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Debortoli Dream Vertical – Taste of Yarra

Leanne De Bortoli and Steve Webber put on a tasting that reflects 30 years of Yarra Valley history.

It’s almost 30 years since newly wedded Leanne De Bortoli and Steve Webber headed to the Yarra Valley to take up the family dream of building a cool climate addition to De Bortoli’s wine portfolio.

Much has happened in those decades and the De Bortoli offering is, like the family itself, getting better with age. To reflect this, Selector headed to the Yarra, where Steve and Leanne dug out some old bottles and dusted off the stories that came with them.

Where it all began

Vittorio De Bortoli from Castelcucco in Italy’s alpine north, immigrated to Australia in 1924, leaving his young fiancé Giuseppina behind.

He landed in Melbourne, but soon found himself in the newly irrigated Riverina, sleeping under a water tower and eating from his vegetable patch. After four years, he had saved enough to buy a farm and send for Giuseppina.

In the first year of Vittorio and Giuseppina’s Bilbul farm, there was a glut of grapes, so Vittorio constructed a concrete tank and crushed 15 tonnes, officially kicking off De Bortoli Wines.

Deen makes his mark

With Giuseppina and Vittorio together, the farm thrived and they soon had three children: Florrie, Eola and Deen. Of the three, Deen was fascinated with the machines that operated the winery and as he got older became a permanent fixture. He was a passionate about progress and as the responsibility passed from Vittorio to Deen, he began expanding, experimenting and looking toward the future.

Deen married Emeri Cunial, a Griffith girl with Castelcucco heritage and soon the third generation – Darren, Leanne, Kevin and Victor – arrived.

The third generation

Deen’s passion for wine was passed down to all his children. Oldest son Darren, now managing director, studied winemaking at Roseworthy College and decided to experiment with botrytis affected Semillon grapes. That wine eventually became the highly awarded 1982 Noble One that propelled De Bortoli to become one of Australia’s great wine brands.

Third born Kevin pursued viticulture and now manages the 300 ha of the family estate that produces some 60,000 tonnes of grapes per vintage, while Victor, the youngest, is export manager.

Leanne followed her brother Darren to Roseworthy and completed a diploma in wine marketing and was advised by her big brother, “whatever you do, don’t marry a winemaker!” But she did exactly that and married Steve Webber, who was making wine for Leo Buring and Lindeman’s.

In 1987, the family purchased the Dixon’s Creek property in the northern edge of the Yarra Valley, which Leanne and Steve moved to in 1989, beginning the Yarra chapter of the De Bortoli story.

To help tell it, Steve and Leanne presented us with a range of wines that best reflect their Yarra journey. 

The Tasting

Sauvignon Blanc is a polarising variety, so it makes sense that Steve and Leanne did not add the ‘blanc’ to their labels. Plus, their versions are textural and savoury, inspired by the Sancerres of the Loire rather than those from across the ditch.

“They need to be delicious, and great with food,” said Steve. “When we went to France, we loved the delicate, savoury wines of Sancerre and we decided that was what we wanted to make here.”

The 08 Estate Sauvignon was surprisingly fresh, fine boned and creamy, whilst the 2010 single Vineyard PHI, and the mouth-wateringly juicy 2017 Vinoque reinforced that Steve and Leanne
make wines they are proud to share at their table.

The evolution of Chardonnay

Next came the 1990 Estate Chardonnay and as the first wine they made at Dixon’s Creek, it was a treat to taste and contemplate how far Steve’s winemaking and Australian Chardonnay have come.

“When I think about some of the wine we made in the early days, we thought we were doing some pretty amazing things,” Steve recalled. “But really we were just babes in the woods.”

“Now we have a greater understanding of climate, viticulture and how to approach winemaking, with less interference, letting the wines make themselves.”

The 2000 was in great shape with secondary stonefruit, fig and nut aromas and a poised, fleshy, peach-lined palate, but the next three wines really illustrated Steve’s points. As we moved from the 2005 Estate to the 2015 Reserve and the 2015 A5 Section it was like the volume was turned up on complexity, minerality and concentration, while the background noise of weight, oakey textures and mouth-feel was quietly turned off.

The A5 Section Chardonnay topped the bracket as it had the greatest complexity, but was delivered without weight, showing citrus blossom characters, with mouth-watering flinty minerals.

Reflecting on Pinot

Pinot was next and the same evolution was occurring. Less new oak and a focus on producing perfume not structure became evident as we moved from the 2000 and 2005 Estate and 2005 PHI, through to the glorious 2010 and 2010 PHI from the recently acquired Lusatia Park vineyards.

“Pinot has to taste like it is grown, not made,” Steve remarked as we finish discussing the merits of the 2010 and 2014 Phi Pinots. “When it comes to winemaking, it’s sometimes really hard to do nothing, to sit back and let the wines find their way. But that’s when you start to see texture and finesse come into play and reflect this place.”

The conversation then turned to the future as we tried three styles that reflect a desire to show the potential of blends and lighter styles reds. The Vinoque Pinot Meunier/Pinot Noir blend was light, concentrated and dangerously delicious.

The Vinoque Gamay Noir was in the same vein, but with appealing layers of dried strawberries, rose petals and savoury blackberries and the Gamay/Syrah blend from the La Bohéme range showed that Gamay, particularly as a blending partner with something with more concentration and tannin, has a bright future in Australia. This wine was silky and textural with the fruit hallmarks of Shiraz, but with a soft and juicy red fruit casing.

You Say Shiraz, I Say Syrah

Shiraz was next, or I should say Syrah, as this is what Leanne and Steve call most of their Shiraz, as it’s closer to the European, savoury and mid weighted style.

The 1992 Estate bottle showed how beautifully these wines can age with delicious leathery development and a soft core of plummy, black cherry fruits.

The 1999 was similar, whilst the still very youthful 2004 Reserve was mirroring the stylistic, bright fruited, savoury and textural changes that had occurred with Chardonnay and Pinot at that time. The 2008s, one with Viognier, one without, were both excellent; broody and lifted with silky mocha lines.

Lastly came the 2014 and possibly the most exciting Australian Shiraz tasted all year. Juicy and complex with fine layers of mace, five spice, white pepper and mountain herbs, it had soft tannins and layers of acid that make the mouth hum.

Looking ahead

The De Bortolis have certainly put their stamp on the world of wine and equally, Leanne and Steve on the Yarra. Their genuine love for the place that they call home shines through in the wines they produce and share.

As for the next chapter, Steve and Leanne are keen to provide a sustainable future for their kids and enjoy their home. “The Yarra is a beautiful part of the world,” said Leanne. “There’s a wonderful food and wine culture with cool people doing cool things with gin, beer, cider, wine and food. What’s not to love?"

Enjoy a De Bortoli dream tasting of your own

De Bortoli Section A5 single Vineyard Chardonnay 2015

Restrained, fine and seductive with elderflower, lime and peach blossom aromas and balanced layers of white peach, citrus and grapefruit flavours.

De Bortoli PHI Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014

Captivating and ethereal with complex dark cherry, stalk and mineral aromatics. The palate is savoury, textural and fine with plums, spice and blackberries.

De Bortoli Section A8 Syrah 2016

Concentrated and fine with perfumed, floral, black fruit and spice aromas. Generous, mid weighted and savoury, dominated by cherries and plums.

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