Italians have been a part of my life from the day I was born. My mother’s stepfather migrated from a small village south of Rome to Australia when he was 14 and his four younger brothers eventually all joined him. He was one of the most intelligent people in my life, and the person I am today was heavily influenced by him. On a Saturday morning we would go for coffee on Lygon Street in Carlton, commonly referred to as the Little Italy of Melbourne. I remember being amazed at how many people knew who he was. Until the 1990s Carlton was a key area for Italian migrants, and Nonno was a respected person in that community. Melbourne has this particular street to thank for its famous coffee and café culture, as it was largely introduced by the Italians.
Carlton Outdoors on Lygon Street
Italians were one of the first migrants to Australia; in fact there were purportedly two men of Italian descent who landed with the Endeavour as part of the First Fleet in 1788. The first big intake of Italians was in the mid-19th century when gold was discovered in parts of Western Australia and more importantly Victoria. At the time there was demand for migrant labour as many citizens abandoned their jobs to work the gold fields. Later in the 1800s even more Italians came for better opportunities to work on huge sugar-cane plantations in Queensland. The levels of migration in the 19th century to Australia were paltry in comparison to destinations like North and South America, mostly due to their larger populations and easier access from Italy as this was before the opening of the Suez Canal.
Italian sugar cane cutters ~ Innisfail District Queensland 1923
The amount of Italian migration increased in the early parts of the 20th century post-unification, partly due to restrictions on Italian migration to the United States. This was a difficult period for Italian migrants globally as they faced resentment and racism. When Mussolini took power he not only stopped emigration out of Italy, but Italians living around the world were subjected to further persecution and incarceration, including my grandfather (who was ironically a socialist). During World War II it was difficult being of Italian origin, although itwas probably worse for Germans in the Barossa Valley and elsewhere. Many ‘enemy aliens’ were held in internment camps but worked in rural areas to support the war effort and economy. This would be important for the future of Italians in Australia.
The biggest increase in migration by far was after the War when Italy was in economic ruin. Major cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide were key destinations and the impact they had is still very prominent. Skilled artisans and experienced labourers from Italy contributed to post-war expansion in Australian cities, but this was also the case in many rural areas established in the 1800s; communities existed in Northern Queensland around the cane fields with Italian families owning their own agricultural land; fruit and vegetable properties were established in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria; mining opportunities existed in Western Australia. Most of the migrants arriving were peasants who quickly adapted to the Australian climate in comparison to Northern European migrants. Italians were also more suited to the Australian way of life because of their simple agricultural traditions and their warm and generous natures.
Thus we reach the most important period in Australia’s agricultural (particularly viticultural) history, thanks in large part to Italian and other European migrants. The Australian wine industry had limped along since the end of the 19th century when phylloxera decimated much of the plantations in Victoria, and almost the entire production of wine was fortified and sweet wine, grown in warm regions like the Barossa and Rutherglen. After WWII three things completely changed wine production in Australia. The first was the shift in tastes towards dry table wines, heavily influenced by European migrants bringing their own cuisines and cultures. The second was the introduction of the wine cask in the 1970s, making wine cheap and accessible and allowing consumers to buy in larger quantities to keep for longer than wine in a bottle. Finally the irrigation of enormous tracts of land in the Murray-Darling basin in the north-western corner of Victoria resulted in massive increases in production of wine. This third phenomenon saw many Italians establish their own vineyards here, and many have become some of the most famous in Australian wine (e.g. De Bortoli, Casella).
Grape leaf infected by phylloxera. Photo credit: okstate.edu
The introduction of better machinery and roads meant that other regions were opened up and exploited, often by migrants. Different agricultural crops were planted, including hops, tobacco and orchard-fruit. In Victoria it was hard to find an area that didn’t have Italians in it, and this was thanks partly to communities that remained after the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. There was increasing market for grapes to be used in wine production, and Italian families planted vines all over Victoria and South Australia to sell to bigger producers. One of the most important of these was Brown Brothers, who have been around for over 100 years located at the mouth of the King Valley in Victoria. They contracted hundreds of growers mostly within the area, and helped establish many Italian families in the region.
