It’s no accident that the King Valley is the king of Sangiovese.
That beautiful glass of wine in your hand is the result of extensive research into the variety: The Sangiovese Project, a wine region initiative that keeps grape growers and winemakers at the top of their game.
This is what goes on behind the scenes to ensure the King Valley keeps producing Australia’s finest Sangiovese.
Most great wine regions have a flagship variety, influenced by the climate and the culture of the winemakers. For the King Valley, it’s Sangiovese (and Prosecco).
The Sangiovese Project is a five-year long venture for the region’s vignerons, to find out what can be manipulated in the vineyard to achieve the best quality Sangiovese.
The research takes in every aspect from grape to glass. The team analyses the bunchzone temperature, block temperature, vine balance, canopy, soil moisture, seasonal characteristics, soil chemical makeup, grass-weed management, and conducts a berry sensory assessment, clonal performance assessment and grape chemical analysis on 24 Sangiovese blocks around the valley.
“It all starts in early October, when we download moisture probes, which have been situated in key vineyards throughout the region, from Bobinawarrah to Cheshunt South, and ranging from 20-centimetre to 150-centimetre depths,” says Stephen Lowe, The Sangiovese Project’s field coordinator. “Water management is a key factor in determining wine grape quality, so several times throughout the season I’ll go around and download the data from moisture probes, report back to the growers with what the moisture level is, and then adopt a best practice strategy for irrigation management.”
About a week after this is what Stephen calls “the most important stage of the season”: veraison, the onset of the fruit’s ripening. This is when the team looks at vine balance, which plays a key role in Sangiovese’s success; the right balance decreases the risk of disease, creates a high quality colour and increases the grapes’ tannins. “Sangiovese grows its fruit in big bunches,” says Stephen, “but, for the grapes to ripen, they need a certain amount of leaf area to each gram of fruit weight”.
The next step requires a pre-harvest assessment; grape samples are sent to the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) in South Australia for chemical analysis. Specifically, the grapes’ anthocyanins (colour and tannins) are tested: the more anthocyanin in the grape, the darker in colour the wine will be.
While previous benchmarking analyses have followed similar steps to this point, The Sangiovese Project is unique in taking the research into the winemaking process.
Following harvest, a micro vinification process takes place with a 25-kilogram sample of grapes from each block.
Joel Pizzini, winemaker at Pizzini Wines, says this step has been vital for The Sangiovese Project, which is currently in its final year. “Alongside Warren Proft and Michael Dal Zotto, I make 24 small batches of wine each year of The Sangiovese Project—one for each of the blocks we’re analysing. We make the wines in a very controlled environment so we can compare them. I love this part of the project: as a winemaker, it gives me a hands-on experience of all the Sangiovese grapes grown in the area.
“As a winemaker, if the fruit is no good then the wine’s no good; if the grapes are great then it can make a great wine.”
AWRI investigation might prove Joel’s theory; they compile a wine chemical analysis to correlate the grape’s attributes (from the previous research on the grape samples) with those of the resultant wine.
The final stage involves tasting the wines that have been produced for The Sangiovese Project.
But before any wine touches the lips, the tasting’s participants need to learn about the season that was. “The presentation and following discussion mean we all understand what happened in the vineyard that year,” says Dean Cleave-Smith, president of Wines of the King Valley. “That includes what the season was like, when the rain events occurred, what the temperatures were, what the soils did, and when key processes like veraison occurred; it’s a detailed, quite scientific understanding of the season.”
“There are between fifteen and thirty people at each year’s tasting, including viticulturists, winemakers and growers. We taste each wine, without knowing which block they each came from. We’re looking at its colour, taking in the aroma, and getting a sense of its palate feel. You can see a striking difference between the wines from two blocks; it’s a fascinating process.
“We personally score each one, and the wines go through a formal assessment as well.
“We’ve done research in the vineyard before, but this is the first time we really see what all that data means in the finished wine product. These tastings give us insights far greater than a spreadsheet full of statistical metrics from each block. We have fun with it, and I think that’s one reason behind the success of this project.
“Ultimately, we do very thorough scientifically-proven research in the vineyard, and we back it up with very consistent winemaking practices in the winery, and we do this in a longitudinal nature over five years. It helps us to show the King Valley is serious about this product.”