The History of Wolf Blass
Wine has been part of my life ever since I can remember. It has given me a living, but, more than that, it has given me joy and friendship. For me, when Martin Luther said in my native language, "Wer nicht liebt Wein, Weib und Gesang, der bleibt em Narr sein Leben lang", "Who loves not wine, women and song, remains a fool his whole life long", he spoke the literal truth. Good wine, taken in moderation and with good companions, is the very essence of life. What greater pleasure is there than in making a fine wine, except perhaps that of consuming it! I am proud and (some would say uncharacteristically) humbled to have been part of the Australian wine industry during what has been, I sincerely believe, its emergence into a golden age. No other wine-producing nation can offer the range and diversity of Australia. That is a bold claim, but I think it only require the opening of a few bottles of hundreds available today to prove that it is justified. Em Prosit!
The Early Days
Coming from an area which produced some of the world's finest wines Wolfgang Blass has a family connection with wine and is part of a German tradition which has affected not only his wine-making but his whole approach to life. His father was a doctor of law and economics and his mother's family was associated with the wine industry. He was born in 1934. After schooling in northern Germany, he became an apprentice in viticulture and wine-making in the Lower Rhine (Rhine Hessia), qualifying after three years. From there he went on to the Oenology College (wine university) at Veitshoechheim-Wuerzburg, studying chemistry and biology as special subjects. When he graduated he was the youngest holder of the Kellermeister Diploma, or master's degree.
He then went to France to broaden his experience, studying champagne making in Reims. After a period as technical adviser for the celebrated Seitz company of Germany he travelled to England to work for a large import company, later transferring for a further two years as cellar superintendent with the British wine company of Avery in Bristol. During this period he added to his qualifications the diploma of wines and spirits of the British Bottlers Institute. His specialist knowledge of champagne and sparkling wine production by the charmat process of tank fermentation brought him to the attention of Australian wine-makers then undertaking expansion of this increasingly popular market. Blass was approached by the Overseas Farmers Union in London on behalf of Kaiser Stuhl Wines, the Barossa Valley co-operative, and he signed a three-year contract with them. Arriving in the Valley in 1961 it has become his home ever since.
During his three years with Kaiser Stuhl he developed their sparkling wine range and also contributed to an improvement in the general standard of their table wines. It is interesting to note that the man who was to achieve a national reputation as an artistic blender and maker of red wines had, until his arrival in Australia, been concerned with white wine production and sparkling wines only.
After completion of his contract, Wolf Blass became Australia's first freelance consultant and wine adviser, working with great success in several smaller companies.
Wine show judges became aware of the reputation he was establishing for handling new imported wood for red wines to bring out the full fruit flavour of the grape varieties. After years as an independent consultant he was appointed wine-maker and manager of Tolley Scott and Tolley, just across the road from the Kaiser Stuhl winery at Nuriootpa. Primarily, T.S.T. had been brandy makers, but were expanding into the growing table wine market and Blass spearheaded the programme. With Blass they developed one of the most up-to-date dry red fermentation cellars in Australia and some recognition was obtained with the award of a series of gold medals at Australian wine shows.
Blass's achievement in his period as a freelance Technical Consultant and with Tolley, Scott and Tolley is demonstrated by show records. His wines came to dominate the young red classes in the highly-esteemed Adelaide show. Major awards he gained over this period included the Montgomery and Sheppard trophies in Adelaide, the McMahon trophy in Perth, the Karl Weidenhofer and Stoddart trophies in Brisbane, the champion ship wine at the Sydney show of 1972, Dr. Gilbert Phillips Memorial Trophy for the best dry red at the Sydney show of 1973 and the Felsman Trophy in Brisbane for the best red with a 1972 vintage.
From 1966 onwards he produced small batches of wine for himself under his own label and this naturally led him to consider setting up in his own right. A big step came in 1969 with the acquisition of a two-hectare site four kilometres outside Nuriootpa. At first work had to be confined to weekends, but in 1973 the decision was made to go it alone and concentrate on this property.
