Early winegrowing in Australia was very different to the exciting and vibrant industry we know today. Until the 1960’s the wine trade in the great southern land was dominated by the production of fortified wines, with great names like Penfolds
, Seppeltsfield and Morris producing sweet wines of high alcohol that rapidly fell out of favour as people were introduced to the lighter “table wines” that we know and love today. Thankfully there has been a resurgence of interest in some of these great old fortified wines of Australia, and with it a renewed intrigue to sample the incredible wines that originally inspired their inception.
As public knowledge of the wine world has increased, so too has their desire to experience and taste different wine styles, and there’s no doubting that although fortified wines can sometimes be some of the most challenging wines to appreciate, they are also without a shadow of a doubt some of the most remarkable wines produced anywhere in the world. The complexity of flavours and textures and their remarkable ageing capacity mean that it’s sometimes like looking back in time when tasting some of the great fortified wines of the world.
Fortified wines are often thought of as only being sweet, but some of the greatest fortified wines in the world are produced in a wonderfully frisky dry style. Some of the best known fortifieds hail from the south of Spain around the town of Jerez in Andalucía, the home of Sherry production (To be called Sherry, legally the wines must come from the delimited area around Jerez). Sherry can come in a range of guises and goes from being bone dry to lusciously sweet. The wines are aged using an ingenious method called the ‘Solera System’ (for those with a geeky wine disposition I encourage you to investigate further). When picking your sherry style, look out for a few key hints as to what you might be buying. ‘Fino’ and ‘Manzanilla’ are dry styles of Sherry that have been made to preserve their freshness and almost always have a lovely salty apple-like briny tang (Try Tio Pepe ‘Fino’ alongside some anchovies and you’ll be transported straight to the tapas bars of Andalucía!). Amontillado and Oloroso, which can both come as powerful nutty dry wines but are sometimes also produced in a sweeter style too. Find your preferred style and drink with gusto. Pedro Ximenez has become something of a house hold name and is the perfect way to round off a feast. Pour some over some simple, good quality vanilla ice cream and you’ll never look back (try Dandelion Vineyards ‘Legacy of the Barossa’ PX for a stunning example of an Australian take on an old world classic).
Like Sherry, the fortified wines of Portugal come with a vast range of faces. Most ports (and port-style wine, which Australia still does exceptionally well) fall into the sweet category with the style coming down to the ageing method. If the wines are aged in barrels for long periods they are generally referred to as ‘Tawny’ and tend to have lovely dried fruit flavours (think raisins, prunes, etc.) and are ready to drink on release. Vintage ports are like young red wines on steroids and traditionally tend to need a bit of bottle age before unleashing them onto the dinner table. They are hugely tannic, fruity and concentrated when young but unfurl into silky, perfumed wonders when mature (Taylors 1994 is in that very sweet spot right now and worth seeking out for a special occasion). The other feather in Portugal’s bonnet are the wines from the island of Madeira. This lush island is home to a dazzling array of wine styles, again ranging from bone dry all the way through to decadently sweet and are more than worth checking out.
All this brings us nicely home to Oz, where the tradition of producing fortified wines has been maintained by the new generation of winegrower. Perhaps the biggest and best kept jewel in Aussie winemaking are the stunning Muscats and Topaques of Rutherglen. These incredibly complex and decadent drops beguile the senses with richness and complexity but wonderful freshness to boot. Campbells produce a superb range of wines out of Rutherglen and their classic Muscat and Topaque are a great introduction to these treasures of the Australian wine scene.