The Italian Collective

Our northeast-facing sangiovese block in Wallaroo, Canberra District.
Photos: Sammy Hawker.

The great wines and grape varieties of Italy have long been held in high esteem with our winemaker Alex McKay. Not just for their uniquely savoury profile and textures, and wonderful diversity when it comes to food pairing, but also for their complementary nature: these are wines that tend to take a back seat and unfold, rather than yell for attention.

However, there’s far more to it than just planting some vine cuttings in the ground. Alex’s keen interest in Italian wines began in the late 90s, when he worked with Garry Crittenden researching the suitability of Australian wine regions for growing some of the great grapes of Italy. The result was a book: Italian Wine Grape Varieties in Australia, and it focused particularly on Tuscany and Piedmont.

Photo Credit: Sammy Hawker

“I got really interested in climate and terroir, and went to Italy visiting wineries and academics to help deepen my knowledge,” says Alex. “Then it was a case of trying to use all that information to hypothecate where some of the varieties from those areas would do well in Australia.


Naturally, sangiovese was high on the list. Sangiovese is Italy’s most widespread grape variety, but its most revered expressions are from Tuscany: namely the Chianti area south of Florence, as well as the hilltop townships of Montalcino and Montepulciano. The first sangiovese in New South Wales was planted in Mudgee in the 1980s, but a lot of the interest in Australia was coming from places like the King Valley, Western and Central Victoria, and McLaren Vale – people like Fred Pizzini, Trevor Mast, Mario Marson and Mark Lloyd were leading the way.

Seeing that Tuscany’s climate was significantly maritime – with the Adriatic Sea on one side, the Tyrrhenian on the other – with a similar temperature summation to Canberra, Alex was inspired to see how sangiovese would perform in the region.

“Technically, the [Australian east coast] areas closest to Tuscany, in terms of climate, are those on the hinterland of the Great Dividing Range,” Alex explains. “So, Canberra, Beechworth, and parts of Western Victoria.”

Photo by Sammy Hawker

“We worked out that these were some of the better matched areas in terms of temperature summation, but also in the balance between maritime and continentality. Australia is still very maritime; even in these inland areas, the climate is strongly influenced by the Southern Ocean. Relative to Australia, Tuscany’s quite continental, but there’s also significant maritime influence.”

The next step was to establish material in the vineyard. Thankfully, sangiovese grafts very easily onto cabernet vines – especially strong, ten-year-old vines, which is about how old they were in around 2008, when Alex and our growers first started putting sangiovese in the vineyard.

Now, Chianti wouldn’t be Chianti without its less famous but no less important ‘spicing’ varieties, such as colorino, canaiolo, and mammolo – so they were planted, too. Blended with sangiovese, they add texture, complexity and interest to the final wine.

“I think it’s important to stay true, in some capacity, to the well-established European styles,” says Alex, in referencing the traditional styles of these varieties. “They are what people are confident in buying and drinking, and at the end of the day, you have to sell the wine.”

“There’s a reason certain blends and varieties dominate the market, and that’s why we’ve chosen our sangiovese to be a sangiovese-dominant blend and use some of the traditional blending varieties from Tuscany to be part of that blend, in addition to the five different sangiovese clones we use.”


Photo by Sammy Hawker
In terms of winemaking, Alex explains, it’s a fine balance between recognition of those styles and working with what nature delivers. This is the philosophy applied to our Rose Red City Sangiovese.

“The first step is to try and understand what you’re going to get with the raw material,” he says. “What you’ll get when the grapes are crushed, what sort of tannins they’ll have, aromatics, and the profile of the wine. There’s no use trying to force it in a direction it won’t be capable of getting to.”

“That’s the major determinant of the style, but also referencing, or at least being cognisant of those major European styles.”

“I think in Australia, some people apply an Australian template to making these wines and it’s not really suited. If you kind of respect how it’s done in Italy, I think you get a more sympathetic result.”


Fiano has seen a surge in popularity in Australia in recent years, and for good reason: it’s well-suited to warm, sunny climates. Even in the warmest years, it retains its acidity beautifully, and typically produces fresh yet detailed wines that are as delicious in youth as they are with a few years’ bottle age.

However, Alex’s style preference for this variety refers to its home of Campania, in southern Italy, more than anything typically Australian in style.

“When it comes to white wine, Italians – especially from Emilia-Romagna and further south – prefer neutral, non-aromatic white varieties like fiano, falanghina, grillo, grechetto and trebbiano,” says Alex. “These are really interesting wines because they don’t get in the way of enjoying the food you’re having – they’re not in your face, super aromatic and full of tropical fruit.”

He points out that many of the great Italian examples – which have centuries of winemaking evolution under their belt – have a little extra tannin in the skins, which simply adds texture and interest without overcompensating in the aroma or flavour profile.

Photo by Sammy Hawker

“The winemaking that has evolved with these Italian varieties is aimed at celebrating that almost ‘dumbed down’ kind of wine, that is first and foremost an accompaniment rather than screaming at you for attention,” laughs Alex. “Part of the winemaking is quite oxidative and teases out the tannins and phenolics to help build a texturally pleasing wine with a mid-palate to savour on.”

Our Summer Swarm Fiano is mostly hand-harvested, and like a lot of our white wines, is whole-bunch pressed to get the best quality juice. Apart from that, the winemaking is relatively simple and intuitive, to get the best possible result.

“The juice is oxidatively handled, with no sulphur, neutral yeast-fermented, and about 10 per cent of it goes into old French oak barrels,” says Alex. “We don’t separate free run juice and pressings – we’re really interested in getting some phenolics out of the skins. And that’s all it is.”

Nero d’Avola

Our Firebird Nero d’Avola is sourced from Gundagai, a region that experiences a lot more warmth than Canberra and seems to be very well-suited to growing late ripening, warm climate varieties. Nero d’Avola originates in Sicily, where the growing seasons can be positively blazing, so it’s a variety that can cop the heat.

“What interested me with nero was a certain type of wine,” Alex says. “It’s versatile, and can make anything from bright, un-oaked joven styles, right through to overripe, over-oaked versions. I was more interested in that bright, early consumption style – but not an unserious one.”

“I think it’s a variety that easily accommodates both detail and approachability.”

Our Summer Swarm Fiano 2023 and Rose Red City Sangiovese 2019 are out now. Shop these, as well as other new releases, and the Firebird Nero d'Avola 2022, here.