by Gavin Trott
I must begin by stating a bias, these wines are absolutely individual, world class and at their best, ASTONISHING. I make no attempt at being unbiased when describing them. If I get even close to their unique style, incredible complexity and great age, if I make you want to run out and buy some, then I have accomplished my goal! The complex flavours, the length, the age and the mouthfilling qualities of these wines put Bordeaux, Burgundy, indeed most other wines other than perhaps Vintage Ports and Madeira to shame.
The answer to both questions is deceptively simple. Each wine is a style not a variety and each is made from a different grape. Muscat is made from a brown coloured type of the grape Muscat a Petits Grains known locally as Brown Muscat, and Tokay is made from Muscadelle, a grape better known for a small role in the sweet wines of Bordeaux. In both cases the grapes are grown in this hot sun drenched region and allowed to hang on the vine long after the table grapes are ripe, soaking up that heat, turning it into sugar, and then concentrating this sugar and the acid as the grape shrivels. In this way the grapes often reach 16-20 degrees Baume (each degree Baume roughly equates to one % alcohol after fermentation) quite naturally which means the resultant wine will be both sweet and rich.
The grapes are then picked and crushed. This in itself is a difficult job due to the raisined grapes and intense sugar levels. Next comes the fermentation, the use of yeast to turn the sugar into alcohol. Many makers, Chambers included, do not even start fermenting some wines (Tokay) or in very ripe years. Either way, the short fermentation is stopped rather like Port by the addition of high quality brandy spirit which kills the yeast leaving all that rich sugary sweetness and flavour.
The next step involves time and patience. The young wine is cleaned then put into oak barrels of varying sizes to age and develop. No new oak is used for this process as the added flavour would not work with the wine, in fact, most of the makers feel that the older the oak the better. Most of these wineries are full of a myriad of barrels of varying sizes and some of great age. The rest of the process is time.
What happens now is controlled oxidation. Over time, lots of time, small amounts of air get in through the oak to affect the wine, and through these same very small openings tiny amounts of the wines evaporate (locally this evaporated liquid is known as the "angel's share"). The effect is three fold:
The oxidation causes colour and flavour changes in the wine. Muscat when young is reddish brown but time and oxygen turns it brown, then eventually olive green, particularly on the rim. Tokay starts out lighter with golden tints but follows the same pattern with very old Muscat and Tokay looking quite similar.
Given the loss through evaporation both wines become noticeably thicker, even oily. In fact, very old wines, and there are some as old as 100 years and more, look and have the texture of Treacle or Molasses.
Time adds to the complexity of the wines with older wines showing many aromas and flavours that were not present in the young wines. Most noticeable among these is 'rancio', a term much used with Sherries and Ports and which means, at least as well as I can explain it, a mixture of volatility and other substances (aldehydes for the chemists amongst us) which stop the sweet wine from smelling and tasting over sweet or cloying. In fact, all the flavours concentrate and intensify until older wines are quite literally explosive in the mouth.
Muscat has an aroma that can be described as fruity, with smells of grape, raisins, orange peel, rancio brandy spirit and more plus a palate including incredibly intense sweetness, and many other flavours that I can't find words for. Tokay has all of these plus a characteristic flavour and aroma from the Muscadelle grape that has been described as cold tea, fish oil, or malt extract, all right, but all wrong ... you'll need to try the wine to know what I mean.
I once was privileged enough to try some 100 year old Muscat from Chambers. It was so dark and thick you almost could not pour it! It looked like treacle and in the mouth was explosive, almost searing in its intensity and the flavour stayed with me for ages, longer than any other wine experience. It is this wine, when blended in with medium and fresher wine, that makes these old blends so sensational to try.
Gavin is the manager of the Australian Wine Centre (a large collection of affordable, rare and cult Australian wines) and hosts the very popular Auswine Forum (An online discussion forum about Australian wine) . You may reprint this article either on a website or in print but you must maintain this resource section naming the author. Please email the author with details on where you intend to use it. You can obtain the latest version of this article and more free wine content for your website from www.freesticky.com