Victoria’s King Valley stretches northwards from the sub-Alpine country around Whitlands, at a chilly 800 metres above sea level, gradually descending and comparatively narrow, before fanning out over the hot Oxley plains around Milawa at around 170 metres.
Growing conditions vary greatly in this thirty kilometre long valley. Varying altitudes, rainfall, latitudes, soils and aspects produce a correspondingly wide spectrum of grape and wine flavours.
The mean January temperature at Milawa in the north is 22 degrees Celsius; in the south at Whitlands it’s just 19 degrees. Grapes ripen in early March at Milawa but not until late April at Whitlands.
In short the area produces everything from thumping big, alcoholic fortifieds and reds, to delicate sparkling and white wines.
While the Valley’s winemaking began in the late nineteenth century, most activity remained at the warmer northern end around Milawa until the 1970s.
Milawa owes its prominence on the winemaking map to Brown Bros whose presence, from 1889, sustained the industry in the region and, ultimately, sparked the southward vineyard expansions into the higher, cooler southern end of the valley.
The spread south and upward towards Whitfield, Myrrhee, Whitlands and Cheshunt was driven by growing demand for high-quality table wines. Brown Bros led the way, developing its own high altitude Whitlands vineyard and encouraging local landowners to diversify into grapes.
The first independents — Guy Darling and John Leviny — established vines between Moyhu and Whitfield in the higher, cooler northern sector in 1970. Both sold grapes to Brown Brothers. Indeed, older readers may recall Guy Darling’s Whitfield vineyard name – Koombahla — appearing on Brown Bros labels in the late seventies and eighties, before Darling established his own brand.
During the eighties and nineties, other landowners, including several Italian descended tobacco growers, commenced growing grapes, originally to sell to Brown Brothers or other winemakers.
However, during the recession of the early nineties Brown Brothers reduced its grape intake. This shock, Arnie Pizzini once told me, was the catalyst that forced himself and other growers to adopt a broader, more independent approach to marketing their product.
During the late nineties, driven partly by the export boom, the numbers of independent growers increased, as did the number converting all or part of their production into branded product.
The late nineties, too, saw the arrival of the large independent makers De Bortoli and Miranda, both Griffith based and both Italian descended.
By this time the Valley had acquired a distinctively Italian flavour as the Corsini, Pizzini, Cavedon, Dal Zotto and other families planted indigenous Italian varietals, including sangiovese, arneis, barbera, marzemino, prosecco, barbera, nebbiolo, dolcetto, primitivo (aka, in California and Australia, zinfandel) and verduzzo.
These joined the usual mix of French and German varieties plus a sprinkling from Spain (tempranillo and verdejo), Russia (saperavi) and France’s little known petit manseng and increasingly popular pinot gris.
This diversity of landscapes, climates, grape varieties, growers and makers means that the King Valley gives wine drinkers an exceptional range of taste sensations – subtly different in the case of the mainstream varieties like chardonnay and shiraz but totally removed from our usual fare when we encounter sangiovese, nebbiolo, barbera, verduzzo and the like.
In this instance the principal driver of difference was the Italian connection – the sons and daughters of post-war immigrants. I’ll report back on what this Italian influence offers after a visit to the Valley in a few weeks.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007