Rebirth of a Wine Region
The Yarra Valley wine region is made up of two distinct areas, the valley floor and the Upper Yarra. Soils and micro-climates vary a great deal from mostly mountain derived loams on the valley floor to red volcanic based soils in the upper valley. Vineyards sites can range from 50m above sea-level on the valley floor to 450m above sea level on the slopes of the Upper Yarra creating the potential to ripen varying grape varieties. The region is classified as Cool Climate and is one of the coolest wine grape growing areas in Australia, being cooler than Bordeaux and slightly warmer than Burgundy.
By the late 1960’s Australia’s taste for wine was shifting from heavy fortified wines to drier, lighter table wines, the economy was doing well and people were enjoying a new sense of greater opportunity, freedom of choice and confidence. A collection of professionals, (Doctors & Lawyers) from Melbourne were enjoying their self made wealth, travelling regularly to Europe and forming romantic attachments to its wine and food culture and its cottage farms.
Reg Egan (Wantirna Estate), Dr. John Middleton (Mount Mary), Dr. Bailey Carradus (Yarra Yering), Dr. Peter McMahon (Seville Estate) all purchased land in the Yarra Valley and planted vineyards in the region within a decade of each other. Tom Chester purchased the St. Huberts property and planted a vineyard and Guill de Pury planted vines and began re-establishing his family winery, Yeringberg. Others soon followed. Greame Dixon, planted his vineyard in 1971, (named Yarrinya, it is now owned by the De Bortoli family). In 1978, Dixon won the prestigious ‘Jimmy Watson’ trophy for his Yarra Valley wine and the reborn future of the Yarra Valley was assured. By the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the prestigious French Champagne house of Moet & Chandon ahd planted a large vineyard and established its winery operations (Domaine Chandon) and two of Australia’s largest wine families the De Bortolis and Mc Williams had moved in. Today, there are over one hundred wineries in the region, most of them small, family owned and decidedly boutique and artisanal; the Yarra Valley once again enjoys a reputation for producing super-premium quality wines, particularly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Only an hour and a half’s drive from the Victorian capitol of Melbourne, the region is extremely picturesque with national parks abundant in tall gums, ferns and lush, dense forest. With its abundance of artists, galleries, cafes, sanctuaries, guests houses, restaurants and wineries, the region now generates an enormous income from tourism and with most of the wineries being small, most of its wine is sold through their own cellar-door outlets, (many with accompanying restaurants) and can be hard to find in the broader market. It has been termed a region for dreamers, mavericks and innovators, it is truly a region reborn and now outstripping its former glory.
The De Bortoli Story
Italian immigrant, Vittorio De Bortoli left Italy in 1924 to escape the ravages of the war and to seek a new life in Australia. Arriving in Melbourne with little but his clothes, a few shillings, boundless optimism and a capacity for hard work, Vittorio caught a train to Griffith in the Riverina, New South Wales, where he had heard that farm work was plentiful. Vittorio worked hard and in 1927 saved enough to purchase a 55 acre mixed ‘fruit salad’ farm, with grapes the major fruit grown. Just one year later the first wine was made and De Bortoli Wines was established on the same patch of land which to this day remains the company headquarters.
A grape surplus in 1928 meant Vittorio could not sell his grapes so he made his own wine to enjoy with family and friends. Drinking wine with meals was a European tradition but in the 1920s in the Riverina and Rutherglen, winemaking was confined to fortified wines. The lack of good table wine was unacceptable to Vittorio. The wine making venture expanded and became so successful it became the core business. During the harvest Italian labourers who worked as cane-cutters in Queensland visited the De Bortoli farm to exchange news of Italy and drink wine. Vittorio obviously had a flair for winemaking because when they returned to Queensland they convinced him to part with some which is how he began exporting his wine to Queensland and Northern New South Wales.
While Vittorio managed the farm, Giuseppina who had bartered French lessons for English lessons at the local school did the bookwork. She became known as the “Bossa”. Family lore has it she sent away for French wine making texts that she translated for Vittorio. The partnership produced three children, Florrie, Deen and Eola. During the 1930s the family home became a mecca for other Italian migrants.
