Sarah Fagan profile

Sarah Fagan, 28, was brought up on a farming property at Cowra, and it was odds-on that she would end up doing something in agriculture. By the time she went to Sydney University her parents Peter and Jenni Fagan had already become late entrants in the winegrowing business, planting vines on their diversified farm Mulyan (tastings) in 1994. Sarah completed one year of horticulture and agricultural science before realising that she wanted to specialise in wine, heading off to Wagga Wagga the next year to do the wine science course which she completed in 2003. While in her final year, she worked her first vintage at Poet’s Corner, Mudgee (tastings), before heading down to the Yarra Valley to De Bortoli (tastings). Notwithstanding trips away, she’s never really left. She worked with Ted Lemon at Littorai in California (tastings) in 2004. Lemon taught her a lot about individual vineyard expression, a mantra at De Bortoli Yarra Valley, where she is now white wine and pinot noir winemaker under Steve Webber.

The job entails a lot of responsibility: she’s in charge of all chardonnay and pinot noir – in which there are potentially four levels (Windy Peak, Gulf Station, Estate Grown and Reserve); sauvignon blanc, viognier, pinot grigio and riesling. The culture at De Bortoli has been set by the boss, Steve Webber and his wife Leanne, but part of Webber’s leadership style is to give his younger winemakers plenty of room to move and responsibility so they can develop their potential. Fagan has certainly done that. She has a strong sense of style and she and Webber have made a formidably strong team, rowing the De Bortoli boat in a different direction from most of the Australian wine industry.

Take chardonnay. All the changes that have been made reflect a desire to pursue vineyard expression as the main goal. Fagan doesn’t want her wine to taste like chardonnay, but like a Dixon’s Creek wine. “For us, new oak doesn’t work. It’s not in the program at all. We introduce new barrels at the bottom level, Windy Peak, where 5% of new barrels doesn’t really show up. At three to four years old they move up to Estate Grown chardonnay, and at five to six years we use them for Reserve. Other wine industry people look at us as though we’ve got two heads, because we’re using $1200 barrels to make a $10 wine!”

What she wants is the complexing effect of maturation in barrels, but not the flavour of oak. And it works: the wines have more character, minerality, complexity and presumably reflect their terroir more accurately – although you probably need to arrange a complicated tasting over many vintages to demonstrate this.

Fagan also harvests the grapes earlier, to the extent that the current Reserve Chardonnay is just 12% alcohol. She doesn’t want overt fruitiness that comes with riper grapes. She wants to preserve the natural acidity – because natural acidity is better than any added acid. It also enables her to tinker with malolactic fermentation, which has gone out of fashion in the Yarra Valley, but she considers it a desirable part of chardonnay. She believes natural malolactic gives better results than malo by inoculated bacteria. “Natural malo gives us beautiful texture and better palate structure than inoculated malo – and less diacetyl (buttery aroma). We get dryness, not sweet-fruit character, and a chalky, slaty minerality, which includes some phenolics.”

Fagan cites Coche-Dury as a Burgundy maker whose wines show the kind of texture, structure and body that she adores. “I’d love to work a vintage there,” she fantasises out loud. “Coche-Dury and Rousseau, and up north, Raveneau (in Chablis).”

But in fact, Fagan is off to Germany a few weeks after we speak, to work the ’09 vintage in the Rheingau, at Weingut Josef Leitz (tastings). Why Germany? Surely Burgundy and the Rhone would be higher priorities for a gal who makes chardonnay, pinot noir and viognier?

“We have some riesling,” she replies, although she admits that recent hot, dry vintages at Dixons Creek have been challenging for this delicate grape. “I wanted to go there because their attention to detail is number one. Their philosophy is that wine is made in the vineyard and the presshouse, which is similar to ours at De Bortoli. To let the site express itself you must take a step back, and allow the fruit do its own thing.” She was introduced to Leitz by Orange winemaker Philip Shaw. “It will be exciting to learn about balance with the aromatic varieties. I think perhaps Australia has focused too much on acid, not balance, in riesling. I’d like to see a little more generosity.” And if that means leaving a little residual sugar, that’s OK.

“German rieslings have so much detail. Every time you pick up the glass and sniff, there’s something different there.” Detail is a word Webber uses a lot. It’s even on some of the De Bortoli Yarra front-labels: “Wine with detail,” they boast.

Webber is quietly complimentary about Fagan. “In the last 18 months she’s blossomed, shown her own flair, and done a really nice job. (With pinot noir) she’s picked up where Bill Downie left off. Her pinots have an extra degree of perfume or beauty, call it a feminine touch if you like. When you see the ‘08s I think you’ll concur. She’s got only one thing in mind, and that’s quality. She’s here to keep me honest about quality. We listen a lot to Sarah.”

*Sarah Fagan won the 2009 Wine Australia Medal as young winemaker of the year.

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine – Oct-Nov 2009.

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