Blood Dirt and Vine: Pizzini Wines
Blood is definitely thicker than water when it comes the importance of family to Italians. The Pizzini’s from Victoria’s King Valley illustrate this beautifully, proving that when you add blood, dirt and vines together, extraordinary things happen.
It’s impossible to overstate the influence of Italian migration on Australia’s tastes; wherever Italians go beautiful food, wine, culture and hospitality follow and flow to those around them. When it comes to food and wine culture Australia is a much better place for it, and now that the commercial vines of the second, third and fourth generations are maturing, the Italo-Australian wine story just gets better.
One region that has been heavily shaped by Italians is the King Valley, and one of the prime movers in Victoria’s picturesque High Country is the Pizzini family. The original wine pioneers of the King Valley were Brown Brothers, who started making fortified wine in 1889. As their business grew into the 20th century, however, and Australia transitioned from fortified wine to table wines in the 60s, the Browns’ started to rely on other growers to meet the demand. So the Pizzini family wine story begins.
Paul Diamond, Dave Mavor and Fred and Joel Pizzini at the tasting.
Up until that time, the King Valley was a major grower of tobacco, the farming of which was predominantly undertaken by Italian migrant families such as the Pizzini’s.
My great-uncle and grandparents settled here in the early 60s and were working on farms. They then became share holders of their own farm and eventually became the biggest growers of tobacco in the southern hemisphere.
Like back in Italy, table wine was an important part of meal time. As the only commercial wine available in Australia at that time was fortified, the families all had little “home” blocks of vines from which the family’s wine was made.
“Back then there was about 18 families living and farming here, and each had their own plot of grapes that they would make their personal wine from,” explained second generation and Pizzini founder Alfredo “Fred” Pizzini. “So there was a wine culture here, and it was competitive; there were families from Sicily, central and northern Italy, and everyone thought theirs was better than everyone else’s,” he remembers.
“They were homemade wines, and some of them were pretty good,” says Fred. “Today you would probably call them ‘orange’ wines.”
Family vines and a King Valley vista.
But the writing was on the wall for tobacco, and the family decided to diversify into viticulture. “Things started to take off in the early 70s when a farmer by the name of Guy Darling started dabbling with planting vines for Brown Brothers in about 71, 72,” recalls Fred. “We soon planted some grapes and around then there was only about six of us doing that, and we were all supplying Brown Brothers. By 1990 I was growing about 13-14 hundred tonnes, and we were selling to Brown Brothers and Yalumba. It was at that point that the industry was taking off and things were starting to get serious.”
A Family Affair
The third generation of Pizzini’s – Joel, Natalie, Nicole and Carlo – was starting to grow up when the family decided to focus on creating their own wine under the family name out of their old tobacco drying kiln that still stands at the front of the Pizzini Wines cellar door, cooking school and guesthouse.
Pizzini is a true family affair. Fred’s wife Katrina – an accomplished cook and cookbook author – runs the cooking school “A tavola!”, Joel runs the winemaking, his sister Natalie runs the Pizzini brand and marketing, Nicole – a locally based psychologist – helps over busy weekends, and Carlo is CEO.
To visitors, it’s abundantly clear that family, food and hospitality is at the heart of the Pizzini experience. It’s when you get to their wines that you can really taste how serious they are about their heritage, their home and the things they craft that bear their name.
Hospitality, Pizzini style.
The Pizzini Family, from left to right: Carlo, Katrina, Fred, Nicole, Natalie and Joel.
The Wines of Pizzini
Up until only recently, the grapes and wine styles that have dominated and shaped Australia have been French, and wines that were once “alternate” – from Italy, Spain and Portugal – have started to find their place in the mainstream.
When it comes to Italy, two of the noble red varieties are Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, and the Pizzini family are the only producers outside of Piedmont and Tuscany that have 30 consecutive vintages in bottle. This is a big deal, and those who have tasted their three levels of Nebbiolo, and four levels of Sangiovese, will attest to them being some the best outside of Italy.
To experience this, Fred and Joel Pizzini hosted Selector through a tasting that stretched back to the mid-90s, starting with the variety first planted, Riesling, from their “Craft” range. These Rieslings are designed to be bright, fresh and clean food partners with floral aromatics and zesty, citrus-driven fruit characters in the mouth. Over some delicious salumi, Fred treated us to a 1996 Riesling that was delicious, regal and ageing beautifully.