The story of Italian families in a new land may actually sound very familiar, as it was something that I encountered in California and Mendoza. In these areas, just like parts of Australia, Italian migrants had not only established vineyards and improved quality, but had eventually created their own winemaking businesses. The most famous example in the world is undoubtedly E&J Gallo, now one of the largest and strongest brands globally. What American consumer hasn’t heard of such luminaries as Robert Mondavi, Rochioli, or Rafanelli? In Mendoza those of Italian-origin had an influence on the wine industry, migrating after the ravages of phylloxera in Europe, and some familiar names are Luigi Bosca and Carmelo Patti. In each of these cases it is important to note that there was no wine culture in those places previously, which has of course changed since then.
One fascinating thing was that while Italians brought the traditions of wine, they didn’t plant Italian varieties for a number of reasons. Firstly there was no market for Sangiovese or Pinot Grigio at that time. In Australia back in the 1970s all anyone wanted was Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling; in California it was zinfandel and Petite Sirah; and in Mendoza it was Malbec. These vines were already planted and were understood better, particularly how to make good wine from them. Let’s not forget that even in Italy at this time they mostly didn’t know how to make great wine in their own regions. Finally they were more interested in producing wines that the consumers wanted to drink, rather than what they might want to drink. It’s a lot easier to pronounce Shiraz, chardonnay and Malbec than Nebbiolo, Montepulciano and Vermentino.
Italian wine was therefore introduced to consumers through style rather than variety. Lovely juicy and ripe red wines and fruity fresh whites were the rage in the 1980s and 1990s, before many second and third generation growers started to plant Italian varieties and then produce their own wines from them. In a way it’s not dissimilar to how Italian food was introduced to consumers in North America, the UK and Australia. Early arrivals adapted their traditional dishes like pasta and pizza for the unfamiliar masses and in most cases didn’t resemble the original product. Then a few pioneers like Lidia Bastianich, Stefano de Pieri and Antonio Carluccio began to toil away at introducing more regional authentic styles of Italian food, thus creating interest and demand that we take for granted today.
This model of growing fruit to sell to a larger wine producer was not unlike the co-operative systems of Italy (and other parts of Europe). It was a good living for growers as wine consumption in Australia increased. Things changed in the 1980s with the combining factors of economic recession, a glut of wine and consolidation of business that would eventually lead to the current six largest wine companies in Australia producing 80% of the wine. There was an increase in the number of producers going out on their own, not only to maximize profits but to ensure their own fruit didn’t get lost in huge blends. This was again similar to the changing environment in Europe as many growers began leaving cooperatives, also led by younger generations hoping to receive recognition themselves. In Australia families of Italian origin were particularly prevalent in this phenomenon, but at the same time the existing Italian-family-owned wineries grew and retained their policies and relationships with growers.
Alternative grape varieties in Australia
Different to other New World wine-producing countries, Australia has been planting alternative grape varieties – including Italian ones – for at least 30 years. A select few growers took the risk of planting introduced varieties in small quantities and then attempting to produce premium wine from them, such as the Pizzinis and Dal Zottos of the King Valley and the Amadios of the Adelaide Hills. Thanks to these trailblazers the market for wines from grapes of Italian origin blew up in the late 1990s, and many other existing and new wine companies began to invest in the category. This subsequently led to initiatives like the Alternative Grape Varieties Wine Show and the Galli Estate Wine Scholarship to promote and educate. The diversity of viticulture in Australia is probably the most sophisticated and yet still experimental in the world. I will cover Italian varieties in an article to follow.
Ultimately everyone loves Italian people, culture, wine and food. As I discovered while travelling through Italy, Italians are the most honest, humble, generous and enthusiastic people on the planet. They have influenced the world more than any other culture throughout history; during the Roman era they introduced progress, agriculture and religion throughout the known world; during the renaissance they conquered the globe and opened up the East. They have not only incorporated the best things they discovered into their own culture (viticulture, democracy, pasta), but they have introduced the world to their own. Let’s be honest, where in the world could you not find pizza? Or gelato? Or wine? Or love..?