It’s good to be the King (King Valley, Victoria – 4/04/2013)

I think it’s time for an embarrassing confession. In spite of the fact that I have now travelled all around the world visiting almost 100 different regions I have actually been to very few regions in Australia, of which there are almost 50. What is possibly worse is that there are about a dozen regions within a few hours of Melbourne alone, only three of which I had visited outside of work. I have had the chance to visit the major wine regions in South Australia, thanks in some part to working in the trade previously and being invited, and also visiting some regions around Adelaide with my father before I left. There is now only one state in Australia that doesn’t produce wine, and that is the Northern Territory, so there are still four states I still haven’t visited wineries in. Returning home I was determined to remedy this and the first new region to visit (finally) was the King Valley.

Gorgeous view into the King Valley on a lovely day

Gorgeous view into the King Valley on a lovely day

The King Valley is almost three hours (depending on your route) northeast of Melbourne and as the name suggests follows the King River as it flows northwest towards the Murray River. Like many important parts of the state of Victoria, the area was established around the time of the gold rush in the mid to late-19th century. It was an important line between the historic town of Beechworth and the Yarra Valley and also has its own agricultural history, most notably for tobacco. The region was one of the most popular destinations for migrants looking for work or their own piece of the Australian dream, and a large number of Italian families moved here. This is one the major reason why the King Valley is one of the most important in Australia for Italian grape varieties. As the market for tobacco began to dwindle in the 1970s many farmers were encouraged to begin planting grape vines by Brown Brothers, one of Australia’s most important and historic producers. In the 1980s and 1990s more Italian varieties began to be planted, long before there was any interest in these kinds of wine in the market, and certainly before the huge increases in quality of Italian wine. Gradually many of these families who grew grapes for other wineries began to produce and sell their own products, and the two wineries I visited are probably the best producers of Italian varietal wine in the state.

An Echidna hunts for food under a vine in the King Valley

An Echidna hunts for food under a vine in the King Valley

Otto Dal Zotto was born and raised in Valdobbiadene. If you aren’t familiar with that particular town In the Veneto region of Italy, then you have certainly heard of its most famous produce; prosecco. He moved to Australia when he was in his 20s and established a property just outside of Whitfield with his wife Elena. The first vineyards were planted at a different site in 1987, and were what was better commercially; cabernet sauvignon and riesling. Very few of these vines still remain, partly because there is a lot less market for riesling (particularly from here), and also because over time they began to plant Italian varieties. Since then they have planted a number of key varieties like sangiovese, nebbiolo, barbera, pinot grigio, and arneis. But it was one particular variety and wine style that they would pioneer that would not only bring them great acclaim but also have a profound impact on drinking habits in Australia.

Michael Dal Zotto shows me some of the nebbiolo wines

Michael Dal Zotto shows me some of the nebbiolo vines

On a visit to Italy he introduced his son Michael and daughter-in-law to the joys of prosecco, at 10:30am in the morning. Michael asked his father why they weren’t making this kind of wine at home when there was already such a strong market for sparkling wines in Australia and there was such amazing potential. They came home, found some vine material which already been legally brought into the country, planted the vines and in a few years were the first in Australia to produce a commercial prosecco. The L’Immigrante was not only the first prosecco wine but it was also unusually a vintage wine made in the traditional method rather than in the charmat method like almost all Italian prosecco. Since then they have introduced a non-vintage charmat produced Pucino and it is really interesting to see the two different styles. Since 2008 the region in Italy that produces prosecco has established a DOC and DOCG, and has attempted to stop anyone else marketing their wines as prosecco. As prosecco is actually the name of the variety they don’t have as strong a case as places like Champagne and Burgundy, and thus far have been unsuccessful. Wherever it comes from, the important thing is to drink good quality wine, which Dal Zotto certainly produces. Click here to read my tasting notes.

A glass of Dal Zotto prosecco

A glass of Dal Zotto prosecco

Blood is thicker than water, so it isn’t surprising that one of the other great producers of Italian varietal wines in the King Valley are related to the Dal Zottos through marriage. Pizzini’s origin story is not especially unique in the region; Italian origins (Trentino), tobacco farm, vineyard establishment to sell fruit to Brown Brothers. The first defining characteristic was to start planting Italian varieties earlier than almost anyone else in the country. Amazingly enough they found some sangiovese vines in someone’s backyard that had been taken from Montalcino, the home of the variety in Tuscany. They were also one of the first in the country to plant nebbiolo, way back in the late 1970s. Considering the age of the vines and their experience with these varieties, it is not surprising that they now produce possibly the best sangiovese and nebbiolo wines in Australia, as evidenced by the regular benchmarking exercises they have comparing the quality against examples from Italy.

This is what an authentic Australian winery looks like

This is what an authentic Australian winery looks like

I met with Joel Pizzini who took over the winemaking duties full-time in 2002, allowing his father Fred to pull back and focus more on the overall business. Joel gained experience working vintages between Australia and Italy and familiarised himself with the varieties and premium production of them. Joel took me around the property and introduced me to the hectares of vines. Over the past 40 years the plantings have evolved to of course focus more on other Italian varietals including pinot grigio, arneis, prosecco, verduzzo, barbera, cannaiolo, and they retain some classic varieties like riesling, chardonnay shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. Over a number of years they started to notice that for sangiovese and particularly nebbiolo, the best fruit was coming from the ridges that had shallower soils, better drainage and good exposure. Thus they began to isolate the fruit from these naturally lower-yielding vines and producing more premium examples. Thus the Rubacuori Sangiovese and Coronamento Nebbiolo were born. It’s a good thing that they had more experience with these wines as there is increasing interest and demand for them in Australia. Something I’m also starting to realise is how well these wines age as the Rubacuori 2005 I tasted before I left tasted almost the same almost two years later. As Joel took me through an extensive tasting in the fabulous cellar door his very cute but very mischievous son Luca was running around and demanding more attention, but showing how important family is to the winery. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Joel Pizzini looks down on his vineyards in the King Valley

Joel Pizzini looks down on his vineyards in the King Valley

That night I stayed as a guest at the Whitfield hotel that the Pizzini family bought and converted into a gastro-pub that is popular with locals and visitors alike. By chance and fortune when I went for dinner I found Fred and Katrina Pizzini stopping in on the way back from Melbourne who invited me to join them. Fred of course was the brains behind the wines working closely with Mark Walpole and the Brown family, but Katrina is doing a sensational job in promoting not only Italian cuisine by running cooking classes, but also local produce. I was honoured to be able to share some of my own experiences of wine and Italy, and also hear more about the impact that the family have had. The really exciting thing I discovered visiting the Pizzini’s was the continued experimentation and desire to better understand everything they do, from planting vines in new and potentially better parts of the property, to telling more stories and championing the region as an Italian haven in Victoria.

The Pizzini-owned Mountain View Hotel gastro-pub

The Pizzini-owned Mountain View Hotel gastro-pub

Click here to see more photos from my time in the King Valley, one of Victoria’s emerging and under-appreciated regions.

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