Helen Foggo made the long journey from Riverina in Australia to London to pick up a gong.
It was the ‘Decanter’ trophy for the ‘Best Fortified Wine of the Year’ and it went to her company, DeBortoli for its Liqueur Muscat.
Yet Helen is ambiguous about awards. ‘We make wines of good quality which fit into specific markets. So we look at the results we get from wine shows in Australia and measure if they are about right for where we are in the marketplace. If we get 80 per cent of the score achieved by the winner, that might be just right for Riverina and the wine we produce. If we win a medal of course it is a great bonus- but often that is not the point of the exercise.’
Helen does a fair amount of wine judging herself. She is licensed by the Australian Wine Regulatory Institute and sits on many wine show panels. ‘There is some objectivity about assessing wines- but some of it is subjective too’, she says. ‘Some shows might have 4,000 wines submitted, so it is impossible to get the same tasters to assess each one. So you get several panels and different results.’
Consumers, she says, like to buy award winning wines. ‘When they see a gold medal sticker on the label, they are usually impressed, irrespective of what the medal signifies. They shouldn’t really take wine awards seriously- but they do.’
Helen was a quality controller in the home detergents industry before she became involved in wine, initially in quality control with Southcorp and later as a winemaker with several producers. She is now a senior production winemaker at De Bortoli.
‘Production wine makers are responsible for the wine until it is made and commercial wine makers look after the quality control during the bottling and shipping’, she explains.
She has added to her original chemist background with knowledge and experience of viticulture. ‘I like to get out there and be involved with the grape growing, sourcing vineyards and nurturing the crops that will produce the eventual wines. Some wine makers stay in their laboratories and rarely taste the wines. You can of course make wine by numbers, but my style is different. I want to be passionately involved in every aspect of the process.’
She is in the right place to do that.
While de Bortoli is the sixth largest family owned wine producer in Australia, it had humble beginnings. The business was founded by Vittorio de Bortoli, a North Italian immigrant who arrived in Australia, penniless, in 1924. He worked as a farm labourer and saved enough money to buy a 55 acre fruit farm at Bilbul, three years later. Shortly after this he was joined by his girl friend and future wife Giuseppina who had been working in France and also saving money. They made their first wine in 1928 when a grape surplus killed the market and soon Vittorio was selling bottles to fellow Italian immigrants. The business had to survive the Depression and rationing before it finally blossomed in the 1950s. Vittorio was succeeded by his son Deen, who embraced the latest technology and modernised the wineries, despite the deep reservations of his parents, but the strategy worked and de Bortoli wines began to make an impact on export markets. Deen, who was a revered winemaker in Australia died suddenly in 20003 and the business is now headed by his son Darren and brother in law Steve Webber.
Curiously de Bortoli is best known in Australia for its dessert wines, notably Noble One Botrytis Semillon, but its volume business is now centred around a range of varietals produced from grapes grown in Riverina and the Hunter Valley in NSW and Yarra Valley and King Valley in Victoria.
‘We believe that good wines begin in the vineyard and our philosophy is that the winemaker should use minimal handling and interference in the winemaking process. Wine should have a sense of regionality and should be an expression of the soil in which it is grown’, says the de Bortoli website.
To-day de Bortoli produces about 45% of its wines from its own vineyards and buys in the remainder. ‘We work very closely with our growers to guarantee quality and consistency’, says Helen Foggo.
She says that while the market dictates what will sell, the company does not spend heavily on market research, but ‘tends to follow the big players.’
‘We have to be competitive and we are very conscious of price points. At the moment we can buy well because of an oversupply of grapes in Coonawarra and other regions.’
There is also a greater emphasis on quality control, she adds. ‘Australian wine laws are getting more strict as we now sell such large volumes into the EU. The idea is to guarantee quality and to knock out the cowboys of the industry.’
The company is big enough to produce a wide range of wines for different markets. Pinot Noir, chardonnay, shiraz, viognier and cabernet sauvignon are grown in the cool climate of the Yarra Valley, sangiovese, tempranillo and pinot grigio come from King Valley while Hunter Valley is the home of shiraz and Semillon. The botrytis wines are produced at Bilbul which is also the company headquarters.
Febvre imports the wines to Ireland and lists most of the varietals including the exceptional Vat 9 Deen de Bortoli Cabernet Sauvignon and Vat 2 sauvignon blanc.