All about nero d’Avola

By Ned Goodwin MW

30 Mar, 2022

Italian varieties have been on the rise in Australia for some time now, and nero d’Avola has been particularly successful. Master of Wine Ned Goodwin shares the history and characteristics of this flavoursome red, and some standout wines to try.

Nero d’Avola is a dark-skinned grape hailing from southern Sicily. It is named after the town of Avola in the southeast, although it has spread throughout the island as its most pervasively planted variety. The more renowned expressions hail from the provinces of Noto and Siracusa, at least in terms of the ripe, buxom and gently dusty styles that drew the world’s attention to the grape in the late nineties to early naughties.

These wines, led by the ambitious and highly creative producer Planeta, gleaned critical praise as modern production facilities and contemporary winemaking techniques were introduced in a region that had long been an impoverished backwater.

This dynamic, complemented by consistent sunny weather and low labour costs in Sicily, facilitated the sort of ample price-fighting reds that were championed at the time from the US to the UK. In the former, where I was working, richer nero d’Avola became interchangeable with Aussie shiraz and Argentine malbec, matching the oomph while often representing better value.

While there are plenty of full-bodied examples in Sicily, nero is more expressive as a mid-weighted, pulpier red wine. Gentler extraction techniques showcase notes of dark to blue fruit, root spice, white pepper and an amaro-like sweet-sour juxtaposition of flavours, melding dark cherry scents to rhubarb riffs with hints of candied orange zest in the spirit of agrodolce. A sluice of dusty tannins and bright acidity confer a nudge of authority and an effortless poise.

Black skinned grapes in crate in the vines
Nero d’Avola is a dark-skinned grape that hails from southern Sicily.

Australian regions spotlighting nero d’Avola
Like many southern Italian varieties, nero d’Avola is sturdy, with an affinity for warm, dry conditions without needing too much water. It is no surprise, then, that plantings are increasingly found from McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek to Riverland and Riverina. Since the first cuttings were released in Australia from the Chalmers nursery in 2001, nero’s sustainability and sassy flavour profile have seen a growing presence across the Australian vine-scape, auguring for a very bright future.

The point is, nero is a go-to grape when it comes to the sort of joyous, fresh and imminently approachable reds that brim with flavour, increasingly enjoyed at the Australian table. It is also ethically sound.

The Australian wineries excelling with nero d’Avola
While nero is equipped with the juicy fruit and spunk prerequisite for easy glugging, most domestic iterations lack the savoury mettle of Sicilian expressions. Too many are made with carbonic inflections and little structural spine in an ersatz hipster guise, but some are doing it right.

The Brash Higgins NDV Amphora Project Nero d'Avola has spiced cherry scents melded with bitters, bergamot, anise, clove, sassafras and cardamom, and Maxwell Wines' Clan Exclusive shows great promise with dark cherry, wood smoke, kirsch, brush, lavender and a cedary, earthen whiff of older oak. Both are outstanding examples.

Fall from Grace is a minimalist producer in McLaren Vale crafting the sort of pulpy, light to very gently mid-weighted expressions as reliant on gentle whole-berry ferments as a sousing of savoury herbal notes for a giddy drinkability. Thrills with a (subtle) chill!

Calabria, an increasingly creative family-owned winery in the Riverina, is drawing on its southern Italian heritage as much as the growing taste for gentler, juicier reds. Their Family Private Bin is a nero stamped with quintessential bitter cherry notes and a medicinal whiff, unravelling across a core of sweet extract, still medium-bodied in feel. Superb value.

Calabria Family Wines tasting of nero d'Avola
Nero d'Avola tasting at Calabria Family Wines.

The Mount Horrocks Nero d’Avola is quintessentially Clare Valley, with aromas of peppermint patty, dark cherry and anise. These segue to a juicy mid-weighted palate, sinuous tannins and fine, sappy length. A mesh of Italianate structure with a firmly regional Australian voice. A delicious wine.

Eldorado Road is in Beechworth, a sub-alpine bastion of granitic syrah far from the sort of place where one would expect to find nero. The vines, however, are further afield in northeastern Victoria, which is a pretty warm place. The Eldorado Road Riserva is among the country’s best nero d’Avola. A single barrel of whole-cluster fruit manifests as a brambly, resinous, deeply concentrated red. Nothing obtuse or overt. Plenty fresh.

Coriole has long been a leader in Italian-inspired expressions on these shores, crafting a frisky nero built for earlier drinking across scents of kirsch and mint, bridled by a gentle astringency.

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