Chris Hatcher, Master of Balance: A Talk with Wolf Blass’ Chief Winemaker
Chris Hatcher calls himself “a bit of a perfectionist” and considers that “attention to detail is the strongest attribute a winemaker can have.” His genius for finding the perfect balance transcends his role as Chief Winemaker at the prestigious Australian winery Wolf Blass and you can appreciate it with just a bit of observation: his style is not excessively formal nor too casual; his tone is not distant but he never gets overly familiar, and the way he conducted the vertical tasting of Wolf Blass Black Label to celebrate the blend’s 40th vintage was just brilliant.
As approachable and knowledgeable as those rare professors that one seldom has the fortune to encounter, Chris knew instinctively when to explain, when to call for conversation and when to step back and give tasters some space to enjoy the selection of bottles dating back to 1979 and going through the decades of the only wine that’s been able to win four times the famed Jimmy Watson Trophy (1973, 1974, 1975 and 1998). His mastery at achieving harmony has earned him the recognition as Red Winemaker of the Year three times at the International Wine Challenge (2008, 2013 and 2016).
However, although he acknowledges that medals and trophies matter and “are nice to win”, he’s quick to point out that wine lovers’ opinion is his priority -both consumers’ and independent reviewers- and that “in reality, it’s more important to go out everyday and make good wine.”
The tasting, hosted at the Westbury Hotel in Dublin last Tuesday 9th of August was part of a series of events which will include stops in Belfast and London, in which Chris will celebrate Black Label’s 40th vintage as well as Wolf Blass’ 50th anniversary.
Why’s the wine called Black Label?
“Wolfgang wanted something special. At the time -1973- black credit cards had just come into the market and he played with the concept of black being a premium colour”, which makes sense as this is a premium wine, Wolf Blass’ masterpiece, made by blending the best grapes from different vineyards and varieties.
While some might argue that this overrides terroir and therefore the result will lack in character, Chris focus on the value of good crafting and the artistry of “making the best wine we possibly can”. For him, “even when it’s a blend, there is a lot of care in every individual vineyard.” There is no prodigious soloist or diva in a Black Label, as the wine is an impeccably directed choir of talents that focus in harmony and balance.
The winery’s founder’s flair for creative references doesn’t only shine in their top bottle’s name. When asked why is there an eagle on the logo instead of the more obvious choice -a wolf-, Chris explained that the land Wolfgang Franz Otto Blass bought when he first arrived to Australia in 1961 was within a region in the Barossa Valley called Bilyara, “which is an Australian aboriginal word for Eagle Hawk, and given that he’s German, an eagle made sense.”
Born in 1934, Wolfgang was a young man when he arrived to Australia, but had already a strong background in winemaking with experience in France and studies in the UK.
The evolution of Black Label
As the tasting progressed and bottles from 1979, 1984, 1992, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2010 and 2012 were tried next to each other, it was clear that the style had become more delicate after the turn of the Millenium. The constants, Chris explained, were Cabernet and Shiraz, with the odd addition of Merlot in the last century and the introduction of Malbec in recent years.
“The key is the palate structure. Black label is very plush, like velvet, then the tannins are soft. It has a lot of depth but it’s not harsh”, Chris says Black Label wines are more feminine than masculine and never heavy, in fact, the more modern wines are getting less oak which gives the wine a more balanced and friendly palate.
But, as a winemaker, where do you draw the line? Where do you stop before going to the other extreme and making a wine that’s too subtle, even weak?
“I think we are in a good spot now. When you try the wine and the first reaction is oak, it’s too much. But if you only get fruit, then it’s not enough. The balance is when both get in together in harmony. It’s a bit like cooking.”
Do you cook?
“Unfortunately I spend too much time making wine.” Chris dedicates three months a year of intensive everyday work to get the wines ready, and then nine months “getting consumers to connect with the wine” by travelling and talking to the media, hosting tastings and promoting Wolf Blass around the world.
Is there any particularity about the Irish consumer?
“To me, they’re very similar to Australians, they love life. That’s something that Wolf Blass brought to wine, it’s supposed to be fun.” Chris also highlights the honesty of Irish wine lovers, “if they like it, they’ll tell you. If they don’t, they’ll tell you too.”
“I’m Employed in my Hobby”
At the end of the day, the key to blending great wines for Chris is simple: “making wines that people love drinking. Sometimes winemakers forget that wine is drunk by real people.” And even at a top level position, Chris stills feels passion for the everyday aspects of winemaking and in fact he considers it his hobby -along with gardening- instead of just a job.
“I’m employed in my hobby”, he says with a smile, and again, he manages to be both a fun-loving enthusiast and an meticulous and disciplined expert whose advise for success is “attention to detail, attention to detail, attention to detail. If you want to excel at anything, get all the boxes ticked.”
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.