An early and prescient verdict on this period of Blass' career was given by Dr. Bryce Rankine in his 1971 book "Wines and Wineries of The Barossa Valley". Writing at the time that Blass had taken over at TST. Dr. Rankine said this young German had already built a reputation as a maker of fine table wines.
The lovely and tranquil Barossa Valley is one of the largest and most important of Australia's wine regions. A comfortable drive about 55km north of Adelaide, it is 35 km long and 11 km wide and includes the towns Nuriootpa, Angaston, Tanunda and Lyndoch. As well as the Valley proper, the Barossa also includes the vineyard areas of Keyneton and Eden Valley-Springton. It was named after a ridge in southern Spain by Colonel William Light, South Australia's great pioneering Surveyor-General, when he led the first exploration party into the Valley in 1837. Developed initially by one of the founders of the new colony, George Fife Angas, after whom Angaston is named, a decision of crucial importance to its character and future was made when he arranged for the settlement there of a party of German Lutherans from Silesia who left their homeland to escape religious persecution. They naturally turned to viticulture as one means of livelihood on their farms in an area where the Mediterranean climate was ideally suited to it. From the outset, German wine-makers and German culture have shaped the Barossa landscape, geographic and social. Today more than 30 wineries flourish in the region producing wines that are household names in Australia. The Barossa, the wines, the restful countryside with its vineyards and farms, the charming and cheerful tree-studded little towns, the celebrated biennial Vintage Festival, the enduring German heritage - in a word, is 'magic'.
The Bilyara Story
Wolf Blass had made his home in the Barossa Valley. He eventually went looking for premises to start his own winery. One of the buildings available at the time was in Bilyara Road Tanunda. Being the person he is he contacted the University of Adelaide to find out the aboriginal meaning of the word 'Bilyara'. The answer came back 'Eaglehawk'. Back home in Germany an eagle was the national emblem so that was enough to start 'Bilyara Vineyards'. It appealed to Wolf Blass when he was casting around for a name to put on his own label because it is a pleasant word in itself, but also because it is one with both German and Australian connotations that epitomised the freedom of a truly independent operation and the daring needed to make it succeed.
In 1973 Wolf also introduced an Eaglehawk label to the range of products as part of a selected individual bottling. When work first began on the property outside Nuriootpa on the road to the Riverland, there was little immediate evidence, except to those who knew the man, that this was the commencement of a project which would attract controversy like iron filings to a magnet, bring about a major reappraisal of assumptions about wine in Australia and give Blass a permanent place in its history.
Although he had never made a drop of red wine before his arrival in Australia, Wolf Blass had had experience of blending it. Averys of Bristol were insistent on the merits of the traditional practice of keeping individual estate wines separate in the original containers until final blending and one of his jobs with them was the blending of finished Bordeaux and Burgundy wines into the style for which the house was noted.
That knowledge, and experience of Australian conditions gained with Kaiser Stuhl, Tolley Scott & Tolley and as a consultant with such companies as Woodleys, Normans, Basedow and Bleasdale, convinced Blass that this technique could be adapted here. Moreover, combined with judicious maturation in new imported oak, it could produce a new taste that would revolutionise Australian preferences.
First, though, he had to have premises. Other commitments meant that until 1973 activity was largely confined to weekends and holidays with Blass being assisted by colleagues from T.S.T. The structure slowly went up, the equipment was obtained and installed and the decision was made to enhance the frontage in Spanish style. Wolf Blass felt the same affinity with the Iberian landscape that had inspired Colonel Light to give the region its name. The resulting buildings also added value to the new enterprise in that it was an imposing landmark by the side of a main road used by people seeking out new experiences and different tastes at a cellar door.
It was also decided to concentrate on table dry reds within that category that were at the premium end of the market. Blass wines would be available only in well dressed bottles and not in flagons or other bulk containers. That judgment was soon to be vindicated in a way that would startle the industry and consumers into taking notice of the arrival of a young man with forceful ideas that worked.
