The importance of Italian grape varieties to the Australian wine industry

22 May
2012
open arms, gesticulation, Italian, man, politician, hand gesture

“Ask not what your country can do with my grapes, but what my grapes can do for your country.” Err, sure thing, Berlusconi.

An essay submitted for the 2012 Lorenzo Galli Estate Wine Scholarship

By Krystina Menegazzo

WHY AND HOW ARE ITALIAN GRAPE VARIETIES IMPORTANT TO THE AUSTRALIAN WINE INDUSTRY? DISCUSS FOCUSING ON AT LEAST TWO VARIETIES.

INTRODUCTION

The Australian wine industry is undeniably young in comparison to its European counterpart. Australia had the enviable opportunity to experiment and explore the potential of its best vine-growing areas when presented with a blank canvas and lack of red tape. Up until now, our landscape has been dominated by too few varieties that are competing against a saturated global wine market. Fortunately the local wine industry is slowly beginning to pull away the French veil from its eyes, a move that will ensure its future viability. The style and variety of wine today’s consumers are drinking is changing. It is no wonder Australia has seen an increase in imports from countries such as Italy, when our more sophisticated market is crying for food-friendlier wines. Globetrotter, David Gleave MW, believes that the wine market in Australia – and particularly in Melbourne – is the most mature he has experienced. Australian consumers are aware of and happy to trial new grape varieties and styles unlike any other nation in the world[1]. This is where Italian grape varieties planted in the right place and in the right hands can succeed. Responding to this evolving market is key, especially with constant improvements in the scale of Italian grape varieties and clones available for planting. A new platform of appreciation and sophistication is blossoming for more savoury varieties such as pinot grigio, sangiovese, glera, nebbiolo, and the up-and-coming vermentino and nero d’Avola. One hopes this alternative vine movement will be the turning point for the Australian wine industry.

AUSTRALIA’S GRAPE GROWING HISTORY

The French classics of shiraz, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot make up the big four in Australian winemaking[2]. It is an obvious trend given that French, and to a smaller extent, Spanish varieties, made up the bulk of the 433 vines that Australia’s grape pioneer, James Busby, brought over with him from a number of different European nurseries in 1832[3]. Prominent Australian wine figure, James Halliday, supports their dominance, commenting that this reflects, “Their inherent quality, quality recognised in all parts of the wine world”[4]. One must question why Italy was not considered. Was it classified as a vinous backwater at that stage? Were the lack of estates deemed inferior to the grand château of Bordeaux and Burgundy? Were the cultural ties between the aristocracy of England and properties in France, Spain and even the Port houses of Portugal, enough to influence future cuttings? In retrospect, a more pertinent consideration would be whether extensively planting these now dominating grape varieties, in every region, was the right choice when the opportunity existed for more widespread experimentation on the varietal front[5].

In 1979 Walter James prayed that Australian grape growers would, “Taste the spice of adventure, and give us the spice of varieties, which is indeed the greatest joy of wine drinking”[6]. What would our wine industry have evolved into had James Busby, or another great pioneer, François de Castella, included Italian grape varieties at the turning point in Australia’s grape vine development? The 2011 Australian Alternative Varietal Wine Show (AAVWS) demonstrated the success of Italian grapes on Australian soil with positive results seen in vermentino, nero d’avola, montepulciano clones and negroamaro[7]. In most cases, these upcoming Italian varieties are better suited to the climatic conditions than the French classics. In the Riverland, these alternative grapes are proving that huge potential exists for inland grape growing areas and is stimulating a diversification that will be essential to the future success of Australia’s wine industry.

WHY AND HOW ARE ITALIAN GRAPE VARIETIES IMPORTANT TO THE AUSTRALIAN WINE INDUSTRY?

A) RESPONDING TO THE MARKETPLACE

An improved cultural link between food and wine encouraged by a saturation of cooking shows on television as well as lifestyle changes has greatly benefited the wine industry and the uptake of Italian grape varieties. This has been enhanced further by the versatility of these varieties and their obvious link with Italian food. The enthusiasm Australian’s share for European travel has also undeniably impacted the industry as their palates become more curious and adventurous. Ultimately, a more sophisticated marketplace is developing.

