Wolf Blass Black Label — rebuilding an icon, part 1

If we are to believe the market, then it’s a big thumbs down to Wolf Blass Black Label red – a wine that bounced onto dinner tables in the mid seventies priced at a modest discount to Penfolds Grange, the most expensive Aussie red of the time.

It was a bold statement by Wolf Blass. Some said it was outrageous. But it worked and through the seventies and eighties Black Label became the wine to be seen drinking. It meant something to have Black Label on your table.

But sometime in the late eighties or nineties, the gloss wore off and the price gap between Grange and Black Label widened – so that Grange now fetches about $400 on release and Black Label around $125.

Since marked prices don’t necessarily reflect what is paid, the real value that drinkers put on elite wines is, perhaps, more accurately gauged by actual prices realised at auction.

By that measure Blass has a long way to go to restore the prestige of its flagship red. As the new release 2002 vintage hits retail shelves, the latest auction prices of earlier vintages — measured against a current replacement cost of $125 – show serious value declines.

The most recent price reported by Langton’s Auctioneers on last year’s 2001 vintage is $84 – a discount of thirty three per cent on the current release. And the picture seems no brighter for the 2000, 1999 or 1998 vintages, registering discounts of fifty-seven, fifty-six and thirty-seven per cent respectively.

Even the inaugural 1973 vintage languishes at $67 a bottle – a little over half the asking price of the current release.

Using the same replacement-value model, Grange fares somewhat better: last year’s 2000 vintage – a tiny release – recently fetched a premium of thirty-seven per cent on the assumed $400 release price. And while the highly regarded 1998 vintage traded at a premium of seventeen per cent, the 1999, 1997, 1996 and 1973 showed discounts of thirty-two, twenty-nine, ten and thirty-seven per cent respectively.

While the general trend suggests that it’s cheaper to buy Grange or Black Label at auction rather than retail, some of the older Granges do trade at stellar prices. For example, 1955, the oldest recorded in Langton’s current price realisations, recently fetched $4613.

There’s no such joy, however, for the Wolf Blass flagship. And that prompts the question as to when and why Black Label fell behind Grange and other top Aussie reds, and what sparked a remarkable quality rebound in the late nineties.

Insights into the origins and style of Black Label came from Wolf Blass himself at a tasting of the 1973 to 2002 vintages in Melbourne last week.

Wolf, a German immigrant, recalls the Australia of the sixties and seventies as a land of ‘hillbillies’ where men drank beer in the garage while women watched black and white television in the house.

Easy to drink, strongly brand wine might be the catalyst to bring them together, Blass believed. Hence, Wolf’s boldly labelled 1966 Yellow Label Rhine Riesling became the first of a phenomenally successful line, and the model for all the colour coded reds and whites that were to follow.

As we’ll see next week Black Label emerged, albeit serendipitously, in Wolf Blass’s quest to make “sexy wines… that make strong women weak and weak men strong”.

Wolf Blass Black Label Shiraz Cabernet Malbec 2002 $125
Black Label’s renaissance seems to have begun in about 1996 and to have gathered pace with the arrival of winemaker Caroline Dunn, the opening of a new small-batch cellar at the Blass winery in 2001, the encouragement of Fosters’ chief winemaker, Chris Hatcher, and the co-operation of John Glaetzer, Wolf’s original winemaker. From the great 2002 vintage, this one has the succulent depth of superior fruit and the tight structure to evolve for many years. Unusually for Black Label it contains more shiraz than cabernet – a vintage aberration, says Hatcher, as subsequent vintage return to cabernet predominance. A stunning wine.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007