The chief winemaker of Wolf Blass shares how meticulous attention to sub-regional traits has helped the winery make better wines.
There are two kinds of people in this world: one who looks at the world from the outside and passes his pronouncements, and the other who looks at it from the inside and offers his insights. Chris Hatcher belongs to the latter. The Australian joined Barossa Valley-based Wolf Blass winery in 1987 and is now their chief winemaker.
During his three-decade career, the 66-year-old industry veteran has presided over countless wine shows, witnessed the evolution of Australia’s wines, and kept his Tom Skerritt-esque moustache. Hatcher has seen it all. And if anyone still has doubts about the quality of Aussie Chardonnay, Hatcher will tell you that the wine represents “the biggest change in any Australian wine over the last 20 years”. “The style has become more food-friendly; you can drink it on its own, without any food pairing. In the past, the wines were oaky and heavy,” he says.
The oaky factor was a common criticism levelled at Aussie Chardonnay; a charge that gave rise to the sardonic phrase ‘Anything but Chardonnay’. “I think most people who didn’t like Chardonnay didn’t like oak, and they were made very oaky back then. We were also growing Chardonnay in the wrong places—the warmer regions—so we headed to the cool climate areas, such as Adelaide Hills, to get fruit for our Gold Label Chardonnay. We are looking for more finesse and less use of oak,” he remarks. “Today, I would say it’s not ‘Anything But Chardonnay’, but ‘Anything But Wood’.”
Picking the best sites
Established in 1966 by Wolfgang Franz Otto Blass (a German who arrived in Australia in 1961), Wolf Blass winery is a household name in Australia. Even for wine newbies who may not have tried a Wolf Blass quaff before, they would recall—somewhere in their subconscious mind—the image of bright, yellow labels that stood out among the squadron of wine bottles on supermarket shelves. Those sunny stickers belong to Wolf Blass’ entry-level Yellow Label range of wines, the favourite of many a wine enthusiast or cash-strapped student looking for a good bargain.
The Yellow Labels, which are from the brand’s earliest days, are still around, while the portfolio has since expanded to include premium tiers like Silver Label, Gold Label, and President’s Selection. The winery has since won more than 10,000 awards, including the International Wine Challenge’s Red Winemaker of the Year award thrice (2008, 2013, and 2016). After a series of mergers in the 1990s and the 2000s, Wolf Blass is now owned by Australian wine and distribution giant, Treasury Wine Estates.
“Our parent company, Treasury Wine Estates, has vineyards across Australia, but our focus will always be on sourcing fruit from South Australia as that has always been part of our history,” says Hatcher. “Plus, we want to get fruit from close by.” As with the case for Chardonnay, matching the grape variety with the best region has become the winery’s modus operandi, replacing the old days of when “everyone was just planting everything because we were still learning”.
“Our focus will always be on sourcing fruit from South Australia as that has always been part of our history.”
Equal attention has also been given to sub-regions: within the Barossa, individual plots or parcels can throw up varying harvesting periods. “If you look at the southern and northern parts of the Barossa, you can get a two- or three-week time difference between when we harvest their fruit,” says Hatcher. “For example, for our Gold Label Shiraz, we tend to pick more from the cooler, southern parts [of Barossa] so we can have a fresher and vibrant character. For winemaking, you need to have in mind the style you want to make, and then find the best regions and sub-regions that help you achieve that.”
On the other hand, variability in vigour in a single vineyard—a factor influenced by the different ages of the soil spread across a vineyard—is a tricky problem, particularly for reds like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, which require an even ripening across the plot for a consistent wine. “You might have a part [of the vineyard] that is really ripe and giving you Port-like characters, and another corner that is less so and giving you green flavours. When you put those two together, you get a confusing style,” he says. To solve this issue, Hatcher and his team are infrared-mapping their vineyards. The technology shows which vines are more vigorous than others, allowing Hatcher to improve the soil and moisture content of problematic spots with irrigation.
In the vinification department, the team opts for a softer extraction. In 2001, the winery built a new fermentation facility (it had hitherto used the facilities at Saltram Wines, which is also part of the Treasury Wine Estates group), using open, squat fermenters with a height-to-diameter ratio of 1:1. “If you have a big, tall tank, you will get a really thick cap [of skins and seeds], and you have to work really hard to get the colour out of it,” Hatcher explains. “[In a shallower tank], you get a relatively thin cap, and you just gently pump it over and get a softer extraction.”
One of the red wines that benefited from this gentler extraction is the Gold Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2016. Hatcher describes the wine as “plush on the palate”. It is a rather atypical Aussie Cabernet Sauvignon, especially for one so young: it has a lush and elegant mid-palate, with plenty of cherry and raspberry notes. Tannins are invitingly soft, while the finish endures with notes of cedar and mint. This is a Cabernet with class, bow tie and all.
“I think Cabernets from South Australia haven’t been getting enough attention,” opines Hatcher. “Making a Cabernet in the Barossa is, of course, more challenging because it has a warmer climate so you get a richer style. But in cool years, Barossa Cabernet is fantastic because it has lovely flesh, almost like a Shiraz blend.”
“Today, we are seeing drinkers moving towards more complex wines, and that’s where things like Cabernet-Shiraz blends come in. In the past, the blends were probably quite commercial so the cheaper wines were Cabernet-Shiraz blends,” he adds. “But these days we are seeing more winemakers making premium Cabernet-Shiraz blends. I think they’d become fashionable again.”
Hatcher says he is wary that the current talk of climate change has raised the notion of looking at new, cooler regions for viticulture. But he stresses that Wolf Blass is largely focused on “improving what we are currently growing” and “perfecting what we do in existing vineyards”. He says, “In the cool Adelaide Hills for example, we have found spots on the lower, slightly warmer parts of the hills where we could get Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon right. Those sites have got great potential. So there’s plenty of work to be done with those areas, more so than chasing new regions.”