Some­times it’s who you know. Pied­mont in north­west Italy may draw many a wish­ful Aus­tralian wine­maker, but the best grapes won’t be sold to just any blow-in

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - Contents - An­gus Hugh­son

You’d be hard pressed to find a fa­mous wine re­gion around the world with­out at least a hand­ful of fly­ing Aus­tralian wine­mak­ers. With the vintage done and dusted in Aus­tralia, ev­ery year thou­sands pack their bags for a work­ing hol­i­day in winer­ies dot­ted around the north­ern hemi­sphere. Vin­tages in great re­gions and chateaux guar­an­tee hefty brag­ging rights plus the chance to sharpen skills work­ing with some of the world’s top fruit. But some­times the op­por­tu­nity to make spec­tac­u­lar wines is just too great and our best are lost to far­away lands for good.

South Aus­tralian wine­maker Dave Fletcher, now based in north­ern Italy, had an unglam­orous start to the wine game at a young age, help­ing his older brother cart drums of the stuff from McLaren Vale and de­liv­er­ing them to the sub­urbs of Ade­laide. Un­sur­pris­ingly, it was not love at first sight, and Fletcher tried out a num­ber of ca­reer op­tions: en­gi­neer­ing, banana farm­ing in Queens­land and dive mas­ter­ing in Egypt. But af­ter a few stints work­ing in vine­yards and help­ing out with wine bot­tling he fi­nally bit the bullet and be­gan his stud­ies to­ward a wine­mak­ing de­gree.

Typ­i­cal wine­mak­ing gigs in the Clare and Yarra val­leys fol­lowed, but it was in 2005 that his life changed its course al­most overnight, through a sin­gle bot­tle of Ital­ian neb­bi­olo. Crafted close to Turin, this wine started an ob­ses­sion that would lead Fletcher some years later to up­root his young fam­ily and trans­port them across the globe on an in­ter­na­tional vi­nous pil­grim­age.

Of the hun­dreds of fine wine grapes, Fletcher had cho­sen pos­si­bly the most dif­fi­cult to tame. While many have planted this fa­mous grape out­side of its home­land, it is only in a small pocket of Pied­mont in north­west­ern Italy that neb­bi­olo shows its bril­liant best aro­mas of tar, rose and cold tea beau­ti­fully bal­anced with the firm tan­nins and the spine-tin­gling acid­ity that make them ripe for long age­ing.

Fletcher’s first foray into north­ern Ital­ian life was in 2007, with a string of vin­tages at the re­spected house of Ceretto. In 2012 a full-time wine­mak­ing po­si­tion at the same firm be­came avail­able and his Ital­ian fu­ture was sealed. While the role cer­tainly made a move eas­ier, it also ful­filled the dreams that Fletcher and his wife Eleanor, a lawyer, had for a lifestyle change with their two daugh­ters. Cu­ri­ously, while many wine­mak­ers in Aus­tralia would see work­ing in north­ern Italy as a dream job the lo­cals re­main a lit­tle be­mused that an Aus­tralian wine­maker would leave home for the eco­nom­i­cally cri­sis-rav­aged Italy.

Once set up, Fletcher’s next chal­lenge was to find a space for his win­ery. A drink with a lo­cal pro­ducer turned up an old, run­down prop­erty for sale: the orig­i­nal rail­way sta­tion of the town of Bar­baresco. When it was built, it was on land owned by aris­toc­racy and no ex­pense was spared dur­ing the ini­tial con­struc­tion, mak­ing for a grand venue. But the pro­ject has not been with­out its chal­lenges, in­clud­ing a long-winded process to se­cure the prop­erty from the gov­ern­ment and lay­ers of Ital­ian bu­reau­cracy to ne­go­ti­ate for ren­o­va­tion ap­provals.

Un­til the ren­o­va­tions are fin­ished, sched­uled for 2016, Fletcher will con­tinue to rent wine­mak­ing space as he has since 2009, when he crafted the first vin­tages. With­out any vine­yards — the cost of land is al­most pro­hib­i­tive — he sources fruit from var­i­ous lo­cal grow­ers. Un­like in Aus­tralia, where grape­grow­ers will usu­ally sell their fruit to the high­est bid­der, the prized neb­bi­olo grapes from the towns of Barolo and Bar­baresco are sold on the ba­sis of per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, with out­siders of­ten shut out. Luck­ily Fletcher’s time at Ceretto and friend­ships he has forged have given him an al­most unique op­por­tu­nity for a for­eigner to buy the best fruit and cre­ate wines in ex­cep­tional re­gional styles.

In Aus­tralia Fletcher also makes qual­ity neb­bi­olo from the Pyre­nees and Ade­laide Hills. Through his Aus­tralian and Ital­ian wines runs a thread of el­e­gance, un­der­stated power and com­plex­ity, hall­marks of top-flight neb­bi­olo. There are also plans for a very un­tra­di­tional oaked chardon­nay and sparkling wines from Italy this year — no doubt bring­ing more than a touch of Aus­tralian style to this hal­lowed ground.

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