There are a few wine regions accessible within a couple of hours of Melbourne. But venturing three hours North East of Melbourne to the King Valley leaves you feeling far further from the pace of suburbia. And the journey is almost as good as the destination – driving along the Valley floor, you’re surrounded by picturesque Victorian Alps climbing on either side, and historical tobacco kilns scattered across the landscape.
The King Valley’s crown jewels are its wineries, which capitalise on the region’s diverse topography to nurture a broad and unique variety of wines. Many of the King Valley wineries are operated by generations of Italian families who are passionate about their trade, and sharing their warm King Valley hospitality. The Valley recently kicked up its heels at the annual La Dolce Vita Festival, in which wineries busted open their cellar doors for a festa of wine tasting, music and produce. Pizzini Wines welcomed revellers through their cellar doors for the Gnocchi Carnevale, dishing-up plates of fluffy gnocchi, made from 275 kilos of home-grown potatoes.
Natalie’s Pizzini’s family’s business, Pizzini Wines, is renowned as a one of the best cellar doors in the region, and a pioneering producer of Italian wine varieties. Natalie started working in the family business in her early twenties, and now manages events and marketing for the Pizzini brand. I recently spoke with Natalie about life on the winery, the business, the industry and what makes the Valley so special.
What is it like growing up in a family business?
I have two brothers and a sister, and we all work within different areas of the business. For example, my brother studied wine making and he’s now one of our wine makers. Mum and dad still work in the business every day, but we’re all taking on more responsibility as the business grows.
It’s a family business like any other, and we have our disagreements around the board table, but at the end of the day, we all come together and have a plate of pasta and the kids play. It is definitely a skill to be strong family and have a strong business, and mum and dad work very hard to make sure that happens.
How long has Pizzini been making wine for?
We celebrated 20 years of wine making this year. Our first wine was a ‘94 Chardonnay. In the mid-80s, we started to develop a passion for Italian varieties. Our first commercial Sangiovese was produced in 1996. We produced 200 cases of it and dad took a couple of bottles to Walter of (the then) Walter’s Wine Bar, and Walter wanted the whole lot. It was at that point that we thought, ‘right, let’s have courage and conviction to begin to master the production of Italian grape varieties in Australia’.
Have you seen a change in the wines that your consumers want?
From the time we started producing Italian wine styles, it was our goal to make them as true to the Italian style that we could. But we used to have to make people try our Sangiovese when they visited the cellar door. Now, people now appreciate that wine doesn’t have to be fruit-driven and weighty to be enjoyed. It can be savoury, layered, textured and elegant – all those things that Italian wines are. The fact that people and restaurants are embracing that, makes it an exciting time for makers of different grape varieties (not just Italian varieties).
Why do you think people are becoming more adventurous with their taste in wine?
Both foodies and wine lovers are becoming more food and wine knowledgeable through travel. Even young people are backpacking around regions like Tuscany, and Piedmont and Spain, tasting those wines, and having an absolute ball. They are coming back and asking ‘where can I get those wines in Australia?’
What are the most popular Pizzini wines?
Pinot Grigio by far. Our first vintage of Pinot Grigio was released in July 2006 – we made 1000 cases, and it sold out by September 2006. That was unbelievable at that time of our business’ development. We now produce around 9000 cases of Pinot Grigio per year. Sangiovese is the most widely planted on our property and is used in about six different wines, so it really is the wine that we sell the most of. Prosecco is now starting to take a lead.
What is your favourite Pizzini wine?
I have three favourites, and they’re all very different.
I love the Per Gli Angeli (‘for the angels’), which is made in a Vin Santo style. We make ours from Trebbiano fruit, which is picked really green, and laid out to dry for around six weeks in an undercover, but open-walled area. After the fruit shrivels, it is pressed and the juice is left in barrels for five years. They say that as the wine evaporates from the barrels, it goes to the saints (so they call it, Vin Santo). What you end up with is this divine wine, which tastes like a fortified wine, it is sweet and smells like sherry. The Italians drink it by dipping amaretti biscuits into it after dinner, or as an aperitif.
The second is Nebbiolo. When you have Nebbiolo with the perfect food match, it doesn’t matter whose it is or where it comes from, there is a ‘wow moment’, and you understand that wine and why it is referred to as the king of Italian grape varieties.
Third is the Brachetto – it is sweet, not too high in alcohol, and I love drinking it on a summer’s day with mint, ginger and lime. Sometimes when friends come over, we also add gin and make Brachetto cocktails.
What’s next for Pizzini?
We have spent a fair bit of time working on soil mapping of the property. As we have opened up new sites on the property, we have planted new grape varieties based on different soil qualities. We are investing a lot of energy into producing the best quality fruit we can, to make wines that reflect the site in which they are planted. Really harnessing certain soil qualities, and making them better, is really going to be the focus for Pizzini going forward.
What is the main challenge wine makers like Pizzini are currently facing?
The high Aussie dollar creates challenges for local producers. Bigger commercial wineries, with international export markets, return to the domestic market. That creates a risk of pushing out smaller producers in the country areas, and as a result, threatening the unique tourism experiences and interesting grape varieties offered by those wineries.
You recently held the ‘Gnochi Carnevale’ at the La Dolce Vita Festival, you took the Whitfield pub from a boozy local to a highly acclaimed gastro-pub, and you operate the cooking school ‘A Tavola!’ How does food fit into the Pizzini business?
Starting the Whitfield Pub was partly a strategic decision, because we knew that if we didn’t have a good place for people to eat, no one would come and taste our wine. You need to be able to produce and sell good food to be successful.
At the cellar door, our food experiences are based on what we grow and produce in the cooking school kitchen. We started to delve into making our own produce when the ‘Prosecco road’ campaign came about. At that time we didn’t have Prosecco commercially available, so we started making products at the cooking school using Prosecco. We make a raspberry and Prosecco jam with local strawberries, and a ‘rocky-Prosecco-Road using homemade marshmellows with Prosecco, Turkish delight using Brachetto, coated in a high-quality milk chocolate.
175 King Valley Rd, Whitfield
(03) 5729 8278
Mountain View Hotel