The Rutherglen wine region is best known for its fortified wines. The unfortunate success of being famous for a declining wine category can be blamed upon government policy wine shows and contemporary critics. There is no question that Rutherglen’s rare muscats, ‘topaques’ and tawnies are world class, but there is a yawning gap between these exceptional fortifieds and the commercial table wines.
In theory, Rutherglen should have a much further advanced fine wine scene. From the 1870s until the 1920s, it attracted enormous investment. Australian Burgundy exports, admired for their ferruginous qualities and rich buoyant fruit, were booming.
All Saints, Fairfield, Mount Ophir, Mount Prior and Netherby were model wineries with the latest design and planning. Steam-driven machinery, new equipment and trellising formats saved labour costs. The construction of a railway line in 1873 enabled rapid movement of wine stocks to Melbourne. Even when phylloxera hit the region, there was sufficient technical knowledge to mitigate the disaster. Although by 1907 the original plantings in Rutherglen were all but destroyed, new vineyards planted on American rootstocks and laid out for modern viticulture allowed wineries to continue production.
Investors like Peter Bond Burgoyne believed the public preferred “the fuller bodied, generous Burgundies produced under the Australian sun over the thinner and colder wines of the Continent”.
Exports declined during World War I, however, the market expanded again after 1918. The Export Bounty Act of 1924, designed to give Australia a competitive advantage in the UK markets, saw many producers switch to fortified production. In 1925, wine production in Rutherglen returned to pre-phylloxera levels after 25 years of trial and error and new investment. By this time the region boasted more than 7,000 acres under vine, while Australia was exporting 750,000 gallons of Burgundy type wine to England. However, fortified wines were beginning to find favour with English consumers.
The Export Bounty Act was enacted partially because soldier settlement schemes had promoted a wine glut. It was also a reward to the Australian Government for its support of the war effort. A differential excise on doradillo was also introduced to encourage distillation of this overplanted grape variety. This also included a provision to ensure grape-growers were paid a fair price. But the reality was that the British public lost its respect for Australian wine. By the 1930s, Australian wines were seen by many as cheap and of indifferent quality.
Although fortified wines from Rutherglen were treated as benchmarks by Australian wine judges, the region’s table wines were not given much interest especially when cool-climate Victorian wines became fashionable.
Snobbery, lack of investment and cheap air travel saw Rutherglen becoming a viticultural backwater. Fortunately, a new generation of vignerons are beginning to harness history and investing in the region once again.
Peter Brown, who died in a motorcycle crash in 2015 aged 60, had visions of reinvigorating the spectacular All Saints winery at Wahgunyah, Victoria. His children have carried on his dreams with increasing success and All Saints is a wonderful place to visit with a wide range of table and fortified wines to taste.
The design of the castle and winery included the latest principles of winemaking and technology. The machinery was all steam-driven and the barrel cellar, known as the Great Hall, comprised hundreds of oak foudres, coopered by the locally renowned cooper Peter O’Sullivan at nearby Barnawartha.
Much of this legacy survives including the National Trust-listed Chinese Dormitory. An 1883 mabille-design ratcheting basket press and open top fermenters – all still in use – highlight tried and tested winemaking techniques.
Recently the Brown siblings acquired the derelict Mount Ophir winery and the remnant 20 hectares of land.
At the height of its operation, it had 700 acres (283 hectares) of surrounding vineyards but the property was subdivided and returned to mixed farming during the 1950s. In 2019 Nick Brown made a Mount Ophir Shiraz from a small 1990-planted 0.5 hectare vineyard near the winery. It was released in 2021 at A$500 a bottle.
The Brown siblings now own the historic All Saints, St Leonards Vineyard and Mount Ophir. Out of acorns great oak trees must grow.