Leanne De Bortoli – De Bortoli Wines

Leanne De Bortoli is a doyenne of the Australian wine industry, and is the third generation to work in the family wine business. Here we chat to her about what it’s like to grow up in such a prominent wine family, and why she’s partial to Pinot Noir!

De Bortoli is one of Australia’s most loved and recognised wine brands. What was it like growing up in one of this country’s first families of wine?

I have pretty much spent my whole life involved with the family business. My grandfather, Vittorio De Bortoli, started the family wine business in Griffith, NSW in 1928 having bought a fruit farm a couple of years earlier that had Shiraz grapes. My father Deen took over the business in the 1950’s, and was active in the business until he sadly passed away in 2003. Since then, my three brothers and myself have continued to run the company and to continue Deen’s vision.

My family lived on the farm and when I was younger the winery and vineyard were my playground. My three brothers and I would climb the olive trees, pick oranges and plums and stuff our faces full of figs from the enormous fig tree growing in our back yard. We would go yabbying along the channel banks near our farm (that were the lifeblood of Griffith’s water supply to all the various fruit and vegetable farms around the area). As I grew older, I would work on the bottling line or in Cellar Door Sales during the school holidays.

Thinking back on it, it is pretty cool having a winery as a playground when you are a kid.

When and how did you decide to work in the family business? And what path has your career taken since making that decision?

Growing up in the business, my brothers and I worked around the winery in the early days, and truth be told, we were probably more of a hindrance than a help. There was probably a little more pressure put on Darren as the eldest to come back into the family business but certainly not onto Kevin, myself or our youngest brother, Victor. As the company was growing quite considerably, we all found ourselves involved in different areas and fortunately the company was able to accommodate all of us.

As for when I actually started working for the business, it never even really entered my mind. It sort of happens through osmosis. Growing up opposite a winery and with it permeating my whole life, there was never any distinction between what was ‘work’ and what was ‘other’. Over 30 years later I still live opposite a winery and again there is no real distinction between what is ‘work’, ‘other’ and ‘play’.

You and your husband, winemaker Steve Webber, now head up the Yarra Valley vineyards and cellar door. How did that come about?

Steve and I were married in 1989 and moved to Coonawarra where Steve was chief winemaker of Rouge Homme. We were there for about 6 months when my family approached us to move to the Yarra Valley to manage the Yarra Valley vineyard (which had been bought only two years earlier). In the early days, there were only a handful of staff and our responsibility was to look after a 10 hectare vineyard and small Cellar Door operation. From that small base, our responsibilities have now grown to oversee a 180 hectare vineyard, busy Restaurant, Cellar Door Sales and Cheese Shop. We feel so lucky to be here as the Yarra Valley is just 1 hours drive outside of Melbourne. I feel we have the best of both worlds; close to Melbourne with all of its cool bars and thriving culture but living in a beautiful rural environment.

Your official title is “Yarra Valley Estate Manager” what does that entail?

I am very involved in all aspects of running the Yarra Valley arm of our Family’s business. Steve oversees the winemaking and vineyard whereas I am more involved with the Admin, Cellar door/Restaurant /tourism side of the business. We are both involved with PR and promotional activities and on average would host visitors 2 to 3 times per week, often more during Harvest. Entertaining is usually done in our home which is located on the property, halfway between the restaurant and winery (which can be very convenient but sometimes too convenient). On top of that, we have raised two daughters, Kate who has completed a Science degree and Sally who is midway through uni, studying Commerce/Economics. Both have worked in the winery as casuals whilst going to uni. And there is nothing better than sitting down on our back deck after a hectic days work and sip on a cool wine, whilst the sun goes down.

What is the philosophy behind De Bortoli Yarra Valley? And what makes you different?

De Bortoli Yarra Valley is the premium end of my family’s business. We produce what we think are some very good wines and showcase these wines through our Cellar Door/Cheese Shop/Restaurant operation. This gives visitors a chance to try a good cross-section of wines and also to understand our philosophy.

Our family motto is Semper Ad Majora, ‘always striving for better’ and that pretty much underpins everything we do. Quality is paramount but it is not always about being the most expensive. My grandfathers dream was to make wine a part of everyday life, affordable and enjoyable to a wide cross-section of people. If he was alive today, he would be pretty chuffed

Although it can be hard work, there is also flexibility and willingness to give things a go. If you really believe in something and you can justify your cause, there is generally support from the rest of the family to go ahead with it. At the end of the day the only shareholders we need to satisfy are the family. As an example we have planted Nebbiolo here in the Yarra Valley and we joke that the benefits will not be felt in our lifetime but rather in our children’s.

