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Directly north of Beechworth and touching the border of New South Wales, sits Rutherglen. Famed for its fortified wines, Rutherglen was another gold rush era success story, until the dreaded phylloxera swept through the state. Luckily, through hard work and perseverance the Rutherglen region survived, and is now home to some fourth and fifth-generation winemaking families who passionately fly the Rutherglen flag.
Thanks to the efforts of the early vignerons, Rutherglen has become one of the best regions for fortified wines in Australia, with their Muscat and Muscadelle wines (also called Topaque) gaining world renown.
Like many of the other regions located in northeast Victoria, Rutherglen enjoys a continental climate with warm, sunny days and cooler nights. But where the other northeast regions are heavily influenced by altitude providing a cooling influence, Rutherglen sits much lower - around 170m above sea level - which results in warmer temperatures and a warm, dry autumn. This warmer climate allows the grapes to ripen fully and achieve the sugar levels and must weights required for fortifying.
The cooling influence of the air flowing down from the alps gives the vines a break from the heat of the day overnight, and helps to retain acidity - another important factor in making quality fortified wines.
The soils throughout the region are predominantly alluvial in nature thanks to Rutherglen's proximity to the Murray River. In the more southerly parts of the region, the soils tend to range from red to black loams with quartz deposits scattered throughout. Closer to the river, the soils are more sand-based. Their naturally low fertility helps to control vigour, and concentrate the fruit, which goes to producing top-quality fortifieds.
The most widely planted varieties in Rutherglen are Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains, and Muscadelle, which is also known as Tokay or Topaque. Through a unique and oxidative barrel ageing process, these grapes are converted into some of the best fortified wines in Australia abundant with flavours of caramel, toffee, molasses, sweet spice, black tea and nutty wood. These two varieties alone make up over half of Rutherglen's annual production.
But it's not just sweet and fortified wines that are produced here. Rutherglen is also home to an array of alternate varieties, many of them Portuguese in origin. Grapes such as Tannat, Souzao, Touriga, Durif and Tinta Roriz. Many of these varieties were originally planted as Port varieties, but as markets and tastes have changed, many producers are now vinifying these grapes as single variety, still wines to great success. Durif, in particular, produces rich and robust, full-bodied reds, whilst grapes such as Touriga and Souzao work both as single variety wines, or in blends.
Rutherglen also produces excellent Shiraz, with the long, warm growing season building in layers of richness and complexity, resulting in full-bodied, and robust wines.