Italian Contribution: Old World Vines New World Triumphs
The roots of Italy’s influence on Australian culture, cuisine and viticulture extend deep into the soils of this country’s history. Even before the founding of Australia as a British penal colony, Italians had sought to establish a presence in Terra Australis, with one Father Vittoria Riccio requesting permission from the Vatican to oversee a Roman Catholic mission on these remote shores as early as 1676 – a petition which came to nothing following the priest’s untimely death.
A little over a century later, two Italians – Antonio Ponto and James Mario Matra – were in the company of Captain Cook as he sailed into Botany Bay, with the latter playing a notable role in the development of early Sydney. As the colony grew, Italian missionaries and seasonal workers soon began making the journey from the Old World to the New, in search of converts and opportunities.
It was in the mid-1800s, however, that the first major wave of Italian migration to Australia would begin, as thousands sought to escape war, crop failures and poverty back home. Largely hailing from rural communities, they brought with them an abundance of practical skills, and by the 1850s some 3,500 Italian-born migrants were helping to build towns, plant orchards and establish communities across Australia.
While a number of winemakers had planted vineyards and built wineries across the pre-Federation colonies of NSW, Victoria and South Australia, the arrival of Romeo Bragato in Melbourne in 1888 would play a major role in bringing the knowledge of Italy’s great wine regions to Australian vineyards. A graduate of Veneto’s Regia Scuola di Viticoltura ed Enologia, within a month of landing in Australia Bragato had outlined a plan for the development of the Victorian wine industry before a Royal Commission on Vegetable Products.
After volunteering with Hans Irvine at Great Western in the production of 10,000 gallons of wine, he was appointed the Colonial Government’s Viticultural Expert in 1889, and less than a decade later would oversee the establishment of the Rutherglen Viticultural College, designing its model winery and cellars. Bragato’s recommendations to aspiring vignerons anticipated the export market and the evolving tastes of Australian wine drinkers, laying the groundwork for the industry’s future success, even in the face of the devastation caused by Victoria’s phylloxera outbreak in 1899.
Winemaker Steve Webber of De Bortoli.
The De Bortoli family gather for a long lunch.
FROM MIXED FRUIT TO FINE WINES
One of the most significant success stories to arise from the arrival of enterprising Italians to our shores is that of the De Bortoli family. Born in Castelcucco in Italy’s alpine north, Vittorio De Bortoli emigrated to Australia in 1924, leaving his young fiancée Giuseppina behind. First landing in Melbourne, he soon found himself in the newly irrigated Riverina, sleeping under a water tower for a time. After four years hard work, he had saved enough to buy a mixed fruit farm and send for his wife-to-be Giuseppina.
In the first year of his and Giuseppina’s Bilbul farm, there was a glut of grapes, so Vittorio constructed a concrete tank and crushed 15 tonnes, officially kicking off De Bortoli Wines. It would be his son Deen, however, who would catapult the family to the upper ranks of the Australian winemaking industry, by modernising the De Bortoli winery in the mid-1950s and positioning it to gain from the growing shift away from fortified styles to table wines.
Other regions also began benefiting from the agricultural know-how of our growing Italo-Australian communities. Notably, Victoria’s King Valley can lay claim to planting the first Glera vines in Australia.
If there was one Australian wine region with an almost direct equivalent to a European counterpart, it would be the King Valley and Veneto. The rolling hills, the elevated vineyards… it’s no wonder it’s become such a focal point for classic Italian varietals.
King Valley’s wine history began in the 1880s in its tobacco plantations, established by Chinese settlers seeking new opportunities as the Victorian gold rush stagnated. By the 1940s and 50s, Italian migrants – fleeing Mussolini’s Italy and the aftermath of the Second World War – had arrived in the region to work on the tobacco farms. By the 1960s, however, the local tobacco industry was in decline, and a transition to viticulture by Italian growers was underway.
It was amongst these hills that great contemporary wineries like Dal Zotto had their genesis. Hailing from the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOCG region where Glera vines – the varietal behind the appeal of Prosecco – carpet the hillsides, Otto Dal Zotto came to Australia in the late 1960s. Like many Italian migrants before him, Otto was drawn to the region to work in its tobacco fields. As that industry dried up, he helped kickstart the region’s wine industry with plantings of Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Gradually, he began to plant classic Italian varieties – Pinot Grigio, Nebbiolo, Fiano, Vermentino, Sangiovese – expressing the passion of the winemaker’s Italian heritage. In 1999, Otto planted the country’s first Glera grapes and the rest, as they say, is history.
Walking among the vines at Sam Miranda.
Founded in 1922, Credaro Family Wines is the oldest family-run winery in Margaret river.
Today, King Valley is widely regarded as the “Little Italy” of Australian wine, and its famed “Prosecco Road” links the popular style’s five most acclaimed producers, from Brown Brothers in Milawa to Chrismont in Cheshunt, taking in Pizzini, Dal Zotto and Sam Miranda Wines along its route.
For Sam Miranda, third-generation member of a prominent winemaking family who moved from Italy to Australia in the 1930s, the Italian influence remains strong.
It has definitely come out more the older I get, and I’ve started to embrace the whole Italian lifestyle in everything I make and do. We started making salami five years ago and now I have my own pigs fattening up. I’ve got a quarter acre vegetable garden that supplies all the greens to our cellar door kitchen, and I pretty much only drink our Italian varietals like Pinot Grigio, Arneis and Sangiovese when I am at home. All of this flows over into how I approach winemaking with a focus on fresh produce and a wine to complement that.
From providing something of a template for our own multi-generational winemaking families, to furnishing our tables with some of the world’s best food and wine, the bottomless hospitality of Italian culture has infused and enhanced our own in countless, inestimable ways.
Signing the barrel at Pizzini.
Calabria family gather on the lawn of their cellar door.
Without such families as Dal Zotto, Pizzini, and De Bortoli – not to mention the Calabria, Credaro and Casella families, and more besides across our great winemaking regions – the story of Australian wine would read very differently… and perhaps resound a little less richly on the tongue.