Christine Austin samples Little Italy, and the odd glass of Sangiovese, in Australia’s King Valley.

Some of the best Sangiovese wines I have tasted recently came not from Italy but Australia. They were from the King Valley Australia to be exact, which lies in north-east Victoria, around three hours drive from Melbourne. Among steep-sided, tree-covered valleys, this is a region of vines and farmland, mainly occupied by Italian families who emigrated to this part of Australia generations ago.
They came to help build the Snowy Mountain Hydro Scheme, a massive water and power engineering project that started in the 1950s. Over time, whole families came to the region and they built an Italian-based community which still persists. It is Little Italy, with family-run restaurants offering good pasta, gnocchi and prosciutto.
It is easy to see why whole families followed the initial influx of hydro scheme workers and decided to settle there. For a start there is the River King, providing water for irrigation. Then there is the natural rainfall, of about 1,000mm a year, which turns the hillsides green. Lastly, the King Valley starts at around 800 metres above sea level and runs down to the valley floor at around 150 metres, providing a range of growing conditions within just a few kilometres. The higher slopes are positively cool, almost alpine, with frosts in winter, while the valley floor is warm and Mediterranean. It is like grouping the hills of Veneto, Piedmont and Tuscany, all within one small area.
The first crop they grew here was tobacco, which did well in the fertile, warm valley. Then moving further up the hillsides, vines were planted, and because of their Italian heritage, the locals naturally planted Italian grapes – Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Arneis, Verduzzo and now Glera, although since they are well out of any EU-inspired agreements they can call it Prosecco.
Frothy, fruity Prosecco is what the locals drink and it is very good. With vineyards high up in the cool hills, they have captured the bright, citrus-driven flavour of the grape and converted it into a lively, refreshing fizz, but you will probably have to go there to try it. Competition from the Italian version in our market means that very little Australian Prosecco will reach our shores. If you do find some, Pizzini Prosecco 2014 has delightful light, lemon sherbet flavours while Dal Zotto L’Immigrante Prosecco has bigger flavours than most, with apple and almond notes.
King Valley Sangiovese is difficult to find in the UK, but the quality is such that this might change. The growers have grouped together to start a project to improve their Sangiovese clones, rootstocks and growing conditions. “The strength of the King Valley is the variety of soils and sites,” said Joel Pizzini, whose grandfather was one of the original hydro workers. “There is alluvial soil in the valleys, volcanic soils on the western ridges and sedimentary rock in the east. Each soil type gives a different flavour expression to the wine.”
Tasting through a range of Sangiovese wines there were savoury, leathery notes, bright cherry flavours and grippy tannins depending on the slope and the clone.

Wines of the King Valley.

Wines of the King Valley.

One of the stars of the King Valley is Sam Miranda, a third-generation Aussie-Italian winemaker whose cherry and herb-dusted King Valley Sangiovese Cabernet 2013 is now listed on the Marks & Spencer wine website (£10). It also sells his light, citrus and honeysuckle Arneis and Pinot Grigio 2014 blend (£10). Sam is extending his range of grapes beyond Italian varieties and now has Saperavi, Tannat and Tempranillo planted. These wines are showing well – they just need a market.
And while the King Valley is a relatively new name on many wine labels there is one producer that has already celebrated 120 years in the business. Brown Brothers was founded in 1889 by John Brown who set off from Scotland to find gold in Australia. He failed to do so and instead made money by growing vegetables for gold diggers. Eventually he turned that skill into growing grapes and now Brown Brothers is one of Australia’s longest-established brands.
Still family run, Brown Brothers has worked with the Italian-heritage community in King Valley to grow a huge range of Italian grape varieties, from Pinot Grigio to Montepulciano and then extending across regionality to Malbec, Syrah and Tarrango. Sainsbury’s online has the Tarrango (£7), a cross between Portuguese variety Touriga and Sultana, making a lively, almost Gamay style of juicy, fruity wine. Brown Brothers is also famous for its Late Harvest Orange Muscat and Flora (Waitrose £6.99 for a half bottle) which partners fruit-based desserts and cakes with ease.
Brown Brothers wines can be found on the shelves of independents and on restaurant wine lists.
Compared with the wine powerhouse that is South Australia, Victoria produces only a small amount of wine, but given the diversity of climates and the quality of the wines, regions such as King Valley will surely start to make their mark on our wine shelves.

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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