These days in the United States, it seems that much of Australia’s wine offerings have vanished from store shelves and wine lists unless represented by critter labels. This lamentable condition also applies to one category of Australian wines called “stickies.” The term refers to a particular classification of sweet, even unctuous Australian wines that barely measure a blip in wine press. Yet these wines have been praised as among the world’s greatest wines by wine critics such as Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson MW, though they are on opposite sides of the taste sensitivity scale. How can wines, barely on the radar screen for most wine lovers, be categorized as being so great? How many wine drinkers know that Seppeltsfield’s Para 100-year-old is Australia’s most expensive wine? The reason lies in the small production, which stems from light sales, which in turn leads to light demand. The purpose of this article is to awaken interest in and understanding of these extraordinary wines.
Not all Australian off-dry or sweet wines are considered stickies. Light sweet wines such as Moscato are excluded. The term refers only to those with a certain gravitas. There are basically two types of stickies: those made from botrytized grapes, and those that have been fortified. Botrytized Semillon and other noble varieties are still found on the shelves and range in quality just as they do from Sauternes, Bordeaux and other regions. However, great examples can be found especially from New South Wales’ Riverina GI, such as De Bortoli’s Noble One Botrytis Semillon, McWilliams’ Morning Light Botrytis Semillon or Gramp’s Botrytis Semillon, and others from Victoria’s McLaren Vale such as D’Arenberg’s the Noble Wrinkle Riesling.
The second category of fortified wines is a little confusing due to a finalized agreement concluded by Australia with the EU in 2010. Traditional expressions (TEs) and EU appellations can no longer be used or are being phased out even if they have appeared on Australian labels for the past 150 years. For example, sherry will now be referred to as Apera; Tokay, which is being phased out by 2020, will be labeled Topaque. Australian ports will now be referred to as Vintage, Ruby or Tawny without reference to the word “port.”
Vintage, Ruby and Tawnies
The tradition of fortified wines stems from the preference for this type of wine production in the second half of the 19th century and in the 20th century, due to the moving of viticulture from cooler climates of Victoria to the warmer parts of South Australia. The wines were Australia’s main export to the United Kingdom and even exceeded French exports during the early to mid-20th century. The base wines are derived from non-Portuguese varieties, such as Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and even Cabernet Sauvignon. For a ruby style, there are many such as the Penfold’s Club Port but it is the tawnies for which Australia has garnered much of its reputation for port-style wines. These wines have the oxidative “rancio” characteristics of nutty, cheesy, mushroomy and even soy flavors that long-aged fortified wines and brandies develop and are so prized by aficionados of each. The Seppeltfield Para 100 may be out of reach for most, but the Para 10-year-old from the Barossa is very reasonable, as is the Penfold’s The Grandfather.
Liqueur, Muscats or Tokays
The term “liqueur” is not allowed in the United States, though there are no EU restrictions. The apogee of these wines are arguably from the Rutherglen in Victoria and are differentiated from other fortified wines of the world because they undergo three processes used in producing sweet wines. The grapes are late-harvested in a raisined state. These fermenting wines then undergo mutage-arresting fermentation and are then followed by a sherry-like solera system of fractional blending. These soleras may have originated many decades ago, developing greater complexity with each passing year. Many producers use traditional Madeira-like “caneteira” processes whereby the wines in either sophisticated warehouses or rustic sheds are naturally heated by the blazing summer sun while aging in old barrels. The latter merely adds to the complex process. The resulting wines have lingering sweetness but are balanced by cleansing acidity. One doesn’t have to reach into deep pockets to find wines of extraordinary quality. Additionally, when purchasing such a wine, whether Liqueur Muscat or Tokay, one should take further labeling information into account: Classic, Grand or Rare indicate that the wine has been aged a minimum of 5, 10 or 15 years minimum respectively.
Liqueur Muscats are made from the Brown Muscat or the “Muscat à petits grains” clone and have to have a minimum of 160 g/l of residual sugar. The longer they are aged, the sweeter and more complex they become so that the Rare Muscats may have up to 400 g/l residual sugar. The wine ranges from light to dark amber and has been described as being liquid Christmas pudding with notes of figs, dates, brown sugar, molasses and caramel, with a never-ending finish.
Tokays are made from the Muscadelle variety and have between 150 and 220 g/l of sugar. With age, they develop characteristic caramel, nutty, spicy, smoky and orange marmalade notes. The eight Rutherglen producers include All Saints, Buller, Campbells, Chambers Rosewood, Morris, Pfeiffer, Stanton and Killeen, any of whom make superlative end-of-a-dinner experience whether in a restaurant or at home. So next time you find yourself in a “sticky” situation, go “down under” and offer your customers a truly unforgettable experience with one of Australia’s truly magnificent and memorable wines.