One single thought of Australia brings various images to mind; there’s so much to explore and learn Down Under. Having lived there for two years, I thought I knew its wine regions well. How wrong was I? I’d ignored a respectful wine-producing region situated only a few hours’ drive from my abode in Melbourne – the King Valley, a.k.a Little Italy of Australia, which I only discovered during my visit last year.
No doubt the Italians have a rich heritage of agricultural proficiency, which is also exhibited through their highly-regarded produce. Wherever they went, they took this trait along. In the late 18th century, fleets of European immigrants fled towards the Aussie borders, including some Italian groups. They carefully selected the fecund acreages of northern Victoria to settle, which were fit for their agricultural practices. For a century, highly profitable tobacco farming provided staple occupation here. However, eventually the trade dwindled and they looked for alternative livelihood, and returning to viticulture was a natural choice. Soon they thrived in viticulture. Initially the regional crop was mainly supplied to big wineries, and it was only in the late-1880s that the first wine was produced in Victoria by the now-legendary Brown Brothers. They became an inspiration for the new-age producers and today the region boasts of approximately 30 wineries.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Being a sprawling area, diversity is the King Valley’s biggest feature. The rolling hills with altitude ranging from 150 to 800 metres allow a gamut of microclimates, enabling an array of international varieties to flourish here. From warm-climate Cabernets to cold-climate Nebbiolos, Chardonnays to Pinot Grigios, attractive sparklings to unconventional Stickies, the valley offers something for everyone. Amongst winemakers, harmony is noticeable. Their ancestry hailing from various corners of Italy brings in varied philosophies and inspirations. What ties these produces together is their constant effort to revive ‘alternative varietals’, especially Italian. These varietals are not seen anywhere in Australia and only few examples can be spotted in the international market, like Brachetto, Fragolino, Arneis, Tannat, Verduzzo, Cienna, and the likes. Our introduction to the valley’s assortment was paved through five degustaziones (tastings). These themed tastings were designed for an in-depth understanding of the valley’s sparklings, Pinot Grigios, sweet wine styles, Sangioveses, and Nebbiolos and weighty reds.
Every wine producing region has its principal feature and someone sitting at the pinnacle enjoying the supremacy amongst all. The King Valley can be applauded for all these five features and its leaders. I call these influential frontrunners the ‘Kings of King Valley’. They all have a gallant production history and inspiration-driven wines.
SWEET AND STICKIES
Brown Brothers is a family-owned winery and the region’s oldest. With a history dating back to the 1880s, the experience and diversity that their offerings demonstrate is unmatchable. Their cache of vintage wines offers a study into the region’s past. Their vineyards, offering breathtaking views, are perched on the fertile slopes rising above the King River, producing Mediterranean-inspired wines treating the Australian palates. Amongst many firsts, Brown Brothers is specially applauded for Australia’s first commercially produced Noble Rot-affected Riesling in 1962. Since then, their Noble Rieslings have won numerous accolades. In our sweet wines degustation, we tasted their 2008 Patricia Late Harvested Noble Riesling which was concentrated with delicious aromas of peach jam, dark honey, golden sultana, ending on sublime grapey and spicy note.
Professional viticulturists, Pizzini, were established in the 1970s. Circa 1980s, they decided to introduce the two Italian red giants — Nebbiolo and Sangiovese — to their vineyards and experiment with them. It was the time when Australia was not even exploring the idea of producing these two varietals. Alfred Pizzini, the owner, definitely had an early start. By the 1990s, he introduced his son, Joel, in wine production who had learnt vinification first-hand in Piedmont and Tuscany. Since then, they have been meticulously producing fastidiously-nurtured Nebbiolos and Tuscan-style Sangioveses.
