Nero d’Avola loosely translates to ‘the dark grapes of Avola’. The variety hails from the south-eastern end of Sicily, near the village of Avola, and is one of two principal varieties from the island. In Australia, many producers have brought the variety under their wing as it thrives in the warm conditions found in many of Australia’s growing regions. Harrison Davies spoke to experts and producers about this up-and-coming variety in Australia.
Nero d’Avola is one of the most planted grapes in Sicily, making up for roughly 16 per cent of plantings in Sicilian vineyards.
Nero d’Avola has a short but prolific place in the Australian viticultural scene.
Its homeland, however, is Sicily. Originating from the South-East coast, the variety thrives in hot, dry conditions and is often grown as bush vines, similar to Grenache, however more producers have begun trellising their vines.
It was brought to Australia in 1998 by Chalmers, also responsible for bringing several other varieties down under, and allowed out of quarantine for cultivation in 2001.
Since being brought to Australia, producers across the country have found quite a bit of success with the variety, and it is now grown by over 70 producers in regions from coast to coast.
The variety, like others from the Mediterranean, suits the warmer Australian climate more comfortably than more traditional reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.
In a report to the Wine & Viticulture Journal, the AWRI’s Dr Peter Dry explored the variety’s historical roots.
“The variety has been grown for centuries in Sicily and is presumed to have originated from close to the town of Avola, in the south-east of the island,” he said.
“In recent decades, its wines have become more reputed to such an extent that the Italian Wine and Food Society have included it in its top 12 red wine varieties of Italy.
“Nero d’Avola is the principal variety of the only DOCG wine of Sicily, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, for which it must be 60 per cent of the blend with Frappato.
“There may now be 19,000 hectares of Nero in Sicily.”
We envisage, and we are
already seeing evidence in the
Australian wine market, that
Australian grape growers and
wine makers will embrace
more Mediterranean wine
grape varieties as a strategy to
adapt to climate change.
– Sue Bastian
The rise of Nero d’Avola has come shoulder to shoulder with the expansion of other Mediterranean varieties in the Australian wine industry, like Vermentino and Grenache.
Sue Bastian, associate professor in oenology and sensory studies at the University of Adelaide, said the onset of climate change would make varietals like Nero much more appealing to Australian producers.
“We envisage, and we are already seeing evidence in the Australian wine market, that Australian grape growers and wine makers will embrace more Mediterranean wine grape varieties as a strategy to adapt to climate change,” she said.
“Some of these varieties, such as Nero d’Avola, anecdotally have a lower water requirement, and we hope to conduct vineyard performance trials and other measures to provide the science to substantiate these claims.”
Bastian explained that, while Nero has a 20 year history in Australia, there is a lot of learning to be done before the industry has a strong understanding of how it responds to Australian conditions.
Through her research, she has identified characteristic similarities to Grenache, also renowned as a warm weather red, and that consumers responded similarly well to the variety inrecent years.
“As a wine consumer I’m a variety seeker and relish wine diversity,” Bastian said.
“Along with believing we need to expose the students to as many wine styles made from different grape varieties from around the world as possible to expand their perspectives and hopefully encourage them to experiment has been a key goal.
“The findings so far indicate that this variety might offer an appealing substitute wine for Grenache lovers.
“A pleasing medium weighted red wine with fruit forward notes and smoother tannins, ideal for a warmer climate lunch time red.”
In the regions
Nero d’Avola has seen particular success in the warmer regions of Australia and particularly in areas like the Riverland and McLaren Vale.
As more producers embrace Italian and Spanish varieties, Nero was among the first to be adopted.
Roughly 75 wineries use the grapes to make wine and more grapegrowers cultivate the grapes themselves.
Nero d’Avola is a variety with
high natural acidity and a
degree of drought tolerance
so it’s a variety perfectly
suited to our climate.
– Jim Zerella
Zerella Wines in McLaren Vale began growing Nero d’Avola in 2012 and winemaker Jim Zerella said he was intrigued by the possibilities posed by this variety.
“I’ve had Nero d’Avola growing since 2012. Over the years, I’ve tasted a number of Sicilian examples which I found intriguing – many wines which combine power with finesse,” he said.
