In just two decades, the Southern Italian grape fiano has found a meaningful new home in Australia, with plantings in zones both witheringly hot and quite cool. It’s a grape that keeps its freshness in the heat as it builds ample flavour, while finer examples can really channel the minerality of site. The future for fiano is looking dazzlingly bright, with makers both established and newly minted drawn to its charms.
Fiano’s traditional territory is in Avellino, Campania, in Italy’s south. It’s a relatively lofty zone characterised by volcanic soil, with the elevation mitigating the heat of the latitude, producing racy and exceedingly mineral wines, still with fiano’s depth of fruit, but with a hammering line of acidity. That acidity would prove to be a saviour for the grape – which was pushed to the brink of extinction in the 20th century – with its adaptability to much warmer climes key to its expansion.
In Sicily, where daytime temperatures can be extreme, fiano proved to retain that acidity. Wineries like the progressive Planeta made notable examples, with the wines pushing into a tropical spectrum. While suitability for the grape was being found in other parts of Italy, the Chalmers family also saw the potential in the generally warm Australian climate, importing vine cuttings in 2000 for their nursery in the Murray Darling.
“Picking early leads to acid-driven, citrus styles, with later ripening moving to stone fruits and more of the honeyed and nutty wines.”
Fiano cuttings had actually made the voyage here already, with the CSIRO importing the variety in 1978. That amounted to trial plantings only, and it was in McLaren Vale, a region that has arguably become its most recognisable proponent, that it finally found a meaningful home. In 2001, Mark Lloyd put the first vines – from the CSIRO material – in the ground at Coriole (with many more planted over the years), producing the first commercial release in 2005, the same year as Chalmers released their first varietal wine.
Duncan Lloyd – Mark’s son – now takes the winemaking reigns at the Vale icon, making a textural style alongside a more everyday offering. “It’s a hugely important part of our white portfolio,” says Lloyd. “We now source from five vineyards, all picked and treated separately. We’ve had a natural evolution of style over the past 15 years. Initially we shied away from the phenolic side of fiano and focused on the acidity and aromatics. As time has passed, we have identified fiano as a great variety to be a more textural white in our portfolio, exploring the richer side of the grape.”
That textural white is their ‘Rubato’, which was first made as an experiment in 2018, but now sits alongside shiraz, cabernet and sangiovese (a variety they also pioneered, first planted in 1985) in their reserve portfolio. It’s quite a statement for a variety that many would still regard to be on the fringe, but Lloyd says that it is a grape that has wide acceptance and is an easy one to introduce to new customers at their cellar door.
No doubt that says as much about the couple of decades experience as it does the properties of the grape, with Lloyd noting that a lot of thought and effort goes into making the wines. “We use our different vineyard sites and clones to build components,” he says. “It’s still vital to have a vibrant and highly aromatic portion, then we look for some riper picks, with skin contact in the press for flavour and phenolic development. We are now also using some oak fermentation in 300-litre and 3,000-litre French oak.”
Jack Weedon’s Rollick Wines is based in the Barossa, but it was a fiano from the Riverland that launched his label, and it’s become a key part of the portfolio. “The grape lends itself to a myriad of wine styles,” he says. “We’re always playing around, making tweaks to get the best out of the grape. Picking early leads to acid-driven, citrus styles, with later ripening moving to stone fruits and more of the honeyed and nutty wines. It’s nice to have a bit of both, if you can do multiple picks, then blend. I build texture and weight with skin contact and lees stirring. Fiano has relatively thick skins with an abundance of flavour, so it certainly lends itself to skin contact.”
The fruit Weedon sources is from Ricca Terra Farms, with Ashley Ratcliff leading the charge for growing climate-apt varieties – mainly Italian and Iberian – in South Australia’s arid Riverland region. And his mission is one built on premium grapes for premium wine production, a culture shift for the region, but one that has proven to be incredibly successful, with top makers from across South Australia’s marquee regions lining up to buy his fruit.
“We’ve had a natural evolution of style over the past 15 years. Initially we shied away from the phenolic side of fiano and focused on the acidity and aromatics. As time has passed, we have identified fiano as a great variety to be a more textural white in our portfolio, exploring the richer side of the grape.”
“We fell in love with fiano from day one,” says Ratcliff. “It’s a variety that makes amazing, flavoursome wines. It’s also a joy to grow, unlike some other Italian varieties, with it having naturally balanced yields that align with quality wine production, and it’s also resistant to disease. The hardest part is keeping up with demand!”
