Clients often ask whether I like wines of North East Victoria and I give them an unequivocal 'yes' for two main reasons - varietal experimentation and food-friendliness.
I can't think of any other wine region in the world that makes wines from such a plethora of grape varieties. It is estimated that there are about 4000 varieties from which wine can be made, but only about 10% of these are regularly used around the world. In the Alpine Valleys, wines are regularly made from more than 60 varieties. This is helped by varying altitude, slope, aspect and soils that allow for a range of terroirs not generally experienced in most other wine regions, however the willingness of growers and producers to 'have a crack' at little known varieties, is unique.
Probably the growers most responsible for sowing the seeds of varietal diversity in this region were John C. Brown and his son Peter, of Brown Brothers. At Milawa and at Mystic Park near Swan Hill, they experimented with more than 30 different varieties including Mondeuse, Graciano, Cienna, Tarrango, Crouchen and Flora which are still components of wines, unique to their range. Brown Brothers were also the first Australian wine company to make the connection between wine and food in their marketing strategies. Peter Read at Symphonia Wines was also fascinated by alternative varieties. Petit Manseng, Saperavi and Tannat are his legacy in the area.
Most of the plantings of non-traditional varieties has occurred since the 1990s when tobacco growers, most of Italian descent, were looking for alternative sources of farm income. Logically many looked to the wines that their fathers or grandfathers made in their homeland. Italy’s three most planted varieties – Sangiovese, Barbera and Merlot were obvious choices. Others had more to do with regions their forebears came from – Prosecco, Garganega and Malvasia from the Veneto; Verduzzo, Friulano, Fragola, Lagrein, Marzemino, Schioppettino and Teroldego from Friuli and the Alto Adige; Arneis, Nebbiolo and Vespolina from Piemonte; Sagrantino from Umbria; Fiano from Campagna; Nero d’Avola and Greganico from Sicily; Vermentino from Sardinia. All of these are now grown in the Alpine Valleys. Tempranillo is a Spanish interloper but seems equally at home in these growing conditions. Naturally some varieties will prosper more than others, and already Riesling, Chardonnay, Fiano and Pinot Grigio for whites; Sangiovese for rose/rosato; and Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Merlot and Shiraz/Syrah for reds, are beginning to stand out from the rest of the pack.
Many vineyards merely replace tobacco that was grown there previously, and certain varieties will obviously be more suited than those currently grown, but given the equable climate and varied soil types, there is much scope for growth in quality, cool climate wine production within the region.
Equally important is the Italian connection between wine and food. Wines are made with food in mind, therefore they are medium-bodied, complex, savoury and with good natural acidity for balance. For these reasons, wines of the Alpine Valleys are easy to like, easy to drink, and easy to recommend. Vive la difference!