Under a Hot Tin Roof
In the Pulitzer prize-winning drama penned by Tenessee Williams, the brooding, tormented football hero, Brick Pollitt, queries “Win what? What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?” His wife Maggie responds, “Just staying on it, I guess. As long as she can.” If a cat traipsed through a spill of Rutherglen’s dark, sticky, treacle-like wine, she would surely keep her footing on a tin roof, hot or otherwise. And in Rutherglen there are plenty of hot tin roofs. About three hours drive from Melbourne, high in the baking-hot northeastern corner of Australia’s Victoria State, a handful of tin-roofed – if not tin-walled – wineries still produce one of the world’s most luxuriant indulgences, a dark, sticky, elixir that is oft described as liquid Christmas pudding.
One would never guess today, but until recently Australia’s wine industry was dominated by intensely sweet, highly alcoholic wines devised to mimic Europe’s premium fortified specialties, Port, Madeira and Sherry and (as we know from our March article) Tokay. Thankfully, most of the generic, unrefined ones have fallen by the wayside but more thankfully the glorious, silky rich stickies of northeastern Victoria still survive. Largely based on raisined Muscat or Muscadelle grape varieties, these hedonistic, concentrated, sweet, alcoholic wines are somewhere along the lines of a mad-blend of Malmsey, Malaga and Jerez’s PX – rife with molasses, toffee, raisin, walnut and brown spice flavors.
Unlike many sweet wines of the world, such as France’s Sauternes or Germany’s Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA), Rutherglen wines are not created through the concentrating action of botrytis, or noble rot. Instead, grapes are left to semi-raisin on the vines during the long weeks of the region’s dry “Indian summer” period. The thick, syrupy juice is only marginally fermented – to about 1% alcohol – before being dosed with masses of grape spirit to halt all yeast activity and provide biological stability. Anyone who’s ever overdosed on holiday sweets can attest to a long sluggish period of inactivity afterwards and the same goes for wine yeasts. With such high sweetness levels, it is doubtful the yeasts could have mustered much more alcohol even after a few years’ effort.
The wines are then stored in fat old barrels about the size of “Big Daddy” Burl Ives and left to languish for years under the region’s hot tin roofs. Indeed, Chambers Rosewood Winery, largely considered the region’s finest producer of this sticky dark liquid, is just a rambling collection of tin sheds. The heat concentrates the barrels’ contents through evaporation, but the wines are topped only once or twice a decade, gaining complexity and a nutty character from their gentle exposure to oxygen. Similar to winemaking in Jerez (Sherry) and Madeira, the wines are blended across a variety of decades through a solera-like system to incorporate minute additions dating from 19th century wine stocks. When finally bottled, Rutherglen stickies are ready to drink and cannot be expected to age. Serve in small quantities with or in lieu of dessert.
There are only a handful of producers of this silky elixir and by regional agreement the wines are classified into four categories, each progressively richer and more complex: Rutherglen Muscat, Classic, Grand and Rare. Rare is, well, as rare as a cat on a hot tin roof, being released only in tiny quantities each year.