Interviewed by Dr Stephen Hall
Steve Webber is the chief winemaker and manager at De Bortoli Family Wines, based in the heart of the Yarra Valley in Australia. Steve is married to Leanne De Bortoli and in 1989 they moved to the De Bortoli family vineyards in the Yarra Valley. Thanks to his father Ron, Steve started to develop an interest in wine at a young age. After his studies, his first wine job was at Leo Buring / Lindemans where he spent an informative seven years working alongside some of Australia's finest winemakers. In 2007 Steve was awarded the ‘Winemaker of the Year’ by Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine. As further recognition of his standing, Steve was appointed Chairman of Judges at the 2008 ‘The Royal Melbourne Wine Show’.
In his wines, he is looking to express their true character, picking fruit with natural balance while using judicious winemaking and use of oak. He is passionate about all his thirty four wines, as wine lovers found out in his recent visit to Kuala Lumpur, hosted by Sunrise Wines & Spirits Sdn Bhd.
Many people talk about Old World and New World, while De Bortoli is an older Australian winery, since 1928 with Italian roots. Where does de Bortoli sit in this whole Old World versus New World division?
I have always wondered about the term itself. I wonder if in, say 300 years, we will still be in the New World of wine. In terms of styles of wine, the whole De Bortoli family culture is about wine with food, wine with delicacy and charm. So I think our lifestyle influences how we make wine and so wine should be subtle and yet speak of where it’s from. We look for flavour and balance. Sometimes when people talk about fine wine from the Old World, that’s often what they talk about. I am not sure that that is what Old World ever really was or really is. I think it’s wine for the people. Look at wine with food as every day. You could imagine what Soave would have been like in the early days for the Italians. It would be wine for the people.
You are interested in wine for the people and are part of the winemaking family. So there’s the people and the family. However de Bortoli is a very large wine making concern. It is one of the largest family-owned companies in Australia. How do you work within this?
Size does not mean a lot to us. I think we still have the same family values. What is more important is that we have a wide spectrum, a diversity of wines, while for me as a winemaker from Yarra Valley, the place, is also important. We make delicious, easy to drink and not too taxing wines. This is the middle ground, where wine drinking is growing. Well I wouldn’t spend huge amounts of money with the amount and variety of wine I like to drink. As we see, people want value along with elegance.
That I can understand very well. Yet you seem to be really into the Yarra Valley. The Yarra, near Melbourne is your area and you once spoke of a steep learning curve as a winemaker. Why there? After all as one of Australia’s most awarded winemakers you could work anywhere?
It’s difficult to make wine where you do not live and enjoy living. I live, breathe and love the place. I enjoy knowing the land in the Yarra and all its diversity.
But I have another great love. Grenache. We can’t grow it well in Yarra. So I am now interested in the region of Heathcote, northwest of us. I will never make really amazing wine there because you have to be living there, breathing the sense of place to make really, truly amazing wine.
So you seem to be like many Australian and other New World producers moving more into terroir, specific regions and single vineyards. This seems a change from regional blending which even great icon Aussie wines do. Why is this geographical labelling and the use of carefully defined land areas growing?
It’s a massive change. We want wines to taste of the place like the Yarra. I got taken back to earth by a lady we met while we were living in Lyon. She spoke of wines she loved from her favourite place. She didn’t know the varietal, what type of grapes were grown there. So the place before the varietal. She liked the flavours of the village and that’s what she enjoyed. Once its only talk of varietal, often the cheapest wins the discussion. Really… wines are about the qualities of flavour, people and the sense of place. I would love people to enjoy the wines of the Yarra Valley, no matter whose you buy.
You are highly awarded and internationally known as a winemaker of the year and more. Do you think wines reflect a winemaker’s personality, or is it all the land and grapes at work?
Personality will always come out in our wines. I am passionate like many winemakers. When I give a talk like I just did, I share my passion. I talk about and work with finesse, aromatics and charm. Too much of anything in wine is bad. I have a picky wife who wants certain styles of wine and I like those styles too. Now finally others are coming back to a textural style. We are exploring in Yarra and beyond. We believe in giving it a go – like now my excitement with Grenache and the Heathcote region. So we keep playing with charm, perfume and elegance.
In conclusion, tell us about your wines and Malaysia?
With all your wonderful food, I reckon Malaysians are open to all sorts of wine and the terroirs of Australia. People want value and flavour - the middle ground which I talked about earlier. Syrah and Grenache will go with the more robust foods. Let’s not under rate rosé and aromatics as there are lots to explore beyond the better known Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Everywhere people are embracing terrior and the Yarra Valley where I live and make wine is full of delight and variety.
Quotes by Steve Webber during the Master Class at Prime, Le Meridien:
"Too much oak is bad. Too much alcohol is bad. Too much intensity doesn’t work."
"No one wants to taste the person who made the barrel."
"On Riorret, The Abbey 2013 ; Its wild and imperfect. All the things I love."