Wolf Blass leaves legacy at 80th birthday

Jeni Port
Celebrating 80: Wolfgang Franz Otto Blass has had a critical influence in Australia.
Celebrating 80: Wolfgang Franz Otto Blass has had a critical influence in Australia. Photo: Supplied

He was a puffed-up little German with tickets on himself and an ego you could see from space. Or, he was just a blender of wine not interested in serious wines that aged.

He was a slave to the wine show circuit, with a smart suit, a flashy bow tie and an ever ready, press-pleasing sound bite that was always lapped up: "My wines are sexy, they make weak men strong and strong women weak". There's a headline right there.

For the first part of his long career in Australian wine, Wolfgang Franz Otto Blass was perceived as something of a joke by many of his colleagues, noting that back in the 1960s and '70s winemaking was very much the preserve of tweed-and-moleskin-matching gentlemen farmers. No one is laughing now.

Wolf Blass soon after he arrived in Australia.
Wolf Blass soon after he arrived in Australia. 

"I was six feet tall when I came to Australia," he told the audience at his 80th birthday party in Sydney last month in trademark rapid fire, rat-a-tat-tat German-dented English. "They knocked me down to the jockey size I am today."

It's a line he's been using for years. Always gets a laugh. Blass doesn't mind giving as good as he gets, and then some. At 80 he's still more than sharp. "The critics are all gone and I'm still standing here."

For all of his bravado, Blass is at heart a winemaker, a very good one. He arrived in the Barossa in 1961 with a perspective that differed from the one prevailing and over time changed our drinking habits and our culture. He wanted wine that would be ready to drink upon release. And he wanted women to feel engaged. Little wonder so many Aussie winemakers of the day felt threatened. The status quo was being dismantled one wine bottle at a time.

And, for the most part, it was the Blass red wines that did the dismantling, an interesting fact given he trained in Germany in white wine making. Winning three Jimmy Watson Trophies in succession for the best one-year-old red at the Melbourne Wine Show (1974-76) is a feat still to be bettered. But what of Wolf Blass reds today?

For a company that once led audaciously from the front, Wolf Blass Wines now finds itself in the comfortable position of being wine establishment. It was built on South Australian cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. These continue to be the trademark. Pinot noir is simply a step too far. Blass sticks to its knitting, leaving pinot to the specialist producers under the Treasury Wine Estates umbrella (Blass has been owned by various corporates since 1991 and Foster's-cum-Treasury since 1996).

Blends, of both grapes and vineyards, remain the focus for the red winemaking team of eight headed by long-time chief Chris Hatcher, although a series of four, $85, single vineyard Barossa shirazes from the excellent 2012 vintage has just been released under the new sapphire label. Single vineyards are trending but Hatcher suggests the real point of the exercise was to see what Blass makers would make of Barossa sub-regions. Some wines in the group are better than others, namely Dorrien, a rollicking munificent shiraz that will remind many why they first fell in love with the Barossa. Or, at least, it did me.

The '12 Moculta didn't.

Blass grey label plays homage to Langhorne Creek, the region Blass always said helped make him. His first wine show medal (the tally now stands at 4000-plus show awards) was won with the first grey label, from 1968.

Grey is such a conservative, unglamorous colour. Grey label cabernet and/or shiraz can look a little drab, especially in comparison to the over-the-top black label and the stellar, platinum label. Langhorne Creek red grapes are dense, chewy and always there's that telltale eucalyptus edge.

"I'm happy to have that eucalypt character," Hatcher says. "But we do have to manage it." Indeed.

Black label is all about the winemaker. And about the oak. "No oak, no good," as Blass' great winemaker, John Glaetzer used to say. Hatcher says the reliance on oak had more to do with the lack of good fruit sourcing, given Blass for many years owned few vineyards and bought from growers. "John and Wolf didn't have the fruit so relied on oak for freshness and brightness."

Black label is the blockbuster. In the past three vintages, 2008-10, alcohols have reached 15 per cent, accentuating the opulence. The style isn't for everyone. The earthy, fungal '08 manages to keep the alcohol heat barely in check while 2009 goes for broke, a large wine in every sense. It is the 2010 vintage, however, that excels in celebrating the great Aussie cabernet shiraz blend: fine in structure, French and American oak just another nicely integrated ingredient. Even the Langhorne Creek eucalyptus whispers rather than shouts.

Platinum label shiraz is a relative newcomer. The first vintage was 1998 and from 2008 it has been a single vineyard wine from the Medlands vineyard near Dorrien. French oak and a strong tannin profile are projected but so too is some of the most charming Barossa shiraz going. Its aim is to be "contemporary", according to Hatcher.

So, Wolf Blass is 80. He is not pressing grapes but remains the ambassador for Wolf Blass Wines International and travels to promote and attend tastings of Blass wines. He is chairman of the Wolf Blass Foundation, which he founded on his 60th birthday with $1 million, with the aim of assisting the industry to ''achieve excellence in winemaking, viticulture and marketing".

In honour of his birthday, a wine has been struck: the Master 2012 Pasquin Vineyard cabernet shiraz from Langhorne Creek. It's a fitting, if expensive tribute at $350 a bottle.

Still, a man like Wolf Blass comes once in a wine lifetime, much to Australia's benefit.

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