Wolf Blass had moved into the newly completed building in 1973. But he was a man in a hurry and the following year saw the first of a series of expansions with the establishment of a special laboratory to concentrate on quality control and the assessment and testing of wines from different areas. A large fully-insulated cask warehouse was added to the complex for the maturation of red wine in small wood.
The highlight of 1974 was the winning of the Jimmy Watson award for Australia's best one-year-old dry red at the Championship Wine Show in Melbourne. Blass was no stranger to receiving trophies, but this one carries a special cachet and its award came at a time in his career that was, to put it mildly, helpful.
That recognition was followed by a large investment in importing the best available French Nevers and American oak. The same year also saw Blass gain an award at the National Star Pack competition for the best label design in Australia.
In 1975 Wolf Blass appointed John Glaetzer as wine-maker to his organisation, a move that marked the inception of a lasting partnership of enormous significance. In the same year Blass became technical director of the first independent Australian bottling company at Lonsdale, south of Adelaide. Most of Bilyara's wines are bottled and stored at the Australian Bottling Company there. That year also saw a Bilyara red take the Jimmy Watson trophy for the second year in succession, the first time anyone had done so. The wine was judged from 240 entries.
Astonishment was combined with applause and envy when he did the same thing in 1976. Three in a row, an unparalleled accomplishment which ensured Wolf Blass as a talking point across Australia and not only in Australia, because Bilyara had begun to penetrate export markets with neighbouring countries.
It was a period of constant growth and new investment. Although Blass's reputation was founded on dry reds, whites had not been neglected. He had commenced work on these in 1969 and from 1970 onward had produced selected premium wines. Bilyara bought the latest equipment to take advantage of the technological changes that were sweeping through the industry in white wine production and the soaring demand for the resulting products. This necessitated still further additions to the winery. Warehouse and production areas were enlarged to the stage where Bilyara has a capacity for maturing 450,000 litres in French and American oak and stainless steel storage of more than 1,000,000 litres for Rhine Riesling and other dry whites.
In 1977 a public relations centre was opened so that clients could sample the range of Bilyara wines in style and comfort. In harmony with the Spanish style of the original complex, the centre is set in an attractive garden courtyard. Pressure on accommodation remained, however, and this was followed by the design and construction of a new office block to cater for the needs of an enlarged staff dealing with an ever-increasing volume of sales. Additional land was purchased to provide for the development of Bilyara over 8 hectares, and to meet demand for top white varieties the company entered the field of vineyard development with the purchase of a 49 hectare site in the Clare Valley.
Now styled Wolf Blass Wines International, the export market was pursued vigorously. Orders to Singapore and Hong Kong were repeated, showing that it was possible to prevail over intense competition from established European outlets. Major inroads were made in New Zealand in association with Ballins Industries, the largest Hotel owner and wine and spirit merchants in that country. In 1979 Wolf Blass demonstrated that he had lost none of his capacity for surprise when he announced that he was exporting wine to Germany. After discussions with Mr. Kuno Pieroth, chairman of the Pieroth companies, which have sales of $230 million annually, it was agreed to send Bilyara wines to Germany for sale there and in other E.E.C. countries. An initial order for 100,000 bottles was made under a specially designed Eaglehawk label with information about maker, district and variety on a back label. More orders came from New Guinea and Blass wines were also made available at trade commissions and embassies wherever Australia is represented abroad.
The late sixties and seventies had been a dynamic period of expansion for many Australian wineries, not least those in the Barossa Valley, brought about by technological change, the new development of new styles and the growing enthusiasm of Australians for the newly discovered bounty on their doorstep. Even so, the development of the Bilyara winery still startles those who remember its early days. The first shed had now grown into a very large modern complex that is so much a part of the Barossa landscape that it is taken for granted. It is evident in the front-of-house operation in the public relations tasting centre, in the administrative offices and behind the scenes with the ultra-modern equipment and the use of new technology, the casks (which are the ageless feature of wineries the world over) and the large warehouses.
