Italian wines have never enjoyed such a high profile in Australia. Prosecco out sells Champagne, and varietals like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, Nero d'Avola and Barbera, once only found in Italian restaurants, are on wine lists and bottle shop shelves everywhere.
One of the factors driving this increase in public awareness is the growing number of Italian varietal wines made by Australian winemakers.
Understanding these Italian varietals and how they fit with the imported versions and other styles of wines can be a challenge for restaurants and cafés who don't have an experienced sommelier on hand.
Martin Schafer, from Italian Wine Importer and wholesaler Enoteca Sileno, has helped many restaurants and wine bars fit Italian wines into their selection. Here he answers some of the most commonly asked questions:
What do think are the major differences between wines produced in Italy and those made here in Australian?
Well I can only answer this in the most general way, because there will always be exceptions, however, I would say one of the biggest differences is that Italian wines are produced to be consumed with food whereas a lot of Australian wine is made for just drinking. This means that Italian wines have a tendency to taste better when you have them with an antipasto or a meal, as opposed to just drinking them by themselves.
Italian white wines are generally more textured, more complex and often with higher acidity. Italian reds also show comparatively higher levels of acidity along with being more structured and tannic. So when wines with this sort of profile are enjoyed with food, you find that the wine brings out the best in the food and vice versa.
Australian wines on the other hand have a tendency to have more prominent fruit flavours and this makes then easier to drink even unaccompanied with food. This is true for both whites and reds. Even the big Australian reds, although very high in tannins, will tend to have words like juicy, jammy and fruit-driven in their tasting notes.
Are Australian-grown Italian varietals very different than their Italian imported counterparts?
It is truly amazing how many indigenous Italian grape varieties have been planted in the various growing areas of Australia. Wine will always mirror the climate and the soil of the growing area, so naturally, vines of the same varieties grown in Italy will always have different characteristics and flavours to those grown in Australia. Italy's wine growing areas are extraordinarily varied. Look at the vineyards in Alto Adige, Tuscany, Puglia or Sicily, such huge differences in soil and climate, it's hard to believe it is all the one country. In Australia, there does not tend to be such a dramatic variation between the wine growing areas. You also need to keep in mind there will be a big difference in the age of the vines and this is has a significant influence on flavour, perfume and structure.
I think those of us in the wine business should help the customer experience these differences for themselves. You don't have to have either an Italian Nebbiolo or an Australian Nebbiolo, have both and encourage people to explore and discuss these comparisons. If people have recently discovered a locally grown Italian variety, they will most likely be keen to taste the wine from its original home as a point of reference. Using the theme of Australian versus "old-world" is always a interesting theme of a wine dinner and can also be very inspiring for chefs.
Other than Italian, what other types of food can be matched with Italian varietals?
You may be surprised to discover how well Italian wines are suited to the cuisines of non-wine producing countries like Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia. The food in these countries is characterized by strong, spicy aromas and flavours. In the case of Japanese or Korean cuisine, they can also be quite umami-rich dishes. Wines from the northern, Alpine regions of Italy like Ribolla Gialla, Friulano, Malvasia, Gewurztraminer and all the grapes of the Riesling family like Muller Thurgau, Gruner Veltliner, Sylvaner and Kerner are fantastic accompaniments to these cuisines. These wines have crisp acidity, hints of spice and sometimes a little residual sugar that provides just the right balance to the spiciness of the food.
But it's not just whites. Red wines made of Cannonau, (which is the same as Grenache), Pinot Noir, Dolcetto, Barbera and Cesanese del Piglio are also wonderful compliments to those cuisines, as they tend to have softer tannins, higher acidity and unimposing fruit flavours.
How do you recommend an Italian wine to a customer who knows nothing about them?
I think most customers will find it easier to understand an unfamiliar wine, if you compare it to varieties and styles which they are familiar with. Now generally, I don't like the idea of equating one wine with another, as it defeats the purpose of trying something new. However, here are some useful comparisons that will help customers understand the broad style of wine.
Barbera – Syrah
D'Avola – cold climate Syrah
Montepulciano D'Abruzzo – South Australian Merlot
Primitivo and Negroamaro – ripe and rich South Australian Syrah or Rhone blend
Cannonau della Sardegna and Carignano – Grenache
Nebbiolo – Pinot Noir
Soave – Riesling
Gavi – not so fruit driven Sauvignon Blanc
Trebbiano – Chardonnay
Verdicchio – Chardonnay
Muller Thurgau, Sylvaner, Veltliner, Kerner – Riesling
You might have noticed that Sangiovese is not on that list, because it is very widely grown and makes so many different styles of wine. This makes it difficult to compare to international varieties. It can be as bold and earthy as a cabinet sauvignon, or as delicate as a cold climate pinot noir.
Do you have any advice on how to categorise Italian wines on a wine list?
I am a big fan of wine lists that list that categorise wine according to style, weight and flavour profile, rather than grouping them by region or variety. An establishment that does this exceptionally well is Pei Modern in Melbourne. On their Wine List you'll find white wines classified under titles such as: Aromatics; Minerality and Restraint;Perfume and Texture; With Depth and Richness.
Red wines are grouped under: Light and Bright; Aromatic and Medium Bodied;Textural and Juicy; Medium Bodied with Structure; Depth and Weight. You can see how this system of classification gives the customer a reasonably good idea of what they are getting. It also makes it easier for a wine buyer to create a balanced list with a mix of the familiar and the new.