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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

Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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