"Rutherglen flies the colours of autumn like no other wine region in the country. It's there in the gem-like colours of its world-renowned and luscious fortified dessert wines, what the Oxford Companion to Wine calls Australia's "most distinctive" wine, Liqueur Muscat and Liqueur Tokay (now Topaque).

The rich and bright gold, moving through a reddish-orange tinge of russet, all the way to the deep olive mahogany tones of the classifications of classic, grand and rare muscats and topaque are echoed in the surrounding 20-odd vineyards in the season. And these aged, warming liqueurs are the perfect accompaniment to the traditional English sticky puddings that warm our winter nights.

Rutherglen winemakers celebrate autumn as the warm and much-extended season they call their Indian Summer, which allows for the extraordinary range of varieties grown in the region. Beyond its famous fortifieds, Rutherglen holds a reputation for fine table wines that dates to the 1860s and was revived in the second half of the 20th century.

Shiraz is the most important and high profile of the table wines – Campbells have been making their much-loved Bobbie Burns for 42 years and "always will", says Jane, daughter of the legendary Colin Campbell. Varieties such as grenache, malbec, sangiovese and tempranilla are more and more in evidence, with the lesser-known durif, pioneered in the 1950s by another Rutherglen legend, Mick Morris, in evidence everywhere.

Now young winemakers like Andrew Drumm at Stanton & Killeen and Jen Pfeiffer at Pfeiffer Wines are producing modern, mid-weight versions of the variety that are lifting its profile for present-day consumers.

Marsanne and roussane are among the best-handled whites on offer: Jones Winery and Campbells have delightful examples, and there are some excellent blended versions of both (Cofield Wines' among them). At Rutherglen Estates the Renaissance VRM adds viognier to the mix in a glorious blend from this label, which is owned now by Chinese interests. An excellent riesling tasted at All Saints suggests the variety does well here and there's good chardonnay at a number of cellar doors.

Many of the fourth, fifth and sixth-generation wineries of Rutherglen had their beginnings after the mid-19th century gold rush, and by the turn of the century the region was one of the country's biggest wine producers.
Superb old cellars

You can witness the wealth this era created in the superb old cellars and wineries that date from the period, in the simple and beautifully proportioned pitched-roof buildings of Morris (1859), Campbells (1870), Stanton & Killeen (1875) and Pfeiffers (1895). At All Saints, the faux castle built by Scottish engineer George Sutherland-Smith is a 4500-square-metre winery and cellar, the grounds of which include an immense elm-lined drive planted in about 1880. This grand estate is part-owned and run now by young descendants of the Browns of Milawa – Eliza, Angela and Nicholas.

These venerable old wineries also house magnificent 19th-century oak barrels made by a renowned cooper at nearby Barnawartha, which carry up to 5000 litres and are integral to the modified Solara system that produces those distinctive fortifieds of the region, muscat and topaque.

An unusual aspect of operations here is that most winemakers are mixed farmers, running sheep, beef or crops that have got them through the hard times, including the ravages of the post-phylloxia years, depression eras or when tastes changed or markets dried up.

This mixed-farming model and the establishment of the Rutherglen Viticulture Institute in the late 1890s helped the region overcome these trials in the first half of the 20th century and, by the 1970s, Rutherglen's inaugural wine festival was attracting thousands. Evidence of the many European varieties introduced by the institute can be found in the cinsault at Morris, the ancient gouais blanc at Chambers and the gamay at Pfeiffers.

Cellar door and wine club sales represent 70 to 90 per cent of sales now for these wineries, a stat that many boutique wineries elsewhere would die for. "The wine isn't relevant unless you visit the region," says Rowly Milhinch, of Scion Wines, one of the newer winemakers in the district.

His cool little corro cellar door, a multiple award winner that features a hell-bent awning over its front door, is where Milhinch is introducing young people to fortifieds. "Let's talk about food," is his opening gambit as he introduces classic varieties of the region he is handling in innovative ways.
Elegant shiraz

Another high-profile "newcomer" is Mandy Jones, who spent 14 years working in Bordeaux before returning to the farm her German forebears had bought in 1927, a feature of which is a 110-year-old dry land vineyard that produces her very elegant shiraz, the 2011 version of which she describes as a "light luncheon wine".

Mandy rounded off her Bordeaux stint with a Cordon Bleu course in Paris and the winery kitchen, run by Kate Akrap, serves up classic French bistro food to travel with wine from the marsanne, fiano, durif and malbec vines that Mandy and her brother Arthur have planted since 2003. Local produce featured includes Cornwall lambs from Cornishtown, cherries from Chiltern Valley and pork from Murray Valley.

At Cofield Wines, which dates from 1990, young Damien Cofield has made sparkling wine a specialty, and is also "making durif relevant to now". His cellar door is complemented by the Pickled Sisters Cafe, now a Rutherglen institution, where Damien's sparkling durif hit the spot with a very fine chicken liver pate with muscat.

The charm of this region lies in a striking heritage presence amid a lot of innovation from wineries old and new. Jancis Robinson has written that Rutherglen is Australia's answer to Oporto, and Stanton & Killeen's holding of Portuguese varieties, from which the late and celebrated Chris Killeen made prized vintage port, is now also responsible for a "complex, elegant and savoury" table red, The Prince.

It's that kind of reinvention that is bringing the crowds back to Rutherglen. The arrival from the late 1970s on of Victoria's newer wine regions ­ Heathcote, Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley­, with their closer proximity to Melbourne, ultimately put a dent in visitor numbers to this region but the winemakers of Rutherglen are turning that around.

And nobody's giving up on that crown jewel muscat. "Muscadelle [from which topaque is made] has to compete with such as madeira and botrytis-type wines," says Stephen Chambers, of the old Çhambers' Rosewood Winery, "whereas Rutherglen muscat has no competitor anywhere in the world. Our visitors go to the fortifieds first and the table wines are a surprise."


Pickled Sisters Cafe at Cofield Wines (see story).

Tuileries Restaurant, a stylish space, part of the historic Jolimont Cellars redevelopment, including accommodation. Options on the short, perfectly calibrated menu are nicely executed.

Jones Winey & Vineyard Cafe (see story).

Thousand Pound Wine Bar, a suave bar on Main Street, the inspired project of the Brown siblings of All Saints Estate.

Taste at Rutherglen on Main Street. Chef Gavin Swalwell sets out to show off local produce and pulls it off handsomely.

Lake Moodemere Vineyards for a lakeside lunch in Michael and Belinda Chalmers' restful old garden over an excellent tasting plate.

The Terrace Restaurant at All Saints. Chef Simon Arkless deserves his hat from The Age Good Food Guide. Fine dining from an accomplished master.

The writer was a guest of Winemakers of Rutherglen."

Marguerite Winter, The Australian Financial Review, 24 June 2015

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