Pinot grigio was one of the first Italian white varieties to take off domestically, successfully established as the ‘crucible’ for the variety on the Mornington Peninsula by Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy[8]. This was the first move away from ‘fruity’ to ‘savoury’ flavour profiles. Pinot grigio filled a market that no longer wanted oaked chardonnay or the aromatically charged sauvignon blanc. It was described as a food wine, and has become so widely planted and popular that it is now deemed a ‘commercial grape’ and no longer features in the AAVWS.

Glera (formerly prosecco) is a high yielding variety and another Italian white grape that is rapidly filling a market once dominated by local brands such as “Yellow” sparkling. Brown Brothers Prosecco is experiencing exponential growth and is a welcome addition as an alternative to standard pinot noir and chardonnay sparkling wines. Marketing initiatives such as ‘Prosecco Road’ have been established by vignerons including Dal Zotto, Brown Brothers and Pizzini to highlight the importance and strength this wine has for the image of the King Valley region[9].

Sangiovese is one of the more dominant Italian red grape varieties, with 5,030 tonnes picked in 2010 Australia-wide[10]. Approachable and affordable styles such as Foster e Rocco’s Nuovo and Greenstone’s Rosso di Colbo are exposing more people to the suitability of this grape variety on Australian soil with its cherry, mineral and food-friendly aspects. These sit comfortably alongside the more serious, age-worthy examples such as Vinea Marson in Heathcote and Coriole’s Vita in McLaren Vale.

Even though geographical areas suitable to the nebbiolo vine are limited and tonnage for the 2010 harvest was comparatively small with 393 tonnes, the prestige that nebbiolo has given to Italian varieties grown in Australia is influential[11]. Our flexibility with a lack of bureaucracy to govern wine styles allows for the final results to be positive and revealing to Australia’s grape growing potential[12].

The importance of food-friendly wines cannot be underestimated. Italian food maintains its strong presence and relationship with Australian consumers and it is only a matter of time before their wine styles build the same level of recognition and credibility. Nowadays the focus amongst the general public has fallen away from drinking the best château. Instead they demand better value wines of drinkability to suit their food[13]. This is where the Italian varieties unquestionably excel. The influx of Italian wine importers in Australia has seen a positive change in the general style of wines currently on shelves and on restaurant lists and works to support the locally grown examples[14]. Responding to the evolving marketplace is of integral importance to the sustainability of a country’s wine industry. In a market dominated by chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, Italian varieties are slowly working to add diversity and are gradually redefining our place in the global vinous landscape[15].

B) THE RIGHT VARIETY IN THE RIGHT PLACE

Leading Australian grape growing consultant, Mark Walpole, understands the importance of looking to alternative grapes in the face of climate change. The role these more resilient grapes will play in the future of the Australian wine industry is significant. Trials in Heathcote vineyards have shown negroamaro grapes to have a high resistance to rain, which manage to crop quality fruit at a phenomenal 20t/ha[16]. The Italian clone of vermentino was eventually brought in by Chalmers Nurseries in the late 1990s and suits a variety of landscapes and produces racy whites from inland Australia to the King Valley[17]. Its thick skins are tolerant to many wet weather diseases and it maintains a low alcohol even in warm climates with more emphasis on texture, acidity and drinkability at play[18].

The progress with these Italian grape varieties on Australian soil can be largely attributed to the avant-garde thinking and innovative viticultural direction of Mark Walpole, Alberto Antonini, Dr Rod Bonfiglioli and Bruce Chalmers. Their collaboration initiated an importation project allowing them access to a plethora of European grape vine varieties and clones[19]. The current path to diversification has seen new plantings by Chalmers with nero d’Avola, vermentino, fiano, greco, sagrantino, lagrein, sangiovese, negroamaro and aglianico claiming vineyard space at their Heathcote property. As Jane Faulkner commented in her recent article ‘All rows lead to Rome’, it is vineyard sites such as this that represent the future for Australian wine[20]. Further north, the Riverland Vine Improvement Committee and the surrounding wineries are taking risks and exploring new opportunities. Salena Estate’s Bianco d’Alessano in the 2010 AAVWS was key in demonstrating that the warmer inland areas are capable of more than just bulk wine[21].

Even the cooler climates of Australia are attracting a collection of Italian grape varieties that continue to highlight their suitability to our landscape and importance to the market. Doctor Brian Freeman has Rondinella and Corvina plantings in the cool, elevated slopes of the Hilltops region, noting the wines’ success pertaining to the movement of knowledgeable Australian wine drinkers developing a more savoury palate. He believes the home-grown Italian varieties will nurture this consumer curiosity for savoury, food-compatible wines[22].

