We asked Max Allen, one of this country’s finest wine scribes and a champion of the organic and the un-messed with, to write a piece with a one-word inspiration. That word was dogma. Take any angle, we said. Make it short, or make it long. Rant if you like. Just have at it. This is…
Wines Of Now
Australia's Best Sangiovese
Fleeing a country, a continent, cast into poverty by the legacy of two World Wars, Italians left ancestral homes to carve out new lives around the globe. And it is unquestionable that modern Australia was given shape through this mass migration, and also pretty unarguable that we have been the better for it. Aside from the general input of industrious, hardworking folk, the impact on our understanding and approach to food and wine has been of incalculable cultural benefit. But though the Italians brought much with them, it is somewhat surprising that they did not bring wine grapes.
With a country so possessive over its culture in microcosm, of the sanctity of subtle variations in a dish of pasta from one village to another, in the barely perceptible mutations of a grape cultivar from one zone to the next, it seems unusual that more cuttings weren’t stuffed in suitcases or wedged into boots for the long voyage. The cuisine travelled, although no doubt it has been reshaped in isolation, and vital ingredients were imported, but the approach to grape growing seems largely to have been built around adaption.
Many of the old vineyards planted and often still maintained by Italian immigrants are planted to shiraz, grenache, cabernet sauvignon and the like. It is not until much later that we see indigenous Italian varieties planted, and until quite a bit later again that we see them take a meaningful foothold.
So, while Sangiovese is probably the pioneering Italian grape in this country, it was not until the 1970s that it was put through its paces by Penfolds and Montrose, and not until Mark Lloyd – after a revelatory trip to Italy – of McLaren Vale’s Coriole planted it in earnest in 1985 that sangiovese was given a genuine Australian accent. Those vines were grafted, so a commercial, albeit tiny, harvest was yielded two years later.
Lloyd didn’t exactly have instant success, but he persevered, working to both understand the variety and educate colleagues and consumers. Since then, sangiovese has taken hold across the country in diverse regions, spanning climates from the hot to the decidedly cool, from the maritime to the continental, just as it does in Italy.
Sangiovese is Italy’s most important grape, and by a stretch. Now, there would probably be some grumblings about that statement. Both in Italy and abroad, but it’s pretty hard to knock sangiovese’s credentials.
Sangiovese is Italy’s most widely planted grape variety. Based on 2015 data, sangiovese’s 55,100 hectares eclipse pinot grigio by over 12,000 hectares. And for those that would argue for nebbiolo’s supremacy as king, only an aesthetic argument would hold sway (a very valid one, mind you), as it occupies a tenth of the vineyard land, and most of it is in Piedmont. Sangiovese, on the other hand, is the most prevalent variety in four regions, and it substantially occupies nine others. It is the majority component of 100 DOC/DOCGs and nearly as many IGPs, while contributing in a lesser way to countless more.
It forms the basis for some of the country’s most famous historical wines – Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Carmignano – as well as establishment-shaking 20th century mavericks, such as Isole e Olena’s ‘Cepparello’ and Antinori’s ‘Tignanello’, which irrevocably changed the direction of modern Italian wine. It accounts for some of Italy’s most revered bottles, and it is happily splashed into tumblers in osterie and trattorie across the country.
Sangiovese certainly doesn’t have the same import here, with current plantings, also as of 2015, totalling 438 hectares. As opposed to almost 40,000 hectares of Shiraz. It represents only 0.5% of total red wine plantings, but it has captured the imagination of both makers and drinkers, and now occupies a significant position in our vinous landscape.
With six of the brightest wine minds in attendance, and 36 wines carefully selected and decanted, we set out to get a better image of where the grape currently stands in an Australian context. As usual, the brief was to find the wines that compelled the most. This was not an exercise in technical perfection or mimicry of benchmarks, nor was it a search for profundity. Rather, the aim was to find wines of interest and character that reflected variety and place.
Our panel was made up of: Sarah Andrew DipWSET (Honours), National On-Premise Business Manager for the House of Fine Wine; Simone Madden-Grey DipWSET, educator, communicator and author; Justin Purser, Chief Winemaker at Best’s; Mark Protheroe, founding partner of The Recreation; Sebastian Crowther MS, Director of Real Wines; and Virginia Selleck, Wine Director at Magnum & Queens Wine. All wines were tasted blind.