We tasted their 2005 Rubacuori Sangiovese, the most expensive Sangiovese in the valley (AUD 110). It showed palate filled with red fruits, rhubarb, sweet-charred oak, and an earthy finish. However, their pride is their 2005 Coronamento Nebbiolo. With juicy notes of tart cherries, plums, and cranberry upfront, and perfumed oak, toasted warm spices at the finish, the wine was a masculine charmer. It’s worth cellaring for 25 years and unsurprisingly tagged at AUD135.
If those tannins need some washing down, Dalz Ottoshould be the next stop. Hailing from the hometown of Veneto’s famous sparkling wines, Prosecco DOCG, Dalz Otto had their oenophilic roots in place. They are the unsung masters of the King Valley Proseccos. Did I say Prosecco? Is it legit for these gents to use the term? Since the matter is sub judice between these producers and the Italian wine authorities, the producers have decided to call their sparklings ‘Prosecco’! They are so dedicated to the title that they have created a special route assisting any thirsty vino to reach Prosecco producers’ cellar doors, thus christening it ‘The Prosecco Road’. I grabbed the opportunity to taste their Pucino Prosecco carrying a burst of white fruit flavours, balanced with chalky minerality, and gentle lemon-candy citrus. However, what is impressive is their L’Immigrante Prosecco, fermented by the traditional method, showing prominent floral and honeydew notes, green skin crunchiness, and lingering bitter citrus. Undoubtedly, the most commendable bubbly in the valley
GRIS OR GRIGIO?
Since Italian whites and Pinot Grigio are synonymous in India, I enquired about the perfect Pinot Grigio in the Little Italy of Australia. Chrismont was instantly prompted. Albeit being a late winemaking convert, Chrismont has quickly become a representative of quality wines in the valley. Growing up in a viticulture family in Trentino in North Italy, the winery’s father, Arnold, cultivated the winemaker gene at a young age. With tobacco trade plummeting, it was the perfect opportunity for Arnold to revive his passion. Pinot Grigio’s dominance in Trentino inspired his family to produce whites in two avatars — fatty, tropical fruit-laden French-style Pinot Gris, and the subtle white fruit-forward Pinot Grigio. We tasted both and their laudability as the varietal leaders was further consolidated. The refreshing 2012 La Zona Pinot Grigio had ample varietal white fruits, touch of herbaceousness, balanced with limey citrus. However, the more austere 2012 Pinot Gris captured the senses with husky woody tones, wild earthiness, dried herbs, and ethereal finish.
SUPER KING OF SUPER TUSCAN
Italian reds can be surprisingly heavy and unforgivingly masculine. These wines distinguish a master from the rest. Sam Miranda started producing wines here a decade ago, and in a short span, he’s earned regards for his full-bodied reds. Delicate fruit handling, plentiful juicy flavours, and weighty tannic backbone define Sam’s wines. Interestingly, his Sangiovese Cabernet blend red is called ‘Super King’, his take on Super Tuscans. His 2010 Super King is a food-worthy blend with concentrated juicy fruitiness, rose petal aromatics, and spicy finish. The 2010 Nebbiolo also stands out with a dried cherry skin, cranberry dust, olive tapenade, and earthy back. Structure and tannic grip shows confidence and age-worthiness. However, what brings home the glory is his unorthodox blend of Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, and Tannat, fittingly shortened to TNT. Packed with heavy purple and black fruits notes, licorice spice, lifted with violet perfume, the wine opens up big. Warm alcohol and mouth-watering acidity balance the heaviness, yet it needs decade-long cellaring prior to being considered for relishing alongside a hearty steak.
While Italy may be the home to these varietals and their admirable templates, their admiration has travelled to every corner of the world and inspired modern winemakers. Australia, an amicably complex amalgamation of foreign influences, is the burgeoning ground to showcase what this inter-cultural dialogue could surprisingly produce. Amongst the Coonawarra Cabernets, Eden Valley Rieslings, Heathcote Shiraz, and Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noirs, add another region’s offerings to your must-try list — from the Kings of King Valley. Salute!