Wine review: Australian success story
Wolf Blass, the German-born maker of some of the best known Australian wines,is still an active ambassador for the brand in his late 70s
No medals, no job – was how Wolf Blass explained things to Chris Hatcher when he joined the company. Blass had built a very successful wine company throughout the seventies and eighties in part by amassing a huge number of trophies and gold medals around the world and on the intensely competitive Australian show circuit. This included winning the coveted Jimmy Watson Trophy an unprecedented three times in a row in 1973, 1974 and 1975.
“Winning is important for sales,” says Hatcher, “but also from a winemaking perspective. We want people to respect what we do.” That was back in 1987 when Hatcher joined as head white and sparkling winemaker. Over the next decade he brought home 39 trophies and 218 gold medals, so job retention has not been a problem.
In 1996 he was made chief winemaker and has continued the winning streak ever since, including a fourth Jimmy Watson in 1999 for the same wine again, their Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon.
In an industry that has many success stories, Wolf Blass stands out as special.
Blass grew up in a tough wartime and postwar environment in Germany, emigrating to Australia in the early 1960s. A trained winemaker, he quickly made a name for producing wines that not only won medals, but pleased the public, too. Unlike those of his competitors Wolf Blass wines were made to be drunk as soon as they were released. They had soft, supple, ripe fruit and plenty of new oak.
As Blass has proven since, they still have an ability to age. In the early years, Blass concentrated on the top end of the market and only began producing the familiar, less expensive wines in the 1980s. He was (and is) a tireless and determined promoter of his wines, with a ready tongue. “My wines are sexy, they make weak men strong and strong women weak.”
He ignored the conservative English-speaking wine drinker and concentrated on the other new immigrants from Greece, Italy and the Balkans.
The company prospered and in 1984 Wolf Blass became a public company, with a market capitalisation of $15.2 million. In 1991 it merged with Mildara to form Mildara Blass, which was in turn acquired by Fosters for $650 million in 1996. More recently it was taken over by Treasury Wine Estates, one of the world’s largest wine producers with more than 80 brands covering three continents including Beringer, Rosemount, Penfolds and Lindemans.
Now in his late seventies, Blass remains an active ambassador for his wines. Despite his wealth, he is notoriously tight-fisted. “Wolfie knew tough times in post-war Germany,” say Hatcher. “Despite his money he will always take the pens at every tasting, and the soap and shampoo in every hotel he stays in.”
Hatcher recently picked up the IWC Red Winemaker of the Year award, for the second time in five years, and visited Ireland to show his wines. We tasted the Wolf Blass Black Label from three different vintages including the Jimmy Watson winning 1998. It was drinking very nicely with rounded meaty smooth fruits.
Also in the line-up was the 2004 vintage, pitted alongside Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion from the same vintage. Both of these sell at €300-€400 per bottle, compared to €100 for the Black Label (older vintages can still be found for €60 in O’Briens and elsewhere). The Black Label certainly didn’t disgrace itself. Made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties, more recently Shiraz and Malbec, it originally included a large proportion of grapes from the Barossa Valley. More recent vintages rely on Langhorne Creek, an area that Blass has always championed. However it is no longer the very top of the Wolf Blass tree. Above it is the Platinum Label Shiraz made from Barossa Valley Shiraz.
At a more affordable level, we also tasted the Yellow Label and President’s Selection, both well known to Irish wine drinkers.
Wolf Blass wines are graded by colour, with the exception of the entry-level Eaglehawk, starting with the Red Label working upwards to the Platinum. Throughout the range, the wines retain a certain easy style and an ability to do well in blind tastings. Is this because critics and judges have a bias against big brands and mark them down when they can see the label? Or is it because Wolf Blass have worked out how to win competitions?
Either way, the wines are designed to please as big an audience as possible – hardly something to criticise.