Australia turns Italian

Why, when Australia's wine industry first took the world by storm in the 1980s, was it dominated by French varietals? The easy answer: profitability. In the decade of big hair and big shoulder-pads, big wines (which is what these varietals usually translated into, under the warmth of the Aussie sun) were popular. Thus the industry came to be dominated by chunky Chardonnay and sturdy Shiraz. But Australian wine-makers have long been moving away from hefty, high alcohol wines towards less oaked, cooler climate wines, with the growth of Pinot Grigio from Mornington Peninsular a prime example. However the trend to also move away from the once overwhelming focus on French varietals seems to be growing. 

At last week's Wine Australian tasting in London, the most intriguing wines on show weren't made from the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, good though a lot of these are, particularly at the above £10 a bottle price-point. They were instead made from Italian varietals as local winemakers turn to Fiano, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Nebbiolo and even Umbria's own Sagrantino to make new wines. Most are currently being made in small quantities as producers test the market (and the soil and climate) and currently only a small proportion are imported into the UK, but winemakers freely admit that if the response is positive then production will (gradually) be expanded. 

“We started this as something different but are really pleased with the results,” says Malcolm Leask whose Hither and Yon Vineyards in Mclaren Vale – owned with brother Richard - make a Nero D'Avola (current vintage 2015, very fresh and jammy) and an Aglianico (2013, already showing some of the depth and complexity one associates with this grape in southern Italy).

“We also work with tannat and tempranillo but in climactic and environmental terms, it's the Italian varieties seem to be doing best.”

The Chalmers Family, in Heathcote Victoria, whose Vermintino 2014, Fiano 2012, Lambrusco 2103, and an unusual sweet wine, Sagrantino Appassimento (2013) were also shown. All tasted excellent, particularly the Fiano, despite Kim Chalmers' modest claim that they “just wanted to have a crack at using Italian varieties.” 

So what lies behind the movement, which has seen winemakers come together under an umbrella of fellow producers called 21st Century Vino to “celebrate the quality and diversity of Italian wine”? One of the advocates, Coonawarra based winemaker Sue Bell makes little bones that she is relieved to see a break away from “the old wine-making styles...where money leads the way.”

Leask and others admit that one reason is cultural: his family is originally of Italian extraction which seems to be the case with many of the other winemakers who have turned to Italian varieties. And many of the wineries are located in areas where Italian migration was high, notably Victoria (Melbourne) but also South Australia (Adelaide).

It may also be a simple desire to play around with new varieties: amongst whites, Fiano seems to work particularly well down-under, as do Sagrantino and Aglianico amongst reds. All are a far cry from the Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz we have become so familiar with from Australia, and are all the better for it.

Many producers have taken the opportunity to be playful. The appropriately-named Brash Higgins, also in McLaren Vale (founded by former New York City sommelier Brad Hickey) makes a Zibibbo (a white variety originally from Italy) from 70 year old Bsh Vines that then spends 150 days on skins in amphorae before bottling; his Nero D'Avola spends 180 days in 200 liter beeswax lined amphorae made (of course) by a local potter. The result is brave, and unusual: not necessarily something you might want to drink everyday perhaps, but something you are glad exists and is out there. However most producers have taken a much more mainstream approach to wine-making.

Wine consultant Walter Speller, who has undertaken an exhaustive tasting of many of the new Australian-Italian wines, admits that he had not been expecting such almost universally high quality but has instead been very pleasantly surprised, not least because the wines have been so convincing in their “Italian-ness”.

“The wines have good acidity and structure and in many cases have lower alcohol than their Italian counterparts, despite Australia's often hotter weather,” he says.

Comparing them to the efforts to grow Italian varieties in the US (notably California) he says Australian winemakers have focused on minerality, purity and freshness – in other words, letting the varieties speak for themselves rather than using them to devise what is essentially a new style of wine, which has been the trend in the US.

“The key, I think, is matching the right kind of variety to the right kind of soil,” he concludes.

So which wines should you try? Amongst those wines you can find in the UK, Lethbridge from Heathcote, Victoria, make an excellent Negroamaro and Nero D'Avola (respectively 2014 and 2012, both available from Berkmann Wine Cellars) that will both repay some careful cellaring; and Coriole (McLaren Vale) who make a great authentic Fiano and Sangiovese.

But sadly many of the good ones at the tasting are not currently available in the UK – special mention should go here to the Chalmers Wines, Amadio (from the Barossa) whose Heritage Range Sagrantino 2012 and Heritage Range Aglianico 2012 were both beautifully presented and amazingly full on interpretations of the respective varieties, and Oliver's Taranga in McLaren Vale whose Small Batch Fiano (2014) and Small Batch Sagrantino (2011) were both exceptionally moorish.

By any standards, and not just experimental ones, these are exceptional wines. For importers keen to breathe new life into their lists and present a different vinous image of Australia, what better opportunity than to take advantage of its re-emergent Italian identity?