King Valley, Australia’s new Italia

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 shingle, to date, hangs on Italian red and white varieties even if these make up only a small portion of an 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”.

The switch from contract grape growing to winemaking gathered pace in the nineties. Certainly by the time I passed through with visiting Italian winemaker, Dino Illuminati, in 1997, Italian-descended farmers-turned-vignerons were setting the Valley’s wine and food direction.

The Italian flavour grew over time and was the real point of interest when the Valley’s makers visited Canberra recently. Sure, they offered shiraz and cabernet, chardonnay etc. But who cares? You can taste these varieties anywhere.

The excitement, to this palate anyway, lay in the Italian varieties — pinot grigio (ok, it’s French but it’s the Italian name and made in the Italian style), moscato, dolcetto, sangiovese, nebbiolo, verduzzo, arneis, barbera, marzemino and prosecco – and to a lesser extent the Russian saperavi and petit manseng from Jurancon, southern France.

These varieties provide a novel flavour spectrum: from the delicate, grapey, sweet freshness of Brown Brothers Moscato – at around five per cent alcohol — to the sappy, dry, pleasantly tart Dal Zotto sparkling Prosecco; to the bracing Chrismont La Zona Arneis or slurpy, sweet, red Marzemino Frizzante; to Pizzini’s dazzling verduzzo and profound, tannic Coronomento Nebbiolo; to the savoury dryness of several sangioveses and summer-berry freshness of the red barbera.

Many of these can be found in good liquor stores. But the individual wineries and the region can be easily Googled for more information or online ordering. Even better, with the King Valley just four hours’ drive from Canberra, a long weekend is all it takes to explore the wines on site and to taste them with local Italian food.

I wonder, too, if the King Valley folk might complete the Italian theme and produce varietal grappa – an obligatory touch in any Italian wine-growing region.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007