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Wine

Australia’s Italian dream: An alternative future

The state of play tasting for this issue took an Italian turn as the Panel looked at four of Australia’s hottest new alternative varieties.

When you think about cutting edge, alternative destinations in Australia, does Mildura spring to mind? If you’re a wine-lover, it should, because this small Victorian city is home to the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show (AAVWS). Held every November, the AAVWS celebrates outstanding ‘alternative’ wine styles during a week of educational and celebratory events. I had the honour of being selected as the 2015 AAVWS Fellowship winner and experienced firsthand the diversity and fun it promotes. But before I go on, let’s define ‘alternative varieties’. Firstly, they’re varieties that general wine drinkers have little knowledge and/or awareness of, and secondly, they’re relative newcomers to the Australian wine drinking scene.

In the short time these varieties have called Australia home, they have generated a great deal of excitement and momentum. For a snapshot of this, you only have to look at the swell in the number of classes at the AAVWS. The 23 classes that made up the inaugural show in 2001 have grown to a total of 47 in 2015. While the quality of wines on show was high across every class, four varieties really stood out. The two white varieties, Fiano and Vermentino, and the two red varieties, Nero d’Avola and Montepulciano are not only producing amazing wines, but there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of wineries producing them.

Since 2010, Fiano has gone from eight to 37 AAVWS entries, and Vermentino has swelled from 15 to 38. Montepulciano has jumped from two in 2010 to 20 in 2015 and Nero d’Avola went from no entries in 2010 to 18 in 2015. This increase across these four varieties has been mirrored by the greater number of Fiano, Vermentino, Montepulciano and Nero d’Avola wines we have been tasting and offering at Wine Selectors. This begs the question, if this popularity continues, could these alternative varieties soon be held in the same esteem as the likes of Chardonnay and Shiraz?

With this in mind, we set out to discover where Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d’Avola and Montepulciano thrive and who is making the best examples. The call was put out to noted Australian producers and our Tasting Panel sipped through over 100 wines. But before we discuss the tasting, let’s give these four grapes a quick introduction.

Meet the Italians

While Vermentino is grown in a number of Italian regions, it’s on the island of Sardinia that it is most well-known. Famed for its notes of peach, lemon and dried herb, its high and refreshing acidity and its distinctive sea salt character, it is thought to be the same variety as the French grape Rolle.
Fiano’s home is the hills of Avellino, inland from Naples in the Campania region. Famous for being full of citrus and stone fruits with racy and mouth-watering acidity, it can range in style from light and fresh to rich and mouth-coating.

Montepulciano is widely grown in central Italy, but most famously in the eastern region of Abruzzo. It gives dark coloured wines full of black fruit and has softer tannins than most Italian red grapes.
Nero d’Avola is the famed red grape of the island of Sicily. It makes wines with deep dark colour, high, refreshing acidity and black and red fruits. The style of Nero can range from light and fresh wines for immediate drinking to rich and dense wines that will benefit from age.

In style

Outstanding wines from all four varieties were revealed during our tasting with style and the region of origin emerging as hot topics of discussion.
Across both Fiano and Vermentino there were two styles. The wines were either lighter in body with dominant citrus fruit flavours, or richer with more weight and pronounced stone fruit characters. Most of the richer wines were the result of the smart use of lees or subtle oak influence. So if you’re a fan of Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot G, you’ll likely enjoy the lighter styles, while lovers of modern Chardonnay will find much to enjoy in the richer examples.

Unlike the whites, the two reds could be clearly differentiated from each other. Montepulciano showed off black fruits and soft, silky mouthfeel, revealing itself as a wine with mass appeal, especially to anyone who loves the fruit power of Australian Shiraz. Nero d’Avola turned out to be a more delicate, fresher style. The majority of wines were medium bodied, full of juicy black and red fruits with vibrant and lively acidity. These are wines that have immediate drinking in mind and would pique the interest of any lover of Pinot Noir or light bodied Grenache.

