De Bortoli’s Yarra Valley winery has monopolised the impressive career of Sarah Fagan, with her quickly rising from a vintage job in her last year of study to managing the winemaking operations under Steve Webber. In that time, Fagan has helped steer the philosophy to push winemaking into the background and give site expression pride of place. Along with De Bortoli’s multi-tiered range of elegant chardonnay, pinot noir and shiraz, gamay and grenache are emerging as new stars, and rosé gets an unusually large amount of attention. Fagan was a Young Gun Finalist in 2010.
With the intention of following in the family business, Fagan began her studies with an agricultural science degree at the University of Sydney. Fagan’s family have farmed around Cowra for five generations, so that degree made sense, however a burgeoning interest in viticulture and wine (her parents had diversified their farm with wine grapes some years earlier) saw her transfer to Wagga Wagga’s Charles Sturt University.
In her last year of study, 2003, Fagan took a three-month post at De Bortoli to work vintage. She ended up staying well into 2004, until an opportunity to work a vintage overseas took her to California to work with the legendary pinot noir and chardonnay specialist Ted Lemon (with whom she has worked subsequently, too, at vineyards in the Anderson and Russian River Valleys and on the Sonoma Coast).
However, Fagan had made a strong impression on De Bortoli’s Chief Winemaker, Steve Webber. Not one to let talent like hers slip through his fingers, Webber offered Fagan a winemaking role working on the Yarra Valley white wines. That time proved a significant one, with Fagan presiding over De Bortoli’s revered chardonnays during their ground-breaking winemaking renaissance, which influenced many in the Yarra Valley and beyond.
While Bill Downie managed the pinot noir and Paul Bridgeman tended to the syrah, Fagan moulded the chardonnays away from a fuller style to a racier one, picking earlier and completely cutting out the use of new oak. This direction under the supervision of Webber, heralded in a new wave of chardonnay expressions, where site was being accorded a louder voice than winemaker.
This reflection of site is what truly matters to Fagan. It’s an oft repeated mantra, but for her it’s a critical truth. “To me, this is the exciting thing in wine. That the same grape can look so different even just 20 metres away – whether that be by soil type and profile, vine aspect or a whole range of things – is what creates detail and interest to me.”
Fagan was ultimately in charge of all tiers of whites, meaning that she could season new French oak barrels with their entry-level wines. No doubt a treat for some drinkers at the economical end of the spectrum (we’re talking about $1,000 plus barrels here that are prized for the flavour they impart) and a testament to the length and expense that De Bortoli would go to to get the best result. Those early wines, led by their Yarra Valley reserve bottling, become symbols of positive change.
With many De Bortoli winemakers spreading across the Yarra and other regions to make their mark (Downie, Bridgeman, David Bicknell, Timo Mayer…), Fagan stayed put, and she has taken on ample responsibility in the time since. She took the reins of the pinot noirs when Downie left, along with rosé and the other reds.
Today, Fagan is Webber’s right hand, working across the significant Yarra Valley production, including their recent acquisition of the lauded Lusatia Park vineyard in the Upper Yarra, as well as an ever-growing portfolio of vineyards in Heathcote and North East Victoria. While De Bortoli’s Yarra Valley operation focuses largely on chardonnay and pinot noir, it’s a space to watch for new expressions of grenache, as well gamay, pinot blanc, and a range of Italian varieties from across Victoria.