To say that Italian varieties have arrived is an understatement. Until around 2000, the Australian uptake of Italy’s grapes had been relatively slow, with some notable makers of sangiovese and nebbiolo the main players, though arguably a stylistic expression of pinot grigio – strictly a French grape (pinot gris) but long adopted by the Italians – had made the most Italian-accented impression. With the importation of a range of new clones of already present varieties and grapes new to our shores, the floodgates started to open after the turn of the century. Today, many of those varieties are finding neat matches across the varied climates of the country, while some longer serving varieties are reaching new heights.
“For me, growing and making energetic wines with our Italian varieties, sangiovese and fiano, is both a way of connecting with my ancestral roots and also a happy acceptance that in our location, and with a rapidly warming climate, these are the varieties, alongside our other southern European varieties, mataro and grenache, that will continue to cope and thrive into the future,” says Minimum Wines’ Matt Purbrick.
Before the Chalmers family started to import a raft of Italian varieties and clones around the turn of the century to propagate in their Murray Darling nursery, the choice of Italian vine material was somewhat thin on the ground. Nebbiolo was here, of course, but the number of clones/biotypes was limited, and sangiovese, although it had much more representation was largely limited to what is widely regarded as a lesser clone.
Pinot grigio was surging, with makers who used the Italian synonym generally inspired stylistically by what was seen as an Italian take on the grape. While it is true that the grape hails from France, there are few grapes that have so emblematically become part of a country’s character as pinot grigio, where it is the second most planted variety (sangiovese is number one).
“We’re now removing most of our shiraz, chardonnay, merlot and even some pinot noir, with one eye on the future with climate change. We’re planting large quantities of fiano, arneis, sangiovese, nebbiolo, montepulciano and nero d’avola, with others in mind for the future.”
There were smatterings of barbera, dolcetto (the world’s oldest vines, in fact, which are at Best’s) and a few other varieties, such as cortese, verduzzo (notably at Pizzini) and garganega, for example, but most were curios that barely impacted the market. Over the last two decades or so, we have seen not just a vast increase in the varieties that are available, but they have also been enthusiastically planted right across the country, from the arid heat of the Riverland to the cool of the Adelaide Hills – and drinkers have embraced them just as fervently.
While at times prosecco seems like the most visible Italian variety, sangiovese eclipses it in volume of plantings more than twice over. Sangiovese is famously grown in McLaren Vale, where Coriole championed it in the mid-1980s, but it has found meaningful and characterful niches across the country.
The Canberra District is one of those places, with makers like Ravensworth, Mallaluka, Collector and Lark Hill making lauded expressions. Having worked at some of Canberra’s leading lights, Chrissie Smith now farms a small, leased vineyard planted to shiraz and sangiovese, which go to make her Intrepidus label, while her ‘day job’ is managing the vineyard at Jeir Creek.
“Italian Varieties are certainly showing that they suit many Australian wine growing regions, including Canberra,” says Smith. “We have just planted out fiano and sangiovese at Jeir Creek. Although they are varieties that have proven to tolerate heat and drought well, we have still chosen to plant on rootstocks that also tolerate drought to help mitigate impacts of climate change and ensure protection if ever there’s a phylloxera outbreak.”
That future planning is a big part of the attraction of Italian varieties, especially ones like fiano and nero d’avola, for example, which are well adapted to hot and dry conditions, holding their acidity and not becoming excessively broad or alcoholic in even the most trying conditions, while still being successful when the temperature drops. “I am making my first nero d’avola this year, and I’m excited by its versatility and fruit structure, even in a cooler year,” says Smith.
That climate suitability is naturally an advantage, but wine quality is the ultimate success determinant. Smith has seen the success though her practical work, but she is given even more encouragement through wine show judging. “Through some associate judging at the Australian Italian Varieties Wine Awards several years in a row, it has been awesome to see the increase in Italian varieties getting planted, but also the increase in quality of some of these wines as they become more established.”
Based the Barossa Valley, Sven Joschke of Sven Joschke Wine believes that sangiovese’s versatility will see it becoming even more in demand for makers. “Dependant on the picking time, wines can be tailored toward rosé, chilled red and highly structured table wines,” he says. “Our sangiovese is sourced from Langhorne Creek, which shares similarities to its origin, from soil types – sandy loam over clay – to annual average rainfalls. We find that the site consistently delivers vibrant fruits with chalky tannins suiting a young, fresh and poppy table or chilled red wine.”
