Food Unlocks the Magic of Wine

After a recent tasting of new-release samples of non-mainstream red varietals, I was shocked to find two wines I didn’t particularly like ended up giving the most pleasure with dinner. The wines were both produced by Italian consultant winemaker Alberto Antonini from Australian-grown grapes. Both were deliberately made in a non-fruity, savoury style which is polar opposite to most conventional Australian red wines. But, as Antonini himself says, they’re designed to be served with a meal, not drunk on their own.

The wines are Pizzini Nebbiolo (King Valley; $48 tastings) and Greenstone Rosso di Colbo Sangiovese 2008 (Heathcote; $29 tastings). Both would be challenging to Australians accustomed to more typical, fruit-forward local reds, at least until a plate of protein-rich food enters the picture.

“I am only interested in making food wines, and food wines are all about tannin and acidity,” says Antonini. “You have to have a wine that cleans the palate between mouthfuls of food, and soft, fruity wines don’t do that. Acid cleans away the fats and tannin cleans the proteins.” It’s easy to understand how acid clears fat from the palate; less easy to understand what happens between tannins and proteins. Antonini says the tannins in red wine polymerise when they come into contact with the proteins in food – that is, they join together to form larger molecules, which have a softer, more rounded, more agreeable mouth-feel.

Try it yourself. Pour a young Barolo and try drinking it on its own. It’s grippy, tannic, astringent, hard work. Now eat some cheese or meat, and try it again. It’s transformed, apparently by magic. A by-product of this process is that more flavours are unlocked by the reaction. Food in the mouth always modifies wine’s flavour and structure.

Antonini and his Australian viticulturalist Mark Walpole were introducing their Greenstone wines: shiraz and sangiovese, and a monastrell (mataro) rose (the deliciously savoury ’09 is $25). The wines all come from a 20-hectare vineyard at Heathcote which was planted by a syndicate including these two and English importer, David Gleave of Liberty Wines. The wines are vinified at Kooyong on the Mornington Peninsula by the talented winemaker Sandro Mosele, who shares the Italian sensibility for wine and food.

Back to that tasting, and the Greenstone Rosso di Colbo, whose name is a reference to Colbinabbin, the vineyard’s location in the Heathcote region. As with Tuscany’s famous Brunello di Montalcino (tasting) – also a sangiovese – if the wines don’t come up to par they are declassified into a cheaper wine called Rosso di Montalcino. That’s what happened at Greenstone in 2008.

This is a most unusual wine. In my tasting I thought it very developed, with a brick-red colour; rather volatile and oaky (although Walpole reassures me it’s actually low in volatile acidity), and almost devoid of primary fruit. There ought to be a more savoury word than savoury for this wine. I enjoyed it despite its strangeness. And when I had a glass with sausages at dinner, I liked it even more.

Even more surprising was the Pizzini nebbiolo. Antonini has been consulting to the Pizzini winery since the late 1990s. Pizzini’s various Italian varietals (including sangiovese and arneis) have been strongly influenced by Antonini. The wine looks unpromising in the glass, with its rather weak tawny-brickred hue. Again, it smells very savoury: the opposite of fruity. Not very alluring nor complex. But, with protein on the dinner plate, it suddenly became a different wine: flavoursome, appealing, full of interest, even showing a hint of fruit sweetness. It’s a wine for drinking, not judging, and achieves what Antonini set out to do.

The Greenstone vineyard was always going to produce wines different from the Heathcote mainstream. Big, high-alcohol, dense and sometimes heavy reds are the order of the day, but Mark Walpole had a stroke of brilliance that set the scene for a more elegant style of red. He decided to plant to vines in east-west rows, instead of the customary north-south. Antonini says north-south rows leave the fruit on the western side of the rows exposed to the hot afternoon sun. The result can be heat-damaged grapes, giving cooked, jammy, overripe flavours. East-west rows mean the sun tracks along the row, and the bunches are protected. “This is a big deal for me,” he says. “You can immediately taste the difference. We pick our grapes earlier, with high natural acidity and brighter flavours.”

As well, the vines were planted more densely than usual for the region, which not only gives more intense flavour, but helps accelerate ripening. This was a plus in the wet 2011 harvest, and in hot years like 2008 when Greenstone’s fruit was picked before the heatwave. The final clincher for Antonini was that Heathcote has limestone soils, common in France and Italy but rare in Australia. This was important for a European: “Most of the world’s great wines are grown in calcareous soils,” he says. “Heathcote is one of the few calcareous places I saw in Australia.”

The Greenstone shirazes (the 2008 is $33 tastings) are very good, especially next year’s release 2009, while the sangioveses are arguably even more exciting. The 2007 ($65; sold out) was widely acknowledged as a new benchmark for Australian sangiovese. Unfortunately there is never much of it, and the lovely ’09 is all destined for export. We’ll have to wait for the 2010. Until then, that ’08 Rosso di Colbo should stimulate plenty of argument. But I rather like it.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 21 June 2011. 


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