Both a perfectionist and passionate figure, Wolf Blass Chief Winemaker Chris Hatcher is out on a never-ending mission to find the perfect balance.
In Chris’ experienced opinion, the key to blending great wines is simple – making wines that people love drinking. Exquisite Taste sits down for a personal interview as the knowledgeable wine master shares his views on the modern wine industry, his personal experience, and valuable advice on making a career as a connoisseur.
E : What are some of the brand’s best-selling products in 2016?
A: There is not one single product, but if you look around the world, Yellow Label in particular is our most important wine and particularly the Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Particularly here in Southeast Asia, there has been a lot of growth in the Yellow Label Shiraz because stylistically it matches the spicy foods. We are also seeing a lot of growth here in our more expensive wines in the Gold, Grey and Black Labels, so it’s a very dynamic market with continued growth in the Yellow Label but also in our premium and luxury wines.
E : And what new products can we expect in the second half of this year?
A: We are doing a few new things, we have our traditional wines, which does not make them old fashioned but they are the wines we have had since the company started. Something we are just releasing into the market is just Blass and it has a very contemporary label, which is a black label with an eagle flying off the label, it is a very contemporary packaging to match the wines, which are also very contemporary in style.
These are very much for young professionals to have the confidence of knowing that this is a product made by Wolf Blass but it is something that is more vibrant and that you won’t see anywhere else other than on the premises.
This is a very exciting new project, from a wine-making perspective we can make things under the Blass label that are less traditional and will have more modern styles and be a more contemporary product.
Also, with the sponsorship of Manchester City we are releasing a series of limited release Yellow Label wines, which will be with different football players in different modes on the label. And something that we have been doing for the past few years is releasing for Chinese New Year, a wine for the year of the rooster, we will have a special limited release. With these products we are looking to make a much more interesting and approachable product for the new generation of wine consumers.
E : What do you think about the current state of the wine industry in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia?
A: I think that Southeast Asia and Indonesia are like many other markets, it is an exciting time for the wine industry, many younger professional people are coming into wine as part of their development as career professionals, but also lifestyle, food and wine is becoming more of the culture.
Many new people are coming to wine, I am talking about people 25 years old and up, I think it is a great opportunity for them to become more international and have an appreciation of wine and appreciation of the world’s foods.
Wine to me is one of those really social but relaxing experiences and so people that drink wine generally have a better lifestyle and are generally more concerned about their health and having an enriched life.
E : You single-handedly jumpstarted Wolf Blass’ white wine range while producing hundreds of medal-winning wines along the way. What inspires you as a winemaker to consistently come up with fresh innovations?
A: I am a great believer in respecting the past and where we have come from but also establishing the future. And today is going to be someone else’s past so we should never live in the past, we should be respectful of the past, but we should always move forward because I think if you stand still, and this applies to every bit of your life not just wine, if you stand still people will go past you. In your career, you must continually look for development and improvement and it is the same with wine, if you become complacent, if you think you have made the absolute best wine, then that is destined for failure, you must always challenge.
That is why I like wine competitions because they give you an independent review of your work, by doing that we can see whether we are relevant for today or not. To me that is a really important part of going into wine competitions, as well as the marketing aspects of it, but from a purely wine-making perspective, it keeps us fresh and alive and it is the same with our wine-making team, we have a good mix of experience and youth.
You bring energy and challenges to the more established, and the more experienced of us bring stability so that we don’t go off on too many tangents so it’s very vibrant.
E : You’ve also brought the Wolf Blass Black Label to the world’s attention. Would you say this is among one of your biggest achievements?
A: Black label really was a wine that Wolf Blass, our founder, started back in 1973 and he established the style of Black Label. I took over as chief winemaker in 1996 and from 1998 with Black Label we kept the style and the overall flavour structure that Mr. Blass started in ’73, plush mid palate, lovely depth of flavour in the middle and softer tannins, but brought it to the modern world with much more vibrancy and freshness and brightness. But the interesting thing with Black Label is that we just released the 40th vintage in Australia.
And I went back over the show records for those 40 vintages for the release and without a doubt Black Label is the most awarded Australian red wine over those last 40 years, so in a normal year, if you made a really top end wine and if you won four or five gold medals, you would be absolutely ecstatic. Over 40 vintages, the averages is over seven gold medals, over 300 gold medals for 40 vintages. I don’t think there would be many wines around the world, certainly wines that I know, that would be even remotely close to that, without a doubt the most awarded wine. But it is winning today, so the 2012, out of its first six showings, had five gold medals and a silver out of six wine competitions, so even though it’s been made for 40 years, it is still as relevant today as it was back in 1973. We have been able to evolve the wine but still keep the overall styling the same as the original wine; that I think is what I have brought to Black Label, to be able to keep it relevant, modern in styling but still respectful of the original.
