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Wolf Blass Reflects Where Oz Is Going

Always deft in style, the wines are getting more specific
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 20, 2013 2:37pm ET

It had been a while since I sat down with Chris Hatcher, the chief winemaker for Wolf Blass Wines in Australia. The parent company, Treasury Wine Estates, chose to focus on other brands in a massive marketing realignment in the U.S. In retrenching, the Australia-based wine giant had put its California labels, notably Beringer and Chateau St. Jean, front and center.

From Australia, perennially popular wines such as those from Penfolds, Greg Norman and, more recently, the revamping of Rosemount had pushed Wolf Blass and most of the company's other 50-plus Aussie labels into the background. From a marketing standpoint that made perfect sense. The brands, including Wolf Blass, showed more promise in China, where Australia accounts for roughly 30 percent of imports, while Australia's fortunes had taken a few steps back here in America.

Over a casual dinner of sardine chips, pasta with bergamot and steak with chimichurri and mushrooms at the new Rich Table in San Francisco, Hatcher brought me up to date on what his end of the company had been up to. Never among the biggest wines on the block, Wolf Blass has always aimed for balance and drinkability without losing the ripe flavors Australia can do so well.

We tasted three examples of what's coming next. The first wine encapsulated in a single sip the overarching trend in Australian wine today. Wolf Blass Chardonnay Adelaide Hills White Label 2010, silky in texture, graceful, expressive but not at all weighty, tasted like biting into a raw heirloom apple, getting complexity more from maturing on lees in older barrels than from oak. The first word that came to mind was "deft."

This wine is very much in the traditional Wolf Blass style, but with a modern flair. The founder's palate was honed in his native Germany. Now 78 and in retirement, Blass always insisted that his wines be fruit-forward but polished in texture. He didn't want them to hit you over the head even while still reflecting the pure flavors of the grape.

This Chardonnay shows how it's possible to do that and, with the lees-aging and other traditional Burgundian processes, arrive at a more complete flavor profile, and a more compelling wine. It's the current trend for Chardonnay across Australia, where vintners are seeking cooler sites to produce the balance they believe better expresses what the grape can deliver, fermenting and aging the wine to bring additional flavors into the mix without anything overwhelming the other elements. Although some go too far down this road and come out with too-thin profiles, when it works it makes magic. This one seems like the real deal. It will sell for $32 in the U.S.; only 1,000 cases were made.

The White Label tier has been in Wolf Blass' portfolio since 2001. We just haven't seen it here before. That's understandable, as the product line already has levels of Chardonnays at price points from $12 (Yellow Label) to $25 (Gold Label), all made to a similar style but not as deep and complex.

"We use quite a bit of Adelaide Hills Chardonnay in all those wines," Hatcher noted, "even the Yellow Label. But this is mostly from a single vineyard in Piccadilly." That's the hilly region southeast of Adelaide where Brian Croser founded Petaluma because it was such a cool site that still could get the grapes fully ripe.

The other wines we drank with dinner, including the decidedly ripe but lithe and refined Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz McLaren Vale Grey Label 2010 and the spicy, peppery, slightly edgy Shiraz Barossa Valley Platinum Label 2009, show profiles that are recognizably different from others from those regions. Despite their ripeness, they all bring to mind that same descriptor: "deft."

How do these wines, the products of a big winery in a sprawling wine company, achieve such a distinct and cohesive personality? Hatcher credits Treasury's current philosophy of allowing each brand to maintain its roots as an independent winery. After all, Treasury did not invent these labels. They acquired them.

Blass, for example, was the brainchild of that German immigrant, who arrived in 1961 and built the company into a huge brand that eventually merged with California's Beringer (and all its brands) to create what was then called Beringer Blass. Later, that company was absorbed by Southcorp (which already had Penfolds and Lindemans in its portfolio), and a few years ago realigned all the moving parts into a 54-brand megalith called Treasury Wine Estates.

"Each of us has a true story to tell," said Hatcher. "We could not succeed if it were all made-up stuff. That's why we're going back to the vineyards."

Indeed, Wolf Blass is very much tied to its vineyard sources, one reason I have always liked the wines, and appreciate their return to retail shelves and on restaurant wine lists.

Another one of Treasury's labels not seen in these parts much lately is also coming back. Wynn's, based in Coonawarra, a South Australia region that lies between Adelaide and Melbourne, is best known for Cabernet. Last month I shared some of the wines with its longtime winemaker, Sue Hodder. No one would mistake them for Wolf Blass', and neither one would be confused in style with Penfolds.

For that, Treasury deserves a pat on the back. Whether the wines will thrive with U.S. consumers remains to be seen. But the quality, and the distinctive profiles, are there.

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