Ramblings: tasting Rutherglen

A weekend of tasting events, the most physically challenging of which was a tour of the Rutherglen region on Saturday. Conveniently (or not, depending on one’s point of view), our visit coincided with the Tastes of Rutherglen festival. This had three implications:

  1. Tasting required the purchase of a rather oddly shaped glass for $10;
  2. Cellar doors featured a range of live music and, in the case of the wonderfully daggy Chambers Rosewood Winery, what appeared to be a kind of blue light disco; and
  3. We often had to negotiate throngs three or four people deep to be served (though cellar door staff were invariably patient and informative).
All of which is great for the region’s producers, and there were certainly good crowds having a great time at each winery. Warrabilla in particular seemed to show a lively atmosphere, which is somehow fitting given the robustness of its wine styles. But I am getting ahead of myself. Here’s a brief summary of the highlights as I saw them.

Stanton and Killeen

Tasting selectively is a must, it seems, at Rutherglen cellar doors, simply because they more often than not have a startlingly large range. The region also seems to be the spiritual home of some unusual varieties in the local context, including Durif and Blue Imperial (Cinsault). Here, some solid, fully flavoured Durif and Shiraz Durif table wines gave way to the main event, which was a vertical of this producer’s VPs.

We tasted the 2004, 2002, 2000,1998, and 1983. The 2004, almost entirely made from the traditional Portuguese varieties, is an elegant, coherent style, with good fruit freshness and balance. The 2002 is similar, but with some distinct aged notes on the aroma in particular. The 2000 stands out a little for its volatility and larger scale, whereas the 1998 is back to a more elegant, shapely expression.  The oldest wine is quite different, mostly Shiraz, and very much the Australian VP style, with a more sweetly fruited palate and quite a different tannin profile. A nice example of VP in this idiom.

Interestingly, the Muscat and Tokay are made in a lighter style than most, the classic Tokay especially. For my taste, these wines lack some intensity and definition, but might please someone whose preference runs to a less powerful expression of these regional specialties.

Campbells Winery

At Campbells, we indulged in the $10 premium tasting, which meant a lot of back vintage table wines and the grand and rare fortifieds.

I found the back vintage reds variable, at times lacking fruit presence to balance out what are quite fierce tannin structures. The Muscat and Tokay wines are another matter entirely, with plenty of everything. The classics are satisfyingly rich and varietal. The rare Tokay was a particular highlight for me, with incredible length and drive right down the line, and the most outrageously delicious aftertaste that reminded me of barbeque chips.


After a nice burger with the lot in Rutherglen township, we hit Warrabilla for some more palate punishment. This house has a very idiosyncratic style, centred on “big red wines” that take scale and alcohol to their logical regional conclusion. Taste aside, one has to admire such clear intent, followed through so completely.

To my taste, Durif responds best to the style being sought, resulting in wines with a flavour profile that strikes me as quite achieved. The Cabernet Sauvignons are a surprise, recognisably varietal and almost elegant, within context. An oddity is the Zinfandel, made in a light red style with plenty of ease and fun. Overall, definitely worth a visit to see how one’s taste interacts with the style.

Chambers Rosewood

A time capsule. This utterly old school producer has a massive range of table wines, including what is surely the most unusual wine we encountered all day: a Blue Imperial rosé. Basically a large shed, the cellar door is mostly self-service and shows all the trappings of the Australian wine industry of yesteryear, including an alarmingly large number of wines available by the flagon.

As expected, the highlights here were again the Tokays and Muscats, made in a finer, more varietal and apparently drier style than in some other houses. The classic Muscat sings with pure, grapey Frontignac goodness, and would be great as a picnic wine, lightly chilled perhaps. The grand Tokay is magnificent, beautifully defined, unfolding in the mouth both gently and with precise articulation. No rares were on tasting, so I can only imagine what they are like.

I absolutely loved this visit.

Morris Wines

This producer showed the table wines I enjoyed the most all day. Solid across the board, though I felt the Blue Imperial to be a particularly interesting, food-friendly dry red, if slightly anonymous in flavour. The Shiraz Durif sparkling wine is also excellent and mercifully dry.

What’s striking about this producer’s fortifieds is the extreme opulence of the style at all levels, classic through rare. On the day, I liked the grand level wines the least, as they seemed to fall in a vague middle ground between classics that are light enough to show some youthful definition, and rares that are simply knock-your-socks-off wines of sensational drive and opulence. In any case, these are all benchmarks at the rich end of the stylistic scale, and I feel they are well priced for the quality.

8 thoughts on “Ramblings: tasting Rutherglen

  1. Sadly those Warrabilla’s may be idiosyncratic but they are also, arguably, plain hard wines to drink. What is more interesting is that the best Warrabilla’s were the most recent releases, with the reds tailing off noticeably with any sort of bottle age…

    • Yes, good point — I preferred the younger wines too, which seemed to be a theme across all our tastings, at least as far as table wines are concerned. My main problem with these wines is that I can’t imagine drinking a lot of them. They fairly attacked my palate and left it feeling slightly violated at the end of the flight. Perhaps I am a wimp.

  2. One mans plain hard to drink is another mans ‘refreshing dry red’ (presumably the latter being someone from the broader region or one brought up with the style). I cannot handle too much Rutherglen dry reds, but like their rustic power when done well. A sideshow to the fortifieds. Nice summary of cellar door notes.



    • It’s a great point Rod, and something worth bearing in mind when reading another’s notes. In fact, Andrew Graham (with whom I was tasting) and I had a lengthy conversation about style and preference following the visit to Warrabilla. It certainly didn’t escape our notice that wines appeared to be flying out the door — the majority of punters were loving them. And that, one might argue, is what it’s all about.

  3. I know you’ll both enjoy my disagreement with you over the Warrabilla Durifs and age. The last I tried was a 2001 Reserve 2 years ago. I felt it needed & benefited from the 7 years in the bottle and could get better.

    Not a wine that I would want to drink more than a glass and a half of and yes, arguably difficult/hard, but then again so am I sometimes 🙂

    I guess what I’m mostly saying is that I’m glad these sort of wines exist. They can be a pleasant break from elegant experiences…

    • Granted, the older Durif showed better than the older Shiraz at Warrabilla, but all of the older reds were compressed along their line (by a combination of structure and alcohol) in a way the younger wines weren’t, hence my greater enjoyment of the young wines.

  4. You’re losing your aesthetic perspective with all this winemaking learning 🙂

    I should add my palate’s a bit different to what it was two years ago, so I may struggle with an aged Warrabilla Durif these days.

    Just wanted to break up all this agreement with Andrew. You know I’m a fan of productive dissonance 😉

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