E : Given your family’s background, I’m curious as to how you first picked up an interest in wine?
A: Having grown up in a Methodist family with no alcohol encouraged particularly young males to experiment with things that their parents said were not good for them, but that maybe were worth assessing on their own. So my parents told me not to gamble, and I didn’t gamble, they told me to live a moral life and I have been married for 42 years, but they said don’t drink and I failed that, but my parents were very proud of what I have done and achieved and the modern world is very different to when I grew up. I was very fortunate that I got a job at the Australian Wine Research Institute when I was at university and that really encouraged me to get into the wine industry.
I have been very lucky, the one thing I always say is that I get paid for my hobby and I don’t want to ever retire, I see wine as part of my life and so I always want to work in and around wine because it is what makes me who I am.
E : And what do you imagine doing right now if you hadn’t been in the industry?
A: It’s interesting, and this sounds probably a little bit strange, but I am fascinated by genetics and there is a lot of microbiology in wine, so my background is microbiology. It is a fascinating subject, but I couldn’t stand being stuck in a laboratory all my life and that’s why I didn’t go into genetics; I am fascinated by the subject but I couldn’t live in a laboratory all my life. When I was in school I was very good at science and mathematics. I have a brother who is nearly five years older than me, he is a geologist and he encouraged me to go into medicine, but I can’t stand blood, I faint at the sight of blood so medicine was never going to be where I was going to end up. And the fact is, to see people enjoy a wine that our team made is great satisfaction, to me there is nothing better than seeing someone enjoy it and have a great experience with one of our wines.
E : What advice would you give to young winemakers trying to make a break in the industry?
A: This is a difficult question; if you don’t come into the wine industry with passion, then you are not going to be successful. You need a strong work ethic because winemaking can be very demanding particularly during vintage, long hours in the vineyards and winery, so you need dedication. The real key is love of wine, this is a good start for a career in winemaking. We all talk about science and we all talk about art but really at the end of the day, people who are conscious of fine detail do not accept compromise and have attention to detail are the ones who are going to make it.
Top 4 Editor’s Picks
Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Malbec
The most iconic red in the Wolf Blass portfolio, Black Label is very much about crafting the finest red blend from South Australian vineyards. With intricate complexity, intensity of fruit and magnificent structure, this is a wine to be savoured during life’s extraordinary moments. A powerful expression of the Wolf Blass philosophy of synergistic blending, the Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Malbec is built on persistence of flavour, seamless texture and long, velvety tannins. Opulent yet elegant fruit provides richness, depth and exceptional complexity.
Pairs well with
Slow-roasted venison shoulder with rosemary and soft polenta, or vintage cheddar with walnuts and honey-poached quince.
Gold Label Adelaide Hills Chardonnay
The Gold Label collection is created with the winemakers selecting the definitive varieties of the very best South Australian wine regions to produce progressive, elegant wines that showcase both regional and varietal excellence. A range of wines that make any celebration unforgettable, the Gold Label is a statement of uncompromised quality. A complex, elegant sparkling wine from the Adelaide Hills, a region renowned for its cool, high-altitude terroir. Ideal climatic conditions provide optimum development of expressive regional character, clarity of fruit, and palate finesse.
Pairs well with
Smoked salmon blinis with crème fraîche and chives, or fresh strawberries with mascarpone.
Grey Label Shiraz
Grey Label wines are unique and distinctive, rich in regional character and varietal expression. Highly acclaimed and proudly iconic, the Grey Label range offers benchmark South Australian reds from exceptional vineyards, crafted with the character to age impeccably yet with plush, rich, mid-palate fruit that allows for immediate enjoyment. The definitive expression of McLaren Vale Shiraz, the Grey Label Shiraz is a sophisticated, richly flavoured wine that highlights the distinctive Wolf Blass hallmarks of power and elegance through its plush fruit palate and layered complexity.
Pairs well with
Slow-roasted lamb shanks with plum and rosemary, or braised beef with black bean sauce.
Yellow Label Shiraz
An essential core of Wolf Blass winemaking, Yellow Label has delivered exceptional quality for nearly 50 years. Yellow Labels are bright, fruit-driven and full of flavour, pairing perfectly with food to help make any meal an occasion. It is an outstanding range of wines selected from the finest South Australian regions.Selected batches of fruit from premium South Australian Shiraz vineyards are brought together in a well-structured wine displaying attractive berry and spice characters supported by subtle creamy oak and finishing with fine, velvety tannins.
Pairs well with
Rare roast beef and horseradish sandwiches, or grilled lamb cutlets with sweet potato chips.