Uncovering the irresistible charm of Victoria’s Italian-inspired wine region

By Kate Symons

Uncovering the irresistible charm of Victoria’s Italian-inspired wine region
The picturesque King Valley, located in north-east Victoria, has done well promoting its wine offering via the fabled ‘Prosecco Road’. Yet this Italian-inspired wine region will spark joy with its charm and colourful history, too.

Alfredo Pizzini loves a good story. And he’s got a few. In fact, without Alfredo and his “beautiful [wife] Katrina”, there would be no ‘Once Upon A Time’ for Pizzini Wines. Now, the family estate is one of the King Valley’s most storied vineyards, where winemaking goes deeper than bottling a good drop.

“Wines are one thing, but the stories [behind the wines are] probably some of the most interesting things [about the industry and] people want to hear [them],” says Pizzini. “It does take you out of your comfort zone, [it] takes your palate away from preconceived a flavours that you think you should see. You’re not going to see these commercial wines in the region. They have a uniqueness about them and there are a lot of people out there that are willing to go beyond in this way.

“I am well aware that we drink for taste. If you don’t like it, you don’t drink it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t taste it and listen to the story and understand it.”

Pizzini planted his first vines – riesling – in 1978, a result of the couple’s decision to diversify the family business, which until then was dependent on tobacco. Not long after, in response to grape oversupply, the Australian government introduced a vine pull scheme, which compensated grape growers who removed old vines.

Did people think Pizzini was crazy to be planting at the same time? “People still think I’m crazy,” he laughs, before clarifying that the funny looks came a little later. “As a matter of fact, it was later on in the late ’80s when I was planting the Italian varieties that people thought I was crazy. I was working with varieties like sangiovese and nebbiolo and arneis which were … very common in northern Italy but not common in Australia.”

Today, Italian varieties are the King Valley’s stars. Prosecco is ‘king’, making up 37 per cent of the region’s crush, but this scenic slice of Victoria’s High Country is also renowned for its sangiovese and pinot grigio. Once considered ‘alternatives’, such varieties are now mainstream in Australia and, more than ever, vignerons are turning to new alternatives, often from Italy, to protect against climate change.

The Pizzinis simply got in early. “We weren’t looking at these varieties because of climate change,” he says. “We were looking at these varieties because we knew the climate and the terroir we had here was suitable.”

Trial and error

The King Valley, positioned on the King River between Wangaratta and the Alpine National Park, is one of Australia’s highest-altitude grape- growing regions. The Italian influence runs deep, although the region’s first vines were planted decades before the migrant boom of the 1940s and ’50s.

John Francis Brown was one of the first to put down roots, so to speak. He planted four hectares of vines in Milawa in 1885, laying the foundation of what is now Brown Brothers, one of the most recognisable names in Australian wine.

In 2015, fourth-generation winemaker Katherine Brown, the great granddaughter of John Francis, joined the ranks, becoming the company’s first female winemaker to also carry the family name. “I am proud to keep the legacy of having a winemaker in every generation going, but I think [being the first female in the family is] more a call out to the freedom that we now have – that we [women] can choose our own path,” says Brown.

“There is no pigeonholing women and men into certain roles. It is very normal now for women to be winemakers and it’s like any workplace – to have a mix of men and women on a team brings so many different thoughts and skills … so it’s a much-needed thing, I believe.”

At Brown Brothers, those thoughts and skills are nurtured at the estate’s Kindergarten Winery, a micro-winery where experimentation and even failure is encouraged. Explains Brown: “It’s the area where you’re actually allowed to really screw something up and it doesn’t really matter. It’s trial and error [but can also be] surprise and delight.”

One of Brown Brothers’ more recent examples of ‘surprise and delight’ is its low-alcohol prosecco.

Released last October, Brown Brothers Prosecco Ultra Low contains just 0.5 per cent alcohol and has been well received at the cellar door. “In the past, non-alcoholic wine was seen as pretty poorly made and it wasn’t great, it wasn’t very good to drink,” says Brown. “But now with the great technology we’ve learnt about through trials and in the Kindergarten and so forth, [we’ve created] a really lovely drink. In the cellar door, there have been a number of people who prefer the ultra-low which is exactly what we want.”

Bubble boom

Although it is the region’s leading variety, prosecco wasn’t part of the King Valley story until the 1990s. Inspired by his childhood in Valdobbiadene, the birthplace of the famed Italian sparkling, Otto Dal Zotto planted the region’s first prosecco vines in 1999.

Today, Dal Zotto is one of five cellar doors on the King Valley’s food and wine trail, ‘Prosecco Road’. Prosecco lovers should also seek out Symphonia’s version, which isn’t on the trail given the estate doesn’t have a cellar door (watch this space).

Symphonia winemaker Lilian Carter is the woman responsible for the zesty drop that, as per Suzanne Evans’ request, is a dry style, similar to those she had enjoyed while travelling in Italy. “My [adult] children said, ‘Don’t do it, it’s terrible’,” Evans recalls of Symphonia’s move into prosecco territory. “Now, all my children, what do they want? ‘Mum, can we have some of that prosecco?’ It’s amazing how popular it is.”

Established in 1981 by King Valley visionary Peter Read, Symphonia has been owned by the Evans family since 2005. When the site came on the market, it was an easy pitch for Suzanne’s daughter Rachel, who is married to winemaker and namesake of King Valley’s Sam Miranda Wine. Rachel suggested her Newcastle-based parents buy in and now, lockdowns aside, the Evanses have a beautiful country escape. “I’ve always loved the idea of the country, [of] being out in the open and growing something, being productive,” says Evans.

Prosecco is the only variety that has been added at Symphonia during the Evanses’ tenure. There is room for perhaps one more addition, but Suzanne Evans says Read’s original plantings are best nurtured, rather than tinkered with. “[We want] to protect Peter Read’s vision,” she says. “He planted the right varieties for the vineyard.”

Those varieties include manseng, arneis, saperavi and tannat. While Evans works hard to protect Read’s vision, legacy is also in play at Pizzini, where Alfredo and Katrina’s son Joel is now head winemaker. Joel’s three siblings are also part of the family business, as are some of the in-laws.

Alfredo says it has been a privilege to watch the business thrive under their leadership but is quick to add that his own children are not his sole concern. “We are setting up the family business to be a generational business … and when I say ‘the next generation’ I don’t just mean our family. We employ about 50 people so there are a lot of families relying on our leadership. It’s bigger than my direct family … the people around us are equally as important.”

The story of people feeds Alfredo’s passion for the wine industry and its many tales. Another storyteller, Katherine Brown agrees that the colour and character of the industry is what it’s all about. “You’re not just making a wine when you’re out there in the winery, you’re making a whole story and that’s what I love,” she says.

“Once the wine’s in bottle and we’re serving it to our customers, or if I’m talking at a dinner or something like that, to be able to retell that story is where my passion lies. To see that enjoyment on people’s faces, they’re getting all that in a glass, which is what makes wine so beautiful.

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