The principal red grape of Sicily, nero d’avola is incredibly resilient to the hot and dry climate, primarily producing mid-weight berry-scented wines with racy acidity. It’s no wonder, then, that the grape is gaining very firm traction in some of Australia’s warmer viticultural zones, with now over 50 wineries making their take on nero.
Also known as
Aside from residing anonymously under the titles of a number of Italian DOCs, nero d’avola’s only real synonym is calabrese, though with slight variations, such as calabrese dolce and calabrese pizzutello.
What nero d’avola tastes like
Notes of wild raspberry and cherries are quite common in nero, often with earthy, tarry accents and scents of wild herbs. As it gets riper, those darker, tarry notes become more prominent, while the prettier red fruits recede, with dark plum and black cherry emerging. In terms of weight, nero rarely makes big wines, with even the plusher examples never having the weight of a full-throttle shiraz, for example. Nero’s thin skins generally also mean that tannic grip is on the lighter side, with characteristic acidity providing driving freshness.
Vineyard & winemaking
Nero d’avola is seen as a very promising grape in Australia to not just future proof in a warming climate, but also to plant in already hot regions, like those of the Murray Darling and Riverland. The vine is incredibly resilient to heat, not just enduring long spells of hot and dry weather but genuinely thriving in them. It is so well adapted that while some varieties get baked in heatwave conditions, nero d’avola retains acidity and slows down sugar production, but still ripens flavours and tannins, meaning it can actually be more balanced and less ripe/alcoholic in the hottest of conditions. No wonder it’s being seen as such an exciting prospect in Australia’s warmest zones. It’s also a variety that yields a good-sized crop. Nero can be made into rosé or light, forward styles with minimal tannin, or it can also be made into darker, earthier expressions, though no matter the intensity, oak can be an awkward element if not handled very carefully.
Where is nero d’avola grown?
Sicily’s most planted grape actually officially bears the tag of another region. Calabrese (as in, from Calabria, at the front of the Italian boot) is the prime scientific name for nero d’avola (which translates roughly as “black from Avola” – a town in the province of Syracuse), but 98 per cent of Italy’s 14,000 hectares of the grape are in Sicily, and Calabria’s principal red grape is gaglioppo. Like so many Italian grapes, nero d’avola’s genes very likely originated in Greece. Some early grapes made their way up through Italy via Sicily, populating other regions, but nero d’avola largely remained on the island, and the grape is now uniquely adapted to the hot and dry climate. Although its historical home is the south-east, nero d’avola is now grown across Sicily. Capable of reliably producing large crops, it became the mainstay of the bold sunny reds that the island became known for. However, nero d’avola generally pitches more in the mid-weight spectrum, rather than being brutishly big. The grape is also responsible for Sicily’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, blended with frappato, another local grape.
Nero d’avola around the world
Unlike Italy’s better-known standard bearers – like sangiovese – nero d’avola hasn’t travelled much yet. There are plantings in the United States, but Australia is currently mounting the strongest case for the grape in the New World.
Nero d’avola in Australia
The grape was first imported to Australia by “alternative variety” pioneer, and still the leader, Chalmers. That first vine was imported in 1998, leaving quarantine in 2001, and is now responsible for all the plantings in Australia. McLaren Vale has emerged as perhaps the region with the greatest claim to being the prime home for the grape, with its Mediterranean conditions somewhat to similar to those of the best zones in Sicily. There is a challenge to that from the less prestigious regions of the Riverland and Murray Darling, where nero vines are thriving in the hot conditions. It’s early still, though, with not enough plantings of good maturity and makers still learning about the variety both in the vineyard and winery to be definitive. No doubt, other warmer zones, such as the Swan Valley, will also be interesting prospects.
Photo of nero d’avola grapes seen here, courtesy of Ricca Terra Farms.
Some of the best Australian nero d’avola
Architects of Wine
Bird in Hand
Gatch & Little Bang Brewing Co.
Welkin by Aphelion