We’ve been preparing our vineyard to harvest our very first crop of the red wine grape Nero d’Avola. It’s a new variety to Australia and I’m going to put it under a new label I’ve been working on, which shall remain a secret for a little while longer. As a relative newcomer to this district, I’m proud to be hopefully making a variety that may one day become vital to this region. Indigenous to Sicily, where it is well suited for a hot, dry climate like our own in McLaren Vale, we grafted the Nero vines over to a shiraz block in 2009. I was close to getting cuttings in 2008, but the GFC led Macquarie Bank to take over the nursery we were dealing with and, strangely enough, the bank took all the cuttings for itself. Nero is capable of producing tremendously complex wine in a number of different styles. Similar to shiraz, but with dusty tannins and more savoury elements, the grape ripens much later which could lead to some interesting flavours. Right now, our half acre block will probably be ready in May, a full 2 months after we harvest our shiraz. It is also a prolific producer. The current yield forecast is for 3 tons of fruit, which makes sense when you see just how big and open the bunches are, easily twice as long as the length of my hand. One of the ways to affect the taste of the juice after we harvest will be the vessel in which the wine ferments and ages. For many years now I’ve been a fan of the wines of Gravner from Friuli in Northeastern Italy and COS winery in SE Sicily, which use clay amphora in which to ferment and age on the skins a percentage of their grapes. Gravner known for skin fermenting the white wine grape Ribolla, Cos for Nero and another variety potentially suited for Australia, Frappato. This ancient technique of winemaking has it’s roots in Caucasia, where winemaking may well have started in the Bronze Age, and is still alive and well in Georgia today. We held a tasting recently with other growers and winemakers looking at Southern Italian whites and reds, and Nero in particular. The COS lineup was really strong, showing Nero alone and with Cabernet and Frappato, and of course the amphora aged Pithos, which was so unusually savoury and elegant. Look for these wines, they are something special. I wanted to experiment with some amphora, since I had tasted some thrilling examples and believe the vessel gives the wine an earthier texture than stainles steel or wood. Furthermore, being the first to grow Nero in McLaren Vale, I also wanted to make it special, so I was on the hunt for a potter that was up to the challenge.
After weeks of following leads and making visits, I finally located someone with a big enough kiln to fire the amphora, and who also had the technical ability to get it done. Two of the four we will use this year are at the top of this page. We are visiting Sicily this year to explore COS, whose “Pithos” is 100 percent amphora aged, and the other Sicilian wineries known for working with Nero, like Tasca d’Almerita and Planeta, for example. I’m sure it will be a huge experience. The COS winery, as well as Gravner, has buried the amphora in the earth to help maintain an even temperature and humidity. This year we added another 2 acres of Nero material which should keep us busy, as it does seem to need reigning in. It also seems to be disease resistant and shows no signs yet of any viruses, as it has on a few other sites outside our district. We are also keen to keep the water off it and let it become dry grown, since it doesn’t seem to need much at all. And for a country hampered by drought conditions like Australia, that’s a good idea.