Fortified wines have a bit of an image problem. They are seen by many as old fashioned, a relic of earlier times. They are also at odds with a distinct curve away from high alcohol drinks, with table wine being made at more modest weights. But fortified wine is nonetheless experiencing a renaissance. The 2021 Young Gun Top 50 features Dave Verheul (Saison), a wavemaker in the burgeoning market for craft vermouth, and Tash Arthur (Arthur Wines), who is giving liqueur muscat and tawny a much-needed facelift, while also fashioning some brighter and more approachable styles. Both makers are helping to lead the charge for reimagining fortified wines. (Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.)
The Australian wine industry rode on the back of fortified wine for decades, with table wines largely shunned until the tide started to noticeably turn in the mid-20th century. Prior, production was geared to making robust wine that could be bolstered with alcohol to make simulations of the great fortified wines of Europe. They were more durable, suffering less with the simple winemaking equipment and lack of electricity. And they became extremely successful.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that technology made the production of clean and pure wines a reliable proposition. Great table wines were certainly being made earlier, but spoilage was more common, and temperature control and the like started to shape some of the wine styles we know today. This revolution helped to flip the script, along with tastes changing across generations, with fortified wines losing ground in the second half of the 20th century.
From a peak of 86 per cent of the Australian wine production in 1950, fortified wines now make up less than two per cent of the wine industry. But while the glory days have long since faded, significant vestiges of that great industry remain.
Rare Rutherglen Muscat and Rare Topaque (formerly Tokay, made from the muscadelle grape) are some of the greatest and most unique wines of the world, being blends of variously aged barrels, from decidedly ancient and treacle-like to those more youthful but still complex and lusciously sweet. Tawny (previously called Tawny Port) styles are equally revered – perhaps exemplified by Seppeltsfield’s 100-year-old Barossa Valley ‘Para’ bottlings – while makers of ‘Apera’ (Sherry) styles traverse the range from nutty, saline and dry (like Fino or Manzanilla) to lusciously sweet wines, tasting of dates and dried figs (like the great ‘PX’ Sherries of Spain).
“Making fortified wines well is like possessing the art and skill of a lost trade, such as being a blacksmith or a stonemason – there aren’t many of us left, but the ones who know how to do it, do it well! When winemakers come to me with questions, I want to be able to help guide them to try making these wines, keeping their relevance in the market in Australia.”
While the iconic names like Seppeltsfield, Morris, Chambers, Pfeiffer and Campbells continue the good work, there are new makers that are starting to make a big impression. “Sadly, fortified wines do suffer from a bad reputation,” says Tash Arthur of Arthur Wines. “By adding a little funk to our branding, giving consumers new ways of enjoying these wines and advocating for these wine styles we are trying to create a little reputation rehab and put them back in fashion.”
Arthur has worked both in Portugal and Rutherglen, two fortified meccas, but she eventually settled in Rosa Glen, Margaret River, running sheep and cattle with her husband, as well as making wine. It’s not traditional fortified territory, but Arthur believes it gives their wines a point of difference.
“Currently all our wines are made with fruit sourced from Margaret River, and this is driving our house style,” she says. “It’s particularly evident in our muscat, as we don’t get the fruit as ripe as somewhere like Rutherglen or the Swan Valley, so we end up with quite an elegant flavour profile. We do sacrifice the overall sugar level for flavour, but I think that gives us our unique style, with the wines designed to be super approachable.”
Simon Killeen (YGOW Awards finalist in 2015, 2016 & 2019) is a seventh-generation winemaker, with his father and grandfather responsible for shaping some of the most legendary fortified wines ever made in this country. While much of Killeen’s production for his Simão & Co. label are table wines, with fruit sourced from across North-East Victoria, he also makes fortified wines, continuing a great family tradition, employing multi-generational skills and those learnt in Portugal.
“I make fortified because I’m a Rutherglen lad and fucking love them,” says Killeen. “I think they are the coolest and most complex wines to make. Making fortified wines well is like possessing the art and skill of a lost trade, such as being a blacksmith or a stonemason – there aren’t many of us left, but the ones who know how to do it, do it well! When winemakers come to me with questions, I want to be able to help guide them to try making these wines, keeping their relevance in the market in Australia.”
