King Valley Australia — Pizzini leads the Italian charge

Grape production figures for Victoria’s King Valley (stretching thirty kilometres northwards up the King River roughly from Milawa at 170 metres above sea level to the Whitlands plateau at 800 metres) reveal the tiny scale of some the most interesting wines in the valley – tiny plots of Italian varieties like sangiovese, nebbiolo and arneis.

In the King Valley, as in virtually every region in Australia, some, or all of, shiraz, cabernet, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc and semillon contribute the majority of output.

But because everyone, everywhere grows these varieties, we might be excused for not hanging a King Valley sign on any one of them – as we do, say, for Hunter semillon, Clare riesling or Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon.

No, the King Valley’s specialty, to date, lies in Italian red and white varieties even though these make up only a small portion of its annual fifteen thousand tonne grape crush.

Although Brown Bros pioneered some Italian styles in its ‘kindergarten’ winery — designed for small, experimental wine batches — Mornington based Gary Crittenden took Italian diversity and quality to another level before local Italian-descended small growers made the transition from grape-growing to winemaking.

During a downturn when Brown Bros reduced its grape intake, cousins Fred and Arnie Pizzini and another grower, Guy Darling, established King Valley Wines at Whitfield. Fred says they built the winery because, “We all wanted a winery, but thought, why build three? We didn’t want our grapes going to distant places. And we wanted to maintain the premium image of wines, mostly whites at the time, coming out of the area”.

Today, KWV is a major contract winemaking centre for the district and includes its local shareholders — Pizzini Wines (Fred Pizzini), Chrismont Wines (Arnie Pizzini) and Darling Estate Wines (Guy Darling) – as customers.

During a half day visit to the King Valley last week, Fred Pizzini said that when his father, Roberto, arrived from Italy in 1956 the area grew mainly tobacco and hops.

In 1976, Roberto and Fred planted riesling – for Brown Bros — on the river flat beside the family tobacco crop. Over time, tobacco disappeared as the vines spread along the river and westwards up the gentle slopes of the valley.

The first Italian varieties arrived in the 1980s and today the red sangiovese and nebbiolo occupy plum spots on the estate near the white arneis and verduzzo and all those other more familiar varieties.

As well, the Pizzini’s grow the white pinot grigio and red brachetto. While these are of French origin, the northern Italians have long made a steely, dry version of what the French call pinot gris. And the obscure brachetto is cultivated more in Italy than in France. Fred says he’ll be producing a Piedmontese style, low-alcohol, sparkling brachetto from the first commercial crop this year.

Even with familiar grape varieties, it takes decades for vines and winemaking skills to mature in any new region. In the King Valley, Fred Pizzini has been steadily developing the distinctive range reviewed in Top Drops.

While each of the wines is a work in progress, there’s a delicious consistency to the arneis, verduzzo, sangiovese and sangiovese rosato — despite continuing fine-tuning in the vineyard and winery.

Nebbiolo, the noble variety of Piedmont’s Barolo, has proven more problematic in Australia, perhaps, than any of the other Italian varieties. The Pizzini’s, however, have begun to hit the mark, although the very best vintages have yet to be released.

Pizzini King Valley Arneis 2005 $20, Verduzzo 2005 $18
The 2005s, due for release in February, taste even better than the lovely 2004s. Arneis, a Piedmontese variety, can be neutral but this one’s full of character with nashi-pear-like flavour and the extraordinarily zesty, pleasantly tart bite to make a mouth-watering aperitif or refreshing, all-purpose summer food wine. Verduzzo, originally from north-eastern Italy, delivers voluptuous, apricot-like aromas and flavours and rich, silky-textured palate – partly derived from the variety and partly from fermentation and maturation of a very small component of the blend in oak barrels. The 2004 displayed more oak influence but this lighter touch works better, in my view.

Pizzini King Valley Sangiovese 2004 $24, Sangiovese Rosetta $14.50
The full-bore, red sangiovese is bright and clean and kicks off with the variety’s delicious ‘bitter black cherry’ flavour. However, a wave of savoury, fine tannins soon ripples across the palate, drying out the finish and giving the grip necessary to accompany food. This is heaps better than most of the basic Chianti’s kicking around bottle shops – although you might find it interesting to serve it alongside a decent Chianti Classico to compare the style difference. The rosé is a fresh, light, crisp and dry style, still offering some cherry-like varietal flavour – a wine to chill and quaff any time. Cellar door phone 03 5729 8030.

Pizzini King Valley Nebbiolo 2000 $45
Nebbiolo, the noble red grape of Piedmont’s Barolo region, all too often disappoints, even on its native soil. But the great examples deliver incomparable perfume and an elegance, combined with power, that belies the often light colour. In the Pizzini vineyard, wallabies love the vine shoots, often decimating a crop that’s hard to set and ripen even under ideal conditions and, even then, difficult to turn into great wine. This 2000 has the variety’s lighter colour but captures some of the aromatic magic, savoury flavours and elegant, very firm structure. I was completely happy drinking it until Fred showed me the Reserve 2003 due for release in a few years at $80 to $100.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007

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