Prosecco is a big deal to the Pizzini family, and whilst it doesn’t get the credit that sparkling and Champagne do, the family give it plenty of attention across three wines. From the ripe, fresh and fine palate and aromatics of the NV, to the mouth-watering sour citrus and musk complexity of the 2021 Il Soffio (translated as “the breath”) and to the exotic strawberry, sweet pastry and pear characters of the NV Il Soffio Rose, it’s clear that Prosecco is important to Pizzini’s future. Australian lovers of this popular style have much to like here.
A perfect Pizzini table, flowers, bottles and glasses.
The family’s whites stretch across three of the four ranges: “La Famiglia”, wines designed for the table; “Craft”, regionally inspired wines that reflect the character of the King Valley; “Strength of Site”, individual vineyard expressions; and “Pinnacle”, top of the Pizzini tree.
Starting with the textural Verduzzo from the Craft range, this wine was a delicious revelation. Hailing from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeast Italy, the 2021 was fresh, round, complex, juicy and packed with red apples, apricots and pears. The 2003 was rich and buttery and the 2001 was an incredible wine showing balance and truly delicious nutty, white sherry; making it a perfect aperitivo.
Fresh, herbal and crunchy, the 2016 Arneis from the La Famiglia range was a mouth-watering and savoury example of a variety that is often hard to get right. Originating from Piedmont, Arneis translates to “Little Rascal” but the Pizzini family seems to have overcome the challenges the variety can often present winemakers and growers.
Stretching across two ranges, it’s clear that Pinot Grigio is the white jewel in the Pizzini crown. The 2021 La Famiglia Pinot Grigio is crisp, textural and delicious, driven by classic apple and pear flavours that reflect the textural style of Grigio from the Northern Trentino–Alto part of Italy, where the Pizzini family comes from. The 2021 Attento from the Strength of Site range is incredible: complex and focused, this wine has lines of green apples, preserved lemons and baked pears laced with cinnamon. This is a serious PG, showing depth, detail and obvious care that makes it possibly the best in the country.
Fred, and ageing Pizzini treasures.
Sangiovese is Tuscany’s powerhouse varietal and a mainstay across the four Pizzini ranges. The 2019 and 2021 Nonna Gisella, named after Fred’s grandmother, were classic everyday-style Sangios; medium-bodied, juicy, delicious and savoury wines characterised by cherries, chocolate and mountian herbs. The 2019 Pietra Rossa, named after the red stone soils from which the wine comes, is fine and concentrated, detailed with brighter fruit tones, cherries and chocolate, and a fresh acidity. The aged versions of this wine from 2009 and 2001 were beautiful, and highlighted the fabulous ageing potential of the variety from higher-altitude vines.
The Forza di Ferro Sangiovese from 2019 turned up the volume on finesse, concentration, texture and structure. Superfine with strawberry, cherries and a glossy mouthfeel, this wine is incredible value and shows how much the family care about Sangiovese. Lastly a special trio of Rubacuori Sangiovese; 2016, 2006, and 2003 from their Pinnacle range, showing how detailed and concentrated the variety can be without tipping the palate weight from medium to full-bodied. Ethereal and restrained, these are special wines and without doubt the best Sangiovese in Australia.
Nebbiolo came last, and like the previous brackets of Sangiovese constitute a Pizzini love letter to the great wines of Piedmont. The entry level La Volpe represents fantastic value and approachability for the variety, which has a reputation for being tough and drying when young. The 2019 was intensely concentrated with sour black cherries, violets and herbs, yet the wine itself was soft and supple, sitting nicely on the palate.
Nebbiolos from the “Strength of Site” range came next and again reinforced value and attention to detail. The 2017 was just starting to open up with fine, savoury tannins and juicy layers of black fruits, purple flowers and beautiful tar and rose aromatics The 1995 was incredible; secondary but energetic with fine black cherry fruit layers, wet earth and leather aromas and a fine, delicate and delicious mouthfeel.
Two Coronamento Nebbiolos from 2016 and 2003 rounded out tasting and reflected an “old world” style with intensely packed flavour layers, fine and delicate forest floor aromas spiked with cherries and strawberries with assertive, but slippery tannins. Both demonstrate how Nebbiolo can exude power and depth while remaining medium-to-light bodied. In a word, incredible. Both were built to last and – like the Pizzini’s and King Valley – appear that they’re only going to get better as time rolls on.