Wolf Blass Black Label — rebuilding an icon, part 2

Each of Australia’s icon reds has a unique story – from the clear-sighted vision that sparked Grange’s steady march to international renown; to the brick-by-brick building of elegant classics like Cullens Margaret River Cabernet Merlot; to the bumpy, variable quality route traversed by Wolf Blass Black Label Cabernet Shiraz.

Blass’s flagship arrived with a thump and a bang – and serendipitously it turns out — in the mid seventies. Boldly labelled and boldly priced — at $4.80 it was second only to the $6 a bottle Penfolds Grange Wolf recalls – Black Label became the trophy wine of the punter through the seventies and eighties.

That serendipitous start, Wolf says, began when he won the 1974 Jimmy Watson Trophy. Although the victorious wine became the first Black Label, it had, in fact, been intended for the existing Grey Label red blend.

But with good supplies maturing in barrel, Wolf recalls blending and bottling under both labels. And winning Jimmy Watson Trophies again in the following two years, 1975 and 1976, provided all the inspiration he needed to put both the then unknown trophy and Black Label on the map.

A good part of Blass’s success grew from valuable insights that are as pertinent today as they were thirty years ago: firstly that wine should be delicious and easy to drink upon release; and that because most people don’t know or understand grape varieties all that well, labels ought to provide clues other than wine language – something that drinkers might understand and relate to.

Hence the birth of what Wolf calls ‘sporting colours for a sporting nation’ – the strong colours that you might see on footy teams or racehorses – topped off by Blass’s famous soaring eagle.

Thus the opulent and oaky cabernet sauvignon and shiraz blend that appealed to the Melbourne Wine Show judges, won the palates and comprehension – as Wolf Blass Black Label – of non-wine-buff drinkers.

As we saw in the Melbourne tasting two weeks ago, there was much more than easy drinkability to those early Black Labels. Many of the older vintages — particularly 1975 and 1976 — continue to drink well.

And the style changed with the introduction of heavily toasted oak from 1980 and then suffered, in my view, from the use of poorly seasoned oak that dominated fruit flavours. Nevertheless, the 1981, 1983 and 1987 still drink beautifully and only the 1984 and 1989 would I call disappointing.

If 1990 and 1991 seem a little oaky, they still show the strength of those two outstanding vintages. 1992 is gentle and soft and still going and precedes the dull and disappointing 1993 and 1994 vintages – victims of a bungled bottling and poor cork respectively.

While there’s signs of a bounce back in the1995 vintage, it’s the Black Labels from 1996 on that show increasingly seamlessness, power and taut structure.

Wolf’s original winemaker, John Glaetzer, attributes the arrival of high quality oak to “when the winemakers got money”. And Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker for Foster’s Group, says that after the compromised vintages of the mid nineties, a new commitment was made to putting Black Label amongst Australia’s best reds.

With help from Glaetzer and new Blass maker, Caroline Dunn, the opening of a small-batch fermentation cellar in 2001 and access to the very best fruit, there’s no doubt in my mind that Wolf Blass Black Label – exemplified by the 2002 vintage reviewed last week — is more polished, enjoyable, complex and potentially long lived than ever. It’s been a long journey. The reputation will follow.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007