Why Australian fortified wines are making a comeback Image credit: Grant Burge

Although Australia has been winning international awards for its luscious fortified wines since the 1870s, for many people dessert wines - often referred to as "Stickies" - represent old-fashioned casks of port or sherry. Not so these days, when more and more people are discovering that Australia's world-class fortifieds, which gain complexity and unique characteristics with age, are a savoured experience. Here's our guide to some of the best.

Rutherglen

Nestled between the Victorian Alps and the Murray River, the small town of Rutherglen is home to more than 20 wineries, many of which are boutique family-owned operations producing the robust reds and luscious fortified wines the region is renowned for: Rutherglen Muscat and Topaque – previously known as tokay - are classed as among the world's greatest wines.

There are several methods for producing fortified wines. Botrytis (noble rot) is the process where grapes are allowed to rot on the vine, and fortification is when an alcoholic spirit such as brandy is added to stop fermentation and retain sugar content.

An icon of Australian winemaking, Morris of Rutherglen, established in 1859, boasts a winemaking history spanning seven generations. At the family-run winery you can taste its fine liqueur Muscats and Topaques - rich, sweet, complex dessert wines - crafted from hand-picked grapes off old dry grown vineyards, and decide which of them to take home to savour a little glass of sweetness with dessert.

Campbells Wines, boasting 140 years of winemaking tradition, is another legendary winery upholding the tradition of Rutherglen's fine fortifieds. Here century-old barrels house Campbell's much-awarded Muscats and Topaques.

The castle-like All Saints Estate at Wahgunyah, near Rutherglen, is another renowned for its dessert wines. The cellars date back to 1864, and the main wine storage area, the Great Hall, is lined with huge 100-year-old oak casks filled with rare Topaques and Muscats. All Saints know their wine – the Estate won the first gold medal for Australian wine in 1873 at the London International Exhibition.

Chris Pfeiffer’s choice of Rutherglen for his vineyard and winery was driven by his love of the region and his affection for nurturing some of the region's fortified wines. Chris and his youngest daughter Jennifer produce more than 30 wines at the winery, situated on beautiful Sunday Creek, a tributary of the Murray River, including internationally extolled fortified styles.

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Named in honour of Charles Henry “Mick” Morris, one Australia’s greatest fortified winemakers, Morris CHM Rare Liqueur Muscat is a blend of only the best vintages. Rare, seductive, rich and complex, it is regarded as the Rolls Royce of Rutherglen fortified wines.

The Barossa Valley

South Australia's Barossa Valley, with more than 150 wineries and 80 cellar doors, is another region with a strong heritage of fortified winemaking that also enjoys a global reputation.

The Barossa Valley winery Seppeltsfield, founded in 1851, is regarded as one of the country's greatest fortified wine producers, and is home to the world's only continuous collection of fortified wines dating back to 1878.

Australia's most expensive wine, the Seppelt 100 Year Old Para Liqueur, which doesn't get released until its 100 years old, retails for around $1,400 (375 ml).

A lazy meander around the Barossa, an easy hour's drive north of Adelaide, reveals dozens of wineries producing fortifieds to visit, including the iconic Penfolds, Wolf Blass, Bethany Wines, Saltram Wines, Rolf Binder Veritas Winery, Liebich, Peter Lehmann, Orlando Wines, Yalumba and Grant Burge.

Fifth-generation Barossa vigneron and winemaker Grant Burge is very fond of his fortifieds, and as a world winner of best fortified three times times over he knows his stuff. The winery's multi award-winning 20 Year Old Tawny is made from the Barossa's traditional tawny varieties - grenache, mataro and shiraz.

“I really believe fortified wines are due for a renaissance with a new generation of wine consumers, who have no experience with this aged style,” said Grant Burge. “I was fortunate to inherit a unique collection of fortified wine from my father, Colin, and feel privileged to be able to continue working tirelessly on the age-old tradition of fortified winemaking.”

The Australian Fortified Wine Show
The Australian Fortified Wine Show, run in conjunction with the Rutherglen Wine Show, will be judged from September 18 to 23, 2014. The public tasting will be held from 6.30 pm to 10 pm on Friday September 26 at the Henderson Pavilion, Rutherglen. Cost is $55 per person, with limited tickets available. Bookings required, more at rutherglenwineshow.com.au.