THE FUTURE

Australian grape growers are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing Italian grape varieties that are more suitable to our climate. For the future, think nero d’Avola, vermentino and even grillo grapes[23]. A characteristic inherent to New World wine producing countries is their ability to respond to the market and evolve. The Australian wine industry is moving forward as results prove that certain Italian grape varieties are going to be more successful in our climate than others previously planted. The constant development and research that goes into this alternative vine movement is fostering the future viability of the domestic and global wine market. Not only does introducing Australian consumers to the diversity of grape varieties from Italy stimulate and create excitement, it also encourages education and essentially keeps them consuming wine. Now there can be no harm in that, can there?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allen, Max, ‘The Italian Mob’, The Australian Weekend A Plus, March 17th-18th 2012.

Byrne, Matt in ‘Vermentino Hailed as New Riverland Hero’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 26, No. 6, Nov/Dec 2011.
Chalmers, Kim in ‘Vermentino Vines a Major Drawcard for Chalmers Family’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 26, No. 6, Nov/Dec 2011.

Chalmers Wine, Chalmers Brochure 2010, http://www.chalmerswine.com.au/pdfs/media/Chalmers_Brochure_2010.pdf.

Evans, Len, Australian Complete Book of Wine, Paul Hamlyn Pty Limited, Sydney, 1976.

Faulkner, Jane, ‘All Rows Lead To Rome’, The Age Epicure, February 7th 2012.

Freeman, Brian in ‘Rondinella and Corvina: Italy’s Amarone Varieties Find a New

Home in the Hilltops’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 26, No. 3, May/Jun 2011.

Halliday, James, Australian Wine Companion 2012, Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne, 2011.

Hoare, Tony in ‘Right Variety – Right Place – Right Time!’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 27, No. 2, Mar/Apr 2012.

James, Walter, The Australian Wine Browser – Time For Variety, The David Ell Press, Sydney, 1979.

Kargas, Melanie in ‘Bianco d’Alessano – Behind the Wine that Triumphed at the Alternative Varieties Wine Show’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2011.

Looney, Cate in ‘Vivacious Vermentino’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 26, No. 6, Nov/Dec 2011.

Quealy, Kathleen in ‘Friulano proves the perfect partner to Pinot Grigio’, Wine Industry Journal, Vol. 25, No. 5, Sep/Oct 2010.

Rowley, Mark in ‘The Nation’s Vineyard – 40 Years of Evolution’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 27, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2012.

White, Tim, ‘Wine’, The Age Melbourne Magazine, April 2010.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Walpole, Mark, 2012, pers. comm. Mar 27th

[2] p. 74 Rowley, Mark in ‘The Nation’s Vineyard – 40 Years of Evolution’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 27, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2012.

[3] p. 17 Evans, Len, Australian Complete Book of Wine, Paul Hamlyn Pty Limited, Sydney, 1976.

[4] p. 63 Halliday, James, Australian Wine Companion 2012, Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne, 2011.

[5] p. 58 Hoare, Tony in ‘Right Variety – Right Place – Right Time!’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 27, No. 2, Mar/Apr 2012.

[6] p. 88 James, Walter, The Australian Wine Browser – Time For Variety, The David Ell Press, Sydney, 1979.

[7] p. 86 Byrne, Matt in ‘Vermentino Hailed as New Riverland Hero’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 26, No. 6, Nov/Dec 2011.[8] p.13 Quealy, Kathleen ‘Friulano proves the perfect partner to Pinot Grigio’, Wine Industry Journal, Vol.25, No.5, 2010

[9] Walpole, Mark, 2012, pers. comm. Mar 27th

[10] Halliday, op. cit.

[11] Halliday, op. cit.

[12] Portelli, John, 2012, pers. comm. Apr 12th

[13] Sims, Dan, 2012, pers. comm. Mar 11th

[14] p. 4, Allen, Max, ‘The Italian Mob’, The Australian Weekend A Plus, March 17th-18th 2012.

[15] Paul, Matt, 2012, pers. comm. Mar 21st

[16] Walpole, Mark, 2012, pers. comm. Mar 27th

[17] p. 61 Chalmers, Kim in ‘Vermentino Vines a Major Drawcard for Chalmers Family’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 26, No. 6, Nov/Dec 2011.