The first crush in 1928 was 15 tonnes of shiraz made in 2 x 900 gallon vats but by 1936 Vittorio had increased capacity to 20 vats holding 25,000 gallons. Everything was done by hand and up to 25 men worked at the winery during vintage. The grape varieties grown were mainly Semillon, Trebbiano, Doradillo, Pedro Ximinez, Grenache and Shiraz.
The De Bortoli family business survived the Depression, and the difficult war years despite Vittorio being imprisoned for a short period for selling wine above his quota – draconian laws in place at the time severely limited the amount of wine that could be sold. Furthermore, with the onset of World War II, fear and paranoia infiltrated the Australian Government. Many Australians of German and Italian background were confined in prison camps or had their movements severely restricted. New Government policies of compulsory acquisition of plant and equipment came into force. It was a terrible time for many migrants and Vittorio and Giuseppina risked losing all they had built. As the war ended, normality gradually returned and by 1952 a rationing system imposed on alcohol had been lifted. A consumer boom erupted and De Bortoli Wines began to expand in earnest.
In 1952, Vittorio’s young son, the precocious 15-year-old Deen De Bortoli joined the family business. Deen’s passion was machinery and the new technology becoming available to winemakers. He was a visionary who saw the potential of wine as a popular beverage and he worked hard to increase the winery’s capacity, not without opposition from his more traditionally minded parents. By 1959 he had increased capacity to 110 vats, holding 795,000 gallons.
Deen whose involvement in the Australian Wine Industry would be more than 50 years became a major force, a mover and shaker who energetically expanded his family company, relentlessly building and implementing many innovations, introducing new wine styles and embracing new technology and viticultural practices.
The 1960s also saw the birth of Deen and his wife Emeri’s four children, the third generation of the dynasty, Darren, Leanne, Kevin and Victor spurring Deen’s expansionary vision even further. As Leanne De Bortoli puts it, “Looking back at it now, I think he just wanted to make sure the place was set up for us to slide into.”
During the 1980s Deen and his son Darren made a sweet white wine from botrytised semillon ‘Noble One’ now Australia’s benchmark sweet white wine. In 1987 the company purchased its Yarra Valley.
Deen lived to celebrate De Bortoli Wines’ 75th Anniversary but died suddenly in October 2003. At one of the functions celebrating this milestone event, Deen paid tribute to his hard working parents. As he put it, ‘If it hadn’t been for my father, there would have been nothing for me to carry on’. Deen was born at the winery at Bilbul and died at the winery at Bilbul which had become such a part of himself and his parent’s legacy. Deen had a passion and instinct for his family company and the wine industry. Perhaps his greatest legacy was his open-mindedness and willingness to embrace new ideas.
The third generation, Deen & Emeri De Bortoli’s four children, are the current custodians of De Bortoli Wines and all are actively involved in the business. With Emeri they also form the family Board of Directors. Eldest son Darren is Managing Director, daughter Leanne manages the Yarra Valley arm of the business, Kevin looks after the company vineyards in the Riverina and Victor is Export Director. If Deen expanded and consolidated what his parents established, then the third generation set a whole new direction – guiding the company into the premium wine market.
It is refreshing to see that in an economy filled with global organisations, De Bortoli have managed to retain a long standing tradition of family ownership built on an inherent passion for great winemaking.
The remarkable success of Noble One in the 1980s, made by new graduate winemaker Darren De Bortoli [with the support of Deen] gave the family the confidence to go to the next step. Noble One, inspired by the classic sweet white wines of Europe, has over the past two decades become one of the world’s most highly awarded and sought after wines.
The next step was the purchase of its first Yarra Valley vineyard in 1987. The Yarra Valley venture which is managed by Leanne and her winemaker husband Steve Webber has been enormously successful. Highlights include receiving Australia’s most prestigious wine trophy, the Jimmy Watson in 1997, Steve Webber’s Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year Award in 2007.
In 2010 the family launched their La Boheme label to pay tribute to The Yarra Valley’s very own opera diva, Dame Nellie Melba, who enchanted the world as Mimi in ‘La Boheme’. The La Boheme wines are of an excellent quality, defined by their exceptional level of elegance, finesse, complexity and balance.