Sally and Tom Belford’s Bobar wines have developed a dedicated following right from the first syrah back in 2010. The pair have somewhat defined natural wine in the Yarra Valley, without being defined by it. They work from their vineyard in Yarra Glen mainly with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah, making expressions that are detailed, textural and made as naturally as possible, and often without recourse to sulphur. Sally and Tom were Young Gun finalists in 2013.
Tom and Sally met at Charles Sturt University where they both studied viticulture. Sally had come there via studies in social science, Japanese/tourism and lastly horticulture as she wended her way south from Brisbane. The plants won the day. While she studied at CSU, Sally worked in the Hilltops, NSW, on a large commercial vineyard near Jugiong. The Canberra District followed, then Heathcote Estate, eventually landing in the Yarra Valley at Yering Station.
Tom didn’t have quite as far to go. “I grew up in the Yarra Valley and spent my teenage years working in vineyards,” he says, “and left high school to start working in wineries and vineyards full time. I enjoyed the work but couldn’t say I was dead keen… I worked the 1997 vintage at Yarra Ridge and jeez that was amazing – fell in love, driving forklifts in the middle of the night and drinking beer at dawn was something I could really get into. Spent another three years there.”
The pair took leave of the Yarra in 2001 to work both at Cleveland and Curly Flat in the Macedon Ranges, before returning to the Yarra in 2004, where Tom took a job at De Bortoli. It was a good time to be there, as it was right when De Bortoli was undergoing its renaissance, a retooling of philosophy and methods that rippled across the Yarra and beyond. Tom had no intention of heading back to study winemaking, so he regards the next three years there as his apprenticeship, working alongside Steve Webber, Bill Downie, Sarah Fagan and Paul Bridgeman. It was Downie who encouraged the pair to travel, to explore other territory, other ways of doing things.
“After the 2007 vintage we headed to France and stayed there for 15 months, for two vintages,” says Tom. “We worked in six regions, and flew by the seat of our pants, we worked wherever we found work, at all small family-owned estates. Highlights were probably the worst producer in Champagne, winter in Provence on the relatively large biodynamic Château Romanin (an amazing property within a wildlife reserve), Cahors… Château Doisy Daëne in Sauternes… Morgon in Beaujolais. But mainly it was slowly absorbing the influence of small producers and family businesses. We also discovered natural wines on this trip and particularly the creative ‘can-do’ approach and simplicity and honesty of the producers.”
When the pair returned to the Yarra, Tom took up a winemaking role with Sticks, where he worked from 2008. From 2015 he developed the Rising label in conjunction with Sticks, finishing in 2019 entirely to exclusively focus on Bobar with Sally.
The first Bobar wine was their 2010 Syrah, sourced from a vineyard in Chirnside Park. Inspired by memories of Beaujolais, it was super bright and fruity, though as Tom says, a good dose of dissolved CO2 made it somewhat polarising. But it was at a time when the tectonic plates of wine were shifting, where wine people were opening up to new expressions, to bucking convention, and that wine found enough ardent support to encourage continuing down that path less travelled.
That, and a bit of support from their friends. “Bill Downie and Rachel Needoba have both been very encouraging, particularly in the ‘just fucking do it’ sense.” And they did, becoming pioneers of natural wine in the Yarra Valley and developing a cult following that defied any dogmatic tags. Today, Tom and Sally have a more permanent base.
“We are based around Yarra Glen on the western side of the valley, hard up against the base of the Christmas Hills which dominate the geology and climate of the vineyards,” Tom says. “They are gravelly and free-draining soils; the slopes at the base of these hills face east and the steep hills behind give protection from the western heat in summer, and the range that runs north/south pushes the hot north winds of summer further out into the valley. All this allows some of the generosity and fullness of the valley floor but with restraint and precision; the grapes retain purity and freshness rather than being ‘sun-kissed’.”
The Bobar wines are very much built on traditional, simple winemaking methods, natural yeasts, foot treading, old oak. Some whole bunch is used, for both red and white, and alcohols are moderate, with some picks very early to encourage crunchy approachability, with their 2019 ‘Savant’ cabernet clocking in at 10.5%. Sulphur is used sometimes at bottling, but often not. There are no rules, in other words. Tom and Sally put it best: “The Bobar wines are made simply but with precision, intent and craft.”