Noble wine proves sweet for Australian wine industry

Noble wine proves sweet for Australian wine industry

Professional experience: De Bortoli Wines managing director Darren De Bortoli created the Noble One label in 1982.

De Bortoli Wines
Bilbul Winery
Riverina, New South Wales

By managing director Darren De Bortoli with senior winemaker Julie Mortlock

Having recently presented the final session in a series of vertical tastings to commemorate 2007's 25th vintage of Noble One, the timing is ideal to reflect on this wine, how it came to be and its phenomenal success. Noble One changed the direction of De Bortoli Wines, giving impetus for the family company to move outside its comfort zone in the Riverina and invest in other regions, notably the Yarra Valley, with the aim of making high quality wines. The Yarra Valley operation under the direction of Leanne De Bortoli and her winemaker husband Steve Webber has been a success story in itself, but one that without Noble One, might not have happened.

The 25th Anniversary tastings were presented to media and trade in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, then London, Antwerp, New York, Tokyo and Singapore. The tasting was also offered at our Riverina, Yarra Valley and Hunter Valley cellar doors.

Wines in the line-up included the never-released 1981 Botrytis Pedro Ximénez, highlight vintages from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s including the 2007 25th vintage release and also some Sauternes for benchmarking, which varied from tasting-to-tasting but included 2001 d'Yquem, the ultimate benchmark from what is generally regarded as a great vintage in Sauternes.

The tastings presented me with an opportunity to become reacquainted with these wines and revived memories of earlier vintages. The generally accepted belief at the time of the 1982 vintage release was that the wine was a never-to-be-repeated fluke. While there was some luck involved and it made a great story, the truth was there had been some background work and resulting 'triggers' that helped to set the scene. While studying at Roseworthy College, I was introduced to French Sauternes, notably 1975 Chateau Coutet which captured my imagination. Meanwhile, a friend undertaking wine research pointed out to me that humidity in the Riverina during April was quite high. I was also aware of a Pedro Ximénez made by McWilliam's in 1958, which acknowledged being botrytis-affected on the label. My father also believed he had seen Botrytis cinerea in the region and had even attempted to make the style in the early 1970s. Due to his lack of knowledge and experience in handling botrytised fruit, the wine, which was stored in oak barrels, became madeirised. It became the base wine for Black Noble - but that's another story.

Prior to Noble One, Lindeman's Porphry was the main offering in Australia apart from expensive French imports, for sweet wine aficionados. While it is possible that some of the early Porphry wines may have had some botrytis influence, by the early 1980s these wines were lacking the excitement, richness and complexity of botrytis-affected wines but many in the industry simply believed botrytis did not occur in Australia, or not to the extent required to make great sweet white wines.

Noble One challenged the orthodoxy of the industry at the time and its rapid success suggested it was a style people wanted.

Our first attempt in 1981 was made from Pedro Ximénez but it was a drought year and the required levels of Botrytis cinerea were not achieved. We bottled it anyway and it is an interesting wine, now part of our museum collection. In 1982 we used Semillon, a thin-skinned, tightly bunched variety particularly susceptible to botrytis and the variety used in Sauternes. The drought broke that year and there was excellent, uniform botrytis and a large surplus of Semillon grapes. The growers were thrilled to be able to sell us their 'rotten grapes'. While we did not know for certain that the mould was botrytis (and not another undesirable mould such as brown rot) until we had actually made the wine, the rest, as they say, is history. The 1982 De Bortoli Botrytis Semillon 'Sauternes' as it was then called became one of the world's most awarded wines with accolades from major national and international wine shows.

The 1980s were exciting years building on our initial success, learning about botrytis, how it behaves in the vineyard under different vintage conditions and refining how we process the concentrated fruit once in the winery. We were also evolving a house-style that eventually became particularly rich, luscious and uniquely Australian. However, the 1983 (second vintage release) was actually lighter in style because we panicked and picked the fruit too early when it threatened rain. We also trialled adding a portion of Sauvignon Blanc as is done in Sauternes, but we had difficulty in achieving botrytis in Sauvignon Blanc so discontinued this. In 1984, we saw perhaps the most perfect botrytis infection to date and this is one of our great vintages.

