Classic Italian grapes are populating the New World
It was a sunny September afternoon in Barolo. Local producers slowly trickled into the town castle’s regional enoteca from their nearby properties: Valentina Abbona and her father, Ernesto, from Marchesi di Barolo; Serena Marrone from her family’s eponymous estate in La Morra; and Roberto Damonte from Malvirà in Roero, among others. They’d come to meet Mick Unti from Unti Vineyards in Dry Creek, California, and Patrick Taylor, head winemaker at Oregon-based Cana’s Feast Winery. Both were straight off the plane and bleary-eyed but keen to present their wines made from the Italian grapes Arneis, Vermentino, Barbera and Nebbiolo.
Organized by Barolo’s Collisioni Festival, the gathering was the brainchild of scientific director Dr. Ian D’Agata, author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy. There is no one more authoritative on the subject than Dr. D’Agata but he is equally enthusiastic about wines made from Italy’s grapes abroad. He also has a knack for bringing together the wine world’s most revered personalities. Yet the encounter was ego-free. The Italians brought their wines along as well and everyone was eager to try each other’s wares. Rather than passing judgement, the banter focused on rootstock, clones, soil, yields and wine-making techniques along with specific challenges and successes.
This small and seemingly casual meet-up is indicative of an ever-growing interest in working with Italian grapes in wine regions around the globe. Though not unfamiliar on foreign soil, Italian varieties have never been as widespread or as successful as French grapes. For the better half of the last century, Italian wine quality was lacking and little was known about the country’s native grapes. As quality improved and more research was done, Italian wine stimulated winemakers around the globe to try their hand at Italy’s less travelled grapes.
Ask any producer why they’re working with Italian grapes and they’ll start waxing lyrical about Italian wine in general. “We believe that Nebbiolo is one of the world’s greatest varieties and produces some for the world’s greatest wines,” proclaims Peter Saturno at Longview in Adelaide Hills. His compatriot Mark Day, winemaker for the Eccolo label puts it in even simpler terms: “I love drinking Sangiovese.” For Patrick Taylor, his desire to make Arneis in Oregon was inspired by benchmarks he enjoyed from renowned Piedmont producer Vietti.
Texture, savouriness and food-friendly acidity are what winemakers (and wine lovers) prize in Italian wines. “That twist of sour acid gets the stomach ready for food,” enthuses Gill Gordon-Smith, owner of Aussie label Fall From Grace. She, along with others who’ve embraced Italian grapes seek to capture those elements in their renditions. Winemaker Corrina Wright [pictured above] at Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards in McLaren Vale reasons, “We are coastal; seafood plays a large role in our lives, and smashing a voluptuous McLaren Vale Shiraz with a delicate King George Whiting fillet doesn’t always make sense!” Her vibrant whites from Fiano and Vermentino make a much more appropriate match.
Producers are also looking to Italian varieties to bring diversity to their range. At last count, Italy boasted an enviable 548 genetically identified distinct grapes. What richness! Compare that with California, for example. “90 percent of their wines are made with only eight varieties,” declares Dr. D’Agata.
In New Zealand, Hawke’s Bay’s Trinity Hill is out to prove that this Sauvignon Blanc-centric country has more to offer. Winemaker and viticulturist Warren Gibson explains their decision to planted Montepulciano. “The company was going through an ‘innovative phase,’ believing we should explore varieties outside the traditional francophilic boundaries.”
Similarly, Ontario winemaker JL Groux at Stratus looked to Italy to bring complexity and personality to his flagship red blend. He decided to try out Sangiovese as Niagara-on-the-Lake sits at a similar latitude to Tuscany. “The reception from both consumers and critics alike has been very positive,” says Suzanne Janke, Director of Hospitality and Retail, “so we now bottle the half-acre planting as varietal Sangiovese.”
But as Chris Tolley at Moon Curser in the Okanagan Valley points out, “plantings are only as appropriate as the wine is good.” He’s experimenting with Arneis, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo. While Tolley believes Arneis is suitable as it ripens early, likes sandy soils and isn’t too cold sensitive, he calls his two-year old Nebbiolo vines in Osoyoos “our sacrificial planting.” Only time will tell if that grape will be able to fully ripen in the Okanagan’s extreme climate. Howard Soon at Sandhill tried out Nebbiolo in 1995 but gave up after the grapes never turned beyond grey during veraison.
Mick Unti is candid about his successes and disappointments in Dry Creek, California. He is thrilled with both Barbera and Vermentino, which retain their high natural acidity even in the warmest of vintages. Dolcetto, on the other hand, is his nemesis. He first planted it in 1998 and has only made wine from it seven times. “It has sucked every vintage. Even at low sugar and low physiological ripeness, the acid really starts to fall.”
In Australia, Master of Wine David LeMire believes there are lots of opportunities for Italian varieties. “Our industry is based on French varieties, but not all our matches of variety and site have been great.” Italy’s heat- and drought-tolerant varieties make sense, especially for South Australia’s warmer and more arid reaches. According to Corinna Wright, “these varieties don’t need to have any acid added, which is much better from my ‘hands off’ winemaking perspective.”