[18] p. 88 Looney, Cate in ‘Vivacious Vermentino’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 26, No. 6, Nov/Dec 2011.
[19] p. 2 Chalmers Wine, Chalmers Brochure 2010, http://www.chalmerswine.com.au/pdfs/media/Chalmers_Brochure_2010.pdf.

[20] Faulkner, Jane, ‘All Rows Lead To Rome’, The Age Epicure, February 7th 2012.

[21] p. 60 Kargas, Melanie in ‘Bianco d’Alessano – Behind the Wine that Triumphed at the Alternative Varieties Wine Show’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2011.

[22] p. 77, 78 Freeman, Brian in ‘Rondinella and Corvina: Italy’s Amarone Varieties Find a New Home in the Hilltops’, Wine & Viticulture Journal, Vol. 26, No. 3, May/Jun 2011.

[23] Faulkner, Jane, 2011, pers. comm. Nov 3rd

15 Responses to “The importance of Italian grape varieties to the Australian wine industry”

  1. Marisa Raniolo Wilkins May 22, 2012 at 8:31 AM #

    This is great Krystina, lots of useful and interesting information. (Scholarship?).
    I am pleased that you mention Coriole – I like their wine and they are friends. Have you tried their Fiano? It is very good. They will also have their Nero D’Avola soon and I am looking forward to this.

    • La Donna del Vino May 22, 2012 at 10:28 AM #

      Hi Marisa, I have not tried the Coriole Fiano yet, but will look out for it and the Nero d’Avola when it hits the shelves. Thank you for reading 🙂

  2. mistermu May 22, 2012 at 10:21 AM #

    Excellent insight into the current market trends Krystina. Australia continues its coming-of-age as both a wine producing nation, and a nation of wine consumers (despite the misguided perception of outsiders).

    Best of luck for the upcoming l’Erudite final. I’m sure you’ll be up there as a major contender!

    • La Donna del Vino May 22, 2012 at 10:30 AM #

      Thank you for reading and for the well wishes :). It will be a lot of fun, that’s for sure!

  3. mistermu May 22, 2012 at 11:12 AM #

    I was involved in the first LGS in ’09, two days of Italian wines and varieties was quite the experience!

  4. Paul Kaan May 22, 2012 at 12:37 PM #

    Fun read. It’s been a pretty wild ride for the Aussie Wine Industry over the last 20 years. The pace of growth in the 90’s was insane. Trying to cram site and variety knowledge that has taken the Europeans 100’s years to achieve into a couple of decades is an ambitious exercise even with the benefit of hindsight. It would have been fantastic if the quality planting materials for less “traditional” varieties had been available in quantity and more vignerons had been able to experiment with them, planting variety libraries to see what is possible at any given site. Making decisions about what to plant is tough – Do you go with market demand at the time? Chardonnay & Shriaz in the 90’s (assuming a suitable site) or do you go with product passion and seek out varieties based on the premise that if you build it they will come? So, you start the experiment, you plant it, wait for 4 years to get fruit, 7 to see if it’s any good and then potentially rip it out and start again, talk about the school of hard knocks! The wine industry is truly a labour of love. One thing is for sure, I’m looking forward to seeing what’s possible for Aussie wines made from Italian Varieties.

  5. Matt Paul May 22, 2012 at 10:40 PM #

    Great read and good work KM

  6. Sonia Ghiggioli May 22, 2012 at 10:41 PM #

    Well said!

  7. Franco D'Anna May 22, 2012 at 10:42 PM #

    Awesome Kryss

  8. Naz Fazio May 22, 2012 at 10:43 PM #

    Brava Krystina !!!! Buon lavoro!

  9. Anthony D'Anna May 22, 2012 at 10:45 PM #

    Great post. Well worth the read.

  10. Lisa Jenkins May 22, 2012 at 10:46 PM #

    Nice one lady! It’s going to be a lot of fun!

  11. David Stevens-Castro May 23, 2012 at 7:51 AM #

    Cheers Donna del Vino, there is some density in your words, I can tell that you done some goof homework , love your mention to Antonini, have you tried alto las hormigas, his project in Mendoza ?
    Keep up the good work!
    DSC.l

  12. Margaret Tedeschi May 24, 2012 at 10:40 AM #

    Well done Krystina, very informative and most interesting to read. Good luck with the competition. Marg

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