The Yarra Valley is well known for producing exceptional, cool climate wines. What do you personally love about producing wine in the Yarra Valley?

The Yarra Valley has it all. It is such a beautiful wine region only one hour’s drive from Melbourne. We have world-class wineries, fantastic restaurants and views to die for. The wines speak for themselves, showing beauty, perfume, elegance and go so well with food.

What wines do you currently produce? And how and where can people find them?

We make a fairly extensive range of wines from white and red table wine, to sparkling and fortified wines. We are forever experimenting with different varieties, planting what we think may be popular in a few years time…and then crossing our fingers that our gamble has paid off.

Because we have our own sales team/warehousing/delivery service in most states, our wines are found in most wine stores and restaurants and online.

What are your own personal favourites from those you produce, and why?

At the moment I am loving our La Boheme Range; it is aimed at Bistros and has some very interesting aromatic and quirky blends. There is an off-dry Riesling (Act 1), a gorgeous textural dry Rose (Act 2), a refreshing Pinot Gris blend (Act 3) and a Shiraz Gamay red blend (Act 4). Also the labels are very pretty!

The other wine I am very partial to is Pinot Noir; a variety that has great presence in the Yarra Valley. We make a couple of single vineyard Pinots under our Riorret label and they happen to go so well with food.

What is your absolute favourite wine and food pairing? And what should we keep in mind when matching food and wine?

Hard to really pick one but there are a couple of matches made in heaven.

Chardonnay (as in the new style Yarra Valley cool-climate Chardonnay) with my husband Steve’s pan-fried John Dory fillets is pretty heard to beat.

Duck with Pinot Noir as well as pork with Pinot Noir. There is something about pig fat and duck fat that aligns so well with Pinot.

And lastly, in the Autumn when we start to find saffron milk-cap mushrooms under the pine trees, there is surely nothing better than having them tossed through gnocchi with pinenuts and washing it all down with Gamay. Truly sensational.

My advice is don’t worry about getting to caught up in absolute food and wine matching. Sometimes it is good to try a few different wines and you never know what surprising combinations you might find out there.

However for a general rule of thumb:

  • Chardonnay – chicken, fish, lobster
  • Moscato – light desserts like pannacotta, fresh fruit
  • Pinot Grigio – grilled fish
  • Pinot Noir – duck (so good), pork
  • Riesling – spicy Asian food,
  • Rose – on its own as an aperitif! Smoked salmon (complementary colours too)
  • Sauvignon Blanc – goats cheese (yummy) seafood, salads
  • Shiraz – Lamb roast
  • Cabernet Sauvignon – A good and tasty cut of steak
  • Sparkling – as an aperitif, caviar
  • Botrytis Semillon Dessert Wine – Blue cheese (a match in heaven) or for something different; very good with Foie Gras as an aperitif

As a woman working in the wine industry, have you faced any particular challenges where your gender has ever been an issue?

The wine industry is very male dominated but that is not to say there aren’t some very clever ladies, whether they are winemakers, winery owners, viticulturists and the like. It is very pleasing to see more and more women coming into the wine game.

I suppose where I have been lucky is that growing up within a family company I have never found my gender to be an issue. One of the pluses of a family business.

What’s your number one wine tasting tip?

With smaller homes/apartments nowadays, there is often not much room for a cellar.

I would recommend finding a knowledgeable and friendly wine merchant you can trust and ask them to put together a selection of wines for you within your budget. It is no different to finding a good butcher or fishmonger. Once they know what your tastes are like, they can open up your eyes and tastebuds to a whole world of wine that you might not know existed.

And fun tasting groups like the Fabulous Ladies Wine Society provide an excellent forum to taste and learn about wines in a very convivial environment. Learning about wine should not be stuffy. In fact, many times when we are trialing a new wine style or blend, we don’t taste it in the lab, but rather on our back deck, with friends, music and food cooking on the barbecue….because that is what real people do.

You do not need to spend a great deal on a bottle of wine as there are many well-made wines in the $15 to $20 range. Over $20 you should expect to be able to buy wines that are textural and delicious

Anyway, it is not about cost but about finding a wine that you enjoy drinking regardless of price.

A few other little tips:

  • To quickly chill down a bottle of wine, pour some water, handful of salt and lots of ice into an ice bucket and place the bottle into it. Works a treat.
  • Keep any leftover wine for cooking (as long as it hasn’t turned) and pop it into ice-trays into the freezer. It can add flavour to soups and stews.

If there was one thing you could tell the sisterhood of wine-lovers out there, what would it be?

Be adventurous.

Don’t be frightened to try new varieties/styles……even if you can’t pronounce the names (half the time neither can the winemakers!).

And remember wine is about enjoyment. It is about sharing good times and good food with people you like.