Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker, Wolf Blass (Australia)


Once upon a time, winemakers just made wine. That meant spending time in the vineyards, of course – winemakers are fond of saying that their wine is 80 or 90 percent made in the vineyard – but their work centred on making wine: the intense work immediately following harvest and the longer-term business of aging and blending wines, then deciding when they should be bottled and released.

When I met Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker at Wolf Blass, he had just returned (the day before) from three weeks in China, where he’d been meeting with clients and promoting the Wolf Blass brand. That work used to be the province of export managers, but clients now expect to see a winemaker in the flesh. So Chris visits China – an increasingly important market for Wolf Blass – three times a year, and also does many other trips within Australia and overseas.

So I was lucky to catch him at home, in so far as the Wolf Blass winery in Barossa Valley is his home. We tasted 13 Wolf Blass wines (they’re listed below) and later a Saltram wine over lunch at Saltram’s restaurant, Salter’s Kitchen. For most of the time we talked wine, but we also discussed other important matters that included dogs, cycling (he’s an accomplished cyclist who has represented Australia – but that’s another story), and on-line shopping.  

Focusing on wine, Chris Hatcher is very understated and mild-mannered, but he expresses his views clearly and definitively. Some of the points that came out of our conversation:

He’s a total believer in non-permeable screwcaps for both early-drinking wines and wines to be cellared; screwcaps, he says, “keep the freshness and vibrancy” of the fruit. He’s clear that wine does not need air in order to age well, and the freshness of the 2002 and 2004 wines we tasted reinforced his argument. Wolf Blass does seal some wines with cork when they’re destined for markets (including China) where screwcaps are associated with low-quality wine.

Chris doesn’t like the fruit, spice and other descriptors that are so often used to describe wine. Instead he prefers to focus on wine style: acidity, intensity, sweetness, balance, alcohol, tannic structure, and so on.  This is music to my ears, as I gave up using fruit and similar descriptors about 10 years ago.  

Since the late 1990s Chris has been moving away from the “blockbusters” that used to be associated with Australian wine (the style that put Australian shiraz on the mass market around the world). He now aims for wines with more structure and fruit purity.

We tasted these wines:

Wolf Blass ‘White Label’ Riesling 2015 (Eden Valley, South Australia)
This is a lovely riesling from one of Australia’s premium riesling regions: the vineyards in Eden Valley benefit from the coolness of their 450m asl altitude. This is a dry (2g residual sugar) riesling with real fruit purity and zingy acidity (pH is 2.8).

Wolf Blass ‘White Label’ Chardonnay 2012 (Piccadilly Valley, Adelaide Hills, South Australia)
This is a terrific chardonnay with a pungent note (sometimes called “struck match”) on the nose and palate. It shows a gorgeous texture, with good weight and length. It went through wild alcohol and no malolactic fermentations and was aged in French oak.

Wolf Blass ‘White Label’ Chardonnay 2015 (Piccadilly Valley, Adelaide Hills, South Australia)
Aged in French oak, this is beautiful young chardonnay that delivers pure, well-structured fruit supported by clean, bright acidity. 

Blass ‘Black Spice’ Shiraz 2015 (Langhorne Creek, South Australia)
Blass is a new brand for Wolf Blass, and the flavour descriptor in the name is suggestive to consumers who are looking for a wine with some tanginess to it. It’s certainly there, but the flavours were more restrained than I expected. They’re well structured and complex and nicely balanced by clean, fresh acidity. The tannins are slightly grippy, but well integrated.

Blass ‘Cassis’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Langhorne Creek, South Australia)
Another descriptor-named wine, this time a fruit descriptor often applied to cabernet sauvignon. I might not like fruit descriptors, but I can’t complain about cassis because there it was in the wine. Moreover, this is a textbook cabernet. If you were learning wines for blind-tasting, this is one that will fix cabernet sauvignon in your mind. The fruit is concentrated, structured, and layered, the fruit-acid balance is right-on, and the tannins are integrated.

Wolf Blass ‘Grey Label’ Shiraz 2013 (McLaren Vale, South Australia)
The ‘Grey Label’ series always delivers impressive quality for the price and this 2013 shiraz is no exception.  Look for quite plush, focused fruit, well-calibrated acid, and integrated tannins.

Wolf Blass ‘Grey Label’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Langhorne Creek, South Australia)
There’s a little maturity in the flavours of this 12-year-old cabernet, but they are predominantly fresh – which speaks, says Chris Hatcher, to the success of the impermeable screwcap seal. The wine has retained its fruit-acid balance, and the tannins are firm.

Wolf Blass ‘Grey Label’ Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz 2013 (Langhorne Creek, South Australia)
This is a blend that Wolf Blass can trace back to the 1960s. The 2013 vintage shows fruit with both depth and breadth, fruit and acidity in excellent balance, and drying, integrated tannins.

Wolf Blass ‘Black Label’ Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz-Malbec 2004 (Langhorne Creek/McLaren Vale/Barossa Valley, South Australia)
This blend shows more maturity than the 2004 ‘Gray Label’ cabernet sauvignon, but it’s still dominated by primary fruit flavours. The fruit-acid balance is very good, and the wine is in a very good place for drinking now.

Wolf Blass ‘Black Label’ Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz-Malbec 2012 (Langhorne Creek/McLaren Vale, South Australia)
Concentrated fruit here with very good fruit-acid balance and some grip from the grainy tannins. It’s still a bit young to drink, and will come into its own in two or three years (2018-19).

Wolf Blass ‘Platinum Label’ Shiraz 2004 (Barossa Valley, South Australia)
This beautiful shiraz delivers the full fruit and plush texture you associate with the variety in Australia, and adds structure, complexity, and elegance. It’s an impressive 12-year-old whose freshness belies its age, and it has many years to go.

Wolf Blass ‘Platinum Label’ Medlands Vineyard Shiraz 2013 (Barossa Valley, South Australia)
The fine concentration you find here is matched by structure and finesse. The layering of flavours is nuanced and intricate, and the acidity is perfectly calibrated to the fruit. All the components are already in harmony here, and if the older shirazes I tasted in this session are any guide, you can expect it to hold its freshness for another decade or so.

Wolf Blass ‘The Master’ Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz 2013 (Pasquin Vineyard, Langhorne Creek, South Australia)
This is a single vineyard blend whose origin and varieties celebrate Wolf Blass, the man. It’s one-off and sells in Australia for AU$350 per very heavy bottle. The wine itself should be a blockbuster, but although the fruit is intense, there’s a lightness of being created by the structure and focus of the fruit, its complexity (it’s far from being all ripe-sweetness) and the supporting seam of acidity. The tannins are long and firm. Delicious! 

Saltram ‘No. 1’ Shiraz 2002 (Barossa Valley, South Australia)     
We tasted and enjoyed this elegant and luscious 14-year-old shiraz at lunch in Salter’s Kitchen, the restaurant at the Saltram winery. There’s a little maturity on the nose, but the palate was easily dominated by primary fruit. The acid shone through, keeping everything fresh, and the wine is impressively harmonious. The current vintage (2013) sells for about AU$100 a bottle.