Winter in the 150-year-old-plus wine region of Rutherglen is a bustling affair. While most of Australia’s major wine regions hold their biggest events in spring or summer, the Rutherglen Winery Walkabout (winerywalkabout.com.au), which sees the town’s population more than double, happens in June just as the mercury is starting to plummet.
And the temperature’s not the only thing falling, as the vines are just starting to drop all their leaves and go dormant for the winter. Of course, vineyards are beautiful to look at in any season – the budburst of spring, the abundance of verdant leaves in summer and the orange, bronze and rust-coloured leaves of autumn – but there’s something about a wine region in winter that makes it worth the trip. The crisp air, pale blue skies and the bare vines, their skeletons exposed giving an insight into the efforts winemakers go through to train them – oh, and for the social media obsessed the washed-out colours of the landscape work wonders for an Instagram feed (no filter required).
Then there’s the wines, another top-of-the-list reason to visit this region in winter. The kind of drops that you’d happily sip by a big fire pit on a bewitching, chilly, star-filled night (and there’s plenty of those in Rutherglen). The reds are focused on big varieties like shiraz and Durif, with styles ranging from 13.5% to gigantic 16.5% alcohol. The whites are usually single varietal wines or delicious blends of the Rhône grapes marsanne, roussanne and viognier. The big surprises on my visit, though, were the alternative varieties.
Rutherglen is internationally acclaimed for its fortifieds, and visiting the region is one of the rare opportunities you’ll have to do what’s called a classification tasting. It takes a bit of explaining to understand what that means. There are three main fortified styles produced in the region – tawny, Topaque and muscat. Tawny is the most basic, a port-style fortified aged to the point of turning brown, usually made from Portuguese varieties; ages vary.
Topaque is a name that was adopted after the use of tokay was outlawed by an agreement with the European Union (the Hungarians didn’t like the name of their famous sweet wine being appropriated). Producers have until 2020 to make the switch with some choosing to call the wine Muscadelle, after the grape variety that the wine is made from, and others using Topaque – it remains to be seen whether this has had any effect at all.
Finally, muscat. It’s made from what the locals call the brown muscat grape (see Max Allen’s highly informative piece on this grape on page 38). In 1995, Rutherglen producers came together to create the Rutherglen Muscat Classification. Four categories were established to create uniformity across the region and dispel any confusion around the differing styles. They are Rutherglen Muscat, with an average age of three to five years; Classic Rutherglen Muscat, average age six to 10 years; Grand Rutherglen Muscat, average age 11 to 19 years; and Rare Rutherglen Muscat, average age 20-plus years. Topaques/Muscadelles can also come in these categorised styles. A classification tasting includes going through all four categories of muscat and/or Topaque/Muscadelle.
The region has a rich history and it’s on full display throughout the wineries and in town. Pay a visit to the Rutherglen Wine Experience and Visitor Information Centre for details on a heritage walk, or further information about the wineries in the region. Heritage listed buildings have been expertly integrated into the inner city-style main street, aptly named Main Street.
Normally the domain of the grey nomad – many wineries have motorhome parking and can supply wine in flat boxes for easier storage – Rutherglen is seeing more and more millennials making the trip up from Melbourne. You’ll be aiming to get to about four or five wineries per day on this trip, and almost all of the cellar doors have some form of tasting platter if you’re stuffed for time and can’t make it to one of the many eateries.
There are two main ways to get to Rutherglen. The first is to fly into Albury Airport (flyalbury.com.au) – an hour and 20 minute flight from Sydney or an hour flight from Melbourne. The airport is serviced by three major airlines: Virgin Australia, Qantas and Regional Express. Between the three of them they make up to 11 trips per day during the week for the Sydney to Albury flight, and nine per day on the weekends. Only Regional Express flies the Melbourne route around two to three times per day.
Renting a car at the airport is easy and affordable. You’re looking at between $100 and $200 for a car, depending on size, for the three days covered in this trip. Alternatively you can get a taxi from Albury to Rutherglen or use one of the many winery tour companies that service the region – check the best ones out at the Explore Rutherglen website (explorerutherglen.com.au).
The second way, mainly for Melburnians, is to drive. It’s not as long a trip as you’d expect, only a three-hour drive up the Hume Highway, and a very scenic one at that. The drive from Sydney on the other hand is six hours, but as someone who regularly drives for that long up the NSW coast, I think it’s entirely doable.
I flew in, so this itinerary is designed around driving in from Albury to the east of Rutherglen. If you’re driving from Melbourne, you’ll be attacking the trip from the south, so flip the itinerary and do day three first and day one last. That being said, almost all of the 20 or so cellar doors in the Rutherglen wine region are within a 15-minute drive of the town centre, so you could head to any winery in this itinerary on whatever day you like and it wouldn’t put you out too much. Most of the wineries in the region are open seven days, but some are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so check opening hours beforehand if you’re visiting on these days.
