Over the past decade Australian wine producers have planted a wide range of Italian varieties, reaching well beyond well-known favourites like Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese to more esoteric grapes like Lagrein, Barbera and Dolcetto.

Huon Hooke’s recent Italian Masterclass at Prince Wine Store offered an excellent opportunity to compare Italian varieties made by Australian producers with imported Italian wines of the same varieties.

Dolcetto, a dark-skinned grape from the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy, was actually first planted in Australia in the 1860s by Best’s Great Western founder Henry Best. Even today the winery is unsure why Henry chose to devote about 25 per cent of his entire vineyard to this lesser known variety!

The refreshing, easy drinking Best’s Great Western Dolcetto, Grampians 2012  ($30) was made from grapes from both the original 1860s plantings and 1971 plantings of cuttings from Henry’s original wines. Its plum and berry fruit flavours were far more pronounced than the savoury Azelia Dolcetto d’Alba DOC “Bricco dell ‘Oriolo” 2013 ($34) – an impressive single vineyard wine from the Alba area of Piedmont.

Given Australia’s propensity to produce fruit-forward wines, Australia winemakers are experimenting with different winemaking techniques to bring out the more subtle, complex characters traditionally associated with Italian red varieties.

At the tasting  Joel Pizzini, winemaker at King Valley’s Pizzini Wines, was on hand to talk about the winery’s acclaimed single vineyard Sangiovese, the 2013 Pizzini Forza di Ferro Sangiovese. He explained that he exposes the grapes for this wine to a hotter than normal fermentation in order release more of their complex savoury aromas and flavours.

Forza di Ferro is Italian for ‘strength from iron,’ a reference to the iron rich soils of this special vineyard. Over the past 25 years, the winery has spent a considerable amount of time mapping out the geology of its vineyards and developing its own classification system for its extensive Sangiovese vineyards. With wonderful aromas of spice, berries and leather and a complex and generous palate of plums and cherries framed by silky textured tannins, the Forza di Ferro was one of the standout wines of the night.

Hooke noted that great Italian Barolo from the Piedmont region in northwest Italy typically cost $200 and up. A good, more value oriented alternative to Barolo is the early ripening Barbera, which is typically grown on Piedmont’s less prestigious sites because it can better tolerate poorer conditions.

We tried the Marchesi Alfieri La Tota Barbera d’Asti 2013 ($40), which hails from an historic winery located in the San Martino Alfieri castle in the hills between Asti and Alba in Piedmont.

Barbera poses challenges for winemakers because its naturally high acidity levels are difficult to tame. La Tota is an excellent example of  how skilled winemaking can produce a balanced wine of complex aromatics and layered, nuanced textures with plenty of fruit, bright acidity and great finesse on the finish.

Coriole BarbaraIn Australia McLaren Vale’s Coriole also makes a terrific Barbera. The Coriole Barbera, McLaren Vale 2012 ($31) was also one of the best value wines of the night. Its intriguing nose of layered stone fruit aromas with a touch of earthiness led to a juicy palate supported by grippy tannins and a lively acidity. Definitely more fruity in character than the La Tota Barbera d’Asti, and the whiff of gum leaf on the nose also announced its distinctly Australian origins!

As you would expect from the food-loving Italians, Italian varieties are designed to be enjoyed with food.  So next time you’re in the mood for Italian food try one of the great value Italian wines or  ‘Italian style’ wines now available in Australia.

By Merrill Witt, Editor

Photo Credit: Joel Pizzini, winemaker at Pizzini Wines and Huon Hooke