“I grow Nero on my Home Block vineyard which is a coastal site on sandy loams.”
The Nero vintage from Zerella, now in its tenth year, was grown from clippings of the original Chalmers vines in Victoria.
McLaren Vale has been identified as a particularly good place to grow Nero due to its similar climatic and environmental conditions to Sicily.
Zerella said the growing conditions contributed to the natural features of the grape, like its bold fruit flavours and acidity.
“Nero d’Avola is a variety with high natural acidity and a degree of drought tolerance so it’s a variety perfectly suited to our climate,” Zerella said.
“With a coastal location, the vines enjoy the moderating sea breezes which prevail most evenings giving us bright aromatics, good natural acid retention combined with physiological ripeness.
“We pride ourselves on growing high quality and so in the winery it’s all about letting the fruit shine.”
Producers in the Riverland have seen particular success with the variety, where it thrives in the beating sun.
The diversity of what they are
experiencing on-premise definitely
translates to what they want and how
they shop in store.
– Nick Rose
Ricca Terra have been growing the variety since 2008 and winemaker Ashley Ratcliff said he was interested to see the variety develop as the vines became more established throughout the country.
He likened the vines to teenagers who reign themselves in as they got older.
“Like kids, the vines were pretty hard to control when they were younger, with branches and limbs splaying out everywhere,” he said.
“As they get older they begin to get more consistent and more predictable and we have been seeing that consistent quality with the fruit.
“They’re definitely a variety that you need to be tough with and one that you need to treat pretty hard.
“If you love them too much, they’re not going to love you back.”
He added that while they were quite hardy against heavy weather, they still needed care in the face of things like hail and heavy rain.
“We got hit with a bit of hail in December and they seem to have bounced back,” Ashley said.
“Around flowering they probably don’t want a lot of severe stress like hail, but they really like the heat and are vigorous vines.”
On the shelf
“We have been working on and want to gain a better understanding of what styles of wines may be produced from this variety under Australian conditions using in depth sensory evaluation testing and examine whether consumers enjoy and accept these wines,” Bastian said.
“In the longer term, studies of how to promote the best quality from these wines using vineyard and winemaking practices are in our sights to provide detailed knowledge for the Australian wine industry so they can confidently cultivate these varieties to be successful in the wine market.”
Consumer interest in Nero d’Avola has risen alongside other Mediterranean varieties in recent years and many producers have brought the vines into their repertoire due to their response to warm temperatures.
The variety was first included at the Australian Alternative Varieties show in 2012, where there were only eight entries, and has since expanded to multiple categories each with multiple entries.
In the last 10 years many retailers also have added dedicated Nero sections in store shelves, as opposed to before when they were relegated to the ‘other reds’ section alongside other alternative varietals.
The amount of quality, local Nero d’Avola has pushed the variety to far greater prominence in the eyes of consumers.
Endeavour Group Category Manager Fine Wine Nick Rose said retailers like Dan Murphy’s and BWS had witnessed the variety experience a massive growth in sales in 2021.
“People are becoming more adventurous with their drinking repertoire, and looking for a greater sense of discovery through their wine experiences,” he said.
“Whilst the segment only makes up a very small percentage of total Red wine sales, it did experience 23% growth in the Endeavour Group business in financial year 2021.
“If you go back six years ago, the shop isles of a Dan murphy’s wine store had big sections for Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Blends, Merlot and Pinot Noir, and everything that didn’t fit in to one of those was lumped into an “other Reds” section.
“Fast forward, and many of those “other reds” now stand on their own two feet with their own dedicated section.”
Rose suggested that the growth in other Mediterranean varieties like Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo and Grenache signalled a changing consumer interest in alternatives to more traditional styles like Shiraz.
“Multiple factors have contributed to this shift, but to generalise, it’s a move to more medium bodied wines, slightly lighter in alcohol and more food friendly,” Rose explained.
“The diversity of what they are experiencing on-premise definitely translates to what they want and how they shop in store.
“The Discovery element is seen by many customers engaging our in store wine experts to ‘show me something different’ and are happy for them to fill their basket with alternative red varieties from both here and overseas.”