For many people, the name Rutherglen is what you saw when you wiped the dust off the bottle of sticky wine at the back of your grandparents’ sherry cupboard. But a new generation of winemakers like Milhinch are reinvigorating the town with new varieties, modern methods, muscat gins, seltzers, and metro-inspired wine bars celebrating all that is good about this historic winemaking region.
“This area has been producing wine since the 1850s and its strength is having tradition as part of the narrative,” says Milhinch. “But on the other side we embrace innovation and we all work together to give people who visit Rutherglen diversity – diversity of wine styles because we, as people, are diverse and we celebrate that.”
Milhinch, a former graphic designer, planted his first vines in 2002, built the modern, light-filled, cactus-adorned cellar door in 2005, and opened it to the public in 2006. He is a self-taught winemaker who is doing very different things with the famous grape variety of muscat that is the foundation of the region.
“Our new muscat is everything I love about muscat,” he says. “It’s the fresh musk and rosewater profile you get when you pick muscat early. When we are making the traditional style we pass this flavor stage and go right to when it is very rich and sweet.” Scion has also teamed with Backwoods Distilling Co in nearby Yackandandah to make a muscat gin under the Still & Stem brand. The result is leaning into the century of wine-growing experience but offering something new.
Across three days in the region the idea of reinvention keeps recurring but this is not a bunch of youngbloods coming in to shake up the old guard. Even the established muscat makers have a keen eye on the future.
Buller Wines turned 100 in 2021, but the team recently built the standalone Pavilion restaurant with views across the vines and they now produce more muscat than the rest of Rutherglen combined. They are also in the gin market with their brand Three Chain Road with flavours like muscat, elderflower and a new batch of blood orange that is still being tinkered with, but early indications are it is a winner.
The European influence of the region is on show at Jones Winery & Vineyard, 10 hectares of vines guarded by a cantankerous steer. Overseen by Mandy Jones, who spent 14 years learning the winemaking trade in Bordeaux, Jones’s newest offering is Correll, an apéritif in the style of French Lillet and named for Jones’s mum. Try adding it to a Negroni with a slice of fresh orange.
The modernisation at Lake Moodemere Estate, which looks out on to a natural billabong formed off the Murray River, comes in the form of sustainability. Here sixth- and seventh-generation Rutherglen winemakers Joel Chambers, Tash Kileen, and Harry Perry are using natural pest control, modern water management techniques, and allowing sheep to roam through the vineyards to fertilize the soil as well as make top drops.
Harry Perry is also kept busy on another next-gen Rutherglen story, Valentine’s Bakehouse on the main street of town. This German bakery was bought by his parents Ross and Kate Perry in 1990 to help fund their winery (Olive Hills Estate). Harry and his siblings, Joseph and Matilda, took over two years ago. They have built a new kitchen where a modern oven stands side-by-side with the old one; they added the White Owl coffee roaster but still use the same 55-year-old rye sourdough starter brought over from Europe by the previous owners, well before lockdown sourdough-making was a thing.
Pfeiffer Wines is one of the six legacy wineries that are allowed to use the Muscat of Rutherglen mark, a name that is ruled by a classification system. This is the perfect example of an old-school winery that is nailing the delicious stuff that gave Rutherglen its reputation in the first place. There are four classifications and they are all based on blends: Rutherglen muscat (average age three to five years), classic (six to 10 years), grand (11-19 years) and rare (20-plus years). Once blended, these fortified wines are left to release the “angels’ share”, the amount that evaporates skywards, a process that gives the wine its rich, raisin-like flavor.
At Pfeiffer, they have a new way to appreciate this heritage drop with their “musketeer” experience where you can blend your own bottle of muscat to take home with you. In a tin shed, surrounded by barrels of aging wine stacked to the ceiling, you are encouraged to try your hand at being a master muscat blender. It’s a fun, informative take on this age-old art and you might even breathe in some of the angels’ share as you mix, and try not to spill, a precious drop.
Spend enough time in Rutherglen and you see how intertwined everything is: the collaboration between families and wineries, the integration of new ideas and the respect for storied customs all woven together like the gnarled roots of a muscat vine. Rutherglen no longer belongs in the back of the dusty sherry cupboard but on the top shelf of Victorian wine country experiences.
Rutherglen is just over three hours’ drive north of Melbourne right up on the NSW border. You take the M31 almost all the way until the turnoff for Rutherglen.
Most wineries are just a short drive out of town and you can cover them all in a couple of days. The Muscat Mile is the ultimate Rutherglen experience and you can get all the details at explorerutherglen.com.au.
Stay the night at Tuileries with views over the DeBortoli vineyards and a mere stumble from the restaurant of the same name. The rooms are simple but stylish and the bathrooms are superstar huge.
The writer was a guest of Winemakers of Rutherglen. This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com