Sourcing fruit from the distinctly cooler region of the Mornington Peninsula, James Scarcebrook of Vino Intrepido benchmarks the home of fiano in Campania. “Not only do I think of Fiano as a cool climate variety thanks to the elevation in Avellino,” he says, “but also as the closest thing Italy has to chardonnay. Considering how great Mornington chardonnay is, and how much the cool bay breezes introduce a saline element, I approached the winemaking as such, looking for texture and depth.”
Scarcebrook is careful to note that fiano certainly makes quality wines from warmer areas, but his focus is very much around teasing out a different regional expression, and he thinks there’s plenty more potential, too. “If it were up to me, I would be planting fiano in cool climate regions of Western Victoria, which has a richness of volcanic soil, albeit older than you find in Southern Italy. Varieties like fiano, greco and carricante could be world class in these regions.”
While Lloyd feels that fiano has found a very suitable home in McLaren Vale, he’s similarly bullish about the grape’s potential to be a meaningful player in the future of Australian wine. “Fiano has definitely proven itself,” he says. “The suitability to our climate is a major driver in its success and likely to be the primary consideration for planting, but I see fiano as adaptable to a range of regions throughout Australia – it’s a fantastic variety to explore Australia’s regional diversity.”
Charlotte Hardy is a newcomer to the grape, making her first example from the 2020 vintage with Langhorne Creek’s Project 5255, which aims to spotlight the region through the lens of celebrated makers. “I chose fiano after a bit of research about the region and variety,” she says. “I was drawn to the deep – very deep – alluvial sandy loam soil, and I love the praline and marzipan mixed with fresh citrus zest that the wines can show. Having had very little experience with the variety, I thought it was a great chance to put my energy into it without any pre-conceived ideas.”
Hardy’s approach is very much in the minimal-intervention camp, with no sulphur added until bottling on any of her wines. “I was absolutely terrified that my wine was going to be oily, something I really don’t like in fiano,” she says. “It forgave me for making it sit in barrel all winter and spring, on full lees, while waiting for the one lagging barrel to tick through the last of its sugar. This meant the wine ended up most of the way through malolactic. Yet still it held up, kept its head up, kept upbeat, remained fresh. Didn’t turn into a greasy, oily slick. I think you would have to try very hard to make the grape unpalatable. To me, fiano is an all-occasions wine, both to make and to drink.”
Quite deeply coloured with a golden tone, this is richly fruited but bright, with honey lacing ripe golden apple and meyer lemon notes. That richness carries on the palate, with a full textural feel, with those ripe orchard fruit and honey flavours carrying through, a stone fruit kernel note adding a savoury counterpart. While this has some heft and richness, the acidity cleans up through the finish, carrying the flavours long, with a bright finale.
Yellow citrus, tart golden apples and just ripening nectarine accented with dried woody herbs and a gentle savoury imprint from oak that has long since lost its gloss of newness, instead rounding out some edges and bringing flavours together. This is brightly fresh on the palate, but it’s not lacking for texture, with the racy acid drive sheathed in subtle viscosity, with a light chewiness closing things out.
Brightly lifted notes of golden apples, yellow citrus, orchard florals, cooked cling peach and a hint of orange oil. There’s a good deal of flavour here, but it’s vibrant and fragrant, with a lean on freshness and varietal expression. The palate carries the theme, with no intrusions of winemaking artefact, but it’s not simple for it, with a neatly judged palate that wraps some gentle grape tannin around the fine core of natural acidity, finishing ultra-bright, with a little pear-skin grip.
With fruit sourced from the Riverland, this is bursting with fruit, with notes of fresh melon, corella pear, red apple skin, baked apple and poached white peach. This has a gently slippery and waxy texture, allied with fresh acidity, the bright fruit flavours carrying the theme on the palate, ending with a little welcome grapey grip.
There’s a golden richness to the colour here, no doubt from some skin contact, but there’s also a real degree of refinement, with subtle cracked nut and cinnamon notes against fresh and cooked apple, Williams pear and a gentle suggestion of mandarin peel and quince. Oak adds to the texture and shape of the wine, rounding edges and merging fruit flavours into a harmonious whole, though oak flavours are absent. This is textural and layered, but there’s a sense of bright poise as an equal counterpoint.
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With six of the brightest wine minds in attendance, and 36 wines carefully selected and decanted for this blind tasting, we set out to get a better image of where the grape currently stands in an Australian context.
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