When John Glaetzer joined Wolf Blass as wine-maker at Bilyara in 1975 it was the start of a uniquely rewarding partnership. Glaetzer is a graduate of Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia. Its oenology course is recognised as being one of the outstanding courses of its kind in the world. The college has produced a succession of leaders in the wine industry in this country. The German Kellermeister and the Australian graduate have pooled their special skills and experience so that it is often difficult now to tell where the contribution of one ends and the other begins. They are, however, quite different personalities. Wolf Blass is ebullient; John Glaetzer is quiet, even retiring, and happier in the laboratory or monitoring progress in the quiet of the maturation halls than in the more aggressive arena of marketing and promotion. Accordingly, he is more likely to be encountered behind the scenes than in front of house. Nonetheless, he went on to the platform in Melbourne to receive one of the triple successive Jimmy Watson award trophy presentations, public acknowledgement of the part he was playing in establishing Bilyara wines as a consistent style. In 1978 he was appointed director of operations of Wolf Blass Wines International, a position which enables him to play a full part in determining long-term policy and strategy as well as continuing his day-to-day work in ensuring that the wines which go into Wolf Blass bottles are worthy of the Wolf Blass and John Glaetzer philosophy. Although he comes from a different tradition, Glaetzer, one of twin brother wine-makers, was well qualified to appreciate what Blass was doing and to work with him in creating the new styles which were causing buyers to seek out the Eaglehawk label. As Director of Operations, John is fully in charge of vineyard development in the Barossa Valley and Seven Hills areas as well as the handling of all engineering expansion projects.
Wolf's Approach to Winemaking
My whole life has been an education in wine-making and I shall later pay a heartfelt tribute to some of the greats of the Australian wine industry who over 20 years, have been my mentors. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned was during my period in private consultancy working with some of the smaller South Australian companies to lift the quality of table wines to meet the great wine revolution when its day was dawning. I learned very forcefully at that time that there were no prizes for being second. Success went to those whose wines were winners. I can afford to look back now to the time when I entered in the Melbourne Wine Show products which were the best I could make but which the judges rejected as top class reds. All the same I shall never forget walking away from those shows a loser, deflated and alone then came the Jimmy Watsons and a Melbourne sun never shone brighter!
Incidentally, it was in those years that I had to make wine of my own using my clients' equipment, simply to stay solvent. However, there was a lesson in that, too. From here on I must become slightly technical, though I hope not in away that will bewilder the amateur wine lover. In discussing an individual's approach to wine-making some technicalities of what is an increasingly scientific business - even one which still retains some of the arts of alchemy - is unavoidable. Wine quality can only be achieved by continual, exhaustive and close supervision at all stages of production. Barossa cabernets are rather thin, although some from the Eden Valley can be exceptional. And so it goes with distinctions of the same order of complexity to be made about Shiraz from Langhorne Creek, the Wilton and Kalimna areas of the northern Barossa, Clare-Watervale, Coonawarra, Keppoch-Padthaway and the McLaren Vale region. My own view is that Shiraz is an excellent blending grape and that its potential has still not been fully explored. So much has yet to be explored in wine-making. After all wine-making is almost as old as man and we have been making it here for less than 200 years. I think I can claim in all modesty to have pointed the way to some new Australian styles and I have only been here for 20 years of them!
But I have had some magnificent people helping and advising me along the way. I would like to express my gratitude to all of them but there are so many to whom I am grateful that I am unable to list them all. Among the many are: Ian Hickinbotham, now a much respected wine writer who, as general manager of what is now Kaiser Stuhl, brought me out to Australia and had faith in me. George Fairbrother, a gentleman and a wine judge of impeccable palate who taught me so much of the background on wine show requirements on red winemaking and style. The late Charles Schmidt of Schmidt Engineering, an authority on sparkling wine machinery and a great enthusiast for new products and technical advances. Jack Ludbrook, formerly public relations officer with the South Australian Wine Bureau, for his invaluable tutelage in getting Wolf Blass wines known around Australia. Darkie Liebich, of Rovalley Wines, for bottling and packaging my 1968 vintage in exchange for helping him with the development of his highly popular sparkling Charmaine. Jim Barry, of St. Clare Cellars, for his co-operation in our early vintage operations. Jim lngoldby, vigneron of McLaren Vale, for the support he also gave me in the uncertain and anxious early days. Harry Brown, of H. C. Brown & Sons, for the faith he showed in my products by being the first commercial wholesaler to take our wines east. Leon Massoni, restaurateur and wine lover, who introduced Wolf Blass to Victorian connoisseurs. Primo Caon, Peter Bourbaud and Don Redman, wine merchants and friends of Adelaide, who promoted our wines in their home State. Alan Young, formerly publicity and promotions officer in Perth, who did the good deed in the West. My co-director and rock John Glaetzer gets some of the recognition that is his due elsewhere.