Regional range

The spread of regions featured in the tasting was inspiring. Vermentino had multiple representations from McLaren Vale, Hunter Valley, Riverland and Heathcote. Fiano was heavily represented by McLaren Vale, so it should come as no surprise that many of the region’s winemakers have heralded it as their big white of the future. The Hunter Valley, Riverland and the cooler regions of the Adelaide Hills and the King Valley also showed top class Fiano. Given Nero d’Avola loves the heat, it makes perfect sense that McLaren Vale, Riverland and Barossa were the standout regions. Montepulciano showed it can be grown successfully in both warmer and cooler climates with Adelaide Hills and Riverland dominating.

The tasting clearly demonstrated that these four varieties have a big future. Not only do they offer diverse flavours and textures that complement our multicultural cuisine, but they also thrive in our hot and dry climate. This, as Kim Chalmers of Chalmers Wines notes, provides a “beacon of hope for growers wishing to continue to pursue quality wine growing in a world affected by climate change, while reducing pressure on natural resources and requiring less inputs in the vineyard and winery.”

If you’d like to check out the AAVWS this year, keep the first week of November free. Judging starts on the 2nd November and full details can be found at aavws.com

The Panel's Top 20

Kirrihill Wines Montepulciano 2014
La Prova Fiano 2015
Bird in Hand Montepulciano 2014
Bremerton Special Release Fiano 2015
Zarella Wines La Gita Nero D’Avola 2014
Deliquente Wines Screaming Betty Vermentino 2016
Coriole Nero D’Avola 2015
Mr Riggs Generation series Montepulciano 2014
Artwine Leave Your Hat On Montepulciano 2015
Atze’s Corner White Knight Vermentino 2015
Five Geese La Volpe Nero D’Avola 2014
Hand Crafted by Geoff Hardy Montepulciano 2014
Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards Fiano 2016
Mount Eyre Vineyards Three Ponds Fiano 2015
Chalmers Wine Project Nero D’Avola 2015
Serafino Bellissimo Fiano 2016
David Hook Vermentino 2015
Bress Silver Chook Vermentino 2015
Chalk Hill Lopresti Block 10 Vermentino 2015
Alex Russell Alejandro Nero D’Avola 2016

