Medium bodied, savoury and great with food, it is little wonder that Italian varietals such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto are becoming more popular in Australia. We sit down to find the best our producers have to offer.
Published Selector Winter 2014
Given this issue’s theme of comfort food, it was always bound to have an Italian slant. When we’re looking for fare that warms the soul, where better to turn than cucina Italiana with its staples of pasta, risotto, pizza, minestrone, and the list goes on. But while the huge Italian-Australian population has imbued our culinary culture with the fresh flavours of its cuisine, its wines are yet to reach the popularity of our French-style favourites.
One of the many exciting things about the Australian wine scene, however, is that it’s constantly evolving. It was built on fortifieds before table wines emerged and now the blanket of French varietals is being peppered with alternative styles from Spain, Germany and, of course, Italy.
In terms of Italian red wines, Sangiovese is the most well known, but its peers Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto are also pleasing the palates of wine lovers and wine show judges across Australia. So the Selector Panel decided to don their green, white and red for a tasting trip, Italian style.
Lending his expertise to the Panel for the day was Hunter Valley winemaker David Hook, whose multiple-Trophy winning Barbera is considered an Australian benchmark.
We invited wine producers Australia wide to submit their current releases and the final tasting included 66 wines with Sangiovese the most heavily represented followed by Nebbiolo, Barbera then Dolcetto.
The name Sangiovese comes from a Latin term meaning “the blood of Jove”, fuelling theories that this grape has been around since Roman times. Today, it’s Italy’s most widely planted red grape variety and is most prevalent in the country’s central regions. Its most well-known guise is as the main grape in Tuscany’s Chianti wines.
In Australia, Sangiovese is the most widely planted Italian red grape variety, having really taken off in the 1990s. The wines submitted to Selector came from a huge range of regions throughout New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
In terms of typical characteristics, wine writer Jancis Robinson describes Sangiovese as ranging “in a spectrum somewhere between mulberries, prunes, spice, tobacco,… leather and chestnuts. It tends to be savoury rather than sweet, and if not fully ripe, can smell distinctly farm-yard like.”
The Australian Sangioveses tasted represented a broad range of styles from rich with licorice and plum characters to light but beautifully textured, and Pinot-like. In fact, Tasting Panel member Trent Mannell describes Sangiovese as, “The Italian version of Pinot Noir and Tempranillo.”
Fred Ursini, whose 2011 Massoni Sangiovese was a highlight of the tasting, explains, “Sangiovese is halfway between a Pinot Noir and a Shiraz, so it’s at the lighter end of the spectrum, but punches above its weight. The wines get little oak treatment so the fruit flavours and sweet tannins are the main drivers.”
The Massoni Sangiovese comes from Victoria’s Pyrenees region, which Fred describes as having, “a very Mediterranean climate with hot days but cool nights”, adding, “We are currently getting night temperatures as low as seven degrees so it’s still considered to be a cool climate wine region.”
This propensity for Sangiovese to shine in cool climates was certainly reflected in the other standouts of the tasting, which hailed from regions with cool nights including Heathcote, Canberra District, Adelaide Hills and even Kangaroo Island.
However, while climate is important, Fred also explains that after 16 years of working with Sangiovese, “The main lesson we have learnt is that it’s very temperamental (being an Italian varietal that’s probably to be expected.) You need to constantly monitor its growing phases. Look after it and it will reward you with great fruit. Neglect it and it’s extremely unforgiving. To get the best quality we always drop between 30–40% of the crop. Heart breaking as a grower, but essential as a winemaker.”
Winemakers have also learnt to be careful with the oak treatment of this red. Another of the top 20 wines of the tasting was the Crittenden Pinocchio Sangiovese 2012 about which the Crittenden team explains, “We religiously avoid the use of new oak for our Italian varieties as its sweet sappy characters detract from their natural structure and savouriness.”
It’s savouriness, and therefore food-friendliness, that is key to the appeal of this and the other Italian reds tasted. An Italian feast is rarely served without a f low of wine, so food friendly drops are essential. Fred Ursini describes Sangiovese as, “extremely versatile in that it can be served as the first red wine at a luncheon/dinner or even as a pre-event drink. It can be partnered with an array of foods, whether it be pizza, gnocchi, lasagne or pasta, mushroom risotto, stir-fry dishes, casseroles, meat pies, polenta and game dishes.”
Tar and Roses
The three remaining varieties of the tasting hail from the Italian region of Piedmont. Of the Piedmontese trio, Nebbiolo is the most highly prized and is the grape of the famous Barolo and Barbaresco wines.
The reverence for Nebbiolo has a long history and Jancis Robinson explains, in the Oxford Companion to Wine, that according to 15th century laws in what is now the Barolo zone, “the penalties for cutting down a Nebbiolo vine ranged from a heavy fine to having the right hand cut off or hanging for repeat offenders.”
David Hook describes classic Nebbiolo characters as “tar and roses” with “slightly more f loral notes than Sangiovese and Barbera.” Some of the descriptors thrown around the tasting table included: barnyard, star anise, spice, plummy fruit, licorice and cloves. Trent Mannell’s summation was that Nebbiolo is “Pinot-like but with more pronounced and assertive tannins”.