Italian varieties have become so popular in Australia that the Riverina Winemakers Association launched an award program in 2016 specifically dedicated to wines made on Aussie soil from Italian native grapes. The learning curve, however, has been steep. When LeMire wrote his Master of Wine dissertation in 2006 on the suitability of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo in Australia, he identified several challenges. These included managing vigour, inferior clones, lower-density planting giving higher yields per vine and over-oaking and over-extracting in winemaking. A decade later, “people are getting more of a handle on the viticulture now,” asserts LeMire. “Some really good things are being done with these varieties by dedicated growers and makers.” Under his La Prova label, Sam Scott works with Sangiovese and Fiano from Adelaide Hills, Lagrein from Barossa Valley, and Montepulciano and Primitivo from Langhorne Creek, to name just a few. “They are a key part of our future,” he contends
Despite a large population of Italian descent, Argentina appears more tentative in its endeavours with Italian varieties. Always at the forefront of research, Laura Catena speaks to Catena’s experience. “I think that our difficulties with Sangiovese got us off to a bad start.” She points specifically to its susceptibility to rot and high yields. “Maybe we didn’t have the right plant material,” she suggests. However, she is very pleased with results from Ancellota planted in Eastern Mendoza and even happier about Catena’s 22-year-old two-hectare plot of Nebbiolo in the higher altitude area of Luján de Cuyo. She is now considering planting more.
Beyond challenges or victories in the vineyard and winery, another concern is whether devoting time to nurturing Italian varieties makes business sense. Here, Laura Catena is candid. “We have such great success with Malbec, Chardonnay, Cab Sauv and Cab Franc that it is hard to make the investment.” As popular as Italian wine may be, its native grapes are still less known than grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Mark Day is delighted about his Sagrantino but states, “the main problem is the public willingness to try a variety they have never heard of and know nothing about.” Thankfully, passion still triumphs. “I can’t help myself, it is awesome working with new and exciting flavours,” gushes Sam Scott. Howard Soon, who, despite abandoning Nebbiolo, persists with Barbara and Sangiovese, concurs. “It would be a shame to rip them out if the wines are viewed as being difficult to sell.”
As Gill Gordon-Smith says, “it’s all about education.” This starts with a better understanding of Italian wines and bringing awareness to the captivating grapes they are made from. As wine lovers get to know these, they may be more willing to try a Nebbiolo from Australia, a Barbera from California, a Sangiovese from Canada or a Montepulciano from New Zealand. Venturing abroad is not an exercise in seeking carbon copies. Rather, it is the discovery of a grape variety’s interpretation in its new home. Hopefully it will demonstrate some recognizable variety characteristics but with its own individual flair.
It’s impossible not to question what the Italians think about the New World’s efforts with their grapes. Which brings us back to that September afternoon in Barolo. To start, there was unanimous appreciation for Unti’s delightful and lively Vermentino. Of Cana’s Feast Arneis, Roberto Damonte described it as “a lot more savoury and saline than Roero’s but very clean and very pleasant.” Ernesto Abbona summed up the encounter in general: “It’s great to see this enthusiasm of young wine regions trying diverse wines. They’re getting better and better. We’re used to our grapes in Italy, but for you guys it’s exciting.”
It’s equally exciting for all wine enthusiasts. I, for one, am far from bored of Italian wines. The ever-increasing examples of wines from around the globe made from Italian native grapes are simply another satisfying way to quench our thirst.
Cana’s Feast Redmen Vineyard Arneis 2015, Ribbon Ridge AVA, Oregon ($25)
Pretty aromas of ripe pear, green almond and apple blossom carry through on the palate. Vibrant but round and textured with an underlying salinity that adds to its appeal.
Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards Fiano 2014, McLaren Vale, Australia ($27)
Preserved citrus peel and apple marry well with nuances of basil and verbena. Medium weight and tactile yet ultimately light on its feet and brilliantly balanced.
Unti Vineyards Vermentino 2015, Dry Creek Valley, California ($28)
You may very well be surprised by just how fresh and mouth-watering this Cali white is. Very restrained stone fruit with a lick of lemon, a hint of mint and lingering minerality.
Seghesio Sangiovese 2013, Alexander Valley, California ($40)
Planted in 1910, Seghesio’s Sangiovese vines are the oldest in America. Lush and dense red berries, plum, chewy tobacco and spice balanced by soft tannins and a refreshing lift of acidity.
La Stella Arioso Sangiovese 2012, Okanagan Valley BC VQA ($60)
La Stella originally planted Sangiovese as a blending partner to give some crucial acidity to south Okanagan Merlot. This is the first vintage where they’ve done a varietal bottling. Sour red cherry and sage with dusty dry tannins and lip-smacking acidity.
Longview Riserva Nebbiolo 2014, Adelaide Hills, Australia ($45)
Pale ruby colour and floral potpourri of rose and mint blossom speak to Nebbiolo. Strawberry, pencil and orange notes on the palate framed by fine ripe tannins and bright acid. A charming cousin that bears noteworthy resemblance to its family in Piedmont.
Trinity Hill Montepulciano 2014, Gimblett Gravels, New Zealand ($50)
Cool-climate New Zealand is an unlikely place for sun-loving Montepulciano but the heat-retaining soils of the Gimblett Gravels in Hawke’s Bay offer enough warmth to ripen this savoury, juicy, pure-fruited red.