One of the striking things about the tasting was the sheer diversity across the board, with 13 regions contributing to the line-up. And panellists saw that variety showing through clearly in the glass. “There was a diversity of styles which clearly showed regional and vintage differences, not to mention winemaking styles,” noted Andrew. While Selleck felt “The question of regionality was raised and well answered across the 13 different regions that were presented.”
Madden-Grey commented that the “tasting demonstrated a broad range of styles… from those looking to the traditional home of sangiovese, to wines that explored characteristics of the grape variety within a uniquely Australian context.” Protheroe agreed: “Even in Italy, sangiovese is capable of producing convincing wines across a range of styles from thirst quenchers to long term cellar dwellers. This was evidenced in the eclectic range of wines presented on the day.”
While some panellists noted a couple of the wines showed too much extraction in the pursuit of ‘authentic’ tannins and some wore oak too obviously, these were in the minority. As Crowther noted: “Many winemakers seem to be sure of what this grape variety is capable of and haven’t pushed it too far with ripeness, extraction or oak ageing.” This was echoed by Purser: “The best examples showed restrained oak use exposing the fresh, savoury elements of sangiovese with well-crafted tannins completing the wines.” While Selleck felt that there was a sense of identity in the best wines: “The wines that I found the most intriguing …were the wines that not so much looked like Chianti with dry mouth-filling, and nicely coated tannins, which I always love but more so the …very polished examples of bright mid-weight sangiovese.”
There was much discussion devoted to clones, as sangiovese – just like merlot – was initially planted to a high-yielding clone, which resulted in many of the early wines being somewhat dilute. With an influx of superior vine material, as well as a better understanding of how to handle existing material (Peter Lloyd, Mark’s son, maintains that the original clone is one of the best when the yields are managed), these problems did not materialise in the wines. “This tasting represented better clonal material having been imported and planted and how sangiovese is developing in Australia as very much a ‘site/vineyard specific’ grape variety,” Selleck reflected. Protheroe was confident of an even brighter future: “The recent enhancement of clonal material on offer will only hasten the emergence of this variety in Australia over the coming decade.”
Overall, the panel found sangiovese in this country to be in good health. Purser noted “the high level of understanding wine producers have acquired in how to handle the variety.” While Madden-Grey remarked: “Given the quality of winemaking demonstrated today, the future of sangiovese in Australia is assured, particularly as vine age becomes an additional resource available to producers.” Crowther concluded: “It’s easy to understand why this grape variety is growing rapidly in popularity in Australia as the level of drinkability across the board was extremely high.”
Once again, our panellists selected different top wines, agreed on many and nominated some alone, which mirrors the high standard of the wines, with style rather than quality the difference.
The Number One Picks
These are the number one picks from each of the panellists, with supplementary notes from other panellists if they featured in their top six lists.
2018 Koerner ‘Nielluccio’ Sangiovese $40
This was singled out by both Purser and Protheroe in their top six lists, with the later declaring it “A lovely mid-weighted example of Sangiovese and perhaps a little unlucky not to get my top wine for the day.” Crowther went a step further, electing it his top pick: “Pretty, attractive, lifted fruit aroma. Slight candied edge. Very fun, vibrant style. Clean fresh with a high level of drinkability. Juicy. Crisp acid and soft tannin. Built for drinking pleasure and giving me plenty.” Purser found some classic flavours “of dried herbs (oregano flowers) and red fruits,” while the palate was “medium bodied and pure with satisfying savoury tannins and well-balanced acidity.”
2018 Frederick Stevenson Adelaide Hills Sangiovese $40
This was well regarded by both Andrew and Protheroe, with it being the latter’s top wine of the tasting: “A heady and evocative wine. There is no hiding from the grippy tannins that call for a red meat, nor the weighty fruit that is ably held together by lip-smacking acidity. Weirdly this wine tastes Australian yet reminiscent of sangiovese from warmer zones in Tuscany.” It was also rated well by Andrew who found it “Fresh and vibrant with primary fruits of cherry and red plums,” while “a hint of dry herbs and vanillin spice add to complexity.” She called it “A beautiful expression of sangiovese from Australia.”
