Of all the white grape varieties that have worn the ominous “alternative” or “emerging” tag in South Australia, the one that has stood up and created excitement is Fiano.
It is close to two decades since Coriole pioneered the variety in McLaren Vale, and it has now spread to many more regions and producers, yet it still carries that sense of being “new”.
Which is, on reflection, a good thing. Many years ago, another “alternative” variety, Pinot Gris/Grigio, came onto the scene and has since become so widespread and mainstream it rarely causes much excitement at all – in my humble opinion.
Fiano, on the other hand, is making waves while still remaining niche in volume and consumer terms.
It has dominated several SA regional show results in its specific classes in the past few years and achieved enough recognition in McLaren Vale to now sit in its own class and be awarded its own varietal trophy, which in 2021 went to the Hazelgrove Fiano 2021 made by Alex Sherrah. There were 18 single variety entries from across the region.
In Clare, it topped the “White Variety Other Than Riesling” class in the past two years, with 2021’s trophy going to the Hesketh Regional Selections Fiano 2021, guided by the group’s winemakers Keeda Zilm and Andrew Hardy.
In the Riverland, Ashley Ratcliff’s Ricca Terra Fiano 2021 scored two trophies for best single vineyard and best alternative wine of show last year.
In the Barossa, it seems less dominant, though Saltram’s 2020 Winemaker’s Selection Fiano scored one of the only three gold medals in the Other White class.
In the Adelaide Hills, it is still finding its feet at show level, though one of its great supporters and better proponents, Sam Scott of La Prova wines, is totally convinced of its quality.
In a defining article in the Wine & Viticulture Journal five years ago, Scott wrote: “Fiano is certainly a white grape variety for our future. It reflects the evolving culture of how we use wine; more is consumed at the table, it is a foodie wine, and it has the adaptability to thrive in our changing climate with crazy variable vintages and extreme weather events. It also suits our soils and complements our lifestyle.”
That promising “future”, it seems, has been fulfilled. One more “trophy” before we move on, this time from the latest Halliday Wine Companion’s annual awards (2021) where Coriole’s Rubato Reserve Fiano 2020 was named best Other White of the Year, with a short comment: “It’s fitting that a longstanding champion of the great varieties of Italy should take out the mantle.”
Across all these prizes, we see one of the most fascinating aspects of the variety recognised. Its versatility, both in regional and wine style terms, or what Sam Scott described as its “adaptability”, is an extraordinary gift to possess in this day and age.
In McLaren Vale, where the story began here, it covers plenty of varying ground, from vineyards close to the Gulf and its sea breezes all the way up into the Blewitt Springs foothills. This is where Andrew “Ox” Hardy planted his Fiano a decade ago on the Upper Tintara block he worked with his dad, replacing both Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay which had showed that classy whites thrived there but had lost their market appeal.
“It’s got elevation, and has always been good with most things we grow there. Fiano just made sense,” Hardy says.
Altitude and cool climate sites, of course, impact the style of fruit and wine that results, Alex Sherrah says.
“In Adelaide Hills it can be very linear with lemon, lime and punch in the face acidity, while in the warmer McLaren Vale region you get more interesting fruit flavours because you need warmth for that,” Sherrah says.
“The beauty of the variety is it retains its fruit acidity and has a lengthy ripening period, so it develops really good flavours while retaining its freshness. For a warm climate that’s great – it works so well and loves that bit of heat.
“It’s one of the most climate appropriate varieties.”
An old variety with its roots in southern Italy’s Campania region and more recently in Sicily, so with genuine Mediterranean adaptability, Fiano has shown it suits Australian summer ripening seasons, according to Peter Dry, an emeritus fellow at the Australian Wine Research Institute.
“Fiano has proven to be one of the best new varieties for warm to hot climates,” he notes.
The Riverland has shown that to be true, with it being one of the favoured alternative grapes for several of the region’s more progressive growers.
“Fiano has found stardom in Australia’s warm and dry landscape,” Ashley Ratcliff says. “Its ability to create wine bursting with flavour makes it one of our favourite white grape varieties, and its robust nature lends itself to minimal inputs in the vineyard that are usually needed to grow grapes that are disease-free.
“It is quickly building a reputation for being tough, pretty and full of flavour.”
… the way it has turned out has been more distinctive than I had originally hoped
Ratcliff’s assessment is mirrored by renowned Clare Valley winemaker Jeffrey Grosset, who began planting Fiano on the most marginal and stony section of his Rockwood vineyard 15 years ago.
He waited seven years to get his first decent crop, and it remains barely commercially sensible, he says, yielding about a tonne to the acre. What it delivers, however, is immensely satisfying, if quite different from its place of origin.
“You just don’t know how it will be, but it’s very rewarding when it works,” Grosset says. “It’s a whole new set of circumstances.
“You’re not trying to make it like it is from its source; you know there will be similarities, but it will never be the same, so you are always wondering in what ways will it be different, and it what ways you should handle it, and what’s the best way to make Fiano from here.”
This touches on the other great aspect of the variety’s versatility – the wide range of wine styles that it can deliver.
It can be clean and crisp in a refreshing, no-fuss style, as in Ox Hardy’s take, which is one of three that sits under the wider Usual Suspects wine group, formerly the Hesketh group. The other two of those, from Clare, show variations: a more textural and complex wine by Keeda Zilm, the Miss Zilm 2021 Fiano, and another, the trophy-winning Hesketh Regional Selections 2021 Fiano which sits midway in terms of layering, richness and pure crunchiness.
“It does lend itself to playing a bit and you can decide what style you want for your brand and make it that way,” Hardy says.
