Most people visit Victoria's King Valley to taste its famed Italian wines along the "Prosecco Road". But today I've come to learn the secrets behind making the best bolognaise sauce.
OK, I'm actually pretty keen on trying some wine, too. But first, as I'm new to the area and have become completely lost three hours outside of Melbourne thanks to some GPS-directed off-roading, I drive to Powers Lookout, a rocky escarpment above the tiny town of Whitfield, home to Dal Zotto wines. The lookout offers a great perspective of Prosecco Road — otherwise known as King Valley Road — with sweeping views towards Mount Buffalo National Park and Victoria's alpine region. Half the nation's prosecco is produced here, remarkable considering Dal Zotto only brought grapevines into Australia in 1997, selling their first bottle in 2004.
The Pizzini family settled in the alpine region in 1956, and planted their first vineyards in 1978, growing the little known Italian varietals of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Around five minutes outside Whitfield, they have a cellar door and restaurant surrounded in vineyards and the A Tavola Cooking school.
There are about 10 of us here today to pick up a few tips on Italian homestyle cooking from Katrina Pizzizi, the family matriarch, who guides us through the basics of a decadent bolognaise sauce with pre-prepped ingredients inside a large, purpose-built kitchen.
"Always season the onions with a salt like Murray River flakes, which adds a good amount of minerality," she directs. "The salt actually sweetens the onions allowing them to caramelise in the olive oil and butter, and seasoning at the beginning of the process allows us to build the flavours of the bolognaise. It's very important to give the ingredients time to do their thing."
While the onions are "doing their thing", Pizzini offers tips on how you can grow your own garlic with a clove, before smashing them and adding to the sauce, skin on.
Next beef and pork mince is added, because "pork helps soften the sauce". Next to be added is chopped rosemary and sage which is fried with the meat while we're taught how to make our own tomato paste. "It's also important to allow the paste to caramelise in the sauce, to add sweetness," she explains.
A couple of seasoned pros in the class ask why the vegetables are not sauteed with the meat. "You don't want the vegetables to soak up the oil," PIzzini explains. "You want the meat to absorb the oil, so I'll add carrot and celery after the tomato paste is caramelised. This gives the bolognaise a lovely savouriness and it's a great way to get kids to eat more vegetables," she says.
Next she adds a big glug of sweet wine — a moscato or white with a bit of sugar — and dried, soaked porcini mushrooms, which add a layer of complexity. "I'm trying to coat all parts of the palate," she explains of the varying ingredients. "The Chinese, French and Italians do this very well." Homemade passata, star anise, thyme and dried basil follows, and the bolognaise is left to simmer, with chicken stock periodically added while it reduces.
The now highly - almost insufferably - fragrant bolognaise continues to simmer for the duration of the class, while we attempt to make gnocchi and tagliatelle. Gnocchi is deceptively simple, which is a good thing as a fly decides to commit suicide in my bowl and I have to start over. Tagliatelle poses more challenges, but is fun to make and requires a pasta maker, for those of you playing along at home. By the session's two-hour end, we've made two pastas, three sauces and a bit of a mess — and yes, that bolognaise is still simmering.
We are directed outdoors to the patio to be seated for our pasta lunch and to taste some of Pizzini's wines, such as the famed prosecco. Named "Il Soffio'' it translates as "the breath" after the cool alpine breeze that flushes out the hot summer air during grape growing season, allowing the grapes to cool overnight. It's also been nicknamed the "King Valley Doctor" as this is why this valley is one of the best place to grow prosecco grapes.
However, if the European Commission have their way, Australian prosecco will have to change its name to the less romantic name of "Glera''. They're pushing to make prosecco a Geographical Indicator (GI) like Champagne and in 2009 had the grape name officially changed. It then registered Prosecco as a GI, which could potentially be devastating for the region that produces half of Australia's prosecco.
But it's not the first time Pizzini have weathered a storm. Thirty years ago a phylloxera scare forced them to replant all their vines, which gave them an opportunity to re-evaluate their land and they moved their vineyards from the riverside to the hillside. More recent sustainability concerns encouraged winemaker (and son of Katrina) Joel Pizzini to hire one of the best land evaluators to soilmap the land, which has given them a better understanding of what the soils need to grow better fruit and therefore make better wine. Joel has also been working with a winemaker in Tuscany who specialises in Sangiovese.
"It will be really exciting in the next few years to see how the flavours have changed," says sister Natalie. Stay tuned.
One more stellar King Valley experience
Brown Brothers Winery
Not too far from Pizzini in the town of Milawa. Brown Brothers Winery spent the pandemic realigning its food philosophies to bring them into line with its wine-making practices. They hired a full-time gardener to create an organic kitchen garden that is attended to by chefs with the aim of creating a minimum-waste kitchen for their fine-dining Brown Brothers Restaurant. They now have the ability to recycle food, so the restaurant menu here is highly evolving and can change daily.
While Brown Brothers is pretty much a household name when it comes to wine, their stellar restaurant is more of an unknown quantity. Highlights from head chef Bodee Price's five-course degustation includes a selection of "snacks" such as "garden waste olive oil", made from infusing leftover sticks of rosemary and tomato skins and served with fresh bread; crunchy saltbush flavoured with vinegar powder, and vegetable crudites foraged from the garden with a sunflower miso dip. Salmon is served with a "true representation of our kitchen garden" — fennel fronds, snow pea tendrils, carrot tops, and pickle. It's paired with the winery's excellent fiano, a grape that's becoming a popular choice for wineries across Australia as it thrives in dry climates. To finish, I'm served a piece of chicken skin coated in smoked chocolate.
The winery has designed a new experience allowing guests to taste their menu as its envisioned from its inception in the garden to the plate. Visitors will start the tour in their garden to sample the home-grown produce, before sitting down to a five-course meal with matched wines at the restaurant. A special menu utilises this produce and locally-sourced meat and fish while the chef explains your five courses as the meals arrive at the table. Guests will also get a grand tour of the old winery and cellar.
Mountain View Hotel
Owned by Pizzini Wines, Mountain View, offers simple but pleasant accommodation in Whitfield, which includes breakfast supplies. The hotel's best feature is its lively restaurant and garden, where you can dine al fresco, creekside under the shade of trees. Italian dishes dominate the menu. Look out for specials such as rainbow trout and local Milawa cheeses. Great cocktails also feature on the drinks list, as well as a good range of Pizzini wines and local beer and cider. mvhotel.com.au
The writer was a guest of Ultimate Winery Experiences