This time of the year shows everything that’s great about living in North Queensland, 30ish degree days, clear skies and lower humidity. It does bring with it our cooler nights, well cooler for us anyway. One of the best things about that cool change is the ability to sit back at night with a glass of fortified, sitting back late at night with a cheese board and having a chinwag with a few mates.
The category of ‘fortified wine” includes Sherry, Port, Muscat, Tokay and Vermouth, with all of the wines originally being named after their region they hailed from. Over the last ten or so years the names we use here has been changing, much like we can no longer call our sparkling wine “Champagne”, as such Sherry is now known as Apera and Tokay as Topaque. Muscat kept its name because it’s actually the name of the grape used, and the name Port has been removed altogether to be replaced with Tawny. The wines are then classified either by region (Barossa, Rutherglenn etc) and/or with the categories of Classic, Grand or Rare.
Fortifieds are made by adding a spirit during fermentation of wine. The spirit kills off the yeast and stops the conversion of sugar to alcohol, which means the base still retains the fruit sweetness. Historically it was a means to preserve the shelf life of the wine. The winemaker chooses which spirit to add based on which will work best with the style of wine they want to make, be it a neutral spirit which imparts little flavour or brandy to create added complexity. After the fermentation is finished the wine is then aged in old barrels anywhere between a couple of years to 100 years.
The drops that most would be used to seeing on the shelves are Muscat, Tawny and Topaque, with first, and major, point of difference between them being the type of grape that is used to create the base wine. Australian Tawny is often made using a combination of Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedré, Touriga and Cabernet Sauvignon. We produce a style that is sweeter, richer and nuttier, with more rancio aged characters than its Portuguese counterparts. Our Muscats are made using the Muscat grape, in any of its many forms from Muscat a Petit Grains to Muscat Rouge etc. It will maintain sweeter and fruitier notes than Tawny, but with heavier raisin and chocolate notes of its European cousins.
Topaque however is actually made from the Muscadelle grape, which, despite the name is no relation to the Muscat grape. In terms of flavours though the wine is like a lighter, finer style of Muscat, with candied fruits, honey, toffee and often a strong cold tea character.
Like all wine, the serving temperature of a fortified will affect the flavour and structure of the wine when you drink it. When its cooler it will appear fresher, however it will reduce the amount of aromas that you can pick up from the glass. As the wine warms the aromatics will increase along with the sweet notes, however it will also highlight the alcohol which shows as heat in the mouth. I find that its best to try and have them at around 16 to 20 degrees, and although its common to see them served from small dessert glasses, a fortified will actually benefit from a larger glass to allow more of the aromatics to do their work, which enhances the flavours.
Australia has a very long and proud history of knocking out fortified wines. In fact it’s what our wine industry was originally built on. We have gone on to see our winemakers knock out some absolute world beaters, carrying some of the world’s oldest, still drinkable examples, with produces like Seppelt and Seppeltsfield, Orlando, and Grant Burge having access to some outstanding stocks. In fact you can still chase down a bottle of the 1881 Seppelt Tawny, available for those with a lazy $3750, Orlando recently released their 1974 Tawny that can be found with a bit of hunting around.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been sitting down to three shining examples of what can be done with great fruit and great wine making and great old stocks.
The McWilliams Show Reserve range are all barrel aged for up to 30 years and then blended back with stocks that are a minimum of 25 years old, with blending creating a consistent wine year in and year out. They’ve only been released in the last few years so they can be hard to find at the major bottleo’s, independents and online would be the go here. At around $80 for 500ml bottle they aren’t cheap, but will keep in the bottle for about ten to twelve months once opened. These are more the spoil yourself type of drop than sharing with mates, and with one eye firmly on the approaching Father’s Day, I think I might even start dropping a few hints.
McWilliams Show Reserve Rare Muscat – a deep brown tawny, its much like a citrusy fruit cake; think raisins, dried orange peel, some light dried prune characters, its sweet but still has plenty of cutting acid, its more elegant than intense. The ladies in our tastings have loved this, not sure they loved their morning the next day.
McWilliams Show Reserve Rare Tawny – a brownish amber colour in the glass, intense oak and toasted nut aromas. The palate shows those toasted nutty characters, with lashings of dark chocolate, raisins and dark Christmas cake. Superb long finish, with the sweetness of the fruit balanced by the structure of the tannins.
McWilliams Show Reserve Topaque – my favourite in the group, malts, toffee and oaky nutty nose, on the tongue its huge and mouth filling, light brown nutty spice notes, those malts, toffee and nuts come through with a light tea leaf note. Its long and superb on the finish, would be perfect with a massive cheeseboard.