The tannin structure is certainly Nebbiolo’s most defining character, which, David explains, “makes it harder to appreciate because it’s so tannic when it’s young.”
Controlling tannins is paramount for Dr Brian Freeman, whose Freeman Altura Vineyard Nebbiolo 2012 from the Hilltops region was a Panel favourite. He explains, “All the vineyard work is focussed on achieving grapes with tannin ripeness. That’s the trap with some Nebbiolo – it often displays a green tannin edge.”
Vintage conditions also contribute and 2012 in Hilltops was perfect, Dr Freeman says. “All in all it was an ideal gentle season that allowed the desirable slow, even tannin ripening achieved when it’s possible to prolong hang time.”
Once the grapes enter the winery, there’s still a need to moderate the tannins with the aim, Dr Freeman describes, “to extract sufficient red grape tannin for longevity without extracting any green tannins.” To do this they use a traditional cold soak, fermentation in stainless steel with regular hand plunging and ageing in old oak for 12 months.
Provided none are green, with time the tannins will soften, often making aged Nebbiolo a more appealing drop. However, from the wines sampled, the Tasting Panel concluded that the Nebbiolos coming out of Australia’s cooler climates are producing early drinking styles with the top wines hailing from cool vineyard sites in Hilltops, Heathcote, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and King Valley.
When it comes to bringing out its best, Dr Freeman agrees that Nebbiolo needs to be enjoyed with food. He suggests, “Braised beef cheeks, or try duck confit or squab breast – and any of these dishes can be served with another great match of mushroom risotto.”
Best of Barbera
While Sangiovese was the most highly represented and Nebbiolo the most greatly revered in its homeland, Barbera proved the most impressive overall for the Tasting Panel. Of the 16 wines tasted, 12 were awarded a medal-winning score, the highest percentage of all the varietals sampled.
In Italy, Barbera was once second to Sangiovese in terms of plantings. However, in 1985 when more than 30 people died and many others went blind after some winemakers were found to have added methanol to their Barbera in an attempt to boost its alcohol, it fell out of favour. Since then, it’s climbed back up the popularity ladder and is now Italy’s third most widely planted red grape variety.
Generally, Barbera is said to exhibit fruit f lavours such as cherries, plums, anise, spice and licorice and aromas of pepper, plums, cherries, smoke and violets. But while tannins define Nebbiolo, it’s acidity that characterises Barbera and this, David Hook says, can make it harder for some Australian wine lovers to appreciate. It’s a quality prized by Italians, however, as acidity, as well as savouriness, make Barbera a fantastic food wine.
Tom Harvey is the winemaker at Chalk Hill whose 2012 Barbera was a Tasting Panel highlight. Chalk Hill’s success with the variety saw them win the best non-Italian Barbera in the world for their 2011 vintage at the International Barbera competition in Italy.
Tom says that “Barbera is one of the most food-friendly wines with natural crisp acidity that balances and complements rich foods, particularly Italian and Mediterranean dishes. Some of our favourite food matches include duck ravioli with sage and parmesan, twice-baked gruyere soufflé, and roast lamb.”
Chalk Hill’s Barbera comes from McLaren Vale where, Tom explains, it benefits from the “warm dry summers and cold wet winters.” However, he says, “Barbera vines are often sooks in the vineyard, getting a bit temperamental if it’s too windy, and falling over faster than an Italian soccer player if they don’t get the right amount of water during the growing season.”
The real key to success, he says, is the “soil and geology of Chalk Hill, which ensure the vines produce elegant and flavoursome wines.”
In terms of region, David Hook explains Barbera is suited to the heat of the Hunter Valley, but also suits cooler climes such as the Central Ranges, where he now sources his Barbera grapes. Here, he says, “in the foothills of Mount Canobolas, the cool climate and ancient volcanic soils combined produce high quality grapes with good intensity of flavour and high natural acidity.”
Other highlights from the tasting came from Mudgee, Hunter Valley, Alpine Valleys and Adelaide Hills.
Little sweet one
The third of the Piedmontese trio is Dolcetto, meaning ‘little sweet one’, despite not being a sweet style. Being an early ripener, Dolcetto is seen as a wine for the people, an entry level wine, and many premium Italian estates plant it on lesser sites and release it early to make some money while the Nebbiolo and Barbera mature.
In Australia, only a handful of producers make Dolcetto despite the fact, as David Hook explains, “it’s very high yielding, making light, fruity wines.”
The standout wine of the tasting was the Geoff Hardy Hand Crafted 2012 from the Limestone Coast. This wine was praised by the Panel for its dark cherry, dark chocolate and bakers spice aromas and well balanced palate featuring soft, dark fruit, cherry and bakers spice, touches of chocolate and shadowy tobacco-like tannins.
Meant to be enjoyed while young, Dolcetto is a great food match with baked figs with blue cheese and walnut bread or Geoff Hardy’s suggestion of confit pork belly with braised cabbage and spiced roast apple.
Now you’re armed with the know-how on these Italian delights, the next time your table is heaving with nanna’s special spaghetti bolognaise, why not adapt that old saying ‘When in Rome…’ and open one of these Roman reds.