Perhaps the least successful of the 1980s wines was the 1986 vintage, which was a very dry year, although any shortcomings of this vintage were eclipsed when heavy rains destroyed the crop in 1989 and no wine from that vintage was released. Overall, the Riverina has proved remarkably consistent in producing ideal conditions in most seasons for the onset of the Botrytis cinerea with its long, warm sunny days interspersed with showers and heavy morning dews during autumn. The clay soils also contribute by retaining moisture in and around the vines.

Perhaps one of my greatest memories from those early years is attending the House of Commons dining room at Westminster, in London, to receive the first of many major international awards for Noble One. It was rather intimidating as we entered through a hall overflowing with portraits of all the past Prime Ministers of Great Britain and under their steely gazes, made our way to the dining room. The award itself was presented by Mme Odette Pol Roger, a great lady in her own right but also an intimate of that giant of history, Sir Winston Churchill. The weight of history certainly added to the occasion.

In 1990, we adopted the name Noble One because of a bilateral agreement with the European Economic Community in which Australia agreed to phase out European geographic indications and expressions on wine labels. De Bortoli also made the change to fully imported Seguin Moreau oak barriques, small barrels with tightly grained oak that are also used at Chateau d'Yquem.

Highlight vintages of the 1990s include the 1990 and 1996 vintages.

Since the 2000 vintage winemaker Julie Mortlock has been caretaker of the Noble One brand. Changes under her watch include the introduction of screwcaps, which now feature on much of Australia's wine, and adding a portion of unoaked wine to the blend for freshness, fruit intensity and to highlight botrytis characters. This slight change in direction produces more elegant wine.

Highlights from this decade include the 2001, 2002 and 2006 vintages, although all are remarkably good wines despite the challenges created by some very dry seasons in recent years.

On the viticultural side, pruning is done by hand and completed by the end of July. In some vineyards the foliage is hedged in November and December to encourage lateral growth, ensuring the canopy is denser so the vine can retain moisture and warmth when the humid conditions in March and April arrive, encouraging the onset of botrytis. Most vineyards are flood or furrow irrigated to provide moist conditions, especially in years of low rainfall as we have experienced in recent years.

The grapes are monitored throughout summer and as autumn approaches, the vineyards are inspected more frequently to monitor Baumé and botrytis infection levels in the vineyard. As the infection spreads and the sugar levels increase to 18-20Be, the visits become weekly. If weather conditions are ideal the botrytis can increase very rapidly. Harvesting occurs in May but has occurred as early as the end of March in years of early rain and as late as early July in dry years. Fruit for Noble One is generally harvested at between 20-23Be.

The grapes are hand-picked then pressed, which is a very slow process as there is little juice. The grapes soak overnight to further extract sugars and flavours before pressing next morning. The juice is clarified and then inoculated with yeast that is able to convert the high sugars to alcohol with minimal acetic acid production. Some acetic acid gives complexity to the wine but too much causes spoilage, hence close monitoring of ferments is required. Fermentation is lengthy as the yeast struggles to ferment and can take from three weeks to three months to complete. After fermentation the wine is clarified, heat and tartrate is stabilised before the wine is filtered and matured in oak or stainless steel. Between 85-90% is matured in French oak barriques for 12 months under temperature controlled conditions. The remaining unoaked portion is left in tank to blend into the final wine.

Noble One helped gain De Bortoli Wines entree into export markets, prestigious restaurant wine lists and, more recently, the inaugural 12 of Australia's First Families of Wine. For more than 25 years, Noble One has continued to fascinate and grow in stature as demonstrated by the overwhelming response to the 25th Anniversary vertical tastings. It also continues to slowly evolve while retaining its core identity and is now widely recognised as an Australian icon wine.

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