Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mick and Me (Yes, That Mick)

I have so many wonderful memories from the four years I lived in Australia that I’ve had to mentally file them into categories:

Babies and childrearing
Table wines
Sparkling wines
Fortified wines
Oceans and beaches

Given that one of our current tasks here at Fox Run is making up a new bottling of Port, my nostalgia for Australian fortified wines is in full gear. In one memory, I’m standing in a rustic shed in a hot corner of the state of Victoria known as Rutherglen. This establishment, Morris of Rutherglen, happens to be one of the most renowned producers of a style of fortified wine known as Liqueur Muscat, a drink that really doesn’t have any Old World analogue.

I can’t possibly convey in written form how glorious these wines are to drink, so let me just settle on giving them a numerical score: on a strict scale of one to ten, they rate an eleven. They are true Desert Island wines, because a stranded wretch could take the smallest of tastes once a day and then sit back and enjoy the flavors for another hour or two. And thus the bottle would easily last until that rescue ship finally appeared on the horizon.

In any case, here I am with Mick Morris, the modest and affable winemaker of a company that was established by his great-grandfather in 1859. Mick himself has been at the helm since 1953. We’re tasting from a miscellany of casks, tanks and barrels, all of which will someday become components of one of his fortified wine blends when the time is right. There’s a story behind every one of them, one that is usually borne out over years and decades.

The Man Himself
With some fantastic wine.

As we finish up a conversation about the appropriate hang time for the grape variety Durif, Mick stumbles across a barrel sitting haphazardly on the dirt floor. “I wonder what’s in this one?” he asks. A gentle nudge with his knee indicates that it’s mostly empty. “Oh, right, the ’94. I knew it was around here somewhere.”

Given that this conversation is happening in 1989, I have no choice but to surmise that the wine at his feet was made in 1894. I also deduce that given Mick’s generous spirit, he’s about to offer me a sample. He continues, “I wonder how it’s going!” -- Australian for “how it’s doing.”

“Let’s have a look, shall we?”

Mick locates a long glass wine thief, knocks out the barrel’s wooden bung, and removes a few teaspoons of this nearly-century-old wine.

“Where’s your glass?”

The tiny bit of Muscat I am holding is as dark as molasses and almost as thick. It smells of a very fine whiskey, with hints of raisins and sun-baked soil, and there’s a huge hit of the special old-wine aroma we call rancio.
Mick explains that wines like this are not really drinkable on their own except as a curiosity. They’re just too intense. I take a sip – it takes fully five seconds for the wine to trickle down the glass to my mouth – and an explosion of flavor confirms this. But, Mick continues, a very small amount – maybe one part in five thousand – will infuse a large blend of much younger wines with a discernable measure of complexity, in a sort of flavor-amplification phenomenon.

Rutherglen produced vast quantities of table and fortified wine in the second half of the nineteenth century, exporting most of it to England. The vine louse phylloxera wiped out most of the vines in the late 1890s, as it had in Europe a short time earlier, and another half century passed before things were again on firm footing. The wine Mick had given me a taste of was one of the very last from the pre-phylloxera era.

You pretty much have to go to Australia to taste Liqueur Muscats. The few examples that I’ve tasted on American soil were perilously close to being caricatures of the real thing.

But it’s worth the trip. While I am not qualified to vouch for the life-changing value of, say, a pilgrimage to Mecca, I can say without hesitation that a journey to Rutherglen, and Morris Wines, should be on the ‘Things to Do Before I Die’ list of all serious enophiles.

If you do get there, ask someone how that barrel of 1894 is ‘going’. Mick retired long ago, and the wines are now made by his son, but chances are you’ll still find him kicking around the place. Fortified wines are in his blood.

By:  Peter Bell, Winemaker

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