Fine wine merchant Phil Hude is big on education.

Released in April, the 2021 Wolf Blass Luxury Collection comprises some of the brand’s most exceptional wines to date, in the particular the 2018 Black Label and 2018 Platinum Label Medlands Vineyard wines, the results of a favourable vintage across most of South Australia. Dom Sweeney spoke with chief winemaker Chris Hatcher about the new releases, the art of expressing both terroir and ‘house style’, and how his winemaking style has evolved during his notable career at Wolf Blass (Hatcher joined in 1987).

How did the 2018 vintage fare for reds?
The 18s look really good. With Black Label (Cabernet Shiraz, A$130), we’re selecting individual barrels and parcels of wine to make the final blend, so there’s a bit of room to move if it was an average vintage; we can still make a high-end wine. Black Label is always up there in quality terms (though obviously volume will vary from vintage to vintage) but Platinum Label – both shiraz and cabernet – being single vineyard wines, are under a bit more vintage pressure. That said, across the three regions for our reds – Barossa, Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale – the wines are looking great.

Malbec often forms part of the classic Black Label blend but it’s out in 2018.
We love to get malbec into Black Label; it’s one of those things that always adds a dimension to the final blend. But it’s also one of the difficult grape varieties, from both a grower’s and a winemaker’s perspectives. The fruit set is just not always that good with malbec, and in 18 it just didn’t come up. And the one thing we don’t do with Black Label is compromise.  

Do you follow a recipe or formula for the Black Label blend?
To me, having a recipe isn’t important; what’s important is that it tastes like Black Label. The percentage of fruit from each region will vary from year to year: sometimes it’ll be cab-shiraz; other times it’ll be cab-shiraz-malbec. In cooler vintages we’re looking for more depth and flavour – so generally more shiraz, and maybe areas like Barossa over Langhorne Creek. And in a warmer year, when the cabernet’s richer, the presence of shiraz tends to be less. It’s one of those great wines to make; there is no recipe for it. We just have a taste on the bench – which is why I never remember the breakdown percentage of the blend!  

The Platinum Label wines focus on a single vineyard, something quite different to Wolf Blass’ traditional philosophy of blending the best fruit from multiple regions. How does the winemaking differ between these styles?
We do make Platinum (Medlands Vineyard Barossa Valley Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, both A$200) quite differently to the more traditional Wolf Blass labels. With Black Label and Grey Label (McLaren Vale Shiraz, A$45), a large percentage of the wine finishes fermentation in barrel. We’ll get it down to within 1% ABV of complete fermentation, then run it off into barrels to give it a really soft, integrated oak character. It provides that mid-palate plushness and soft tannins that Black and Grey Label are known for.  

With Platinum, we ferment it to dry on skins and then into barrel, which gives it different palate structure and not as ‘Wolf Blass’. It’s also only French oak. Black Label used to be all American oak, but it’s certainly changed in the last 10 years; it’s now predominately French oak. We’re really looking for the vibrance and expression of the fruit character that we see in the vineyard, more so than winemaking inputs.

How has your winemaking evolved since taking over as chief winemaker in 1996?
The first vintage of Platinum was back in 1998, and at that time we were really changing from what was traditionally Wolf Blass. A lot of the techniques we were using in the 1970s and ’80s, and through into the ’90s, were based on viticulture perhaps not delivering the style of fruit we were looking for. So, Wolf and [then chief winemaker] John Glaetzer used a lot of American oak to add sweetness and plushness to the palate. But viticulture has changed and improved so much since. Today we can get all that out of the vineyard and in the winery, we don’t have to do as much to get that fruit sweetness. In the past we used to rely on oak; now we get it from fruit.  

Fermentation for our luxury wines is all done in small open fermenters with between three- and eight-tonne capacity. It’s a very traditional, passive way of fermenting on skins. One of the fun things about making wines at that price point is that you can do a lot of experimentation and there’s a lot of learning in how you can shift the winemaking to suit the fruit. And that’s one of the great things about working in Australia as a winemaker: while we don’t have a lot of tradition as such, we’re not forced into doing things a certain way. And Wolf Blass, which has obviously been around for a long time, has still evolved; there are those overarching elements of plushness and soft tannin structure, but we can also focus on vibrance and clarity of fruit, and the expression of the vineyard in the wine, and less on winemaking inputs and oak. To me, they’re much better wines for that. I think modern consumers are looking for a lot more purity in their wine, which is certainly our approach here, too.

Tell us about the Platinum Label Cabernet – something we don’t see every year.
We made one in 2016, then again in 2018. Barossa cabernet isn’t fantastic every year, so we’re not going to make it if isn’t up to our standard. The Medlands vineyard is an interesting vineyard. It’s in Dorrien, on the banks of the North Para River, which at night gets a lot of cold air coming down from the [Eden] valley; it has quite a cool little microclimate. When I was fairly young in the industry, I think in about 1985, the vineyard right next to Medlands was owned by Seppelt, and Seppelt Dorrien Cabernet was one of the best wines made in that year. It’s an interesting spot in the Barossa, because you wouldn’t necessarily think cabernet would be great in central Barossa. You’d tend to go up into the hills to grow cabernet. But this microclimate really has an impact on the fruit, so you have to keep an open mind about what can be good.  

The 2021 Wolf Blass Luxury Collection consists of:
2019 Grey Label Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills (A$45)
2019 Grey Label Shiraz, McLaren Vale (A$45)
2019 Grey Label Cabernet Shiraz, Langhorne Creek (A$45)
2018 Black Label Cabernet Shiraz, Barossa, Langhorne Creek, McLaren Vale (A$130)
2018 Platinum Label Medlands Vineyard Shiraz, Barossa Valley (A$200)
2018 Platinum Label Medlands Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Barossa Valley (A$200)