2017 Adelé Heathcote Sangiovese $38
From Galli Estate, this made two top six lists, with Andrew registering it as her top wine. She noted “red cherries, blackberries and bramble on the nose plus a herbal lift,” while “floral notes add to the enticing aromas and give a youthful lift.” She found the palate “dry and savoury with red and dark cherries,” while the “acid–tannin line is focused and drives the fruit profile.” She remarked on its “intensity and complexity with true varietal definition.” This was also in Crowther’s top six: “Dense dark cherry with lovely floral lift. Good spice and depth, intriguing. Bright sweet fruit, fine tannins and rustic grip.”
2017 Pizzini ‘Pietra Rossa’ King Valley Sangiovese $28
This is one of four sangioveses made by Pizzini (they make a rosé and blend with it, too), sitting on the second rung of their own classification. It was Purser’s top wine. He noted “sappy herbal notes” on the nose and found it, “sanguine, intriguing.” The palate was “crunchy” with “bright red cranberry and sour cherry” notes, with “fine tannins” and “good length,” but he noted that it “needs time.”
2012 Foster e Rocco ‘Riserva’ Heathcote Sangiovese $55
One of two Foster e Rocco wines in the tasting, this was Madden-Grey’s top wine: “Clearly looking to the traditional home of Sangiovese for style. Delicious notes of development – leather, mushroom, tobacco and soy sauce – sit alongside bright red fruit, spice and bitters. A balanced wine with chewy tannins and fresh acidity, finishing with good persistence of flavour.”
2017 Billy Button ‘The Rustic’ Alpine Valleys Sangiovese $32
This was Selleck’s top pick. She “loved the energy and vibrancy,” and found it had “a very bright succulent fruit character.” It exhibited “spice notes, morello cherries, and sweet/sour notes,” while the palate had “dry tannins but a silky, softer mouth feel.” Selleck picked up on the cool climate origins of the fruit and felt that it had been made by “someone that is comfortable working with Italian varieties.” She noted that it was “not for long ageing just immediate fun drinking.”
The Consensus Picks
These were all in the top six lists, receiving cross support from the tasters, though none were nominated as their wine of the day.
2018 Coulter ‘C2’ Adelaide Hills Sangiovese $28
This was singled out by three of the panellists in their top six lists. Madden-Grey called it a “modern, black-fruited style showing ripe fruit with a confected note from carbonic maceration and an aromatic lift from whole bunch fermentation showing as fresh florals and herbal green leaf and new leather notes.” She remarked that it had “impressive complexity for such a young wine.” Protheroe found it a “lovely wine that delivers a core of red and black fruit followed by savoury tannins and fresh acidity that do just enough to keep the wine in check.” Crowther remarked that it while it was ripe that it was “well held and not overdone.” He found it “bright and juicy with fine tannin holding all in place.”
2017 Crittenden ‘Pinocchio’ King Valley Sangiovese $28
Gary Crittenden was one of the early adopters of Italian varieties, with his son Rollo now making the wines. Madden-Grey: “Showing attractive floral and tart red berry characters. Very clean and light on the palate with fine tannins and juicy acidity. A very pretty and accessible style of Sangiovese.” Purser noted the “rose petal, fresh herbs, cherry and cranberry notes” on the nose, while he found the palate “crunchy and savoury, good fruit concentration, but light weighted and soft, yum.”
2019 Fairbank Bendigo Sangiovese $27
Both Crowther and Protheroe rated this highly, with the latter remarking: “What a fun little drink. Soft and plush with obvious carbonic elements. A wine to drink, and drink often.” Crowther found it “showy on the nose – big bright and glossy.” He continued: “Red fruits abound with toffee apple and redskin-like character. Very fine soft and well-integrated tannins. Fresh acid that holds all in check. Very attractive wine.”