You’re in close proximity to a number of other wine regions that make up Victoria’s High Country, including Beechworth, King Valley and Alpine Valleys, so if you’ve got the time, make a holiday of it. Head to winecraft.com and have a play around with the itinerary building tool to see what suits you best.
Rutherglen is absolutely killing it in the accommodation stakes, helped in no small part by the Brown family of All Saints Estate and St Leonards Vineyard. In May 2016, siblings Eliza, Angela and Nick Brown and their families purchased Mount Ophir Estate (mountophirestate.com.au), 10 minutes from the town centre. At the time it was in desperate need of repairs — there may have been emu or ostrich eggs incubating in the old stone vats.
The newly refurbished estate contains six different accommodation offerings that are all self-contained, including The Residence, an original homestead that sleeps 10 people ($450 per night); The Pickers Cottage, which sleeps 20 people ($1,050 per night); and The Tower ($550 per night), which should be any couple’s first choice if staying in the region, provided that you’re both quite able-bodied – the stairs are a killer.
The Tower is three levels of pure opulence, as evidenced by the marble brick bench in the shower on the top floor; sit down and take in the view. It’s easily one of the most unique places to stay in any Australian wine region at the moment. All of these accommodation options sit alongside six halls that can fit between 60 and 450 people, meaning weddings of practically any size can be hosted on the grounds, and the bridal parties can stay within walking distance of the ceremony and reception.
Another family in the region doing great things is the Chambers of Lake Moodemere Estate. They’ve refurbished a lakeside cottage that has a stunning view of their vineyards – accommodation packages start from $320 per night. The most basic package includes a full breakfast delivered to the Lake House (moodemerewines.com.au/stay), or breakfast in the Lakeside Restaurant, and access to two quality mountain bikes so you can Sip & Cycle through 25 kilometres of wilderness with stops at key wineries along the way.
There is also well-priced accommodation at Rutherglen Estates’ Tuileries (tuileriesrutherglen.com.au) in the town centre and at Cofield Wines (cofieldwines.com.au), which offers a very special glamping experience.
Driving from Albury Airport into the Rutherglen wine region along the Murray Valley Highway means that your first stop has to be Morris Wines (morriswines.com), just take a right at Mia Mia Road. This is one of Australia’s premier fortified wine producers, and fifth-generation David Morris is one of the country’s most awarded winemakers with 223 medals under his belt. In 2016 Morris Wines was bought by the Casella family (Peter Lehmann; Brands Laira; Yellow Tail), with David Morris staying on as Chief Winemaker. It was a welcome investment into the region, and all the old stock of fortified remains in the winery (it was only a day away from being auctioned off to other producers). There are many very special wines available to taste, judged as some of the best fortifieds in the country, in a gorgeous atrium-style cellar door. Tee up a winery tour to see the famous giant old casks in the dirt floor barrel room.
From here, head back to the Murray Valley Highway and continue on into Rutherglen. You’ll start to see a giant wine bottle take shape on the hill ahead of you. Take a left at Jones Road and you’ll get to Jones Winery (joneswinery.com.au). Here you’ll almost definitely meet winemaker Mandy Jones or her viticulturist brother Arthur pouring a solid selection of wines to taste through. You may be ready for some lunch and here is the perfect place for it. Not only is Mandy a winemaker, but she’s also a chef, having trained at the famed Cordon Bleu School, and she’s brought in a fantastic head chef, Briony Bradford who serves up great French bistro food in a comfortable and relaxed environment. Try the Sensory Delight food and wine pairing if it’s available, it’s a must at only $15 a head.
The next stop is only down the road. Anderson Winery (andersonwinery.com.au) is a quaint multi-shed operation – the bright white buildings a stark contrast to a clear blue day. There is a lot to taste here and father and daughter team Howard and Christobel Anderson are happy to help. The most intriguing wine on offer is the saperavi. The Andersons planted this Georgian variety back in 2007 and in 2017 released the first vintage, 2015.
Now’s the perfect time to head to your accommodation if you’re staying at Mount Ophir; it’s only a five-minute drive down the road from Anderson, and check-in is usually after 2pm. After you’re finished playing Rapunzel in your tower, it’s time to let down your hair, figuratively speaking, provided you have a designated driver. Make your way to Scion (scionvineyard.com). Here, Rowly Milhinch makes small batch wines that he describes as “creative and modern interpretations of traditional Rutherglen varietals”. Think Durif blended with a bit of viognier or muscat made in a white, dry style. The cellar door is personable and Milhinch is an absolute hoot.
