Winemaker of the Year 2007: Steve Webber, De Bortoli
The third time’s the charm for this Yarra Valley-based master of reinvention and previous Winemaker of the Year award finalist.
Three-time Winemaker of the Year nominee Steve Webber has been responsible for the winemaking at De Bortoli’s Yarra Valley operation ever since the family took over the property in 1989. Back then the winery produced just 2600 cases a year; today its annual volume exceeds 400,000 cases.
The Winemaker of the Year judges – all regular contributors to Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine and long-time members of its tasting panel – are equally impressed with the quality of Webber’s wines from De Bortoli in the Yarra Valley (Windy Peak, Gulf Station, the Estate and Reserve wines) and the PHI wines coming from the joint venture with Stephen Shelmerdine. We have placed the microscope on Webber’s winemaking since 2004, when he became a finalist for the first time. In that year, Nick Bulleid MW commented on the fact that Webber "has guided his Yarra wines in new directions, reversing several industry trends", in particular by using less new oak and by picking earlier. Webber commented, "We thought we were doing really cool stuff in the early days here, but I think it was a real learning curve that we are still riding."
The ride since then has been much more dramatic as Webber has moved away from fruit-driven styles towards wines that emphasise texture and speak of the Dixon’s Creek site from where they come. Standard practice includes hand-picking and little handling in the winery through the use of natural yeasts, minimal pumping and plunging and sorting tables for all but the entry-level Windy Peak label.
Webber’s iconoclastic approach to winemaking has included challenging the idea that the best wines should be matured in new oak. Therefore new barrels are used on the Gulf Station range, and only after they are conditioned are they used to mature the Estate and Reserve wines.
In Australia, there’s too little replanting done to improve wine. But Webber is both a philosopher and a man of action. In his search for chardonnay that doesn’t taste of the sun, he surmises that the variety will do better on the cool slopes that face away from its rays. So the chardonnay from De Bortoli’s northern-facing slopes is ripped out and they are replanted to nebbiolo and sangiovese.
Devolution of responsibility to the young winemaking team – Bill Downie with pinot noir, Sarah Fagan with the whites, and Paul Brideman with the shiraz and cabernet – has led to focus, commitment and the formation of a group with a shared philosophy and a willingness to challenge accepted practice.
All of this may not have been possible if Steve Webber hadn’t married the boss in 1989. Leanne De Bortoli is a board member and an integral part of the success of one of the country’s largest family wine companies. As with so much in winemaking, teamwork lies at the core of innovation, progressive thinking and the production of great wine. Talk to Webber about what De Bortoli is doing in the Yarra and he returns time and again to the dream that he and Leanne share. In what they do, it’s the legacy they’ll leave that drives them. It’s rare for Australian winemakers to articulate this as their raison d’être. For the sheer quality of his wines and so much more, Steve Webber deserves the Winemaker of the Year title. PETER FORRESTAL