“With our diverse climatic conditions mirroring the famed regions of Italy, it wouldn’t surprise me if some, such as sangiovese, montepulciano and fiano, become accepted as mainstream and more traditional varieties produced currently become more obscure.”
That versatility is also enhanced by its diversity of reflections in different sites. “I particularly love the cool climate spice that the Canberra region seems to express,” says Smith. “It has some of that cool climate white pepper spice on the nose, with bright red berry fruits. Although I don’t tend to see that dusty savouriness that some Italian sangiovese can have, I find Canberra sangios can express more a seductive stemmy savouriness.”
Making a difference
For James Scarcebrook of Vino Intrepido, his initial reference point is always Italy when sourcing fruit. “Firstly, I think about what climate the region has and what is an equivalent in Italy,” he says. “Then I look at other examples that might already be made there that are great or show promise.”
That process follows through to the winemaking, with his first forays into making a variety modelled around the classical methodology of its prime growing territory, whether through maceration, barrel type, maturation time and then time in bottle. From there, he adapts his methods. “Each vintage, I look at how successful I’ve been and how I can fine tune. For example, with the sagrantino in the first vintage, I split the wine between French and Hungarian oak barrels. The French oak was significantly better at softening and rounding the tannins, so in 2021 the wine was only held in French oak.”
For Purbrick, supplying to tradition and forging his own path at the same time is just as important. “These will continue to be the wines that speak to my heart and excite my tastebuds the most,” he says referring to the Italian grapes he works with, but he also pulls grenache into that orbit, with cannonau the synonym for what is an important grape in Sardinia.
“You won’t find anyone in Sardinia that doesn’t think grenache was originally stolen from the island during the Spanish occupation of their territory,” says Purbrick. “So given Sardinia is now governed by Italy, I guess I should include that as an ancestral grape of mine too! And in making them we want to always ensure a traditional process is channelled, with lots of simple wild fermentation in open vessels, lots of skin contact, lots of hand contact, lots of crossing of hearts and raising of heads to the sky. These are the holy grapes!”
And while much of the recent focus on Italian varieties has been centred on adapting to warm and warming conditions, especially with grapes of southern origin, a powerhouse producer of quality Italian grapes is North East Victoria, largely in the King and Alpine Valleys. There the climate is continental, and depending on elevation can be very cool. Pia Cavedon and her husband Gabe O’Brien make wine from the vineyard first planted by Cavedon’s father, Dino, in 1977.
“My grandparents were the first Italian family to start growing grapes here commercially after a hard slog growing tobacco in the high country,” says Cavedon. “Like many Italian immigrants, they were drawn to this region that was reminiscent of their home in Northern Italy. It was a visit back to the homeland that sparked dad’s interest in planting Italian varieties, and after several years getting to know the valley’s growing environment, he knew there was a good chance they’d do well. Pinot Grigio being the first, in the early 90s.”
That was a time when even pinot grigio was not well known, and it would be sometime before other Italian varieties took off, but with growing acceptance and ideal conditions that was just a matter of time. “Italian varieties weren’t really on the radar in the King Valley then, but fast forward and they’ve gone gangbusters, and our Italian and other Mediterranean varieties are some of the best we’ve grown to date, rarely needing much attention in the winery,” says O’Brien.
That intuitive, or perhaps nostalgic, inspiration by Dino Cavedon all those years ago has certainly paid dividends, and they have been joined by many other Italian and non-Italian families in the region in championing myriad varieties. “The cool climate of the King and its varying microclimates is an ideal environment for growing Italian varieties,” says O’Brien. “The slow ripening helps develop flavour and aromatics, which is really noticeable in the more delicate varieties, like pinot grigio and prosecco. The sugar and flavour tend to develop in sync, making getting balance much easier.”
The Baxter family’s New Era label is based at their Woodside vineyard in the cool of the Adelaide Hills. Due to extensive damage from the 2019 bushfire, they’ve recently been sourcing fruit from other Hills sites and from the Limestone Coast, but the varietal mix reflects both their pre and post bushfire direction, with an emphasis on both Iberian and Italian varieties.
“Over the last ten years,” says winemaker Iain Baxter, “we were experimenting and planting Italian varieties in small quantities to see the potential at the Woodside property, and we’re now removing most of our shiraz, chardonnay, merlot and even some pinot noir, with one eye on the future with climate change. We’re planting large quantities of fiano, arneis, sangiovese, nebbiolo, montepulciano and nero d’avola, with others in mind for the future.”