Dinner is probably in order right about now, and there are so many options on Main Street. Thousand Pound (thousandpound.com.au) is a small wine bar also owned by the Brown family. Try the mushroom and taleggio croquettes, but be warned: they are dangerously addictive. Other must-try dining options that can be visited on night two include Tuileries Restaurant or Taste@Rutherglen (taste-at-rutherglen.com). Head back home for a relaxing night in your tower.
Today it’s off to the wineries in the north-west of Rutherglen. There’s breakfast in The Tower fridge at Mount Ophir, or you can stop at a cafe on Main Street like Zest Studio (facebook.com/zeststudio1) – to-die-for croissants – or Rutherglen Provedore (facebook.com/rglenfoodwine), a recent addition to town which serves excellent coffee and has a great selection of smallgoods.
St Leonards and All Saints Estate are two of the premier cellar door locations in the region. To get to the main tasting room at St Leonards (stleonardswine.com.au) you have to pass through the winery, which is a walk through history — old basket presses and stone vats line the way. The perfectly manicured, lush green lawn out the back of the cellar door overlooks a gently sloping vineyard that runs down to the river. It’s a great spot to relax and unwind, and there’s usually some chill music playing to help you do just that. There’s a cafe on-site and on the first Saturday of every month there’s live music. You could stay here all day, particularly if CEO Eliza Brown is about, her personality is infectious and her booming laugh a joy to be around. But alas, the Brown’s other winery All Saints Estate beckons just down the road.
You could be forgiven for thinking you’re not in Australia any more when you drive down the long, tree-lined driveway of All Saints Estate (allsaintswine.com.au) and pull up to a red brick castle. No, seriously. There is a castle... in Rutherglen... with turrets and all. Built in 1864, it houses the winery and cellar door, with the Terrace Restaurant attached to the side – the perfect place for lunch after you’ve tasted through All Saints’ extensive range (don’t skip the Family Cellar label).
Head south now to Pfeiffer Wines (pfeifferwinesrutherglen.com.au) where father and daughter team Chris and Jen Pfeiffer are producing some very distinct wines, particularly the aperas under the Seriously label, and the only gamay in the region. Come for the wines, stay for the beautiful view from the 100-year-old Sunday Creek Bridge, with the chance to spot platypus and terrapins. Book a picnic hamper in advance and relax for a bit. It’s only a five-minute drive to your next destination.
At Andrew Buller Wines (andrewbullerwines.com.au), Andrew and Wendy Buller serve up some of the warmest hospitality in the region out of their beautiful Cannobie Homestead, and Wendy makes the best coffee in Rutherglen, too. She bought an industrial coffee machine especially for Winery Walkabout and has mastered it. The surprise here was the cleanskin wine, a delicious and affordable red field blend – Wendy and Andrew are very modest when it comes to what they have on offer. So engaging was the couple’s company, I was a whole hour late for my next appointment. Don’t leave without trying one of Wendy’s gougeres.
Remember that classification tasting I was talking about? Stanton and Killeen (stantonandkilleenwines.com.au) is the place to do it (there is a tasting fee for the Grand and Rare styles). That’s if you can tear yourself away from the alternative varieties that are on offer. Portuguese varieties were understandably planted in the region decades ago to make port. How come it took this long for someone to make varietal wines from them? The alvarinho, arinto, and red blend are very special.
The final stop for day two is conveniently on the way back to your tower. On Main Street is where you’ll find James & Co., GT WINE’s Star Cellar Door for Rutherglen. Winemaker Ricky James doesn’t make any Rutherglen wine at the moment, all the grapes are from Beechworth, but that’s what makes it worth a stop, particularly if Rutherglen is the only region you’ll be visiting on your trip. He’s doing some very cool stuff with sangiovese. Ricky’s wife Georgie is a stellar photographer and she makes a mean G&T. She will also ply you with a delicious selection of cheeses.
On your final day you’ll be exploring west of Rutherglen. You’ll have to check out of your accommodation before hitting the wineries. After breakfast, head over to Rutherglen Estates (rutherglenestates.com.au). The De Bortoli family purchased the winery in late 2018, but GT WINE Winemaker of the Year finalist Marc Scalzo remains as winemaker, his VRM (viognier, marsanne, roussanne) blend will set your tongue wagging. The original home of Seppelts Wines for over 100 years, the cellar door at Rutherglen Estates is a cultural immersion like no other in the region – pop into the Aboriginal Exhibitions Gallery.
