According to legend, the white fiano grape has been grown in the hills of Campania in southern Italy since ancient Roman times. Prolific Roman writers on all things agricultural, Pliny the Elder and Columella, both mention a grape variety called Vitis apiana, whose grapes were so sweet that they attracted the honey bee (apis in Latin). Over the centuries, so the legend goes, the name of the vine evolved from apiana to apiano and eventually to fiano.
Another possible, if more prosaic, origin story is that the grape was first cultivated near the town of Appia (now known as Lapiò) in Avellino, today considered the best area for the variety in Campania. And according to the authoritative book, Wine Grapes, by Jancis Robinson et al, fiano was first mentioned in 1240. So whichever way you look at it, fiano is a very old Italian variety.
Fiano has survived for so many centuries in Campania because it is well-suited to the region’s warm climate. The grape has a thick skin and achieves good ripeness without losing acidity. The wines it produces can be attractively aromatic, quite rich in flavour and texture, and can age well in the bottle. It doesn’t produce huge crops, though, and after the phylloxera vine louse swept through the region in the early 20th century, many growers replanted with higher-yielding – but less interesting – grapes such as trebbiano. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when visionary winemakers such as Antonio Mastroberardino started to champion the traditional regional varieties, that fiano began to reappear on Campania’s hillsides, alongside that other ancient grape, the great red aglianico.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, progressive Australian winemakers and viticulturists started looking for heat- and drought-tolerant grapes to plant Down Under. They looked to southern Italy for inspiration and fiano was one of their first choices. The early wines from people such as Mark Lloyd at Coriole in McLaren Vale and the Chalmers family near Mildura encouraged others to plant, and today fiano is considered by many to be the frontrunner among the next-generation Italian whites. True, it may not end up being embraced by the mainstream as wholeheartedly as, say, pinot grigio or prosecco, but it is developing an impressive reputation among discerning makers and drinkers.
One of the attractions of fiano for Australian grapegrowers is the variety’s adaptability: it performs extremely well from hot climates such as South Australia’s Riverland – where it produces wines with a freshness that belies their provenance – to warm coastal climates such as McLaren Vale, warm inland regions such as Heathcote, and even cooler spots such as the Adelaide Hills.
It’s versatile in the winery, too, making everything from clean, crisp styles to creamy, rich, mouth-filling styles of white wine. There’s plenty of flavour and lots of textural phenolics in the grapes’ skins, too, and a few winemakers are fermenting their white fiano more like a red wine – juice, pulp, seeds and skins all macerated together – to make good “amber” wines. A couple of Australian producers even make successful perfumed sparkling wines out of the variety.
2016 Chalmers Felicitas, Heathcote, A$43
The Chalmers family has more experience with fiano than just about anyone in Australia, so it’s no surprise to see them pushing the boundaries of what the variety can do by turning it into a fragrant, fun fizz that’s full of grapey flavour.
2018 Goon Tycoons Hipster Piss Fiano, Margaret River, A$25
There are some really good whites made from Italian grapes emerging from Western Australia – exciting wines such as this crunchy, textural, pear-juicy example of fiano made by star winemaker, Julian Langworthy.
2018 Oliver’s Taranga Fiano, McLaren Vale, A$25
Winemaker Corrina Wright produces some of the best fiano in Australia by picking the fruit ripe and fermenting wild, with no added acid, then building texture by stirring the lees: the result is rich and creamy but spicy and perfumed, too.
2017 Mastroberardino Fiano di Avellino, Campania, Italy, A$36
Antonio Mastroberardino played a pivotal role in reviving the fortunes of fiano in the 1970s in Campania, where the variety had all but disappeared. This is a more savoury, more subtle expression of the grape than the Australian wines listed here.