When Vittorio De Bortoli, founder of the De Bortloi winery, arrived from Castelcucco in 1924 Australia was a vastly different place to what it is today. The population was split between the cities and rural areas. Less than a third of one percent of the population identified themselves as non-British migrants. Australian wine was dominated by fortifieds, and the less said about Australia’s lack of gastronomic delights the better.
It would not a stretch to say that the De Bortoli family have played an integral part in the evolution of Australia from dim backwater to cultural leading light. Alongside other great pioneers, the De Bortolis have helped make Australia the nation it is today.
They’ve made an invaluable contribution to the evolution of Australian wine across regions and across wine styles. From their ground-breaking Noble One Semillon to their ethereal Yarra Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, De Bortoli continue to lead through innovation and a dedication to the quality that’s made them renowned around the world.
‘De Bortoli is a family company and all of the family members have made a contribution. Ultimately it started with my grandfather who came to Australia from Italy in the 1920s. The story goes that he got the first boat out from the Veneto region after World War One. That boat could have gone to America, Argentina but it happened to be Australia.’
Darren De Bortoli, Managing Director, De Bortoli Wines
From sleeping under a water tank…
There were less than 2,000 people of Italian descent living in Australia when Vittorio De Bortoli arrived in Griffith in the Riverina. Today, there at least that many Italian restaurants in Australia. Without the blood, sweat and tears of waves of migrant populations over the years Australia wouldn’t be the vibrant place that it is today.
Vittorio learned a thing or two about blood, sweat and tears. During his first years in Australia he worked hard to carve out a life for himself in his new home. This included a stint living under a rain water tank. But it was worth it. In four short years Vittorio had earnt enough to bring his fiancée, Guiseppina, out from Italy and purchase a 55-acre mixed fruit farm.
Pretty soon fate decided that Vittorio’s future wouldn’t be in mixed fruit. 1928 provided a booming harvest for grape growers in the bourgeoning Riverina region. So much so that there was a glut of Shiraz grapes and many farmers were willing to let them rot on the vine. Enterprising Vittorio offered to take the grapes off their hands and before long he had 15 tonnes of Shiraz fermenting away.
…to establishing De Bortoli Wines…
Word soon spread around the region’s Italian and European migrant community that Vittorio had made some delicious wine. From this enterprising opportunity, De Bortoli Wines was born. Within three years they were sending barrels of wine up to Sydney and Queensland and sating the palates of people looking for table wines when they were still a rarity in Australia.
Things continued to grow nicely over the next few decades for Vittorio and his winery, though it looked like De Bortoli Wines would remain a small, cottage industry. Then in 1951 young Deen De Bortoli quit school against his parents’ wishes to work in the winery. Deen was determined, a born innovator. He learnt the ropes from his father but before long he had grand plans to modernise De Bortoli Wines and take them to a much, much bigger audience.
Slowly but surely Deen expanded and modernised his father’s winery. He focused on the new wine styles that were capturing the imagination of emerging wine consumers in Australia. Deen helped capture the zeitgeist as Australia shifted from a nation of fortified wine drinkers to a nation of sophisticated table wine drinkers.
…to global recognition
Deen took the winery from a backyard operation to a modern winery focused on quality at all levels, making wines that people loved to drink and share at the dinner table. But it was his son, Darren, who would take De Bortoli to the very top of the wine world. Darren shared his father’s determination, his passion for wine and his ability to see where wine was going, not just where it had been.
After finishing studies in oenology Darren returned to the family business in 1982 full of ideas. One of these was to produce an Australian version of the botrytis-affected wines from France. Many people in the Australian wine community – and even some in his own family - thought he was crazy for even trying.
Darren though showed the vision and skill that would mark him as an Australian wine legend in future years, turning doubters into believers with their great ‘Noble One Botrytis Semillon’. It was quickly recognised as one of Australia’s great wines and was named Best Botrytis Wine at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 1985.
‘I have no problems in placing the De Bortoli Noble One alongside Penfolds Grange, the great north-east Victorian fortified Muscats and Tokays, the 20-year-old Lindeman’s Semillons, the similarly aged Leo Buring Rieslings, and the best Petaluma Chardonnays, as Australia's greatest wine styles.’
James Halliday on the Noble One
After the success of Noble One, De Bortoli Wines was recognised as one of the world’s great family wineries. By now we’ve learnt enough about the family to know that they were too determined to rest on their laurels. In 1987 Darren had the foresight to see the exciting future for cool climate wines in Australia, purchasing a winery and vineyard in the Yarra Valley.
The history, evolution & revolution of the Yarra Valley
The Yarra Valley Estate was lovingly and painstakingly nurtured by Darren’s sister Leanne and her winemaker husband Steve Webber. The innovative cool climate wines produced in the Yarra Valley helped to define the future of fine wine in Australia. Steve has inspired some of Australia’s most exciting winemakers through their time at De Bortoli, while Leanne has set the benchmark for Australian wine tourism with the cellar door, cheese room and restaurant.
‘We’re in a special place in the Yarra Valley. It’s one of the most exciting regions in Australia. It’s got very interesting topography. We see the nuances between east and south and west and northerly facing slopes. There’s lots of differences between those. As you cross the Valley it gets cooler with more altitude and the soil types change… That gives enormous complexity and breadth to the Valley.’
Steve Webber, Chief Winemaker and Manager, Yarra Valley Estate
By itself, the De Bortoli Yarra Valley Estate is one of the great Australian wine estates. Add the family’s Riverina home and the wines from vineyards in King Valley, Heathcote and Hunter Valley and you have the recipe for one of the world’s great wine dynasties. Not what Vittorio had in mind when he crushed those first 15 tonne of unwanted grapes in the 1920s, but what truly wonderful for the Australian wine community, and one borne from the humblest of beginnings.