2017 Fikkers Yarra Valley Sangiovese $32
This found favour with both Madden-Grey and Protheroe. The former found it “An attractive balance of delicate rose florals and red fruit with darker, more savoury notes pushing through the mid-palate.” While Protheroe thought it “a bit of a creeper.” He remarked: “This wine starts of soft and plush then the sneaky tannins build to quite a statuesque finish. There is something fun yet serious about this take on the grape.”
2018 Mitchell Harris Pyrenees Sangiovese $28
Both Purser and Selleck praised this, with the former finding it “deeply scented,” with “judicious oak use” and “some herbal notes.” He found it “savoury” with “dark fruit, quite complex and rich” but noted that it “will look better with some age.” Selleck commented on the “layers of black cherries, sweeter spices/jam notes, tree sap,” calling it a “polished sangiovese.” She thought it had “very balanced alcohol,” with “silky tannins rather than dusty tannins, modern sangiovese indeed.”
2017 Payten & Jones VV Series Yarra Valley Sangiovese $25
This was also singled out by Purser and Selleck, with the latter commenting: “Loads of flavour going on here, morello, dusty cherry fruit, savoury fruit no inherent sweetness, tobacco and dried herbs … tannins are dusty ‘old-school like’.” Purser noted the “finely tuned, perfumed, herbal and meaty notes.” He found it “mid-weight, savoury but purely fruited,” with “fine succulent tannins.” “Reminds me of Chianti,” Selleck reflected.
2017 Pikes ‘Premio’ Clare Valley Sangiovese $45
Crowther and Selleck both selected this in their top six lists. Crowther noted the “bright red fruits with spice layers that draw you in.” He found it “medium weight with a soft core of red fruits,” and had a “high level of drinkability.” Selleck commented on the “savoury dried herbal notes,” and that it had “red cherry fruit in spades with a noticeable quality of flavour, possible older vine material?” Crowther thought it had “nice polish” and was an “elegant style.” While Selleck noted the “sinewy tannins that play nicely across the palate” and that the “fleshy/lively acidity keeps this wine finely textured throughout and light on its feet.”
The Other Top Picks
These wines featured in one of the panellists’ top six, but they were not necessarily the lowest ranked on their individual lists. We’ll let their words do the talking.
2018 Coriole McLaren Vale Sangiovese $28
Andrew: “Vibrant in the glass with youthful hue. Cherry cola nose with primary fruits dominating. Subtle oak spice adds to the complexity along with a herbaceous lift on the nose. The palate is cool and although opulent with sweet notes is contained by linear acid and prominent youthful tannins. The latter has a graphite edge which engages. The finish is long. New world sangiovese with a juicy core that commands attention. Line and length balanced with great intensity and complexity.”
2017 Fighting Gully Road Beechworth Sangiovese $28
Madden-Grey: “Red cherry fruit and pink roses complemented by a green leaf character. A moreish tang of Italian bitters pushes through to tar notes on the finish. Attractive complexity, balanced acidity and fine tannin structure, an elegant wine.”
2017 Fighting Gully Road ‘Block 02’ Beechworth Sangiovese $65
Andrew: “Pale intensity with a reductive core. Savoury nose with a hint of developing fruit that shows complexity from primary and secondary fruit characters. Dry and savoury on the palate with cherries and red plums. A lovely herbal line accompanies the structural tannins and acid, seamless with a long focused finish. Engaging and delightful to sample with a lick of new oak that adds to complexity.”
2016 Foster e Rocco Heathcote Sangiovese $35
Madden-Grey: “A classic representation of Sangiovese. Very aromatic – full of rose petals, leather, fresh tobacco, fresh earth and small red berries. Medium weight on the palate with a round mouthfeel. The palate is led by flavours on the savoury spectrum – fresh pencil savings, bitter Campari and spicy liquorice, framed by vibrant acidity and dense, finely textured tannins.”
2018 Lark Hill ‘Dark Horse Vineyard’ Canberra District Sangiovese $30
Selleck: “Spicy, warm aromas, underbrush, herbs, spice, red cherries, mulberry fruit and earth, polished then dusty ripe tannins. Generous mouth-coating dry tannins. The acid line throughout the palate was fine and well balanced. Alcohol moderate, all aspects here in check. Great representation of sangiovese and balanced use of oak.”
