Italian flourish

From Pinot Grigio to some serious reds, there's a buzz around Italian varietals in Australia, and the state of Victoria is leading the field, as Sally Easton MW reports
27 August, 2008
Victoria may be smallest mainland state in Australia but it is the most diverse in terms of climate and altitude, with vineyards ranging from just above sea level to almost 1,000m. While plantings of the five usual suspects - Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot - take up more than three-quarters of the Victorian vineyard, this leaves plenty of room for manoeuvre for other grape varieties.

Though Pinot Grigio/Gris is grown generally throughout Victoria, the Mornington Peninsula is home to a quarter of all the state's plantings, although this sum accounts for less than 10 per cent of Mornington Peninsula's vine plantings overall. With some producers calling it Pinot Grigio and others Pinot Gris, labelling of the varietal is ad hoc at the moment, and it doesn't always correspond to the wine styles anticipated in a European context - ie light, fruity Italian-style Grigio or richer, spicier Alsace-style Gris. Generally though, whole bunch pressing and oak are often used during vinification in the 'Gris' camp. For example, the 10X Pinot Gris from the Ten Minutes by Tractor winery uses eight-year-old oak, wild yeast, and has a hint of residual sugar on a spicy back palate.

Elsewhere in Mornington Peninsula, Kooyong and Port Phillip Estate winemaker Sandro Mosele makes wines using the Piemontese Arneis and Barbera varietals. "We started in 2004, on 0.6ha," he says, "so just about 200-250 dozen bottles, all of it sold domestically. The Arneis is a 100 per cent [stainless steel] tank wine, and the Barbera is made with old oak. We wanted an extra level of complexity and suppleness in the wine, to soften the effect of the [wine's natural] acidity."

Victorian conditions

Though many Italian migrants moved to Victoria in the post-war period to work in the tobacco industry, vineyards began to grow up in the 1970s†as the tobacco business declined. The King Valley, home to many of these immigrant families, is the heart and soul of Victoria's production of Italian varieties.

In mid-2007, the King Valley in north-east Victoria attained its own geographical indication (GI). Michael Dal Zotto, winemaker at Dal Zotto Estate says: "King Valley has a lot of different microclimates, and it's large. We're able to keep pockets of the valley allocated to different varietals."

One of the early pioneers for Italian varieties in the 1970s, Brown Brothers, is based in the King Valley. The company worked with growers, many of whom had relocated from northern Italy. Ross Brown, Brown Brothers' chief executive, says: "There's been a progressive shift. People want to try something different. Italian varietals offer such a different flavour profile than Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. There's good demand, and we're likely be planting more Italian varieties."

Fred Pizzini, director of Pizzini Wines in King Valley, is one of the pioneers who used to provide fruit to Brown Brothers. "We started with a passion for Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, going back about 20 years," he says. "When we planted there was only us in Victoria. We set out from day one to let the variety express itself.

"The King Valley gives the ability for Nebbiolo to be left on the vine into early April, for slow maturation," says Pizzini. "We get pure conditions from the Snowy Mountains directly behind us which allow the development of those fantastic aromatics that Nebbiolo has to have."

On Sangiovese, Pizzini adds: "The [climatic] diversity of King Valley means we've selected warmer sites for it within our 81ha site. We learnt from growing Shiraz which looks for similar conditions. Both do very well." About half the Pizzini vineyard is now planted to Italian varietals, and more are going into the ground.

The Aussies seem to favour Barbera wines with some oak, especially old oak. "It's too acidic, and needs a bit of oak to balance out the angles," says Pizzini.

Italian heritage has also spurred on Sam Miranda, who took ownership of his eponymous King Valley winery in 2004, following the sale of the rest of the family business, Miranda Wines, to McGuigan Simeon in 2003. "The vineyard has a variety of soils including heavier clay and red soils," he says. "You can match varieties to blocks. With 20 years' history now we're beginning to match variety with site. Sangiovese is one of the original varieties in the area - I'm looking to plant some next year."

Investing heavily

Since being founded in 1924, the family-run De Bortoli company has expanded to become Australia's sixth largest wine business and has made significant investment in Italian varietals. The company's portfolio is geographically segmented, taking in 180ha and 240ha respectively in Victoria's King and Yarra Valleys, as well as 300ha in the Riverina and 36ha in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.

"The common brand is De Bortoli, with sub-brands from the other regions," says Steve Webber, the company's manager and winemaker. "People are interested in knowing where wines come from regionally."

The Victorian-origin De Bortoli Windy Peak range has for several years included a red Sangiovese, and the Pinot Grigio is a recent addition to the UK portfolio, taking advantage of the seemingly infinite growth in demand for the grape there.

Of its Sero range, which was launched into the UK in 2006, Webber says: "We liked the King Valley. It has excellent potential for Italian varietals, and we made a large commitment, of 202ha. We've developed interesting wines around it [the Sero label], which are medium bodied, with savoury rather than sweet oak. They might even go well with pizza!"

Among mainstream wine consumers there are not thought to be too many who realise Sangiovese is the backbone of Chianti, or Nebbiolo of Barolo, so De Bortoli is easing Italian varietals into consumers' consciousness by blending with better-known international varieties under the Sero label, such as Syrah/Dolcetto, Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio and Merlot/Sangiovese.

Wines of the moment

There is much experimentation in Victoria with less well-known Italian varieties such as Arneis, Cortese, Verduzzo and some bubblies. Pizzini says: "There's lots of opportunity for white varieties. They work well in Australia. Aussies are looking for new things other than Cabernet and Chardonnay, and for more food friendly styles of wine."

Pizzini made Australia's first Bracchetto, in the traditional Piemontese style and Dal Zotto released Australia's first prosecco sparkling, which has proved so popular the company is increasing plantings.

Italian varietals are in a good position to take advantage of a trend towards less typical, big Aussie wine styles. "There's a definite swing to wines with finesse - cool climate wines," says Miranda. "There's an undercurrent of people wanting to drink a bottle of wine and still be upright. Imports from Spain and Italy are really growing now. Up to 50 per cent of some wine lists are European wines; people are a bit bored of Aussie fruit bombs."

Pizzini agrees, adding that the long, slow drip of education and trial seems to be reaching a critical mass. "Sommeliers have played a big part in making things change - getting product into peoples' mouths," he says. "It takes education, getting people to understand the styles that are for food rather than everyday drinking. It's a lot of little things that make up the picture of change."

Further evidence for these winds of change is provided by the big boys across the state border in South Australia. Jacob's Creek has dipped its toe in the Italian water with its new Three Vines Rosť, which contains a little Sangiovese. Similarly Yalumba has a limited release Sangiovese Rosť under the 'Y' series label. The Italian niche looks like it may have the potential to expand quickly.
----=== Italian varietals around Victoria ===Barbera: Heathcote, King Valley, Pyrenees

Nebbiolo: Goulburn Valley, King Valley,

Yarra Valley

Pinot Gris/Grigio: Alpine Valley, Geelong, Heathcote, Henty, King Valley, Mornington, Strathbogie, Yarra Valley

Sangiovese: Alpine Valley, Goulburn Valley, King Valley, Pyrenees, Sunbury, Yarra Valley

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