De Bortoli Yarra changes — hold the sunshine

Believe it or not, there’s a move away in some wineries from the ‘sunshine in a bottle’ or ‘fruit bomb’ styles that propelled our wines to international success.

That it can be desirable for fruit to be ‘dumbed down’ — to use Kamberra winemaker, Alex McKay’s, words – can be tasted in some of our best top-shelf chardonnays, including Kamberra’s current release 2004 from Tumbarumba.

In chardonnays of this style, a combination of fruit sourcing and winemaking practice turns down the volume on exuberant peach and melon varietal character to deliver a more complex flavour – a matrix permeated by fruit but significantly influenced by winemaker inputs.

Proponents of these styles argue that ‘fruit bomb’ wines are one dimensional, boring, not compatible with food and, in their emphasis on ripe flavours, come all too often with forbiddingly high alcohol readings.

The quest for more subtle, complex, food friendly wines usually includes at its heart the French concept of terroir – the idea that a wine expresses in its flavour and structure the sum of all the influences on a certain vineyard in a certain location.

For Leanne De Bortoli and husband, Steve Webber, in the Yarra Valley, the shift away from ‘sunshine in a bottle’ began about five years ago. Says Steve, “We changed our thinking about wine. We were winning awards but felt that wine should taste of where it’s grown. It should have a sense of place. Anyone can make wine expressing sunshine and oak”.

The change of thinking led to alteration of the whole wine-production chain – from management in of the company’s Dixon’s Creek Vineyard to fruit handling and sorting, and to fermentation and maturation regimes.

As a result, the wines have become less alcoholic, less oaky, more complex and more intensely fruity at the core – without being in the brash ‘fruit bomb’ mould.

Change began in the vineyard, most radically with the re-establishment of some areas from west and north facing slopes to east facing slopes. Where earlier thinking had been to maximise sun exposure on those northern and westerns slopes, experience had shown that these captured too much sun, especially in the afternoons, producing over ripe and, at times, sunburned fruit.

Sections of the vineyard not replanted – including terrific old vines dating from 1971 –have been significantly retrained to restrict yields and to produce leaf canopies that encourage ripeness while protecting fruit from direct sun exposure.

Under the new viticultural regime, Steve has been successfully harvesting grapes at lower sugar levels (hence, lower alcohol content in the wine) without losing ripe, well-defined, varietal flavour.

These grapes, of course, are at the heart of the wines. They’re hand picked into small buckets, to avoid breaking, then hand sorted, to eliminate sub-standard fruit, before being tipped – not pumped – to vessels for fermentation by indigenous yeasts.

The combination of grape quality, earlier picking, gentle handling, minimal intervention, spontaneous fermentation and careful use of oak is doing the trick – delivering wonderfully appealing, complex wines of subtlety rather than in-your-face fruitiness.

While the Aussie fruit-bomb style remains valid, what Leanne De Bortoli and Steve Webber demonstrate is that subtle, vineyard driven wines can deliver a higher level of drinking pleasure.

It’s wines like those being made by De Bortoli in the Yarra Valley that can drive the next, much needed, regionally focused phase of Australia’s export drive.

De Bortoli Yarra Valley Sauvignon 2006 $22
If one wine displays – deliciously — the fruit muting underway at DeBortoli Yarra Valley, it’s sauvignon blanc. They’ve even pruned the name to ‘sauvignon’, indicating that’s something’s up. And what’s up begins with low yields in the vineyard, hand picking, gentle handling and spontaneous fermentation (i.e. no cultured yeast added) in old oak barrels. Instead of the more customary brash, bright and pungent cold-fermented sauvignon blanc, De Bortoli’s — while still refreshing, juicy and unmistakably sauvignon — is more subtle. It’s like a varietal echo, muffled by a textural richness and secondary flavours derived from barrel fermentation and maturation, lees contact and yeast tag-team behind the ferment. Released October.

De Bortoli Yarra Valley Reserve Release Syrah 2004 $35 – $38
Few reds pulse and ripple across the palate like this sensational 2004. It’s opulent, silky, velvety, plush, juicy, utterly compelling, seductive and irresistible. What’s behind it? The great fruit of low yielding, mature vines (planted 1971); hand picking; hand elimination of all but perfect grape bunches; a high level of whole-bunches in the ferment (equals brighter fruit and gentler tannin extraction); and maturation in well-matched oak barrels. If you’re looking for something really special, this is as good an investment in pure drinking pleasure as you’ll find. This is one of the most exciting wines I’ve tried in years.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007