As you fly into Catania on Sicily’s eastern shores, one thing dominates the skyline: Etna.
While Mount Etna is more famous for the occasional fiery eruption, this Italian monolith is not just another active volcano. It’s the vanguard of Italian wine, with the mountain’s lower slopes home to some of the most entrancing – all crafted by the boundary-shifting and fashionable vignerons.
What makes the wine here so unique is the sheer volume of impossible-to-replicate elements. Think ancient – and exclusively dry-grown – vineyards planted to obscure indigenous varieties, in sight of the distant steaming crater, perched on slopes more than 1,000m in altitude, and planted in fertile soils from all-too-recent lava flows. You can almost see the drama in the vineyards.
And now, one pioneering wine family is seeking to bring some of that excitement to our shores, with Australia’s first-ever DNA-certified cuttings of Etna’s charismatic red hero variety, nerello mascalese, currently sitting in a secure quarantine facility in Melbourne. The process to get to this point spans back decades and is interconnected with the history of many Italian varieties in Australia.
Enter the Chalmers
The winners of this magazine’s 2014 Viticulturist of the Year award, the Chalmers family is singularly responsible for bringing varieties like sagrantino, aglianico and vermentino into the country. But it wasn’t always that way. Back in the 1990s, Bruce and Jenni Chalmers were large-scale grape growers in the Murray Darling, focused mainly on ‘conventional’ varieties. It was the late Dr Rod Bonfiglioli, a researcher at the University of Adelaide, who steered the family in the Italian direction. After looking for a tree change and eventually landing up in Euston, NSW, he convinced the Chalmers to look to Italy for varieties better suited to the Murray Valley climate.
Thanks to Bonfiglioli’s connections, Chalmers Wines lined up access to Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo – the largest grape nursery in the world – and the Matura Group as potential sources of new grapevine material.
But the plan hit a speed bump. Due to Australia’s strict quarantine laws, the Italian nurseries couldn’t send vines directly. So instead the Chalmers became Australian agents for both the cooperative and Matura – an agreement that still stands today.
What came next was a pivotal moment for Italian grapes in Australian history. In 1998, Bruce and Jenni worked with the nurseries and a host of producers in Italy to select a list of more than 70 different clones across multiple varieties to bring into the country.
While some of the most eclectic vineyard selections didn’t make it through quarantine (notably several Tuscan cuttings obtained by legendary winemaker Alberto Antonini), those that did included two key varieties that we now take for granted – nero d’Avola and vermentino.
These are grapes that, as second-generation visionary and Chalmers’ director Kim Chalmers notes, “are now shaping viticulture in Australia”.
Intriguingly, when Bruce Chalmers approached the big wine companies of the early 2000s, including Orlando and Southcorp to spruik these different varieties, he assumed the idea would be an instant winner, the grapes being so ideally suited to Australian conditions.
But the big companies weren’t interested. The theory was if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and shiraz, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon were seen as much more straightforward propositions.
Rather than becoming disheartened, in 2004, the Chalmers decided to change tack and make Italian wines for themselves. Largely intended as an advertising tool to showcase the potential of grapes like sagrantino and negroamaro, the success of those early 2000s wines (made by Sandro Mosele at Kooyong) proved their point.
The second wave
Inspired, the Chalmers then set their sights on more alternatives.
“The first time around we picked out what was popular at the time,” Kim Chalmers says. “It was 80 per cent red varieties, and lots of sangiovese and nebbiolo clones – which the family knew would be popular – with a few random things like schioppettino.
“Then in 2011, we were able to see what was working and what was making sense from a viticultural standpoint.”
Included in this second list were more obscure (for Australia, at least) varieties, grapes like pecorino, ribolla gialla and falanghina. These were chosen with a secondary purpose in mind: to change the notion of what our inland wine regions could do.
“There’s a perception that the Riverland and Mildura can’t get any better. It makes commodity wine and wine for the people – but it’s never going to be fine,” Chalmers says.
“But we don’t believe in that. That’s rubbish. Using clever viticulture is the answer. Find the variety that will do the best in a place. The marketers on the other end just have to sell this stuff.”
In 2012, Chalmers undertook a research trip to Italy, focusing on the warm-climate grapes of southern Italy, including aglianico and nero d’Avola, which reinforced to her just how promising the varieties were for our warmer regions. These are grapes that thrive in hot summers, adapted to low rainfall and conditioned to heatwaves, all the while making world-class wines – a combination that lines up perfectly for the Murray Darling and is especially important given the future of climate change.
THE ‘PINOT OF SICILY’
The hero of Etna was on the Chalmers’ must-have list, too. Nerello mascalese has been called the ‘Pinot of Sicily’, showing real vivacity even when grown in a dry, hot climate. That couldn’t have been more promising for similar climates such as that of northern Victoria.
