ADVERTISEMENT

Corvina thrives in the NSW Hilltops

Brian Freeman

By Dr Brian Freeman, Freeman Vineyards, Hilltops, New South Wales

Australia’s only true expression of Amarone comes from a family vineyard established in 1999 from just six cuttings of each variety by Dr Brian Freeman. Formerly Professor of Wine Science at Charles Sturt University, Brian talks about the progress of his unique Australian wine venture that is now 17 vintages old.

Starting a vineyard from just six cuttings of two northern Italian origin grape varieties — Corvina and Rondinella — may well sound like a grand folly, especially given the fact that initial research suggested these classic Valpolicella varieties were not well travelled. In fact, the only other region to adopt them to date is Mendoza in Argentina where the prominent Veneto producer Masi planted Corvina.

But most academics are rarely daunted by challenges. Early investigations suggested that the cool, elevated slopes, diurnal temperatures and composite speckled dog granite soils of the New South Wales Hilltops might well suit these Italian immigrants.

And with now 17 vintages of Freeman Secco under our belts it is safe to say that those early indications have proven accurate. Minor vintage variations aside, we now know that Corvina (and its sibling Rondinella) is highly suited to our terroir.

We have learnt that Corvina is an extremely late ripener, and as the vines have aged the full maturity period has extended up to three weeks. One of the cooler sites takes until the end of May to reach the target Baumé. In some years high acidity is more of a problem than low sugar concentration. Another insight is Corvina’s tenacity. We have picked grapes after multiple frosts down to -5°C. Yields are low due to our practice of single bud pruning (3-4 tonnes/hectare).

Another of Corvina’s attributes is its tolerance to occasional summer or autumn rains (uncommon in the NSW Hilltops). The grapes seem largely unaffected by wet weather, especially later in the season. High temperatures also seem to have minimal impact. Corvina is a tough customer and produces consistent quality fruit despite vintage variations.
Nevertheless, viticultural management requires focus on nutrition, vine training and crop levels. The vines are predominantly established with a bilateral cordon and spur-pruned; some are cane-pruned to reduce yields.

The Italian job

The hills of Verona and the slopes around Young have another common horticultural denominator — cherries. Both regions carry respective national reputations for cherries. Coincidence? Possibly, but the horticultural portents were good so we have expanded the original 1999 plantings to five hectares.
The typical Hilltops autumn of warm, sunny days and cool to cold nights nurtures protracted, even ripening, which I suspect the winemakers of Veneto would envy.
In fact, retarded ripening is, in my view, one reason why the Italians began drying their grapes — to create complexity and intensity. Traditionally, Amarone Classico, the flagship red of the Verona region, is made from Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara with up to 15% of other local varieties permitted under the denominazione d’origine controllata (DOC).

According to European wine writer Richard Baudains, “Amarone is one of the world’s biggest, fleshiest red wines”, boasting a “unique gamut of flavours recalling cherry jam, plum pudding, raisins, rose petals and spice”.

Its origins date back to the 4th century and the Visigoths, who reputedly made wines from raisined grapes, forerunners of savoury, rich brooding Amarones.
Traditionally, the Italians slowly desiccated grapes on wicker and straw mats over at least three or more months. DOC rules now permit accelerated drying — grapes stacked in plastic trays spend seven days in de-humidified rooms, then languish in vast sheds where industrial fans circulate air for faster, ‘natural’ dehydration. Once grapes are half their weight, with lower acidity, modified fructose and glucose and higher glycerine, they are vinified, typically with several months’ skin contact, before ageing in large oak vats.

Lateral thinking

The Freeman Australian expression of Amarone deploys even more accelerated drying — in a neighbour’s prune dehydrator. Corvina (and Rondinella) are dried over 10 days in a solar-powered drying tunnel, and then co-fermented with the freshly-picked fruit. This method eliminates botrytis and typically delivers 14.5% alcohol (Italy’s DOC permits 15-17%). The drying process modifies the seed and stem tannins, eliminating any green, unripe characters and contributing intense, mouth-coating tannins to the resulting wine.
Tannin management is critical in making this unique wine, achieved partly through co-fermentation of the dried and fresh grapes. The massive natural grape extract takes several years to mellow.
We seek to achieve concentrated extract and palate weight without excessive alcohol, crafting a voluptuous, multi-layered, contemplative red. The whole-bunch drying process modifies the tannin structure, further balanced by the wild and cultured yeast fermentation and up to three months’ maceration of both fresh and dried grapes. During this period the undamaged, dried grapes undergo carbonic maceration adding to complexity.