Jeffrey Grosset knows this all too well, having first thought that Australians might just see Fiano as a lovely, drinkable wine and take it like that. His Grosset Apiana (2021 the latest vintage) has shown the variety can step up into the higher echelons of fine-wine territory.
“I thought we’ll give it a go and see what we could do,” he recalls. “And to be honest, that’s been the surprise, because the way it has turned out has been more distinctive than I had originally hoped.
“It’s been taken quite seriously by a number of people who are willing to pay a reasonable amount – and taste it, look at, and think about it, rather than simply something to drink and knock back. I’m delighted, really.”
The key to Fiano’s capacity to thrill the palate is its thick grape skin and retention of acidity, which encourages winemaking techniques such as skin contact, yeast lees maturation, and barrel ferment to bring layers of complexity, mouthfeel and texture to the palate.
“It has given us a sufficiently positive result for people to take the wine seriously,” Grosset says. “That’s what’s happened now: we’ve been well rewarded after a wobbly beginning, but it has been 15 years to get to this outcome.”
Alex Sherrah has gone even further down the Fiano rabbit hole after garnering close to two decades of experience of the variety at Coriole and now at Hazelgrove and with his own Sherrah label.
It’s all about the skins, he says. At Coriole they first treated the fruit like they did with other traditional whites, starting with handpicking. But as the vines became more robust, they tried some machine picking and the few hours of broken skin contact yielded positive textural results.
“Now I prefer that, and the beautiful thing about Fiano is that the skin is where all the interest is; all the flavour and texture is locked up there. The juice can be really quite fresh and bright and acid driven but can be quite neutral, but the skin is where all the interest comes from,” Sherrah says.
While the Hazelgrove wine finds a neat tipping point between freshness and texture, in his eponymous label he pushes the boundaries much further with a 100 per cent skin contact style (Skin Party 2021) and even a sparkling Pet Nat, which riffs off the variety’s natural acidity. (He’s not the only one to go with a sparkling style: Oliver’s Taranga creates a traditional method, bottle fermented sparkling, “The Hunt for Mrs Oliver”, which shows also how the variety can succeed at many levels.)
The result of all this interest, of course, is that now the variety is in huge demand, especially in McLaren Vale. Eighteen wines were entered for the region’s inaugural Fiano class in 2021. How many more this year?
It’s hardly emerging any longer. For many, it’s the Italian variety that has become the new Australian white wine of choice.
Ox Hardy Fiano 2021
McLaren Vale / 12% / $27
From the Upper Tintara vineyard in the Blewitt Springs foothills, this epitomises the Fiano style that is crisp, lemony and with lime and spearmint notes. Its natural acidity is salivating and enhanced by a little chalkiness in the palate texture. Get it cold; pour it with oysters.
Hesketh Regional Selections Fiano 2021
Clare Valley / 11.5% / $24
The trophy winner for varieties other than Riesling at last year’s Clare Valley Wine Show, this sits halfway between crisp and complex, which doesn’t mean it’s searching for definition. It certainly finds a varietal aromatic place in the lime and sorrel spectrum, with a good minerally mouthfeel, some peppery spice and a balanced flavour/acidity/textural finish.
Miss Zilm Fiano 2021
Clare Valley / 11% / $27
Miss Zilm is Keeda Zilm, who happens to be the winemaker at the Usual Suspects group that umbrellas the Hesketh and Ox Hardy wines as well. Her individual take on the variety pushes it into a more developed style, starting with a decent waft of pear and lime as well as peppercorn and, impressively, a fabulous minerally and pithy mouthfeel, the texture engaging, chewy and persistent. Very table-friendly and serious enough to be lauded as a finer wine style in its own right.
Grosset Apiana 2021
Clare Valley / 12.9% / $47
Apiana is a Latin-derived term for bees, and yes, the nose here does have a faint honey suggestion – perhaps a trick of the name with the imagination. It must be noted this is not about sweetness but more an exotic ripeness with lime and apple and white pepper all offering their harmonics. This represents the variety in a more serious expression: richer, more textural with an almost unctuous feel to it. Lots to go on with and definitely a wine leaning to the more complex side of the varietal ledger.
Hazelgrove Fiano 2021
McLaren Vale / 12.5% / $24
Top gold and trophy winner in the inaugural Fiano-only class at the 2021 McLaren Vale Wine Show, it went on to be awarded best white wine of show as well. There’s a great deal of deliciousness going on here, with aromatics reminiscent of the pears of Pinot Grigio and the limes of Riesling, then trademark spice and pithy mouthfeel and palate texture. It’s a total varietal package finishing with faint, salivating tannin bitterness. Search it out if you’re keen to see what all the Fiano noise is about.
Sherrah Fiano 2021
McLaren Vale / 12.5% / $30
From a single vineyard in the Tatachilla district, it’s given six hours on skins, which is winemaker Alex Sherrah’s preferred technique, and incorporates a 30% wild barrel ferment component. This wine exudes a lovely aromatic and flavour sense, akin to lemon barley water, neatly toned, subtly realised. It has a refined mouthfeel that sits between minerality and just edging towards an unctuous note finishing with hallmark spice and acidity. In brief, supremely salivating. Try also a more adventurous Sherrah Skin Party 2020 Fiano ($30) that’s a no intervention, 100% skin contact, wild ferment style with a little dustiness and bush pepper note – and not a bad intro to skin contact white styles. And for another take, the Sherrah Fiano Petillant-Naturel 2021 ($35) variation, has natural acidity in a crisp, clean, no-frills sparkling style with a touch of grip and bitterness that accentuates its pure refreshment factor.
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