But finding DNA-certified, healthy nerello mascalese proved to be a challenge. The family tried everything: contacting the University of Palermo (which didn’t work out), tasking a local Mildura viticulture consultant (no luck), and reaching out to all and sundry.
“Given that original experience we had of some of those vineyard Tuscan selections destroyed due to viruses and other issues, we wanted to be sure that even before the cuttings left Italy that they were the right thing,” Chalmers says.
“Especially after the albariño scandal [in 2009, when the albariño shipped to Australia turned out to be savagnin] and now gros manseng [which had been imported as petit manseng, but DNA testing revealed it to be the gros], we always want to make sure what we bring in is officially classified and virus-free.”
Enter Italian viticulturist Stefano Dini. One of his colleagues helped with the original importation of Italian clones from Matura in 1998, and Dini himself was seconded to Australia. He lived with the Chalmers for several years, becoming a de facto member of the family – “our Italian brother”.
And Dini was on hand to help with the nerello mascalese.
“Unlike the other Italian varieties, little research has been done on nerello mascalese to find clones which would give the optimum results in any region,” he says. “The most important nurseries in the world, universities and research institutes have always faced many difficulties in finding healthy vegetative material. This is the reason many Sicilian companies have started doing their own selection – infamous massal selections, calling them by the name of the contrada or linking them to a specific producer.”
Such selections are deeply problematic from a DNA perspective. One study cited in Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes states that from a sample of 111 vines from commercial vineyards, there was a mix of true nerello mascalese and five other “distinct but undetermined varieties”.
“Fortunately, there are still some very old vineyards on Mount Etna, so finding [genuine] nerello mascalese plants there which do not show any viruses is possible,” Dini explains.
The pursuit for genuine grapes led to Giuseppe Russo, the classical pianist-turned-cult vigneron who makes stunning wine from a small patch of old vines on the mountain’s northern slopes. Dini had been working with Russo on improving his vineyard, and after surveying the poor options for commercial nerello mascalese elsewhere, convinced him they could team up with the Chalmers and export the variety around the globe.
Still, as Chalmers explains, the collaborative approach of producers like Russo isn’t necessarily the norm.
“There are two schools of thought about how Italians view others working with their grape varieties,” she notes.
“There’s the Prosecco approach, which is to ban everyone else using them because ‘they’re ours’. Then there are the people like Giuseppe who say, ‘This is great, I can’t wait to see what nerello mascalese can taste like in Australia’.”
The family has experienced both approaches. They were once threatened by the Montefalco Consorzio, through a legal letter sent to a bottle shop in London that stocked Chalmers Sagrantino, claiming “false advertising” – the implication being that the grape could only come from Italy. Thankfully the dispute was resolved with the help of Wine Australia, with surprising results.
“A few years later I was invited by the Consorzio via Marco Caprai to come and present our wines at the Enologica Festival. I spoke on a panel and they inducted us into the Confraternita del Sagrantino. We were the first non-Italian producers to be inducted,” says Chalmers.
Dini sees only an upside for spreading the nerello mascalese footprint. “We are convinced that the more we talk about it in the world, the more people will become curious, and the more they will go in search of the origins of this variety, which nobody can replicate,” he says.
Chalmers agrees: “If you go thinking that we’re going to be able to make Etna Rosso in Australia, I don’t think we can, it’s too unique a terroir. But I think we can make beautiful light wines that are going to be really elegant and expressive. In our vineyard at Heathcote, I can see it looking like nebbiolo.”
Nerello mascalese is more than just the latest fashion. In the Etna DOC, the wines have an ethereal quality and there’s no shortage of enthusiasm for the grapes among local vignerons. Late-ripening, with high vigour, great natural acidity and drought tolerance, it is perfect for so many Australian wine regions.
“If I had a dollar for every phone call I’ve had asking if we had nerello mascalese, I’d have retired by now,” Chalmers jokes. “We’ve got a wait-list that goes years and years back.”
And now the wait is almost over. It’s taken nearly 10 years to get to this point and the first plant won’t be out of quarantine until early 2022. Then it will take another season for more cuttings to be established before the first crop is due around 2025. Even then, it could be 2030 before enough vines are planted commercially to make an impact.
“I look now at nero d’Avola, which first arrived in 2000. It’s taken 20 years to go from that first plant to a variety that is starting to take off,” she says.
The process is a long-term labour of love – and an expensive one, with the cost approaching $5,000 a plant just to get it here and through quarantine. Given the time and expense, what motivates the Chalmers family to keep bringing varieties like nerello mascalese into Australia?
“We look at the success of nero now like proud grandparents and realise it is all worth it,” Chalmers says.
Varietal diversity is the future for Australian wine, she believes.
“As a consumer, it’s much more interesting to drink different things all the time. But as producers, different varieties can be a way for you to find your groove.
“More options to get it right is a better thing for the wine industry full stop.”