My approach to winemaking? To strive at all times for quality and consistency, not to be afraid of trying something new and not putting it on the market until I am satisfied with it. It can be frustrating. It is damned hard work. But it is immensely rewarding. One other acknowledgement must be made. I could not have achieved anything like the same success anywhere but in Australia
Blending and Maturing in Oak
There is no one secret to the wines which have gained international acceptance for Wolf Blass. But one point to which the experts return again and again when evaluating them is the artistry which goes into the blending and maturation of dry reds, port and some whites. With the benefit of his European experience Blass has refined this into something as distinctive as a personal signature. He believes that man as well as nature makes wine. Little more than a decade ago most buyers of premium wines took it as a matter of course that dry reds had to be cellared for a couple of years or more after their release before they were really enjoyable. Blass changed all that, showing it was possible to make a wine, which was balanced, smooth, soft, fruity with depth of palate, which was drinkable from the moment it was put on sale while still having fifteen more years of life ahead of it.
From the starting point that the public does not want wines, which assault the throat with harsh tannin, Blass has evolved a process, which is geared towards getting the maximum quality from both grape varieties and oak. While this is especially true of red production, it should also be noted that the Eaglehawk insignia is being increasingly discussed in expert circles for a similar melding of white and wood, adapting to Australian conditions the same methods, which make the great white wines of France. The Blass method accepts that not only are there obvious differences between grape varieties but also between the same variety from different regions and, within the region, different vineyards. He discusses this further in a section outlining his winemaking philosophy. From the start of crushing of the grapes the utmost care is taken to keep batches separate. Bilyara uses facilities at other wineries at vintage time to ensure that each intake gets individual attention. There is no value whatsoever in early blending. Most prestige south eastern wine regions of Australia have at some time made a contribution to the harmony of Wolf Blass reds. From South Australia grapes have come from Langhorne Creek, the Barossa, Eden and Clare Valleys, Coonawarra Keppoch and McLaren Vale. Some interstate wines from Victoria and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales have also been featured in the blending process. All blending percentages are clearly displayed on the bottles and vineyard areas are identified.
It is the same story with the selection of the oak casks. Those available include the French Nevers, Tranquois and Limousin, American, Yugoslavian and German. Each of these casks bestows its particular qualities on the wines stored in it. Wolf Blass maintains that the proper handling of oak makes the difference between good wines and great wines. It is a process, which requires constant attention, and precise judgments as to the amount of time a particular wine should undergo the oak maturation process. Not by accident the largest section of the winery is devoted to wood storage with each cask carefully marked with vintage date, variety and region of origin. The casks can, if you like, be seen as so many humid cribs nurturing the young wine at the most important stage of what can be a very long life. There are no short cuts in either the time taken with the constant checking of progress, or the heavy investment involved. It is a proud if expensive boast that the French and American oak, which predominates in the Bilyara maturation halls, is replaced after four years of use. The wood is then sold to other wineries for the maturation of fortified wines and new oak is brought in to impart its subtle properties at their best.