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Wine
Italian Stallions
Words by Max Allen on 12 Aug 2015
Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, Italy’s best-known red grape varieties, are relative newcomers on the Australian wine scene. Tiny patches of Italian varieties have been grown here since the very early years of viticultural settlement. The Dolcetto vines at Best’s Great Western date back to the 19th century, for example, and Sydney surgeon/winegrower Thomas Fiaschi planted the rare Aleatico grape in Mudgee in the 1920s. But Tuscany’s Sangiovese and Piedmont’s Nebbiolo didn’tarrive here until late in the 20th century. Its pioneers were Carlo Corino at Montrose in Mudgee, Mark Lloyd at Coriole in McLaren Vale, and the Brown Brothers in Victoria’s King Valley. I have been monitoring the progress of these Italian varieties in Australia for over 20 years. I first tasted Australia’s fledgling Sangioveses and Nebbiolos in 1993. We managed to find around a dozen examples of Australian-grown Italian varieties for a tasting – including the first Pinot Grigios from T’Gallant on the Mornington Peninsula and a Dolcetto under Garry Crittenden’s (also now-defunct) Schinus label. I remember being particularly impressed by Coriole’s Sangiovese. That tasting made me wonder why more Italian varieties weren’t grown in Australia – why local vignerons were so wedded to the so-called ‘classic’ French varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. After all, Italy’s warmer Mediterranean climate is far more similar to many Australian grape-growing districts than chilly northern French regions such as Burgundy. By the end of the 1990s, I wasn’t the only one asking this question: Italian varieties were becoming trendy among grape growers and winemakers, and Sangiovese was leading the charge. So in 1999 another tasting was organised – this time by vine nurseryman Bruce Chalmers, vine specialist Dr Rod Bonfiglioli, and chef Stefano di Pieri, along with various interested parties (including your correspondent) – to assess the potential of the grape in Australia. The ‘Sangiovese Challenge’ was a tasting of two-dozen Australian-grown examples of the grape followed by an Italian-themed long lunch (cooked by Stefano) at the Grand Hotel in Mildura. This event morphed into the Italian Varieties Wine Show the following year, and the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show the year after. I have been chief judge of this show, the AAVWS, since 2005. Sangiovese has been the most popular red grape among growers and winemakers since the boom in Italian varieties began in the 1990s. The 2010 Australian Wine Industry Directory lists 260 producers of the variety, with more than 500 hectares planted across the country. This is understandable: it’s the grape responsible for Italy’s most famous red wine, Chianti; it is meant to be relatively easy to grow; and while the wine it produces can be quite savoury and tannic, it is also generally medium-bodied and has plenty of attractive red fruit flavour. This means that Australian Sangiovese is likely to appeal to a wide range of wine drinkers, and its fame and heritage make it an easy wine for marketing and cellar door people to talk about. Nebbiolo, on the other hand, has remained a niche player: the 2010 Directory lists 90 producers and just 100 hectares of vines. This is also no surprise: Nebbiolo is notoriously difficult to grow well, being quite fussy about where it grows (generally preferring cooler, more marginal spots). It is responsible in Italy for wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco - not as widely-known as Chianti - and can produce wines that are unfashionably pale, tough, low in fruit volume and very high in astringent tannin. Looking at some stats from the Alternative Varieties Show gives you a very good idea of how both these grapes are travelling in Australia at the moment. At the 2010 AAVWS, there were 60 Sangiovese entries (including Sangiovese blends) and 24 Nebbiolos. Only a third of the Sangioveses were awarded medals, with just three silvers and 17 bronzes. By contrast, more than half of the 24 Nebbiolos were medal winners, with seven bronzes, five silvers and two golds. It has been a similar story in almost all the previous shows: in 2007, for example, the 87 Sangioveses entered yielded just one gold, three silvers and 12 bronze medals – but the 25 Nebbiolos entered were awarded two golds, one silver and eight bronze. So while Sangiovese might be the most popular Italian red variety in Australia by volume, it is not only struggling to realise the huge potential everyone thought it had, but its fortunes also appear to be waning (as you can see, entry numbers at the AAVWS dropped by 30 per cent between 2007 and 2010). Nebbiolo, on the other hand, is proving itself to be a very strong and improving performer, albeit in smaller quantities. The question is: why? Why is Australian Sangiovese so frequently disappointing? And why has Nebbiolo excelled? Part of Sangiovese’s problem lies in the clone that was planted in most vineyards throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Originally developed at the University of California at Davis, this clone of Sangiovese was bred to produce heavy crops rather than high quality, and many Australian growers have struggled with its tendency to overcrop (newer, lower-yielding clones, coming into bearing now, are showing much more promise, but have yet to make their presence widely felt). More important, I think, is that Sangiovese is obviously fussier and more difficult to grow and make well than many Australian winemakers thought. It not only needs some time in the ground before the vines come into balance and produce their best quality fruit, but it also takes a few vintages to learn how best to make that fruit into good wine. Far too many Australian Sangioveses still suffer from a lack of fruit concentration and/or heavy-handed oak treatment. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the best producers of Sangiovese are those with both the requisite experience (such as Coriole, with over two decades of vintages under their belt) and the cultural connection (such as that of the King Valley’s Italian growers) to the variety. The underwhelming producers tend to be those who just planted Sangiovese because it was trendy and weren’t prepared to make the effort to reduce yields in the vineyard and treat the wine sensitively in the cellar. Most of Australia’s Nebbiolo vineyards, by contrast, have been planted by complete Nebb-nuts who are besotted with the magical wines of Piedmont. These people will do whatever it takes to make the best wine possible, and are fastidious in both vineyard and winery. This drive, this passion, this attention to detail is a big reason, I believe, why there are (relatively speaking) so many great Nebbiolos (and why they tend to cost a bit more). These are my observations based on years of tasting and judging at the AAVWS. And the results of the Selector State of Play tasting reflected the same thing. Thirty-five Sangioveses were tasted - the ones that scored well fell into two general groups: pretty, up-front, snappy-fruity wines that displayed Sangiovese’s lovely juicy cherry characters, and more ‘serious’ savoury wines that had good balance of more ripe fruit characters and drier, powdery tannins. But – for this taster at least, and for some of the others – very few, if any, of the Sangioveses we tasted were truly outstanding, automatic gold-medal standard wines (unlike the Nebbiolos). Most of the top wines were from places (King Valley, McLaren Vale ) and names (Pizzini, Dal Zotto, Crittenden) where there is a long association with Sangiovese. We tasted fewer Nebbiolos – just 13 – but the overall standard was higher and there were more outstanding wines. There was also much more animated discussion between the tasters: with its sometimes ethereal, elusive perfume, it’s often quite a disarmingly pale orange colour, and with its occasionally mouth-puckering level of bone-dry tannins, Nebbiolo can elicit strong reactions. To the Panellists’ surprise, the Adelaide Hills emerged as a particularly good area for Nebbiolo, with two of the top wines coming from the same vineyard, Frank and Rosemary Baldasso’s Kenton Hill (this vineyard also supplies the fruit for the trophy-winning SC Pannell Nebbiolo and is just over the hill from the Arrivo vineyard, the source of another trophy-winning Neb). Wine Selectors Tasting Panelist Keith Tulloch also touched on a fundamental problem with many new, alternative varietal wines in Australia – a problem that is also cause for hope. “The challenge with a lot of these varieties is the fact they come from young vines,” he said. “It was a similar story in the Hunter in the 1970s when we had thin wines that didn’t have any weight because the vineyards were so new. You need 10 years of age or more before you get reliable quality and the true essence of the grape.” This means, though, that as good as the top wines we tasted today are, the best are yet to come. Check out Wine Selectors great range of Sangiovese & Nebbiolo today.
Wine
Better than Burgundy?
Words by Mark Hughes on 2 Jul 2015
Thank you, Bill Downie, I now respect Australian Pinot . Bill said something to me about Pinot Noir that triggered an understanding and ultimately made me want to seek out a great Australian Pinot and savour its every drop. I am hoping by the time you’ve finished this article, you’ll feel the same way. As winemakers go, Bill is a bit of a legend in the Pinot world, but an anomaly in the wine universe. You see, he only makes Pinot. That’s it. His entire focus is Pinot Noir. He is an unashamed Pinotphile. Bill admits he has always been enraptured by Pinot’s romantic charm, but he really fell in love with the varietal when he was sent by his then employers, De Bortoli , to spend some time in Burgundy learning about Pinot. Five vintages later his love had become a marriage, a blessed union between a winemaker and a grape. He came back all smitten and doe-eyed and intent on making great Australian Pinot. Victoria is where he focused his attention, and in addition to his own vineyard in Gippsland, Bill now makes Pinot from vineyards in the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula . As Bill, Jeremy Dineen from Josef Chromy Wines and I were getting ready to sip, swirl and spit our way through a bunch Pinot Noirs, Bill was regaling me with his adventures in Burgundy and he said something that resonated deep within my wine scribe soul, as well as my tastebuds. “My time in Burgundy taught me to have a true and meaningful respect for the place you are in, wherever