Friday, 17 February 2012

Pressing the Winemaker: Q&A with Chris Hatcher from Wolf Blass

Wolf Blass, the Barossa Valley-based winery, may have won an unprecedented four Jimmy Watson Trophies, but chief winemaker Chris Hatcher is not the sort of man to rest on his laurels. “You’re only as good as your next wine” is his maxim. According to Chris, complacency is the single biggest failing no matter what industry you’re in.

I had a chance to interview this extraordinary man (who despite his disdain for history has a pretty good record of making 39 trophy winning wines) after a tasting of Wolf Blass premium wines held at the Tower Club on the 8th of February. The tasting was moderated by well-known local wine writer Ch’ng Poh Tiong.

How big is the Chinese market for Wolf Blass?
It’s growing. China’s got enormous potential, but it’s not going to be easy. For us we want to make sure that we get out there an understanding of the history of Wolf Blass. The Black and Platinum Label wines are already in China, and we’re going to start doing tastings such as this and show them what we do. Counterfeiting is a problem, but so far not with our wines.
What do you want consumers to think of when they see a Wolf Blass wine?
Quality at all price points. Whether it be a Yellow Label or a Black Label, it’s going to deliver the Wolf Blass house style, and compared to the rest of the market it’s going to be a very good wine. I think that we’ve always had that reputation in all countries; that whatever price point we’re at, it’s more affordable and quality-driven.

How would you characterise your winemaking approach?
My goal is vibrancy of fruit. Obviously the wine changes during the winemaking process, but we aim to have as much reflection of what we had from the vineyard through to the finished wine. Also balance on the palate; I think it’s really important to have that nice textural element and not be too big, heavy or extracted. Wines can be flavoursome without being heavy. If I had to describe Wolf Blass, it’s about power with elegance. It’s powerful in fruit but elegant in the structure of the wine.

The Platinum Label series uses only French oak rather than the more traditional combination of American oak and Australian Shiraz. Is this something that is becoming widespread in the Barossa?
Certainly more widespread than it used to be. If you asked me that same question fifteen years ago, I would have said that Shiraz and American oak are the best combination, today I would say it depends on the fruit. If you’re aiming to get vibrancy of fruit you need other things to support the fruit, not dominate them, and American oak tends to dominate. For us, we’re looking for less and better oak [flavour] in the wine.

Wolf Blass is part of a big winemaking corporation. How much influence do the people at Treasury Wine Estates (the parent company of Wolf Blass) have on the operations at Wolf Blass?
I think one of the great advantages is that I’ve been at Wolf Blass for nearly twenty five years so I see myself as the custodian of the brand and the wine style. David Dearie, the CEO of Treasury Wine Estates, loves brands and he loves the story behind the brands. He reorganised the business so the Wolf Blass brand is run like an individual business. It’s quite a different view of a big company being run as small companies within a big company, but it’s great. 

Does it add pressure to deliver results even in poor vintages like 2011?
We didn’t make some of our wines in 2011, including the Platinum Label, so yes there is some pressure, but then again there are ways of finding solutions other than lowering quality. So for 2011 we said, we’re going to stick to our quality parameters and we won’t compromise that. That’s done and dusted. So the challenge then is how can we make the amount of money that we have to make in each year? We can pull some levers like bringing the 2012 [wines] on earlier, we can run 2010, which was a good vintage, a bit longer, so in any one financial year we can make the right amount of money, but it won’t be from just one vintage. The easiest solution is to stretch the quality, but in the long run that’s the worst solution because you’ll actually lose sales.

Something I found interesting is that Wolf Blass is a sponsor of sports groups such as the UK Rugby Football Union and the Ashes Series cricket. Wine isn’t often associated with sports sponsorship.
Well actually, the people who follow these sports are in our target market. The cricket sponsorship was enormously successful for us. For Aussie rules football, the fans are beer drinkers, so we don’t sponsor that. But we’re looking at golf at the moment, tennis is a big one too.

How do you feel about the future of the Australian wine industry?
We’ve done quite a bit of market research, and the consumer globally still loves Australian wine. Probably because of its success, the story has become a little bit boring and so to generate interest is the most important thing for us now. That’s where David is keen on, the real stories of the background of the brand, the real stories behind a person like Wolf Blass, the real stories about the quality of the wine. I think the challenge for our whole industry is to talk about our quality, talk about our regions. Most people don’t have a clue about Australia and how diverse it is. The climate is very diverse, the wine styles are very diverse, so there are a lot of really good things happening in Australia that the world doesn’t know about.

The biggest challenge for us is the Aussie dollar. I think against the pound it’s at a 27-year high, it’s an all-time high against the euro, and between 1.05 to 1.07 against the US dollar.  That makes it more difficult to compete with some of the other countries. But there’s always doom and gloom in agriculture, I think actually things are pretty good. Most countries would love to be in Australia’s position.

How much does Wolf Blass (the person) involve himself in the day-to-day winemaking now?
He has an ambassadorial role and does some work overseas for us. About seven years ago, he was offered a board position by one of our competitors, and even though he’s not held to the business (of Wolf Blass), he was insulted. He said, “My name’s on the label, and I’m sticking with that. I’m not taking money from another board position.” If we develop a new label or change a label, we always show him because he has an inherent feel for what works.

Looking forward, where do you want to take Wolf Blass?
As a business, there’s a question of do you play chase the volume card, or do you chase the quality aspects? Our view is that you need a bit of both, but we want to focus, particularly in pushing to China, to build around our history and our credibility in the premium end of the market. We could sell significantly more volume than we do now, but as far as business goes you’re not necessarily making more money by doing that, and also you’re becoming a rogue brand in the long run and doing yourself a disservice. My long term goal is to be seen as the premium iconic brand of Australia.

Many thanks to Sarah Mayo of The Local Nose for arranging this interview. 

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