Campbells of Rutherglen (campbellswines.com.au) is your next stop. Situated on stunning grounds, the Campbell family has been making wine here since 1870. Until recently, Campbells was run by fourth-generation brothers Malcolm (in the vineyards) and Colin (in the winery), but in May 2019 Colin passed away after a short battle with cancer – he was an inspirational leader and legend in the Australian wine industry, and was presented with a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2018. Fifth-generation Julie is now the winemaker, alongside sisters Susie doing the marketing and Jane the sales. The cellar door is a standout in Rutherglen for its tasting experiences. The bench is long and accommodates tutored tastings, or there’s a private room.
Now it’s on to Lake Moodemere Estate (moodemerewines.com.au), where the Chambers family also farm lamb. There is a lot to do here, with a lamb and wine pairing masterclass, the Lakeside Restaurant, a complimentary self-guided cycling tour and the Moodemere Hole in One, a golf green floating on the lake – get a hole in one and win some wine! You can have lunch here if you’re a bit peckish, or head down to Buller Wines (bullerwines.com.au) for a delectable feast at Ripe@Buller. The winery is no longer in the hands of the Buller family, but has been steaming along thanks to fifth-generation locals, the Judds.
Your final stop in Rutherglen is at Warrabilla Wines (warrabillawines.com.au). Run by another father and daughter winemaking team, you get the sense that family means everything down in this cosy little wine region. Andrew and Amy Smith craft some of the biggest reds in Rutherglen, with the Single Vineyard Shiraz getting to a whopping 16.5% alcohol, but everything is in balance. Ask to try the Reserve Riesling, it’s a surprise for sure. Andrew, or Smithy as the locals call him, has a personality that’s bigger than his wines and is great for a yarn.
The sense of community and the hospitality on show in Rutherglen really is second to none. A wine region full of character, and characters, that is an absolute must visit. There is so much more to explore here, so if you have the time definitely stay for longer than three days.
2017 All Saints Estate Family Cellar Marsanne, A$38
Delicious nutty, apricoty, buttery aromas with peaches and cream flavours. It’s super textural and needs food.
2015 Anderson Verrier Saperavi, A$21
The must-try wine at Anderson, if only to say you’ve had a saperavi. Gold at the Saperavi World Prize Awards. Super aromatic with bramble fruits, herbs and serious fruit concentration. Gorgeously spiced palate with some interesting earthy, root vegetable notes.
2016 Campbells Bobbie Burns Shiraz, A$23
A wine club favourite it seems. Smoky, black-fruited, restrained aromas. It’s peppery and spiced on the palate with a good kick of acidity.
2017 James & Co Sangiovese, A$32
I know, not Rutherglen, but Beechworth. Still worth picking a bottle up. It’s full of juicy cherry fruits with fine tannins.
NV Morris Wines Old Premium Rare Liqueur Topaque, A$65
You can’t leave Rutherglen without a fortified. A great expression of what the region does with muscadelle. Intense concentration with Christmas cake and black tea aromas underpinned by a roasted nuttiness. Dark chocolate, coffee and buttered toast just a few of the flavours. Too many to list here. Incredible.
2018 Pfeiffer Gamay, A$18
The only gamay producer in Rutherglen, Chris Pfeiffer has been making this wine for more than three decades. Gorgeous bright red berry fruits and cherry aromas, with sour cherry and strawberry flavours all wrapped up in a fantastic structure of soft, fine tannins
2016 Rutherglen Estates Renaissance VRM, A$32
This is one of the wines that scored Marc Scalzo a GT WINE 2016 Winemaker of the Year nomination. It’s a Rhône-style white, the varieties being viognier, roussanne and marsanne. Ripe apricot and peach aromas and flavours. Textural and mouth-filling and perfect for food.
2015 Scion Durif, A$38
You also can’t leave Rutherglen without a Durif, and this is my pick. Very different to the others in the region, it’s a much fresher expression with fine-grained tannins. Plum and dark-berried fruits.
2018 Stanton & Killeen Alvarinho, A$30
The first release of this wine, it’s albariño with its Portuguese name. Stone fruits and lemon zest on the nose, it has an intriguing dose of orange oil on the palate. It’s light bodied and refreshing.
2017 Stanton & Killeen The Prince Reserva, A$50
A blend of Portuguese red varieties. Perfumed aromas of blackcurrant and violet. It’s light-to-medium bodied with a savoury palate of tomato leaf backed up by chalky tannins.
2018 St Leonards Vineyard Rosé, A$28
Cab franc and sauvignon-based rosé with rose petal and light cherry aromas and flavours. Pleasant, mouth-watering acidity.
2017 Warrabilla Reserve Riesling, A$19
Outside of making the biggest reds in the region, Andrew and Amy Smith also deliver this crisp and dry riesling. It’s highly refreshing with chalk and talcum powder aromas woven through white flowers. Citrus zing and green apple flavours.