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Walter SpellerWalter Speller, the Italy correspondent for www.JancisRobinson.com explains his journey of discovery with Australian wine, which he calls ‘the Italian miracle’. And he describes why he’s excited about 21st Century Vino in London.

I met Jane Faulkner, Melbourne-based wine writer, a couple of years ago in Alba where we taste the Barolo and Barbaresco en primeur. Last year she invited me to be the international judge at the AAVWS, which I was more than happy to do because I was very interested to experience first-hand how Italian varieties were doing in Australia.

I have been curious about that for at least 15 years, in fact, from the time I tasted a Crittenden Barbera while in London; and a subsequent discussion with an Italian winemaker, who lamented that Italian varieties aren’t as great as the French ‘because they don’t travel well’.
I had found this comment always utter ‘bull’, but now I had the chance to see if he was correct. And what did I find? Lots of complex, well-crafted wines from Italian varieties that didn’t need to be acidified to keep their freshness and generally were far more drought resistant, and hence more irrigation independent.
I also heard many winemakers were enthusiastic about these varieties because of their tannins, adding complex textures to the wines, and their savouriness, making them prefect food matches, compared to the often voluptuous and rich French varieties. The book that Garry Crittenden had co-written in 1998, Italian Wine Grape Varieties in Australia, was way ahead of its time, suggesting that Mediterranean varieties were, in general, much more suitable for Australia than their French counterparts.
Except for a new style (savoury, fresh, medium bodied weight, especially for the whites, and some stunning examples of Nebbiolo, a bitch to grow outside of Langhe, and already there considered a prima donna) that is now more and more embraced (away from rich, concentrated and extracted wines) the word terroir becomes a strong focus in the new approach, while climate change makes people aware that these Mediterranean varieties are more sustainable than the French in large parts of the Australia.

I was shocked by the fact that many winemakers dabbling in Italian varieties actually never had any experience with the original versions, but, and that was amazing, most of these wines were very promising, with real varietal expression and lots of acidity. It is what I dub ‘the Italian miracle’; because unhindered by a preconceived idea of style of these varieties, unlike what happened to the French counterparts, something pretty unique and delicious came out of the process. It meant that lots of winemakers just had a hunch about a specific variety’s adaptability to their terroir and had a go at it.

I wanted to show several of these wines in London and approached Jane Faulkner, Kim Chalmers and the London office of Wine Australia. The latter gave me a platform for a free pour tasting of wine selected by me, but when I started to talk with Kim and Jane, we decided we might as well recreate a London version of 21st Century Vino, to discuss with UK trade people what is happening with these varieties and also to emphasise that it is much more than just a trend or an effort of Australia to diversify itself, sheer out of marketing reasons.

I also wanted to show that Australia is a very exciting wine country with lots of experimentation and soul searching going on producing highly original, terroir driven wines, something that is not yet common knowledge.

Last April I did a tasting of Australian Fiano versus Californian Fiano at my place in Italy and it turned out that Australia is far more focused on bringing out terroir, texture and originality, while the Californian examples turned out to be cloying, fat Chardonnay-lookalikes. While Australia is brimming with initiative and producing exciting Fianos, California, strangely enough, is still 20 years behind. I do realise though, that it is such a niche, that for the Californians it might not be even worth to do their best with Fiano, but in turn I wonder why they try at all, if not to be good at it.

WILL THE WINES SURPRISE THE UK TRADE AND MEDIA?

I won’t pretend that I am the first to put the spotlight on these so called alternative varieties, but I wanted to give it a regional theme, and Jane Faulker especially helped me source wines from many different regions to try and show the diversity in expression based on difference in origin.
I am aware it is a very ambitious approach, one that may not be wholly proven by 50 samples, but it is a very nice start and certainly worth a try!

The UK is a very sophisticated market and the best restaurant lists boast the greatest wines Australia has to offer. What will be a challenge is to change the standard UK perception from Cabernet, Merlot and Shiraz towards other varieties.
The initial problem is that these international varieties are associated with European regions, and many have come to stand for a certain style. 21st Century Vino London turns the spotlight on the different terroir as well as devoting one of the three seminars solely to the question what makes these wines different, and show leftfield examples, normally associated with ‘natural wine’ but here they are much more experiments in getting transparency into the glass – i.e. displaying the origin, more than trying to be hip.

The winemakers that are so very generous to spend time and money to come over to London will, no doubt, be able to shake up existing perceptions, because, without exception, all are focused on creating transparent wines that reflect their origin.
I see Italian varieties as a mere vehicle, as perhaps better adapted to certain Australian terroirs which is why in due time we will be able to talk about a McLaren Vale, or a Heathcote, instead of it necessarily needing the suffix of a grape variety to describe a style. All these winemakers are working on just that, with one, Dave Fletcher, going so far as to produce a Nebbiolo both in Australia as well as Piemonte.

This post has been adapted from an article first published in the September 2015 Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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