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From Pinot G to Picolit

Kevin McCarthy (right) and Denis Pasut in Denis’ Sunnycliffs vineyard.

A twist on a Friulian sweetheart

By Sonya Logan

In its homeland in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in northeast Italy, Picolit is commonly made into a dessert wine either from semi-dried or late-harvested grapes.

Kevin McCarthy, who together with his wife Kathleen Quealy pioneered Pinot G in Australia, admits to sipping “a lot” of these dessert wines during his travels across northern Italy while researching local Pinot Grigio production in the late 1990s. These trips intensified his interest in the wines of Friuli generally and, some two decades later, Kevin was presented with an opportunity to make his own Picolit with locally-grown fruit under the label MDI, a family winemaking project with daughter Celia.

MDI took root following Kevin and Celia’s travels through the Murray Darling in 2018 when they “realised the magical connection between the extraordinary viticultural resources of the Murray Darling”. Kevin says MDI tells “a different story about Mildura fruit” and celebrates “the sunshine, limestone soils, passion, grit and giant night sky” of the region.

Kevin and Kathleen and son Tom produce a range of skin contact whites under their Quealy label from fruit harvested from their winery vineyard at Balnarring in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. It was this style of wines that would also be the focus for MDI.

 

2022 Picolit

 

From the outset, Kevin and Celia wanted to release a skin contact Picolit and they knew just where in the Murray Darling they could find the fruit.

“Denis Pasut, a friend and grower our family has worked with for more than 20 years, had beautiful fruit in Mildura. We’ve been trying to access this fruit for a long time, and when we launched MDI we finally got Denis’s blessing!” Kevin recalls.

“We wanted to make it in line with the MDI Skin.Eds (skin edition) range, so created a beautiful skin contact iteration as an aromatic table wine.”

Picolit is one of several Italian varieties in Denis’ vineyard at Sunnycliffs, including Friulano and Malvasia. The variety is grown on a hanging cane trellis system and as such canopies require limited management throughout the season. Picolit is renowned for its small berries and low yields, hence bunch thinning is never needed. Because they don’t carry a heavy crop, its requirement for water is somewhat less than that of other varieties in the vineyard.

The vines are mechanically pre-pruned before hand spur-pruning is carried out to give approximately 40 buds. The vines yield an average of one to two tonnes an acre.

At harvest, Kevin says phenolic ripeness is the primary determining factor for scheduling picking.

“The variety is very well-behaved and is consistently phenol ripe at between 12-12.5Be,” he notes.

Pursuing a skin contact table wine, he says the winemaking is “very simple”.

The fruit is destemmed then placed gently into an open fermenter. Ferment starts naturally. Gentle plunging is carried out once fermentation has begun and the juice is left on skins post ferment for approximately two to three weeks. It is then pressed into old barriques where the wine undergoes MLF. A small amount of SO2 is added and then the wine remains in barrel for approximately a year. It is then bottled without filtration.

MDI’s first Picolit was made from the 2021 vintage with the latest release from the 2022 vintage.

Kevin says Picolit’s biggest advantage is its consistency and ability to make “very high-quality skin contact wines”.

“We market MDI as a skin contact brand from Mildura, so the Picolit plays nicely into this. The label is feminine and hints at the aromatic attributes of the product.”

“It obviously has an extraordinary ability to tolerate heat and dry conditions,” he adds.

“Its main disadvantage is obviously its very low yield.”

Kevin McCarthy with daughter Celia

 

Picolit

By Peter Dry, Emeritus Fellow, The Australian Wine Research Institute

Background

Picolit (pee-coh-LEET) is an old variety, originally grown in Udine, Treviso, Bassano and Vicenza provinces in north- east Italy. Its wines were known in western Europe from the 18th century. The planted area of Picolit declined significantly from the late 19th century due to phylloxera. Although revived somewhat since the 1960s, the area grown today is very small, mainly located in Friuli (121ha in 2016). Other than Italy there is a tiny area in neighbouring Slovenia (syn. Pikolit). In Hungary, Picolit has been confused in the past with the varieties Balafant and Kéknyelü; but DNA analysis has confirmed that they are different. There are fewer than 10 wine producers in Australia, located in King Valley, Bendigo, Heathcote, Gippsland, Mudgee and Adelaide Plains.

Viticulture

Budburst and maturity are mid-season. Vigour is high. Bunches are small and loose with small berries. Yield is low. Fruitset is poor due to infertile pollen, therefore this variety is best grown together with other varieties with more fertile pollen. According to a CSIRO reference, the clone available in Australia has moderate yield.

Wine

In Italy, Picolit is used almost exclusively for sweet wines such as DOCG Colli Orientali del Friuli Picolit. The grapes are picked late and either dried on mats or racks or semi-dried on the vine. It is also used in blends in dry wines (e.g. Colli Orientali del Friuli Bianco) or sweet wines (e.g. Colli Orientali del Friuli Dolce). In Australia, most producers appear to be using Picolit for sweet wines. Descriptors include floral, apricot and peach.

For further information on this and other emerging varieties, contact Marcel Essling at the AWRI ([email protected] or 08 8313 6600) to arrange the presentation of the Alternative Varieties Research to Practice program in your region.

 

This article was originally published in the Summer 2024 issue of the Wine & Viticulture Journal. To find out more about our quarterly journal, or to subscribe, click here!

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