The grapes are pressed into old hogsheads with fermentation ending in spring when the wine is racked to old barrels for two years’ ageing before bottling and the final ageing phase — another two years. The process takes the best of both worlds — the dried ‘secco’ grapes amplifying a concentrated, fruit-driven savoury red wine.
Freeman ‘Secco’ Rondinella Corvina is released with four years’ maturity, a necessary commitment to the Amarone-inspired style that takes patience to achieve its seductive intensity.

Seductive Secco

Our 20-year-old vines are developing more complexity every season. The early 2004 Freeman ‘Secco’ Rondinella Corvina garnered several trophies, including Best Mature Dry Red at the 2009 and 2011 NSW Wine Awards. Wider consumer exposure to imported Italian wines has broadened awareness and appeal of these savoury tannin-framed wines, even among wine writers. The current release 2014 Freeman Secco Rondinella Corvina was recently rated 95 points in the Halliday Wine Companion 2020.

Sommeliers, wine writers and some wine judges are attracted by the style, which has assisted the domestic marketing challenge of a once totally unfamiliar wine made from unknown varieties. Curious Australian wine drinkers can now also buy affordable Valpolicella at Dan Murphy’s, which has nurtured consumer interest in these food-compatible, Italian-inspired reds.
Moreover, wine lists are increasingly citing Corvina as a stand-alone segment affording it a pedestal alongside Sangiovese and Nebbiolo — and with that comes recognition.
One of Corvina’s significant assets is its remarkable versatility. The Freeman portfolio now includes three expressions — the original Secco blend (50/50 Corvina- Rondinella), a softer style blend, and the stalwart Freeman Robusta.

The latest Freeman riff on the Corvina theme is the very sippable Freeman Rosso blend (Corvina and Rondinella) made without dried fruit echoing Valpolicella, Bardolino or Pinot Noir. The challenge here is sensitive irrigation and yield management, and in the winery, judicious skin contact.
The emerging flagship is the Freeman Robusta Corvina, first produced in 2012 — an unapologetically big red made from 100% semi-dried Corvina grapes. Fermentation is triggered by an indigenous yeast, inherited from 100 years of local prune production. The back label suggests (rightly) it is ‘not for the faint-hearted’.

Background

Corvina (kor-VEEN-uh) is an old red grape variety, perhaps known since the early 17th century. It was first described in 1818 and said to be widespread in Veneto, its place of origin in north-east Italy. Its full name is Corvina Veronese — but in Australia it is mainly known as Corvina. In Valpolicella it is blended with the higher yielding Rondinella and Molinara (including Amarone and Recioto styles where Corvina is typically 40-80%). In Garda DOC, Corvina may be 100%. Main synonyms are Corvina Comune, Corvina Gentile, Corvina Nostrana, Corvina Reale and Cruina. DNA analysis has shown that both Corbina and Corvinone are different varieties to Corvina; and that it is related to Garganega, and is also a parent of Rondinella. Corvina is practically unknown outside north-east Italy. The global area (2010) was 7496ha, 60% higher than in 2000, close to 100% planted in the Veneto. There is a small area in Mendoza, Argentina. The area in Australia is tiny and there are currently just three wine producers (Hilltops, Southern Highlands).

Viticulture

Budburst is late and maturity is late. In the Hilltops region, target ripeness is typically not achieved until mid-April or later. Vigour is moderate to high with a semi-erect growth habit. Bunches are small to large depending on the clone, with small berries. Yield is low to moderate. Cane pruning is mainly used in Italy, but spur pruning has been used in Australia. Susceptibility to downy mildew, sunburn and drought is high. The berries have thick skins that are ideal for drying and protecting the grape from rot.

Wine

Corvina produces light to medium-bodied wines with moderate colour and fresh acidity. Tannins are low to moderate. Descriptors include bitter almond and sour cherry. In some parts of Veneto, barrel ageing is used to add more structure and complexity to the wine. It has been said that the growers in Valpolicella began drying grapes artificially to compensate for the lack of good ripening weather in autumn and thereby created the Amarone and Recioto styles.