By Rose Murray Brown MW   Published in The Scotsman 28 April 2018

Australian winemakers are well known as some of the wine industry’s most resourceful experimenters.  Now they are turning their attention to Italian grapes with unexpected success.

This new interest in Italian varieties comes after almost 200 years of focusing primarily on French grapes in Australia.  Shiraz (30%), Cabernet Sauvignon (18%) and Chardonnay (16%) are still by far the most planted, but as the climate warms and droughts become prolonged, particularly in Australian wine’s ‘engine room’ in Murray-Darling and Riverina regions, winemakers are turning to southern European grapes.

Today Italian is the fourth largest ethnic group down-under, in 2011 census 916,000 Australians had Italian ancestry.  Italians have been arriving since the first fleet in 1770, with hundreds lured to the Victorian gold fields in the 1850’s, but the largest influx was post-war in the 1950’s from Italy’s rural south settling mainly in Melbourne and Sydney. 

With so many Italian Australians with a knowledge of mediterranean viticulture, it is hardly surprising Italian grape varieties now feature strongly in parts of Victoria.  King Valley north-east of Melbourne is gaining a particular reputation, where families like the Pizzinis first grew tobacco, before turning to grapes.  In the 1980’s the Pizzinis were approached by local Brown Brothers winery to trial Nebbiolo and Sangiovese grapes which had recently arrived in the country.

It took sometime for Italian vines to mature into their new surroundings.  The Pizzinis were helped by winemaking guru Gary Crittenden of Dromana Estate, the first to commercialise Italian varieties in Australia.  But early examples of famous grapes Nebbiolo (Barolo’s grape) and Sangiovese (Chianti’s main grape) lacked fruit and depth compared to more mature Shiraz and Grenache.

Now the Italians down-under are coming of age.  The frontrunner quality-wise amongst white grapes is Fiano.  Originally from Campania, inland from Naples, it has settled well in Clare Valley (Jeffrey Grosset), Riverland (Jade & Jasper) and McLaren Vale (Coriole) in South Australia and Frankland River in Western Australia (Larry Cherubino).

Another successful white Italian grape is Vermentino, grown in Sardinia, Tuscany and Liguria.  With 15 producers in Australia, the best are in New South Wales (De Bortoli and Berton), Victoria (Yalumba, Brown Brothers, Politini and Fowles) and South Australia (Koerner and Spinifex). 

As well as lesser known Arneis, Verduzzo and Picolit, you might well see Glera appearing on the market, the same grape as Prosecco.

It has taken time for red Italian varieties to prove themselves down-under.  Sangiovese was first introduced in 1970’s into Penfold’s nursery Kalimna vineyard.  Early efforts with Dromana Estate and Coriole tasted lean from overcropping, but now the best efforts are made by Walter Clappis in McLaren Vale, Primo and Zarella in McLaren Vale, home to many Italian growers.

Southern Italian grapes Montepulciano, Negroamaro, Nero d’Avola and Aglianico show promise, but the grape really flourishing down-under is the little-known Sagrantino.  Just as French Malbec is proving much more successful in Argentina, so Italy’s little known Sagrantino is showing real promise in Australia.

Sagrantino is a sturdy disease-resistant central Italian grape which produces austere tannic Montefalco wines in Umbria, but in Sagrantino’s tiny plantings down-under it shows real potential.   Best is the lush juicy example from Chalmers in Heathcote in northern Victoria with a more muscular tannic herby version from Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards in McLaren Vale.

Whilst the flavours of these Italian grapes grown down-under do not always taste authentically Italian, with riper lusher fruits, they do offer a taste of ‘alternative’ Australia.

Light bodied delicate Vermentino with zippy crisp palate and freshness from a Riverland and Riverina fruit blend, where the grape thrives.

CRITTENDEN ‘OGGI’ 2015 (13.5%)
£13.97 Berry Bros
Rollo Crittenden’s annual experiment; with skin-fermented Fiano dominant with Arneis & Vermentino benefitting from Mornington Peninsula’s sea breezes. Scented pears, textural, rich and honeyed.

***STAR BUY***

£18-£20 St Andrews Wine;
Top choice from tasters, this Fiano from burgeoning Frankland River region in Western Australia is the best example: honeysuckle, quince, minerally with subtle oak.



HEARTLAND SPOSA E SPOSA 2014 Ben Glaetzer (14.5%)
Gutsy ripe take on Alto Adige’s Lagrein and Piedmont’s Dolcetto, never blended together back home.  An affordable easy drinking blackberry spiced Langhorne Creek red.

£22 Fine Wine Musselburgh;
Chalmers own the largest Italian grape nursery.  Sagrantino is so successful on iron-rich soils of Heathcote in Victoria.  Lush ripe with plums and damsons, better than anything in Umbria.

For those who like hefty blockbusters.; unusual Montepulciano from Adelaide Hills with densely dark fruits and firm tannins; tastes Italianate – needs red meat.

THE HEDONIST SANGIOVESE 2015 Walter Clappis (13.5%)
Well priced attractive Sangiovese from McLaren Vale’s Willunga foothills; more succulent ripeness than in Chianti; typical cherry fruits, spice and rounded texture; large oak matured with 6% Cabernet for structure.

Sicily’s plummy Nero d’Avola is at home in warm Riverland; delicious lush savoury easy-drinking unoaked example.

Dominic Torzi’s ancestors hail from southern Italy; he specialises in Puglia’s Negroamaro in Barossa Valley. Perfumed, spicy, liquorice and lively tannins. This seemed to be most Italianate in style. 

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