Bob’s Blog: Why have Italian wine styles been latecomers to our tables?
Our Legend’s lunch this month featured white wines from Germany and reds from northern Italy, just across the border as it were. We really couldn’t think of any serious reds from Germany!
The question was asked as to why it took so long for Italian reds to be appreciated in Australia. It may be that our pioneers were more Francophiles and based their plantings on what was more familiar.
James Busby in his collection of cuttings included “117, Dolceto, Po and 42, Barbera noir, Po’ in his third Catalogue of cuttings. Noting they were sourced from the Po river valley, which is the core of the Piedmont region and from where many outstanding Italian Reds come from. That is reds with personality, flavour and character as opposed to the ordinary everyday drinking wines which dominate Italy’s major product and we all have enjoyed with pizzas. Italy, after all, is probably the largest producer of wine in the world.
We in the Hunter understand what a wine with personality is, fortunate as we are with our Semillons, Chardonnays, and Shiraz. They are wines that reflect the soil, the climate, the grapevine variety and often the history and winemakers who produce them.
While Shiraz, Semillon, and Chardonnay are regarded as “Nobel varieties” no such category emerged in the Italian wine lexicon. It is now recognized that Nebbiolo and Sangiovese in the north and Aglianico in the south are capable of producing wines of character, intensity and breeding along the lines of the French noble wines.
As always the story behind the wines adds to their enjoyment, the history, the viticultural practices adapted to the terroir, the winemaking philosophies and the people who produce them. This is certainly so in the Lombardy region which was ruled by the House of Savoy until the unification of Italy in 1860, about the time Lindeman was starting to see success here in Australia. The Italians at that time seemed better at making their wine treasures than spreading the word about them.
In the Hunter, we are only able to go back as far as the 1820’s to look at the development of the land, the traditions our pioneers brought with them and the adjustments they made given their unique circumstances. The human events, the political challenges to getting the land, to obtaining vinedressers, to getting export licenses to send wine back to the UK and the development of our local markets all contribute to “Our Story”.
Wines it is said, reflect the character of the country and people behind them. While this is very true of the Italian and French wines I think our wines also reflect the Australian character. They are fresh and true to their varietal type, they reflect a scientific approach to quality yet maintain the flavours and aging qualities that come from the wisdom derived from nearly 200 years of human input here. The current interest in Italian wines also reflects the migrant nature of Australia and how we have evolved to incorporate the cultures from whence we have come.
Nebbiolo, the truly noble variety of northwest Italy, most probably started life in Greek and Roman times but written records mention “Nibiol” from the 1200’s with one account describing excellent qualities “very strong and one to keep”. The English merchants discovered it in the 1700’s during a war with France, in particular the Nebbiolo from Barolo wines.
Historically wine was transport by sea, river, and canal which had been the cost-effective way of moving bulk supplies of wine. The Piedmont wine growers were effectively landlocked and tariffs to ship the wine through Genoa were prohibitive. The additional difficulties with mountainous roads and oxcarts also played a role, so little wonder these wines remained the unseen treasure of the area. By the 1800’s the wines were starting to gain recognition being given a leg up by Pope Pius VII, just as Burgundy’s were by Louis XIV.
Interestingly in the mid-1800’s, (at the same time as James King of Illawang, Wyndham, Lindeman, and others were pioneering the making of quality Hunter wines), in Bololo it took an energetic woman, the Marchesa Falletti, to set about improving her wines. In particular, she sought to produce a dry red wine along the lines that had seen the Bordeaux wines change in 1805. (Her great Great Grandfather, Jean Baptiste Colbert had been a minister in the court of Louis XIV)
European tastes were moving from sweet red wines to dry. Count Oudart from Rheims was brought in to make the Falletti wines which he fermented to dryness. Soon followed the wines of Barbaresco, Dolcetto, and Barbara among others. By the 1870’s the fine wines of Piedmont such as Barolo were getting recognition, standing out in a sea of sweeter everyday drinking wines.
So while there may be some two thousand years of history behind these wines of Northern Italy, it is only recently that the wines we see today became a reality, that is in the same time frame as the developing Hunter wine industry. But we were blind as to their potential of these varieties and it took a cultural change to turn our eyes towards Italian wines and broaden our views on the world of wine.
Some 25 years ago I planted Sangiovese at Tintilla Estate, another noble variety. It was interesting to attend a wine growers conference in Tuscany not long after and hear the discussion about marketing to the USA. The difficulty with pronunciation was overcome by marketing a Merlot Sangiovese blend where they said people would point to the familiar Merlot word and order a bottle! In any event, we started making a straight Sangiovese and a Sangiovese Merlot blend both with success. Now Sangiovese has become a well-understood varietal and we mainly make our straight Saphira Sangiovese to match the demand.
Clearly, wine does reflect the country that produces it and today in Australia we have a wine and food culture that extends well beyond anything our forefathers would have imagined, thank goodness!
Wasserman, S. and Wasserman, P. (1991). Italy’s noble red wines. New York: Macmillan Pub. Co.
Author: Robert Lusby AM
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