The picturesque King Valley region lies at the foot of the Alpine Alps in the north east of Victoria, just three hours’ drive from Melbourne. Once a tobacco growing region farmed by Italian immigrants, its cool climate, high altitude, and rich soils have proved a boon for winegrowing. The region was originally planted to classic varieties, but now it is home to an exciting array of Italian and alternative varieties too. The result is a kaleidoscope of wine offerings – from cool climate international classics to a dizzying array of Italian-style wines ... with a few Spanish and Russian varietals in between. And – of course – there’s a whole ‘Prosecco Road’ to discover as well.
First, there was Brown Brothers ...
The King Valley wine story starts with Brown Brothers at Milawa. Brown Brothers was founded by John Francis Brown in 1885, who, at 18 years old, convinced his father to plant vines. He named the winery Brown Brothers, thinking his brothers would lead the winery into the future, but it was John Francis Brown’s son, John Charles Brown, who took up the mantle. John Charles Brown’s push for quality wines, and passionate interest in new varieties and styles saw the family pioneering new regions, new grape varieties and new styles. Over 130 years later, the still proudly family-owned Brown Brothers has grown to become one of the most well-known wineries in Australia, famous for its relentless innovation and continued quest for quality wines.
Turning tobacco into wine
At the same time that John Francis Brown was planting grapes in Milawa, Chinese immigrants travelled from the Victorian goldfields, and established market gardens and tobacco plantations in the area. After the Second World War, many Italian immigrants took up tobacco growing in the region as well. The tobacco industry went through many booms and busts, and suffered a severe decline in the early 1970s. Though tobacco farming families were not sure what their alternatives were (many options were considered, including vegetables and blueberries), Brown Brothers were very clear as to what should be grown next. Knowing the region was perfect for wine, and wanting to expand operations, they encouraged many tobacco farmers to establish vineyards. The first grapes were the classic varieties of Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet and Shiraz.
The Italian Connection
Soon, a nostalgia for wines from their homeland led many Italian growers to start experimenting with Italian varieties ... a nostalgia that has resulted in the valley being one of Australia’s most prominent regions for alternative varieties. These days, wine lovers can enjoy exotic Italian-style whites like Prosecco, Moscato, Fiano, Friulano, Pinot Grigio, Arneis, Verduzzo and Verdicchi.... just to name a few. Reds include Sangiovese, concentrated Barbera, soft, silky Canaiolo, Nebbiolo, Sagrantino, and alluring Marmezino – a gently sparkling frizzante red, served gently chilled. Though the region has gained a prestige reputation for its rare alternatives and Italian varietals, the growers haven’t forgotten the classics that served them in the beginning. Riesling, Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Shiraz and Pinot Noir all thrive in the cool climes of the region – the old vines giving extra depth, flavour and complexity.
The valley is home to many fine wineries. Here’s a royal tour of four of them.
Like many other Italian immigrants, Alfredo and Katrina Pizzini grew tobacco, but had to diversify when the industry closed down. And diversify they did. Alfredo and Katrina Pizzini started with an initial planting of Riesling for Brown Brothers in 1978. Over the next decade they planted Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Shiraz, which they sold to wineries around Australia. In the mid 80s, Alfredo also planted Sangiovese and Nebbiolo – two of Italy’s most famous grapes. Later he trialled some Italian whites as well with Verduzzo, Picolit and Arneis. In 1994, the Pizzinis decided to create their own label, with a particular focus on Italian wines. The Pizzinis have worked intensely on their land to identify sites which would best suit particular grape varieties and their plantings now comprise 170 acres and a glittering selection of Italian varietals.
Arnie Pizzini and winemaker Warren Proft are the formidable team behind Chrismont Wines. Arnie grew up helping grow tobacco on the family farm, but when the industry declined, it was he who suggested the family should grow grapes – as the family had once done in Italy. He established vineyards at the family’s Cheshunt and Whitfield properties and embarked on an extensive and intensive viticultural learning curve. He was very keen to grow Italian varieties, and established the first commercial plantings of Barbera in Australia. Warren grew up at the foot of the Snowy Mountains, and studied Oenology. He cut his winemaking teeth at Orlando Wyndham and Miranda Wines, spent three years as a ‘flying winemaker’ in Spain and Australia, and six years as senior winemaker at King Valley Wines. Now as winemaker at Chrismont, he is able to make small-batch, handcrafted wines from Arnie’s prized vineyards that reflect not only the vineyard and the region, but also the people who grow the fruit.
One of the regions in other areas of Australia that the Pizzinis and other King Valley growers provided wine for was Griffith, in NSW’s Riverina region – where Sam Miranda, also of Italian heritage, grew up. Sam became good friends with the King Valley folk, finally visiting in 1991 to see if it was as good as they claimed. It was, and in 1996 he made the move, taking up a winemaking position with the family business, Miranda Wines. He also bought a property on the Snow Road, built a winery and a stunning cellar door, and launched Sam Miranda of King Valley. Like other wineries in the region, the traditional varieties are still a feature, but the real excitement is in the rare and alternative varieties – and not just the Italian ones either. Alongside his classy cool climate wines and Italian jewels, wine lovers can try French-inspired Tannat and Petit Mensang, and Spanish-style Tempranillo. There’s even a rare sighting of Saperavi – a Georgian grape, that Sam Miranda Wines has made its own.
Otto Dal Zotto was born in Valdobbiadene in north eastern Italy – home to the famed Prosecco. He migrated to the King Valley in 1967, and like many others, grew tobacco until the industry declined. He then made the move to wine, planting Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It wasn’t long before he was planting Italian varietals as well – Barbera, Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, Arneis and – most notably – Prosecco. Otto was the first to source and plant Prosecco in the King Valley and not surprisingly, it is Dal Zotto’s signature style. Since Otto’s initial planting, many growers and wineries have discovered the charms (and incredible popularity) of Prosecco, and planted as well. The region is so well renowned for Prosecco that it even boasts the famous ‘Prosecco Road’, where Prosecco lovers can sample the region’s varying sparkling delights on a top to toe journey through the region.
A new twist of the kaleidoscope
The King Valley’s blend of the old and new continues to turn out exciting wines and styles. At Pizzini, winemaker Joel Pizzini has introduced the Lana label, using natural and traditional winemaking techniques to give funky, earthy and savoury notes to his wines. Made expressly to be enjoyed with food – especially dishes with Italian flavours – they give wine drinkers a taste of authentic Italy, Australian style. At Dal Zotto, Prosecco lovers are discovering a ‘new’ style – the textural, cloudy, funky, ‘Col Fondo Prosecco’. Made in the méthode ancestrale style, in the same way as the popular pét-nats, the Prosecco is bottled before fermentation is complete, and still has some sediment. It’s not a new style – rather, it’s the old way Prosecco was made in Italy before the crisp, clean and zesty style became so popular – a style that Otto dearly missed, and was keen to recreate. There are also cross-cultural experiments … Warren Proft uses small-batch techniques learned in Spain to craft his wines, and Sam Miranda’s tri-country ‘TNT’ combines the Spanish, Italian and French grapes of Tempranillo, Nebbiolo and Tannat together to create a long-lived, textural wine of great power. And of course, there are Super Tuscans King Valley style … Sam Miranda’s ‘Super King’ and Chrismont’s Arnaldo being prime examples.
The King Valley’s mix of innovative visionaries with an eye on the future and nostalgic settlers with a longing for tradition has created a truly glittering mix of wines and wine styles. What will a new twist of the kaleidoscope bring? Whatever it is, it’s sure to be delicious. Watch this space and see!
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