2017 Latta ‘Warrak’ Grampians Sangiovese $45
Selleck: “Darker fruit, earthy, gamey notes, violets, florals. High alcohol aromas straight up, but then not present on the palate. Chalky tannins. Wine possibly un-fined/unfiltered? Very flavoursome tannins, medium bodied, super savoury, the fleshy acidity was appealing, crosses a modern and classic sangiovese style.”
2018 Mallaluka Sangiovese $27
Protheroe: “Less colour than others in the bracket, this wine drinks in an almost pinot-like manner. Oh so easy and addictive. The nose and palate offer enticing red fruit and spice with ultra-fine tannins and a softness to the acidity.”
Year No.3 Leuconoe (Payten & Jones) Yarra Valley Sangiovese $40
Crowther: “Glossy core of attractive fruits. Silky fruits with a highly attractive floral character. Lovely poise on the palate, fine grip and crisp crunch of acid.”
2017 Ravensworth ‘Estate’ Canberra District Sangiovese $38
Andrew: “Pale intensity with a subtle nose of cherries and red fruits plus dry herbs. The palate is dry and savoury with a fragility that engages and draws you into the wine. Layers of flavour are accompanied by the acid and tannin framework, classic for Sangiovese. The finish is long and focused with fruit intensity to the end.”
2013 Vinea Marson Heathcote Sangiovese $40
Andrew: “In a beautiful drinking zone with a developed nose that includes a gamey, meaty and smoky profile. The palate is dry and savoury with a lovely acid line from front to back palate. Tannins are plush and integrated; the palate displays great texture and complexity and the finish has great poise and length.”
2015 Vinoque Yarra Valley Sangiovese $25
Purser: “Dark red. Fragrant and deeply scented, liquorice, marzipan, orange peel, dried herbs and sour cherry. Very complex, long, richly fruited but beautifully framed with fine tannins and tight grained oak.”
Sebastian Crowther is one of only five Master Sommeliers in Australia, having passed the notoriously difficult test in 2013. He currently runs his wine import and wholesale business, Real Wines. He has previously won Sydney Morning Herald Sommelier of the Year and also the Judy Hirst award for the best wine list in the country. Prior to devoting himself to his own business, Crowther was the Beverage Director for the Rockpool Dining Group.
Justin Purser has been the winemaker at Best’s Great Western since 2011. A graduate of the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Oenology, Purser has worked around the world, including at Brezza in Piedmont, and as a senior winemaker at Domaine de Montille in Volnay between 2008 and 2011. Purser is also a regular wine show judge.
Simone Madden-Grey began working in the wine industry in 2013 when she moved to Hong Kong. She completed the WSET Diploma in 2015 and was awarded the HKIWSC Scholarship for the highest WSET Diploma mark in Asia that year. She was awarded Highest Honours in the Wine Scholar Guild’s Rhône Masters course, and was awarded the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show Fellowship in 2018. As a writer, Simone has been published by Gourmet Traveller WINE, Halliday Magazine, SevenFifty Daily, Wine Spectator and The Drinks Business, in addition to working as a certified WSET educator.
Sarah Andrew is the National On-Premise Business Manager for the House of Fine Wines. She is the Oceania Advisory Board Member for WSET, on the Advisory Board for Australian Women in Wine Awards, and Co President of Sommeliers Australia. Andrew holds the WSET Diploma with Honours, is a WSET Certified Educator, an A+ Wine School Educator for Wine Australia, a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for her Master of Wine.
Virginia Selleck is the Wine Director and founding partner at Magnum & Queens Wine. She has worked across the hospitality industry, holding sommelier positions at Rockpool Bar & Grill (Melbourne), Stokehouse, Bellota and Cumulus Inc.
Mark Protheroe is a founding partner at The Recreation in Fitzroy North as well as running his eponymous beverage consultancy business. For six years Protheroe was the Head Sommelier for Grossi Restaurants. Mark has competed as a sommelier at the world titles, is an Advanced Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and has sat for his Master Sommelier Diploma on more than one occasion.