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King for a day (or two)

Take a spring tour of the King Valley in northern Victoria, and taste some amazing bubbles on the “Prosecco Road”

Italian families have tilled the soil of the King Valley for generations first growing tobacco then, when that cropped fell from favour, they switched to growing Italian wine varieties and created the now-famous Prosecco Road. This stretch of bucolic bitumen joins the wineries of the King Valley, names like the Dal Zottos and the Pizzinis who used their skill with the local soil to grow an entire industry around previously unloved Italian wine varieties.

I have been travelling to the King Valley for over a decade and it manages a rare regional trick: each time I visit there is a deeper range of experiences – whether it is staying in a shipping container pop-up near the Dal Zotto vines or learning to cook gnocchi at the Pizzini’s A Tavola cooking school – but the country charm remains the same.

 

Natural hosts

Hospitality is not just the industry these Italian families are in, it is their guiding principal. When I head to the cellar door Dal Zotto patriarch Otto Dal Zotto has fired up the spit and is lovingly basting a porchetta for an evening function, glass of prosecco in hand.

Otto’s son Michael, who takes care of the business with his brother Christian, laughs that Otto always complains he is too old to roast the porchetta but will never let anyone else do it. He hands me a glass of Italian bubbles and we watch the hypnotic turn of the grill.

“I am very proud of where I come from,” Otto says. “And growing up with a bottle of prosecco on the table everyone was happy – we probably should have had a bottle of water but we had a bottle of prosecco,” he laughs.

It was this passion for the wine of his ancestral home that led to Otto procuring one of the first prosecco vines in the country from an old-country contact in Adelaide and trusting his gut that Australians would love this Italian party staple as much as he did.

“One of the things I am very passionate about is to be able to bring the prosecco to Australia, to grow the prosecco and to see people enjoy the prosecco,” Otto says. And enjoy it they do with Australian prosecco sales up over 50 per cent in 2018 with local sales outstripping the imported Italian drop.

Like a visitor to a small village in Venetto, where the Dal Zotto’s originated, I am handballed from cousin to cousin. I have spent the morning at Pizzini Wines, who are both neighbours and family to the Dal Zottos. Over a couple of glasses of Italian reds, another patriarch Fred Pizzini discusses how he has now split his sangiovese grapes into 14 different terroirs to help stay ahead of the competition and how he is always trying new varieties like a teroldego, that is as bold as it is hard to pronounce.

“We are always looking for new ways to stay in front of ourselves I don’t know if teroldego is the one, but it could be,” Fred says. “I think the public interest in Italian wines still growing.”

 

Room with a view

When I turn up to Chrismont Wines, a short drive from Pizzini, I am late having got lost in a chat with Fred about water usage and the political machinations that might see the King Valley banned from using the name prosecco. My host, Arnie Pizzini, laughs and tells me such tardiness is not unusual when being hosted by his kin.

Chrismont Wines is deliberately different to the historic buildings of Dal Zotto and Pizzini, a sleek, modern space with a restaurant that has sweeping views of the right royal valley.

I start lunch with eggplant alla Siciliana, a flavour-packed stack of baked eggplant fiore di latte topped with deep-fried capers. My main is a silky prawn and scallop risotto served in a rich bisque broth with local caviar and a giant king prawn. The wine match is another new Italian red that is easier on the palate than it is on the tongue, a sagrantino. It is a meal fit for a, well, you get the idea.

With spring around the corner, the Prosecco Road is a perfect mix of radical grape varieties, party bubbles and down-home hospitality – hit the road.