“For me, making them well is paramount, but giving people options in how to consume them is even more important, rather than feeling like the naughty treats they snuck out of their grandparents’ cupboards or decanters.”
Killeen notes that his wines are also somewhat individual, generally favouring a drier style, as well as keeping more fruit brightness. He also actively promotes mixing some of them over ice, removing a little of the baggage of their reputation and opening them to new consumers, such as with his ‘Branca’ white port style. “For me, making them well is paramount, but giving people options in how to consume them is even more important, rather than feeling like the naughty treats they snuck out of their grandparents’ cupboards or decanters.”
On the Mornington Peninsula, Crittenden Estate make a fortified unique in this country, which evolved out of an accident that turned out to be a happy one. Finding themselves with a block of savagnin vines, which had originally been thought to be albariño (a problem that affected all growers of the grape at the time), their direction shifted from an Iberian focus to one that referenced the wines of France’s Jura region, savagnin’s home territory.
“When we learnt we had savagnin in our vineyard, not albariño, we started to investigate and ultimately play around with flor use in our production processes,” says winemaker Rollo Crittenden (the 2010 Young Gun of Wine). “I became so interested in flor-aged wines that in 2014 I visited the Jura region. While there, I started to notice occasional references to Macvin on wine lists and in literature and decided to taste all that I could find.”
In addition to a flor-raised wine, ‘Cri de Coeur’, Crittenden now makes his own take on Macvin, which is traditionally grape juice fortified with spirit, then aged in oak, but Crittenden’s version also employs a decent swig of their ‘Cri de Coeur’.
“We have just assembled our third attempt of the style,” he says, “which is ultimately savagnin aged for four years under flor, combined with freshly pressed savagnin grape juice, blended in equal parts, then fortified to 17% alcohol to prevent further fermentation. I really enjoy the rich, mouth-filling flor characters combined with the sweetness of the grape juice.”
In Melbourne, Dave Verheul, chef and co-owner of Embla and Lesa, started making vermouth for his restaurants, but the enforced lockdown of 2020 saw that project take a different direction, with commercial production – albeit frugal – for his Saison label commencing with two vermouths: ‘Fallen Quinces’ and ‘Summer Flowers’.
“I really wanted Saison to sit apart from what else was out there in the market, especially from those vermouths produced in Europe,” says Verheul. “I intentionally don’t use any spices or caramelised sugar, and I try to focus on one distinct flavour with a few supporting ingredients to give depth and interest. I want them to be fresh enough to sit alongside food in a meal setting, as well as before and after, like they traditionally have been.”
“In Australia, I think we have the cultural freedom to look at an old category like vermouth with a fresh set of eyes. We don’t have generations-old societal rules to guide how we are making it, and that is producing some unique and exciting new-style vermouths that I think will push the category into the future.”
Verheul leans on his chef sensibilities when shaping his wines – vermouth being aromatised wine, fortified with spirit, bittered with wormwood and flavoured with herbs, spices, roots, barks, flowers etc. – as well as his tools of the trade, which extends to burning quinces in the 500-degree wood-burning oven at Embla, which layers in another type of bitterness when infused into the wine. The foundation of vermouth is there, but the process and the results are utterly new and individual.
It’s fair to say that Verheul wasn’t operating in a vacuum, with the Australian craft vermouth movement in good shape, even if the actual production volume is still very small. Established in 2012, Maidenii is perhaps the most recognised of those makers, with Shaun Byrne and winemaker Gilles Lapalus using a raft of botanicals, many of them native, including, riberry, quandong, strawberry gum, desert lime and muntries. That philosophy is similar to Regal Rogue’s, which slightly predates Maidenii, though their vermouths are strikingly different. Sacha La Forgia’s Adelaide Hills Distillery (2019 YGOW Awards Finalist) also uses indigenous ingredients, but his vermouths pair them with a bespoke spice mix from Torino, Italy, the spiritual home of vermouth.
