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.