A strong work ethic and a focus on the importance of family runs deep in Franco D’Anna’s blood, shining through in everything he does, and helping propel his wines to the best they can be.
Franco D’Anna flies under the radar in spite of the fact that he is currently president of the Yarra Valley Wine Growers Association; quickly sells out of his 30,000 case production without having any staff on the road; makes some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay in the Yarra; and has a budget-priced label, Wickhams Road, that is regarded by our judging panel as producing some of the best value for money wines in the country.
Overseas stints added to Thompson’s skill and confidence with Paulo de Marchi, the rock star producer from Isole e Olena, still a close friend. A brilliant yet naïve chardonnay at Isole e Olena boosted Thompson’s confidence; a disastrous riesling (her first) at Leasingham popped her ballooning ego.
The strong work ethic and importance of family shows through in all that D’Anna does. He is one of a group of four who manage the work of the winery during vintage and the vineyard during pruning and the rest of the year. The decision to plant on the steep slopes of their property meant that hand-pruning and hand-harvesting would be a constant. He came out to the property in 1998 to help with some under-vine weeding ‘and never left’. D’Anna had worked in retail in the family business and completed a Commerce Degree at the University of Melbourne. But he loved the outdoor life and the idea of making wine and so enrolled in a viticultural degree at Charles Sturt University in 1998.
The first planting of eight hectares of pinot noir and chardonnay was in 1997 and the second planting was of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot blanc in 2001. Plantings of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and pinot gris followed.
He was a cellar hand at Coldstream Hills in 2000, and had two key mentors, Peter Dredge of Red Edge in Heathcote and Mario Marson who had been winemaker at Mount Mary. Marson helped at Hoddles Creek for their inaugral vintage in 2003 and had advised the planting of pinot blanc in 2001. D’Anna grumbled about the pinot blanc for 10 years before improvements in wine quality helped him realise how well suited it was to the site.
He has been a regular visitor to Europe to do vintage and learn more about viticulture and winemaking: “It’s as though you are looking at wine through a different set of eyes”. The 2006 vintage in Gevrey-Chambertin with Pierre Naigeon taught him a great deal about the monitoring of tannins in the cellar to produce gentler, finer tannins that improve the wine’s capacity to age. Working the 2014 vintage at Benevelli in Barolo allowed him to indulge his passion for nebbiolo and to become even more convinced that tannins are underrated in Australia. Harvest at Passopisciaro on Mount Etna gave him a better understanding of the natural wine movement and the opportunity to learn more about indigenous varieties.
The key to Hoddles Creek’s success has been the focus on chardonnay and pinot noir. Syberia Chardonnay is sourced from the highest vineyard block and named for its extreme chill and low yields. The Premier (1er) Yarra Valley range includes chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot blanc with its Burgundian-looking label. I don’t know of a better pinot blanc in the country than that from Hoddles Creek. This neutrally flavoured classic from Alsace suits the Upper Yarra and here produces a minerally, texturally enticing white.
After 20 years, D’Anna is still doing what he loves best and the wines are better than ever. In a moment of weakness he suggests philosophically, “I’m always looking to find a balance between work, family and golf”. Few would begrudge him the thought.