“In Australia, I think we have the cultural freedom to look at an old category like vermouth with a fresh set of eyes,” says Verheul. “We don’t have generations-old societal rules to guide how we are making it, and that is producing some unique and exciting new-style vermouths that I think will push the category into the future.”
In Rosa Glen, Arthur takes a more classic approach. “We’re not stepping out of the box with our winemaking techniques,” she says. “We use a combination of old and new methods. But we are trying to give these wines an image makeover and reinstate their reputation. It has been challenging initially, as fortifieds are a patience game so in the beginning there is a lot of waiting for the wines to mature.”
Though her wine stock now has the maturity to release a barrel-aged muscat and tawny in the market, Arthur launched her label with styles based on vibrantly fresh wines fortified with brandy spirit to a modest 18% alcohol, stopping the ferment to leave a balancing dose of sugar. The ‘Slipper’ series has a white, rosé and red version, decked out in retro-styled cartoon-like labels. As Arthur says, the packaging shakes up the fortified script, but the wines are a breath of fresh air, too, made to splash over ice, be mixed or to stain and flavour sparkling wine. And the reception has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Consumers are often curious, and the branding does help spark their interest,” says Arthur. “Overall, we have been received really well and have a loyal following. It’s great to see there is so much interest in what we do. I also have a few fortified styles I am itching to make… I’m thinking a vermouth, dry Apera and maybe tackling some super-sweet verdelho. I think every year we get a little better and a little bolder with our direction and it’s great to see other wineries, especially in Margaret River, now making fortified wines.”
Verheul has seen a similarly enthusiastic consumer reaction. “The response has been so much more positive than I could have imagined at the start of this journey,” he says. “I settled with the realisation that if it didn’t sell at all, then I would be okay with drinking it all myself!” That success, allied with Verheul’s creative instincts will see the boundaries pushed ever further.
“I will keep one or two of the flavours as mainstays and potentially have a few floating short runs throughout the year to keep things interesting,” he says. “The beauty of them being seasonal is that each year they will vary slightly; they’ll refine and evolve and grow. I have our new season ‘Fallen Quinces’ out soon, and then a new vermouth based around black walnuts, malted barley koji, cumquat and chamomile that will be out sometime during the depths of winter.”
This is built around a base of moscato wine, with elderflowers, dried jasmine, osmanthus flower and rhubarb root contributing to the aromatic and floral lift, with several other flowers, including chamomile, adding their own subtle character. Peaches and apricots fill out those flavours, adding plump to the palate, with gentle but apparent bitterness, with a wormwood not reminiscent of white pepper, giving this a pleasing tension, cleaning up but not wiping out the gentle sweetness.
While this is built around the central flavour of fresh blackcurrant leaves, unripe fig, ginger and dried white grapefruit are also used as complementary ingredients. This is lifted and aromatic, though not overly pungent, instead it has a layered and haunting perfume, hinging on that blackcurrant note that never trips into confection, while still having a suggestion of fruit pastille. The bitterness is gentle, marshalling with the alcohol to give this direction and line through the palate, a lingering citrus note carrying across the finish.
Unsurprisingly, this is pink in colour, made from shiraz grapes that are pressed off, retaining a light blush of colour in the juice. Flavours play in the berry spectrum, with strawberries, cranberries and a suggestion of raspberry, with musk and cinnamon, along with grapey spirit notes. The sweetness here is gentle, evening out the alcohol. This would be best over ice, as is.
This is almost impenetrably dark in appearance, allied with dark fruit notes, leather, tar and cherry cola, spices, like star anise and cassia, with a hint of soy and brandy-soaked raisins. This walks a little down a port line with those flavours, but it’s vibrantly fresh, too, with pure fruit flavours, a touch of vanilla bean and chocolate.
Pinot noir is now a leading variety in many cooler Australian regions, and with increased vine age, better clones, a lot of new vineyards, better winemaking and understanding of sites, today’s makers are turning out expressions that square up with the best in the world.
In this third instalment of a seven-part series produced in collaboration with Vintage Cellars – 70 years of supporting wine in Australia – we look at Australian wine in the 1960s, at the influence of technology, the birth of iconic styles and the personalities that shaped that most pivotal decade.