The art of making fortified wine has not been lost.
When Rick Burge’s grandfather Percival morphed from Barossa Valley grapegrower to winemaker in 1928, the Australian wine industry was heavily devoted to fortified rather than table wine production. Local tastes leaned heavily towards strength and sweetness, and it was a style the all-important English export market lapped up, too.
Today, with the boot of wine fashion very much on the other foot, Australia’s natural affinity for creating Muscat, Tokay and the wine styles formerly known as Port is very much a minority concern.
But as wines such as the Burge Family Winemakers’ Wilsford Old Liqueur Muscat underline, the art has not been lost. The wine, which came ninth in the Hot 100 Wines, is branded in tribute to the fortified past – the Burge winery at Lyndoch was known as Wilsford up until the 1980s.
Percival Burge put in six underground concrete tanks to hold his wine and bought a range of old oak barrels to age his fortifieds. When the export trade to the UK dwindled with the end of the Imperial Preference subsidy scheme, he headed out to spruik them all around the state, with considerable success.
Rick Burge’s father Noel was the second graduate of a new Roseworthy-based Diploma of Oenology course in 1938, and following 12 years’ experience at the Berri Grower’s Co-operative returned to Lyndoch to take charge in 1950. He continued to make fortifieds with the aid of new technology, including a pH meter that still lives at the winery.
“Dad was a big proponent of adjusting pH, not only for stability of the fortified, but for better fruit definition, brightness and flavour,” Burge says. “High-pH wines – both table wines and fortifieds – go flat and taste flat, and tend to brown off and are generally dull.”
Rick, who in due course became another graduate of Roseworthy, took up a six-year winemaking post in Rutherglen, the great Australian bastion of Muscat-making in north-east Victoria. But on his return to take over at Lyndoch in 1986, he was obliged by the drastic shift in popular taste to change the emphasis in production to table wine.
“Our market was literally dying – the older consumers who enjoyed a glass of port after work or with their meal were passing on, and the younger generation who lived through the red wine boom of the 70s, the white wine boom of the 80s and the Chardonnay boom that followed only knew table wines. So I gently dragged the fortifieds side-stage, out of the spotlight, and focused on our table wines.”
That is not to say that the Wilsford fortifieds were deserted; indeed, since the early 2000s, Burge has staged a quiet revolution, tweaking his winemaking approach to reflect his love of the “glorious” Muscats of Rutherglen.
Traditionally, Burge says, Muscats in the Barossa tended to be made in the classic Liqueur Frontignac style, grapey in flavour but more at the light, fragrant end of the spectrum.
“I wanted to get a heavier, more luscious, but still very vibrant wine. So we started to fortify earlier, leaving more sweetness, more weight and more finesse behind,” he says.
”Looking at the old Muscats of Campbells and Morris and Brown’s and Buller’s and Stanton & Killeen, you just fell in love with them, and I guess I just wanted to make a style like that. And we can, in the Barossa: just don’t pick them as late, and fortify a bit earlier.”
Initially Burge Senior looked askance, particularly as more of the expensive brandy spirit is required to stop fermentation at an earlier stage, but Rick stuck to his guns and his father became a convert. Noel Burge died in 2009 and the Wilsford Foundation Reserve Old Liqueur Muscat now carries a banner that dubs it ‘Noel’s Blend’ in his memory.
Muscat is expensive to make at the best of times, thanks to low yields from the raisined fruit and evaporative loss during years in the barrel. At $36, Noel’s Blend is a genuine bargain, and while the intense flavours of Muscat have a natural affinity with winter, Burge says you can always pop it in the fridge in warmer weather.
He recommends sipping it slowly: “It’s a wine that commands respect.”
Burge Family Winemakers
‘Wilsford’ Old Liqueur Muscat Barossa Valley