Post-vintage chat with Chris Hatcher — Foster’s chief winemaker

Visiting Canberra last Wednesday, Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker for Foster’s, Australia’s largest wine producer, said the 2008 vintage produced better than anticipated grape quantities and considerable quality variations.

A warm start to the season boosted the vines out of the blocks before milder weather set in, providing what looked to be ideal conditions for ripening and flavour development.

These hopes proved well founded for varieties harvested before an exceptionally hot spell hit much of South Australia in the first weeks of autumn. ‘We had fifteen days over thirty-five degrees’, said Chris. But the quality outlook isn’t so good for varieties picked after the heat.

The heat arrived after harvest for most white and earlier ripening red varieties, including just about all of the warm-area shiraz. But, in the hot areas along the Murray River, the engine room of the Australian industry, just about everything came in ahead of the heat and ‘looks fantastic’, says Chris.

As most cabernet sauvignon from warm, premium areas came in post heat wave, it’s not a great year for that variety. But Chris sees shiraz and riesling in particular as being exceptionally good.

He rates riesling as the best since the extraordinary 2002 vintage. He says that this was the last year that they made a Wolf Blass flagship riesling (just released), that none of the intervening vintages had the keeping qualities to make the grade, but that 2008 probably would.

At this early stage the new shiraz ferments look exciting. Chris says that Wolf Blass red-wine maker, Caroline Dunn, said during vintage that they reminded her of the 1998s – a great vintage for the variety in the Barossa.

But it’s early days yet and when Chris stopped in Canberra for a few hours he was on his way to classification tastings with his senior winemakers. There’ll be rounds of tastings and blending, followed by barrel maturation for the reds. We’ll see the first of the 2008 whites over the next few months. But it’ll be a few years before we have a full measure of the reds.

Asked about wine seals, Chris said that screw caps had been overwhelmingly accepted in Australia after their rollout ten years ago, that export markets increasingly preferred screw cap over cork and that sparkling-wine seals were the next challenge.

From later this year, he said, all Wolf Blass wines exported to Canada would be screw cap sealed. And in the USA, all wines had been screw capped since the brand’s introduction there twelve months ago.

In Japan, sales increased dramatically after the introduction of screw cap, driven largely, Foster’s believe, by the fact that eighty per cent of Japanese households don’t own a corkscrew.

While the convenience factor has been one of the great forces behind the screw cap’s success – the switch from cork was originally a winemaker-driven quality initiative.

Hatcher believes that the breakdown of consumer bias towards cork opens the way for screw cap alternatives. He believes that this has been hampered to date by lack of global volume. But as the world’s big wine producing nations inevitably shift to a superior technology, the innovations could roll.

He says that we now have a better understanding of how wine matures under screw cap. Early fears that the caps might be too airtight and simply preserve wine, rather than allowing it to mature, had not been justified.

A trial on one of Australia’s venerable cellaring reds, Penfolds Cabernet Shiraz Bin 389 1996 (one of Foster’s brands), showed that the wine under screw cape developed comparable flavours over time as those sealed under cork.

In a recent masked tasting, he said, the senior winemakers couldn’t discern between cork-sealed and screw-cap samples of the 1996. But there were significant differences. Most important was the need to open several cork-sealed bottles to get one in prime condition – because of oxidation or cork taint.

And observation over time has shown that in the first few years after sealing, cork-sealed reds develop maturation flavours more rapidly than those sealed with screw cap. These tend to retain bright, fresh fruit flavours. However, after ten years in bottle, the maturation flavours of cork-sealed and screw cap sealed wines converge.

After ten years the maturation flavours for both tends to plateau. But the bottle-to-bottle variability of those sealed with cork contrasts starkly with the consistency of those sealed with a screw cap. In other words if you cellared a dozen bottles each of cork and screw capped versions of the same wine, you’d enjoy every screw capped bottle equally but find some of the corked ones dull, dead or corked.

An immediate challenge, Chris reckons, is to find an alternative to cork for sparkling wines. Some producers, including Moet’s Australian arm, Chandon, have trialled crown seals. While these have been successful from a quality perspective, they haven’t won universal consumer support.

Hatcher believes that this is partly because of the convenience factor – you need a tool to open these, where you don’t with cork. He says that Foster’s have briefed several suppliers and expects to see cork alternatives developed before too long. One possibility, he says, is a two-phase screw cap that allows gas to escape before coming off completely.

Growing concerns about energy use and greenhouse gas emissions would drive other change in wine packaging. Already some producers have moved to light weight tetra packs for cheaper wines. And Foster’s successfully exports some if its products in PET plastic bottles, weighing only a fraction of their glass equivalents

But these containers suit only wines intended for immediate consumption. A challenge now, says Chris, is to develop light but strong bottles that keep wine in good conditions for decades. Already, he says there’s evidence of consumer and press backlash against those super heavy bottles used for some premium wines.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008