Ties that bind

Cousins from way back: (Rear from left) Michael Dal Zotto and Luis Simian; (seated) Joel Pizzini, Bianca Politini, ...
Cousins from way back: (Rear from left) Michael Dal Zotto and Luis Simian; (seated) Joel Pizzini, Bianca Politini, Christian Dal Zotto and Natalie Pizzini. Photo: Richard Cornish

The rain falls lightly over the Dal Zotto family vineyards in the King Valley, about 250 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. Brothers Michael and Christian Dal Zotto, unable to finish the grape harvest, share a pizza and a bottle of sangiovese. They reflect on the ''three decade'' overnight success of the Italians in the King Valley.

''Otto [their father] was growing tobacco,'' Michael says. ''Then, in the 1980s the industry declined.'' Christian says, ''so in 1985 Dad planted grapes. He grew up in Valdobbiadene in north-eastern Italy, immigrated in 1967, so was used to wine culture.''

Then, in 1999, Otto discovered there was a backyard gardener in Adelaide, who had legally imported the grape variety prosecco into Australia. ''Dad is most proud of two things in his life,'' Christian says. ''Planting prosecco in the King Valley and marrying mum. In that order,'' he says with a laugh. Michael explains. ''Prosecco is made into a sparkling wine of the same name. More of an everyday drink than champagne for example, in fact they would have a little proseccino, or a little glass as a pick-me-up.'' The first Dal Zotto prosecco was released in 2004. Now prosecco is grown and made by many King Valley wineries, with a touring route named Prosecco Road established between the cellar doors around the region.

A little further up the valley lives the Pizzini family. They too came from north-east Italy, were growing tobacco in the King Valley and moved in to growing grapes. Winemaker Joel Pizzini sits with his sister Natalie, family business marketing manager, while their mother Katrina cooks a ''simple'' bolognese sauce. Katrina, a grandmother, prepares her sauce as all the Pizzini nonnas have - mirepoix (celery, onion, carrot), two types of meat and a separate stock just for the sauce. ''It's pretty simple,'' she says. That homely understated simplicity is the reason people come here - for Katrina's cooking classes, for special sausage-making events and for prosecco.

While the Dal Zottos were first at growing prosecco, the Pizzinis were the first of the Italian migrant families in the King Valley to move from tobacco into grapes. ''Someone at Brown Brothers said, 'The Italians are good at growing things. We'll ask them'. So they approached Dad,'' Joel says.

Today the Pizzinis are known for not only traditional varieties such as riesling and shiraz, but for Italian varieties such as pinot grigio, arneis, sangiovese and nebbiolo.

They attribute the success of King Valley to one thing: Family. The Dal Zottos and the Pizzinis are related - cousins, and they are also cousins to the owners of nearby Christmont wines, who are also Pizzinis.

''We have a very healthy rivalry between us,'' Christian Dal Zotto says. This also extends to the Italians from the south of the Italian peninsula. The Dal Zotto family are scheming to team up against the Sicilian Politini family, who make wines from Sicilian red variety Nero d'Avola at their winery at nearby Cheshunt. ''We're doing a salami smackdown in the spring,'' says Christian. ''North versus south. Veneto versus Sicily.''

''The King Valley is different to other regions,'' adds Natalie Pizzini. ''We all grew up together and we continue to work together.''

Festival time

The Italians of the King Valley feature heavily in the upcoming High Country Harvest, May 16-25.

Cannoli with Nonna Josie Nonna Josie Politini is holding a cannoli-making workshop. Saturday, May 24; $55 each; 0427 567 377.

Pizzini presents nebbiolo Celebrating the food and wine of Italy's Piedmonte region, with wines from Italy and Joel Pizzini's own take on the wines of the regions in a dinner co-hosted by Jane Faulkner. Saturday, May 24; $270 each; 5729 8278.

Packing prosecco A packhorse ride, Dal Zotto prosecco tasting and a Milawa cheese experience that involves a journey through some beautiful King Valley countryside. Daily during the festival; $60 a person; 0439 113 397.

For a full program see highcountryharvest.com.au