Maverick Australian winemakers are discovering the wonders of Italy's great grapes.

These days Italian varietals are turning up everywhere--even Down Under. Instead of Château Predictable Shiraz, Australian winemakers looking for a point of distinction are marketing Dolcettos and Pinot Grigios, and adventurous Australians are buying domestic Sangioveses and Barberas. After all, everyone drinks Chardonnay, but how many can pull out a Nebbiolo?

Not all Australians are open to Aus-Itals (Australian wines made from Italian grape varieties), but there are enough of them to buy up the small quantities of the varietals that such innovators as Garry Crittenden of Dromana Estate and Kevin McCarthy and Kathleen Quealy of T'Gallant are selling. These winemakers know they're not going to face a demand for thousands of cases; even the best Aus-Itals will probably always have only a fringe audience. And few of them have yet been exported to the States.

DROMANA ESTATE, though, has proved that "a certain percentage of wine drinkers always want new flavors, new sensations," as Crittenden says. "They're the ones who create trends." Of the dozen or so Australian winemakers trying their hands at Italian grapes, none has pursued them with more passion than Crittenden, and after nine vintages he's starting to reap the rewards.

Since the mid-1990s, he's been producing (under the Garry Crittenden "i" label) a plummy and smooth Barbera; an uncannily Chianti-like Sangiovese; a fragrant Dolcetto; a dry but approachable Nebbiolo (always released a year older than the others); and a structured yet fruity Riserva made from Nebbiolo and Barbera. And he's promoted Italian grapes tirelessly, even producing and coauthoring a viticultural handbook titled Italian Winegrape Varieties in Australia.

CORIOLE, in McLaren Vale, was the first Australian winery to experiment with Italian varietals. It was making Sangiovese back in 1987, long before even Garry Crittenden. Winemaker Mark Lloyd always includes a little Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Shiraz--never more than 15 percent--to deepen the color and add complexity. His Sangiovese tastes much like an Italian one: light to medium weight, with mellow dried-plum and sour-cherry flavors. The '96 vintage was so good that he released his own version of a Super-Tuscan, Diva, a wine containing 21 percent Cabernet and Merlot and aged in new wood barrels.

But oak is something Lloyd has consistently been wary of in his regular wines. "We've always been careful to use older barrels," he explains, "because the flavor of Sangiovese is easily dominated by new oak. Why would you bother to make wine from an unusual grape only to cover it up with oak?" That's exactly the mistake some Australians initially made, though most of them have now learned the error of their ways.

BROWN BROTHERS, which has long been known as a great experimenter with odd varieties of grapes, has been producing Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Pinot Grigio for several years now. Its Barbera comes from vines grown at high altitude in the King Valley, in Victoria's alpine country. Many King Valley growers are of Italian descent; it was Brown Brothers that persuaded them to plant grapevines when their tobacco and hop livelihood began to disappear. (Indeed, the joke is that King Valley farmers have always made their living from sin.)

BEST'S WINES GREAT WESTERN has been growing Dolcetto in its vineyards since the 1870s, but the owners, the Thomson family, weren't aware that their grapes were Dolcetto until the 1980s, when a visiting French expert identified them. They've made a varietal Dolcetto ever since, which is light bodied, soft and plummy.

PIKE'S calls its Sangiovese Premio; Neil Pike was passionate about Italian wines long before he planted Sangiovese in his Clare Valley vineyard in 1993. The Clare Valley's warm, dry climate makes for full-bodied, rich red wines, and that's exactly the style of Sangiovese Pike's produces. Another Italian-accented Clare Valley name is CHERISE, produced by former Coriole winemaker Stephen Hall. He has been making small quantities of excellent Sangiovese under this label since the early Nineties.

T'GALLANT, under Kevin McCarthy and Kathleen Quealy, has led the Australian movement toward Italian whites with its pioneering Pinot Grigio. McCarthy and Quealy produce several styles, which they label both Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris (because Australian labeling law forbids the name Pinot Grigio on export wines). Their wines, however, are inspired much more by Alsace than by Italy--they're opulent, richly spicy and high in alcohol. Trevor Mast at MOUNT LANGI GHIRAN, in Victoria's Grampians region, makes a more Italian-style Pinot Grigio (though he, too, calls it by the French name, Pinot Gris). It's soft, gentle and light to medium bodied.

All these vintners have the common aim of making distinctive wines. As Crittenden says, "I could think of nothing worse than someone picking up my wine and saying, 'It tastes like another Australian Cabernet-Shiraz.' I want them to say, 'It's different.'"