that might be,” he said, before nonchalantly adding, “Before I went to Burgundy I was in Australia trying to make wine that tasted like Red Burgundy. But after I had been there I no longer wanted to do that, I wanted to come home and make wine that tasted like the place I was, be it Gippsland, the Yarra or Mornington Peninsula". All of a Suddent it Made Sense When I first entered into this wonderful world of wine, I had bought into all the hype and hoopla about how amazing this Pinot Noir varietal was. But I had tasted enough bad home-grown Pinot that it had sullied my respect for the varietal, and as I had explored more with Old World wines, the Australian Pinots I consumed seemed too big and boisterous compared to the elegant Red Burgundy I’d savoured. But Bill’s words had made me see the error of my ways. I had tasted Aussie Pinot wanting it to be the best of Burgundy, when I should have been rating it for what it was – Australian Pinot. Bill explained to me that we would never make a Pinot Noir that tasted exactly like Red Burgundy; however with the right ingredients we can make top quality Pinot that is uniquely Australian and far more expressive. So what are those magical ingredients needed to make great Pinot Noir? The most important are climate, site and vineyard management, not to mention the gentle caress of the knowledgeable winemaker. Climate Pinot Noir prefers cool conditions but not those with a major temperature drop at night. It simply detests the heat so it seems pointless to grow Pinot anywhere that is warm, such as places like the Hunter or Barossa. Maybe as a component of sparkling wine, or as a Rosé, yes. But even if you are the world’s best winemaker, don’t try to make a straight-out Pinot Noir in a warm region. You just can’t do it. Many have tried and failed. Even the revered wine critic and Burgundian lover, James Halliday, toiled fruitlessly to make Pinot in the Hunter. Perfect cool climate environments for Pinot exist in Australia in just a few regions, notably in Victoria’s Yarra Valley with its cool, crisp slopes and average humidity, and the Mornington Peninsula with its maritime cooling nights. But perhaps the region that is causing the most excitement is Tasmania . The Apple Isle is already earning a reputation as a producer of world-class Sparkling wine, so Pinot Noir, a key component of Champagne, along with its Burgundian sister Chardonnay, has been planted here for some time. It makes up half of all the vines in Tasmania and 95 per cent of red wine. More recently, straight Pinot is starting to find its feet here. Jeremy Dineen, who is also regarded as a maker of great Pinot after 10 years working with it at Josef Chromy in Northern Tasmania, says that climate is key to attaining the elegance for which great Pinot is renowned. “You are talking about a wine that has very fine tannins, where texture is one of the most important things, so if you can get a balance of ripe but fine tannins and fresh natural acidity, with those bright fruit flavours, it is the perfect Pinot and that is only going to come in the cooler climates,” he says. “If you look at the flavours you can only get that same perfume, subtleties, complexities and balance of natural acidity from cool climates and that is a really important part of Pinot.”
Wine
Australian Sauvignon Blanc in the spotlight
It originated in France, and was made popular by New Zealand wine marketers, but Sauvignon Blanc Australian style is making it’s own mark on the wine world. Depending on where in Australia your Sauvignon Blanc originates, it runs the gamut of flavour from herbal, grassy, sour citrus and gooseberry, to passionfruit and tropical fruit characters. Structurally these wines can be light in body and crisp or medium-bodied and rich. Some also have a small portion of oaked material to add a further dimension of complexity creating the Fumé Blanc style. We take a look at Australia’s best Sauvignon Blanc regions and their styles. South Australia The cool Adelaide Hills is perfectly suited to producing crisp, fresh, grassy Sauvignon Blanc. Good examples are also produced in Coonawarra, with richer, riper examples coming from McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek. Western Australia Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc has ripe, zippy and grassy flavours that have attractive, tropical musky-asparagus aromas. Pemberton is a small Western Australian region that produces distinct and appealing Sauvignon Blanc styles. You can expect tropical fruit aromas and flavours with soft glossy palates. Victoria Victoria’s cool regions produce some fresh and vibrant Sauvignon Blanc, with those from the Yarra being typically elegant and restrained. King Valley and Goulburn Valley Sauvignon Blanc is often grassy and also shows classic cool-climate freshness and vibrancy. Tasmania The cool Tasmanian climate is ideal for Sauvignon Blanc that typically has high levels of crisp acidity, which gives the wine great freshness. Often, a small proportion may be matured in oak to add complexity, richness and texture. Orange A rising star, Orange’s cool climate and high altitude have proved to be ideal conditions for creating Sauvignon Blanc with fresh, herbaceous characters.
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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