When Vittorio De Bortoli headed for Australia in 1924, he was seeking a better life for his family. Ninety years later, his descendants are part of one of Australia’s most renowned wine dynasties
The year 2014 marks the 90th anniversary of the momentous voyage Vittorio De Bortoli took across the world to Australia, from his mountain village in the foothills of the Italian Alps, near the historic town of Asolo.
Four years later, he started a wine business in the small town of Bilbul, 15km from Griffith in the sunny Riverina region of New South Wales, where his wife Giuseppina was finally able to join him. Most customers purchased their wine in bulk, in wooden barrels or large glass demijohns.
It was Vittorio’s son, Deen, born in 1936, who built the family business into one of Australia’s top six wine companies – despite the fact that he left school at the age of 15 and had no formal winemaking education. His son Darren, however, gained a Bachelor of Applied Science winemaking degree at the prestigious Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia and used his knowledge to improve the quality and reputation of the family’s wines significantly.
Darren De Bortoli was interested in the sweet wines of Europe and, with the encouragement of his father, decided to try his hand at making a botrytis wine, believing that the long dry autumn days of the Riverina, interspersed with showers, would be the right place to try it. Unfortunately he reckoned without grower resistance to allowing mould on their grapes. Fortunately, there was a surplus of Semillon grapes that year, so he was able to buy what he needed – and then he had to use family members to pick them, as the pickers had all gone home.
De Bortoli skillfully fermented the grapes in oak barrels, applying the same techniques as the top estates in Sauternes. Everything went so well in 1982 that his first vintage beat some of the finest examples from France in international competitions and established itself as an icon wine. Since its release Noble One has been awarded no fewer than 130 trophies and 406 gold medals – a level of global success that has helped to put De Bortoli on the map.
Today, Darren is Managing Director, working alongside his sister Leanne and her husband, winemaker Steve Webber, one of Australia’s best-known wine personalities. It was Webber – 2007 winner of Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine’s Winemaker of the Year Award – who helped to launch De Bortoli’s move into the cool climate Yarra Valley in early 1987. The creation of a new estate in this premium region of Victoria, and the access to finer quality grapes that the move provided, entirely changed the company’s fortunes. Soon the company was producing stylish Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that would have been impossible in the warmer conditions of New South Wales. Within a decade of opening the Yarra Valley winery, De Bortoli was awarded the Jimmy Watson Trophy – Australia’s leading wine prize – for its 1996 Yarra Valley Gulf Station Reserve Shiraz. This was just one of a long list of medals and trophies the company has won over the decades.
Over the last 25 years, De Bortoli has expanded into many of Australia’s most sought-after areas. It still produces wines in the Riverina, where the company has 300 ha of vines, as well as at properties in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and in the Yarra and King Valleys. The company also sources grapes from premium sites in Heathcote and Mornington in Victoria, in the Barossa and McLaren Vale in South Australia, and at Marlborough in New Zealand. Being able to use top quality grapes from all these regions enables the winemakers to showcase some very diverse styles of the same grapes. The DBHV Lower Hunter Valley Shiraz, for example is a very different wine to the elegant Estate Grown Shiraz from the Yarra Valley.
The De Bortolis also stay close to their Italian heritage, producing wines that showcase the flavours of Italy’s classic grape varieties, with a distinctive Australian twist. There are varietals like Moscato, Pinot Grigio, Vermentino, Sangiovese and even, under the Melba label, blends of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon that pay homage to the Super Tuscans.
Understanding the dangers of confusing customers with all these styles, De Bortoli has grouped them under an array of labels including the Rococo and Emeri sparkling wines; 3 Tales New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; and Vinoque experimental wines that allow the winemakers to try out what they call more ‘artisan’ styles.
One of Australia’s largest family-held companies, De Bortoli has long pursued a sustainable strategy, including biological farming, reducing their carbon footprint and recapturing and cleaning water. Their stated goal of being ‘The Zero Waste Wine Company’ and of leaving a legacy for future generations was recognised when the company won the Drinks Business Green Awards International Sustainability Award in 2011.
Most of these behind-the-scence efforts and activities will, of course, go unnoticed by De Bortoli’s many fans. But the results are there to taste, which is why thousands of visitors flock to the company’s cellar door operations, complete with a cheese shop and the award-winning Yarra Valley restaurant, Locale – as well as a view over some of Australia’s most beautiful wine country.
De Bortoli Wines
De Bortoli Road
PO Box 21
Bilbul NSW 2680
Tel: +61 2 69660100