There is always a know-it-all on a wine tour. The woman in question sips from her glass of cask-fresh red and then holds it up to the light. “It’s very purple,” she announces. “I get notes of eucalyptus and green hay.” Then she points to the wine-colored stain on the wooden slats of the barrel we are sampling. “Is that a sign of oxidation?” She asks.
“No,” replies winery owner Fred Pizzini without hesitation. “That would be a sign that the barrel is leaking.”
Fred is the second generation of Pizzinis here in the King Valley, home of Australian Prosecco, a farming and wine growing region in the state of Victoria, about a three hour drive from Melbourne. While taking a sample from another cask, Fred describes how his parents moved here from Italy in the 1950s. Today, Pizzini wines are served in some of Australia’s finest restaurants, renowned for Italian varietals such as Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.
Fizzing: A view of Chrismont Winery and the lush vineyards of the King Valley, part of the Prosecco Road Tasting Trail
But it’s Pizzini’s sparkling wines that are of most interest, as it’s Prosecco that put King Valley on the map. In fact, the quality of the Italian-style sparkling water made here is such that companies have come together to create the King Valley Prosecco Road. Linking a dozen wineries from Chrismont at the head of the valley down to Sam Miranda in the lowlands, the Prosecco Road is a tasting trail that celebrates local food and wine.
After the wine tour at A Tavola!, Fred’s wife Katrina’s cooking school, we delve deeper into the valley’s Italian heritage. Gathered around a kitchen work station, we prepare potato gnocchi and make a peperonata using a recipe passed down from Nonna Rosetta, Fred’s mother.
Afterwards, we enjoy our creations accompanied by a glass or two of Pizzini’s finest sparkling wine. In true Italian fashion, it turns into a long, lazy lunch, which Fred explains is common when visiting Pizzini Wines (pizzini.com.au). “People come here expecting to spend ten minutes tasting wines, but they end up staying for hours,” he says, filling our glasses. “We chat, tell stories and enjoy the valley.”
Having fun: A hot air balloon over the Brown Brothers Winery, one of the wineries on the Prosecco Road
A glass of Dal Zotto that became the pioneer of Australian sparkling wine after its initial release in 2004
It’s that authentic, unpretentious hospitality that defines a trip to King Valley. I have visited wineries across Australia and while each has its own charm, they are often commercial operations with less personality. But here on the Prosecco Route, every winery is a family business, which means guests are welcomed with passion.
My immersion in King Valley Prosecco began the previous morning at Dal Zotto Wines (dalzotto.com.au), a few miles up the road from Pizzini. With the launch of its first release in 2004, Dal Zotto pioneered Australian sparkling wine, making it the obvious place to begin a pilgrimage.
I was expecting an invigorating coffee, but Head Winemaker Michael Dal Zotto had other ideas. “Nonsense,” he had said as he opened a bottle of his 2019 vintage in his cozy trattoria. Michael noted the fresh, floral character of the fizz (the signatures of quality Prosecco) and explained how his family had brought Italian-style sparkling wine to the valley.
Winemaker Michael Dal Zotto tells James his father hails from Valdobbiadene (pictured), right in the heart of Italy’s Prosecco region
“My father comes from Valdobbiadene, right in the heart of the Italian Prosecco region,” he revealed. “The soils and climate are similar to here, so he saw the potential of King Valley for growing the wines he knew from home.” The success of that first release forced them to downsize to three bottles per person limit and encouraged them to increase production and involve their neighbors.
King Valley is also a wonderful place to spend a weekend. Because it’s so much further beyond Melbourne’s more accessible vineyards, it’s far less crowded than the better-known Yarra Valley or Mornington Peninsula, meaning it retains a noticeable sense of calm.
Each Prosecco Road winery is unique
Winemaker Michael Dal Zotto
As we worked our way through the bottle he opened, Michael shared his own take on what makes King Valley so special. “Each winery on the Prosecco Road is unique,” he said, “but what unites us is that we all have a personal story to tell. Our lifestyle here revolves around the simple things done well, so at Dal Zotto we encourage our guests to take their time and stay as long as they like: eat lunch, play bocce on the lawn or take a nap under a tree. It’s amazing how quickly visitors embrace our gentler rhythm.”
As befits it, our wine tasting turns into a hearty lunch of wood-fired pizza topped with pumpkin and figs, accompanied by a salad of tomatoes still warm from the sun that ripened them. After lunch, Michael takes me through the plots that produced most of the ingredients we just ate, all grown under netting to protect it from cockatoos. “The secret of our attraction is that we are straightforward. The simplest things in life are so often the most beautiful,” he says.
King Valley is far less crowded than the better-known Yarra Valley (pictured), James reveals
Dal Zotto hosts yoga among the vines and offers rental bikes for gentle exploration. If you want to burn the gnocchi, take one of Michael’s mountain bikes. Cycle along quiet country lanes past acres of grape vines dotted with restaurants and cellar door tasting rooms, all well worth a visit.
After a while I stop at a picnic spot to dip my toes in the cool King River. There is nobody here but me and the wildlife. Somewhere a kookaburra is cackling.
The nearest station is Lancemore Milawa (lancemore.com.au), a boutique hotel surrounded by the vines of the Brown Brothers winery. I take a bottle outside and make myself comfortable under a tree. I pop the cork, sit back and toast Michael Dal Zotto. After all, he had given me the wisest advice for a potter on Prosecco Road. “No matter how you want to enjoy your time here in the valley,” he had said, “don’t rush it.”