Baxter sees this as both the best way forward for their brand but also the sensible direction for growing fruit for others, with the demand for emerging varieties increasing. “Sourcing alternatives is getting extremely difficult, and prices have jumped dramatically over last couple of vintages. It makes great business sense as a vineyard and grape supplier for us to fill a gap in the market that is ever expanding, and I believe will continue to.”
That trend is something that Baxter believes will be both far reaching and sustainable due to both farming and wine quality gains. “Italian varieties are certainly causing a shake-up in Australia currently,” he says. Exactly how much these varieties expand over the next few decades is yet to be seen, but there’s little doubt that many more bottles on wine lists and store shelves will have an Italian accent.
“With our diverse climatic conditions mirroring the famed regions of Italy, it wouldn’t surprise me if some, such as sangiovese, montepulciano and fiano, become accepted as mainstream and more traditional varieties produced currently become more obscure,” concludes Baxter.
This comes off the Chalmers Vineyard in Merbein, with the juice fermented in two-year-old oak barrels, and what looks like a whisper of skin contact. There’s a whiff of smoky spiciness, along with a briny edge across some lemon pith and preserved peel, dried apple and a hint of lime blossom. The palate is lightly poised with texture broadening the appeal and an appealing light sourness. While this is pitched for summer refreshment and seafood, its charm comes out best not overly chilled, letting the subtle detail unlock.
This is made in a fresh style, but it’s packing a bit of richness and weight also. Typical red and dark fruits, with blackberry and inky plum notes, along with savoury tarry elements carried through on the palate with equally typical barbera acidity, no doubt enhanced by the cool growing region, with a freshness that reveals hints of anise and an unfurling of dark berries through the finish.
2022 Minimum ‘San Selvaggio’ Sangiovese
Goulburn Valley, 13%, 32
Part of the ‘Short Runs’ series, this is pitched in a bright and vibrant way, with notes of bright red and dark cherries, cranberry and some red floral notes with a dusty earthiness. This has all the forward charm of a modern, bright style of red, while also echoing the classic vino da tavola trattoria wines of Italy – built for food. A chewy lick of pithy, grapey tannin and a dusting of white pepper carry the finish. This drinks well at a (cool) room temperature, but a moderate chill works a treat, too.
On the modern rosé-hue scale, this has plenty of colour, though still in the anticipated rage of pinky-redness. That hint more tint shows aromatically, too, with a nose full of coolly ripe summer berries, cranberries and sour plums and cherries, with red fruits to the fore. What cinches it all back in is the fact that the fruit was picked on the super-crisp side, so acidity runs down a tight line, succulent, pithy and with a plum-skin grip to close out. It’s a rosé of ample flavour but with plenty of freshness, grip and zip.
This is pitched in a light to midweight mood, but there’s flavour aplenty, with cherry notes, white pepper and tart plum, with a spicy, gently herbal lift from some whole bunch. The palate is certainly not big, but it’s savoury, taut, structured and detailed – a long way from the norm in lighter reds these days, with the pedal off juicy immediacy. That profile makes this a food wine, where that sinewy grip will provide support, allowing the fruit to blossom out.
There’s a bloody iron-like quality to this, with blood plum, dark cherry and a hint of sarsaparilla. The moody, savoury notes of the variety are on full display, with some crushed autumn leaves and spice, but this is pitched more in an approachable mode, with a fairly juicy fruit profile, but you can’t get away from the sagrantino tannins, with an assertively grape-skin dryness carrying the palate with a dusty chew.
This is pinot grigio in the classic Italian style, with cool pear notes and a joyous brightness of fruit and subdued orchard florals. It’s got a bit more weight and texture than that reference, though, with the quality of fruit shining through, a crunchy nashi note key. It’s interesting in that way, as it feels light and crisp up front, but the fruit concentration underlying endorses that earlier picking decision, with ample flavour, slippery, pulpy texture and invigorating acidity.
This is very lifted and aromatic, with aromas of pink grapefruit, guava and red-skinned apple, a corella pear note hanging a bit further back, along with a subtle dusting of cinnamon spice. Juicy and fresh, this has a gently textural flex and richness, with a vibrant coil of acidity adding a pleasing freshness through the finish.
Deep and inky in hue, this has the classic dark intensity of lagrein, with saturated ripe red forest berries and blackberry notes. There’s spice here, with some anise and brown cardamom, along with a malty tarriness, but the fruit takes the lead, intense but not overt, tempered by spicy notes and a subtly saline complexity twisting the supple tannins into a savoury finish.
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