There are few international grapes in Australia that have enjoyed as much attention as sangiovese. Italy’s most famous grape, is grown all across the country and has been a favourite for exploration and experimentation.
Mark Lloyd, of Coriole in McLaren Vale, was one of the first to plant sangiovese, back in the mid-1980s. It is a late-ripening grape variety that retains its acidity, so is well suited to the warm climate of McLaren Vale. The clincher for him, though, was French nuclear testing in the Pacific; it turned Lloyd away from trialling French grape varieties.
Since then, Coriole has tested plenty of sangiovese clones, with nine currently planted, and still crafts some of McLaren Vale’s finest examples of this variety.
Sangiovese is a grape that can create an array of wine styles. At its greatest, usually from around the Tuscan town of Montalcino, it is responsible for dense and tannic wines with aromas of terracotta and baked earth over a bed of red and blackberry fruits, supported by not insignificant acidity. Alternatively, it can be used to create bright, juicy and user-friendly wines made for early drinking, generally from warmer climates. Both styles, with their acid cut and tannins, make for wonderful food matching.
The early years for sangiovese in Australia were generally tough going, with local wineries slow to understand how to grow and make wines with this new variety. It was hard work in the vineyard and no doubt some wondered whether it was suited to Australian conditions. But over time, with more clones and greater experience, Australian sangiovese has come into its own, particularly after the Brunello clone was imported in the 1990s.
Sangiovese growing areas can be broadly broken into cooler and warmer regions. Warmer areas – such as Heathcote, Barossa, Mudgee and McLaren Vale – create bigger and bolder versions, sometimes with quite significant tannins. More elegant, and acid-driven styles are more likely to be found in cooler areas, including Margaret River, Adelaide Hills, Hilltops, Pyrenees and Yarra Valley.
A key feature in some of the best local wines seems to be some kind of alpine influence, as seen in the King Valley and Beechworth. The King Valley, with its strong Italian heritage, has always been a second home for the grape, with a range of producers, including Pizzini and Dal Zotto, pouring plenty of effort into crafting high-quality wines. Beechworth is also a strong contender, although its unique climate and soils create more savoury wines.
At Pizzini, an important influence has been the insights provided by legendary Italian wine consultant Alberto Antonini for more than 20 years. Antonini has his own estate (Poggiotondo) in Italy, but also consults around the world, from Tuscany and Sicily to Uruguay and Armenia. Here in Australia, he has overseen significant changes to Pizzini’s vineyard make-up, how the fruit is grown, and even the winemaking style. Vines have been cut back to reduce vigour and annual growth, which also ensures the fruit receives the right amount of dappled light during the growing season to maximise fruit quality.
According to winemaker Joel Pizzini, “With fruit integrity we can make the wine we want.” That fruit quality then allows the winemakers to utilise extractive techniques to draw out the maximum flavour while avoiding the hard, green tannins that can often be found with this variety.
At the winery, this process includes cold soaks, hot ferments and extended maceration – although the team avoids pressing for the top wines, again to keep those tannins in check.
The next step for Pizzini is soil mapping and they are just beginning to understand how the various volcanic soils in the King Valley interact with their various clones.
Australian sangiovese producers have certainly come a long way but you also get the impression that this variety still has more to offer over the coming decades.
2017 Fighting Gully Road La Longa Sangiovese, Beechworth, A$65
Mark Walpole has more experience with sangiovese than almost anyone else in the country and it shows in this wine. It is a big, tannic style and has a distinctly Brunello-
like earthy edge with savoury appeal from extended oak ageing plus rich and powerful fruit. It’s a hearty sangiovese that needs another five years to hit its peak.
2016 Pizzini Forza di Ferro Sangiovese, King Valley, A$55
My favourite from the sangiovese now in production at Pizzini; it combines energy and brightness of fruit with significant complexity. It shows truffle, spice and cedar aromas over a bed of dark cherry with an older oak influence. That fruit is then well balanced with a healthy dose of tannins and acidity to make a strongly varietal and delicious Australian sangiovese.
2017 Castagna La Chiave Sangiovese, Beechworth, A$79
This is a savoury example of local sangiovese, with a firm structure and underlying dense fruit. Baked earth, blackberry and spice aromas with a faintly meaty edge, then leading to a bone dry palate where thick acid and tannins are matched by robust fruits. This is a wine that demands time.
2020 Coriole Sangiovese, McLaren Vale, A$28
A bright and fruit-forward example, this has great freshness and drinkability. Blackberry and black cherry fruits burst from the glass with a dusting of Italian herbs. Supple tannins on a mid-weight palate make it an approachable and more-ish style to enjoy young.