From the Wizards of Oz

Article excerpt

Byline: HELLEN SAVAGE

IT was an old friend, Colin Davies, who first introduced me to Australian 'stickies'.

As Northern agent for many leading Californian and Australian wineries in the early 1980s, he did much to lay the foundation for the huge success they enjoy today.

Colin is as warm and generous a man as his (one time) very considerable girth. As he gave me my first sip of a liqueur Muscat, as broad a smile broke across his face. He knew it was incredibly special and that I'd be taken with it almost as much as he was. He took to carrying a little flask of this amazing liquid around with him. It was instant comfort.

But while we drink more table wines from Down Under than from anywhere else, the fabulous, unctuous fortified wines of Australia are still largely unknown. The word 'unique' is often abused, but it's the only way to describe these inimitable wines.

Perhaps they have failed to catch on because they are rather old fashioned. But what's wrong with that when they're so good?

There are two main styles, Muscat and 'Tokay', but we only see the former in the UK (in the EU 'Tokay' is a protected name and can only be used to describe a wine from north-east Hungary).

Small berry Muscat grapes are left to raisin on the vine until they are gorged with sugar. The incredibly concentrated juice, destined to become perhaps the sweetest wine on the planet, slowly begins to ferment, but before much of the precious sugar is transformed into alcohol, grape spirit is added.

The fermentation stops. Now comes the peculiarly Aussie magic. The young, intensely sweet wine is decanted into old oak barrels of assorted size and left to mature piled high in sheds, which not only have no insulation or air conditioning, but have corrugated iron roofs so that in summer the temperature inside becomes so hot that the sugar in the wine begins to caramelise.

The wine, a fair proportion of which evaporates, as winemakers like to imagine to the angels' delight, also begins to oxidize.

This may seem like a pretty perverse way to treat a perfectly nice wine, but instead of spoiling it, the fortified Muscat is rendered almost indestructible. A very similar process of heating, cooling and oxidation is used to make Madeira - but using different grape varieties. …