Italian Grape Varieties in Australia
There are a number of renowned wineries that focus on Italian varietals and have done for a long time. With the diversity of climate and the relative youth of many of the regions Victoria has been the focus of most of the Italian grape varieties. Although not necessarily the first region to plant them in Australia the region most closely associated with Italian varieties is the King Valley. There are three very prominent producers who are invested in lifting the profile of Italian varieties in Australia, and it probably comes as no shock that they are not only of Italian origin but also related to each other; Pizzini, Dal Zotto and Chrismont. The Pizzini family pioneered production of premium wines from several varieties including sangiovese and nebbiolo, and have continued to improve quality by isolating particular areas of their property that are better and planting new clones. Originally hailing from Valdobiaddene, the home of prosecco, the Dal Zottos were the first to plant and produce wine from this variety, and helped create the current boom of prosecco wines in Australia.
An important proponent of Italian varieties is Mark Walpole, who worked for several decades for Brown Brothers, the family who as I mentioned previously were so instrumental in helping Italian families establish vineyards in Victoria. Mark was responsible largely for improving quality through experimentation, both in terms of where and what. In areas where his own family’s vineyards are he made some of the first plantings of Friulian varieties like friulano, malvasia, pinot bianco and picolit. He also worked closely with the Pizzini family and encouraged them to make their first plantings of nebbiolo as they shared a love of the variety. Whilst exploring emerging areas he saw the potential of the Heathcote region and with a prominent Italian consultant planted the Greenstone vineyard, where he produces one of the best sangiovese wines in the country.
Heathcote is now one of the most important regions for Italian varieties in Victoria. About 10 km from the Greenstone vineyard Mario Marson planted his own vineyard having worked as the Viticulturalist at Mount Mary for about 20 years. Here he found the potential for red wines, and in addition to planting shiraz and viognier to make a Rhone-style blend, he also planted sangiovese and nebbiolo. For about 15 years he has quietly crafted some of the most underrated wines in the state, showing how good the varieties and region can be. He has more recently embraced his Friulian origins by sourcing fruit from the Alpine Valleys to make his own Friulian-varietal blend. Further south in the Heathcote region Ron Laughton has also been making his beloved nebbiolo-based wine for over 30 years. The Galli family have been growing everything from sangiovese to fiano at their Heathcote and Sunbury vineyards, making their own wines but selling over 90% of the harvest.
The Mornington Peninsula is where the birth of pinot grigio occurred, and someone who was integral to the explosion was Gary Crittenden. In the 1990s he was known as the ‘alternative expert’, and many sought his advice early on about planting new varieties. Although he has been based in the Mornington Peninsula fruit for his wine doesn’t come from this region exclusively. Right up north in Victoria the Chalmers family have been importing and growing a huge range of Italian varieties, operating a commercial nursery selling vines as well as making their own wines. They have been instrumental in the spread and diversification of Italian varietals in the state.
Although growers in South Australia were a little slower to embrace Italian varieties they are more than making up for it. In the Adelaide Hills the Amadio family have been growing fruit for both their own production and also sale to smaller winemakers in the area. They have diversified into varieties like sagrantino and aglianico, but it is nebbiolo that has gained the most recognition in this cooler-climate, mostly because of Arrivo. South Australia’s Italian varietal expert Peter Godden and his partner Sally MacGill have made nebbiolo red and rosé wines since 2004 from Adelaide Hills fruit, and its pedigree is unquestionable.
The McLaren Vale is the other important region for Italian varietals in South Australia and one winery in particular have focused more and more on a number of varieties new and old. Coriole were one of the first to plant sangiovese and thus have some of the oldest vines. They were also one of the first to work with the Campagnian variety fiano, which many others are now making. The more experienced they get and the better they understand them, the better the quality gets. Geoff Hardy grows Italian varieties not only from these regions but others and has probably the most diverse range, quality notwithstanding.
A new generation of winemakers are making their mark exhibiting new expressions that are often made from Italian varieties. One of the best known proponents is Steve Pannell who has worked for many years in South Australian wineries. He now produces a range of wines from classic and alternative varieties, sourcing fruit from different regions around Adelaide that he feels are best suited to them. As well as a sangiovese he makes an exceptional nebbiolo grown in the Adelaide Hills, as does Luke Lambert using fruit grown in the Yarra Valley. Former sommeliers Adam Foster and Lincoln Riley are exploiting the sangiovese grape for everything it’s got, crafting a number of styles from Heathcote fruit under the Foster e Rocco label. Justin Lane is one of the most innovative winemakers I have recently met, doing everything from crazy blends to using Italian varietals like montepulciano. He also has his own wine bar in Adelaide where you can buy wine by the glass straight from the cask.
With the diversity of climates and soil types we have in Australia we still don’t know where the best places for certain varieties are. Experimentation is going on everywhere and there are some early indications of particular standouts. In the heat of the Barossa Valley Puglian varieties are ideal, particularly primitivo. McLaren Vale is ideal for Campagnian varieties like aglianico and fiano. The Adelaide Hills and the Yarra Valley are suitable for Piemontese varieties like nebbiolo, dolcetto, barbera and arneis. Varieties like sangiovese, montepulciano and nero d’avola are adaptable and versatile, and have the potential to express their place in different climates. Thankfully there are already hundreds of Italian varieties available and over 70 regions in Australia if not more. The future is bright for Italian varieties in Australia, and the wines will just get better. Now as for Spanish, Southern French and Portuguese varieties…
Here are a few highlights from recent tastings.
2009 Vinea Marson Sangiovese Heathcote
Dark plum and cherry fruit. Soft unctuous and just a hint of fruit sweetness, still very fine and fresh.
2012 Alpha Box & Dice Rebel Montepulciano Adelaide Hills
Lively bright juicy aromatics, slight rosy currant character. Lovely and dry, clean fresh and vibrant, nice light dense fruit.
2009 Coriole Sagrantino McLaren Vale
Tight and talcy, intense red fruits. Very powerful and intense expression but not heavy aggressive or cloying, explosive fruit and tannin with balanced alcohol, nothing getting in the way.
2012 Yelland & Papps Delight Vermentino Barossa Valley
Clean light salty, hints of apricot. Nice weight and texture, brightness of fruit and acid, just a little RS to make things friendlier, a little citrus rind zest.
2012 Massena Primitivo Barossa Valley
Dense spicy pepper black fruits. Really intense and full but not too clingy or heavy on the back. Great expression and energy, broad on the palate but clean and straight.
2010 Castagna La Chiava Sangiovese Beechworth
Super intense nose, almost sharp red fruits and soy. Bright and intense yet complex nose. Fresh yet concentrated and dark, wonderful acid savoury components, length and carry-through yet still eminently approachable.
2005 Pizzini Coronamento Nebbiolo King Valley
Focused driven quiet serious nose. Purity finesse elegance building on the palate, extremely vibrant and plenty of acids. Still wonderfully tight.
2011 Dal Zotto Arneis
Light green apple citrus pith, hints of kiwi. Full and bursting, quite rich and intense of fruit.
Photos by James Scarcebrook