Meticulousness in blending and maturation enables the resulting wine to combine the complex tannin and oak flavours in a way, which brings that smooth fruitiness. The wines display both fullness and finesse. It is an arduous process, which brings together not only grape and wood but also science and art. The watchword is care. The result is that elusive drinkability. Max Schubert of Penfolds, inventor of Grange Hermitage, and one of Australia's great wine figures, has paid this tribute: "Wolf Blass can look at the grapes and picture what he'll do with them. You have to conceive wine out in the vineyard. Wolf is one of the rare people with this imagination".
Jimmy Watson Trophy
In August each year the judges, who are all senior members of the Australian wine industry, assess more than 700 of Australia's greatest red wines and pick one winner. The award is named in honour of the late Jimmy Watson, one of Australia's great wine characters and proprietor of the legendary Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar in Melbourne, which his grandsons continue to run today. Jimmy was renowned for his ability to pick a great red wine in its youth and he would travel between regions each year choosing the best barrels of wine to be served at his establishment. To be one of the wines chosen by Jimmy Watson was considered one of the industry's great achievements in the 1950's. Jimmy died in 1961 and the Jimmy Watson Trophy was created in his memory in 1962 by his many friends and admirers. The inaugural Jimmy Watson was won by the famous 1961 vintage of Stonyfell Metala "Claret" and over the years it has been collected by such famous names as Penfolds, Cape Mentelle, Katnook Estate and of course four times by Wolf Blass. Over the years the "Watson" has become the trophy everyone in Australian wine wants to win, the trophy that gains all the accolades and sets the winning winery on its way to stardom.
The 1999 Jimmy Watson Trophy, for red wines made from the extraordinary 1998 vintage, was regarded as the toughest Watson ever because so many of the country's great regions had experienced such an extraordinary vintage - it was truly a one off that may never be repeated. From its very first vintage in 1973 the philosophy behind Wolf Blass Black Label has always been brilliantly simple. It would always be the finest wine the winery could produce. It would always be dominated by the noble Cabernet Sauvignon and would always be sourced from the best vineyards in South Australia. There was never a strict adherence to a particular vineyard or varietal blend - the year and the vineyards would dictate the wine's final composition. Over the years the Black label has relied upon the Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek and of course the Barossa Valley for its fruit. The best parcels of grapes are kept separate thought out the winemaking and maturation process and it is when the final components are considered "finished" that the master blender's art is put to the test. The Black Label is traditionally released fours years after vintage so the wine has had appropriate barrel and bottle maturation before being presented to the wine lovers of the world.
Wolf Blass Platinum label is the ultimate expression of the vintage, variety and vineyard in the Wolf Blass portfolio. Made in extremely limited quantities from the best low yielding vines in South Australia, each year the Wolf Blass Platinum Label will be, quite literally, the pick of the crop. And there is no greater combination in the world of winemaking than the Wolf Blass winemaking team and South Australian Shiraz. The winemaking team at Wolf Bless, led by chief winemaker Chris Hatcher, have identified a small number of vineyards in the Barossa Valley, Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills regions as 'Platinum selected' vineyards which are among the very best in the country, capable of providing fruit for this unique wine. These vineyards have produced the greatest, most intense fruit, and have now been set-aside for our Wolf Blass Platinum Label.
International Winemaker of the Year
The International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) is the pinnacle of international wine competitions. Established in 1969 with the solitary aim of encouraging excellence among wine and spirit producers across the globe, the IWSC has grown into an extraordinary event with more than 4000 entries being considered in 2002. The judging takes place each year in London, with all gold medal winning wines re-tasted several times before any trophies are handed out to producers. The rigorous and intense judging positions these trophies as being among the most sought after in the world. In 2002 - as they did a decade ago in 1992 - Wolf Blass competed with all other International wineries and won the Robert Mondavi Trophy for the International Winemaker of the year. The win is a triumph for the entire winemaking team at Wolf Blass as well as for the winery for an amazing overall performance. The result of which is the ultimate accolade and the claim as the International Winemaker of the Year. If a wine company performs particularly well against producers from its own country, it will be considered for its national honour as the nation's best Winemaker. In both 2001 and 2002, Wolf Blass, in competition with seven Australian wineries was awarded the Schenker Australian Wine Producer of the Year Trophy.
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