Hoddle's Creek proves small, family-owned enterprises can deliver great quality without the large price tag.
Who produces the best-value Yarra Valley chardonnay? As tough times encourage more producers to come out with a budget-priced bottling of this keenly sought wine, it's becoming a competitive market.
Hoddles Creek Estate would have to be at the top of my list. It makes three levels of chardonnay and its standard-bearing Hoddles Creek Estate label, at $19-$20, takes the honours.
Its $15-$16 Wickham's Road, made from bought-in grapes, is equally amazing value at a price few can match in the valley. With this week's release of the 2010 vintage of the flagship Hoddles Creek Estate 1er Yarra Valley Chardonnay ($39-$40), it has a wine that can compete for the title of absolute best. It's an exquisite wine that vies with the best of Oakridge, De Bortoli, TarraWarra, Coldstream Hills, Toolangi, Giant Steps, Yering Station, Gembrook Hills, Mac Forbes, Seville Estate and the rest.
Hoddles Creek's secret weapon is its vineyard site, at the higher-altitude, top end of the valley, the so-called Upper Yarra, where temperatures are lower and the wines finer. The location is Hoddles Creek and the altitude 300 metres. At 33 hectares, it's also a substantial planting. The owner, winemaker Franco D'Anna, buys grapes from other places to supplement his own for the Wickham's Road wines (shiraz as well as pinot noir and chardonnay). But what enables a small, family-owned enterprise to sell its wines so cheaply in a region where many others maintain they can't make a profit at less than $25 a bottle?
''It's just me and two other guys,'' says D'Anna, a 35-year-old of Italian background. ''We prune all the vines, do all the cellar work. We can all do all the jobs, so if one is away at any given time the others can fill in.'' It sounds like a no-nonsense set-up, where hard work is the ethos.
Then there are the grape growers. D'Anna is passionate about doing the right thing by them. He reckons he pays more for each tonne of grapes than he needs, because he's in the game for the long term and wants his growers to view it that way, too. They have to be sustainable and make a living, he says. It's the antithesis of the attitude of larger companies in other regions, where their only concern is paying as little as they can get away with. The hapless grower is at the end of the food chain and, in a world of perennial oversupply, has little negotiating power.
So, by being smart, running a lean ship and cultivating good growers who are paid well and on time, Hoddles Creek Estate makes excellent wine that is attractively priced and sells out quickly. If it's that easy, why doesn't everybody operate this way?
It's probably not that simple.
Like many top winemakers, D'Anna is a true vigneron, to use the French term. He's equally concerned with the vines as he is with the cellar. It's the opposite of the cliche 1970s Aussie office-dwelling winemaker, who never set eyes on grapes until they arrived at the crusher.
D'Anna didn't study winemaking. He graduated in commerce first and, years later, after being bitten by the wine bug, studied viticulture at Charles Sturt University.
''In 1997, I was newly married and had a new kid, was doing my uni degree and planting a vineyard,'' he says. ''I don't know how on earth I managed to fit it all in.''
Put it down to youthful energy. A vintage worked at Coldstream Hills helped put him on the right path.
And, like a lot of top winemakers, he has a feel for wine. And he learns from his observations. He visited Burgundy and picked up some tips from Domaine Sauzet and Pierre Naigeon. One of the pointers given was to hold the chardonnays in a tank for five months after they're taken out of barrels, ''for finishing''. The wine sits in stainless-steel tanks ''to settle down and come back together''. This step seems to help harmonise the oak and fruit flavours. ''It goes back into itself,'' D'Anna says.
The result is that Hoddles Creek Estate never produces oaky chardonnay. The wines are complex but never show overt oak.
''To be honest,'' D'Anna says, ''I don't really like them when they're straight out of oak.'' No doubt the fact that it's a cool-vineyard site also has something to do with that.
''You can't make a fat wine at our place,'' he says. He uses no more than 50 per cent of new barrels for the 1er Yarra Valley and 30 per cent for the Hoddles Creek Estate. The cool site means there is little work needed on the wine. ''The only thing we add is sulphur,'' D'Anna says. ''There's never any acid addition to the chardonnay. Its natural pH is 3.1.''
Beyond their refined, moderate-alcohol, fruit-driven modern Australian style, the estate's chardonnays share a vineyard character. This is a bright white-peach, honey, lemon and grapefruit character. The fruit purity is bell-clear.
Hoddles Creek Estate pinot noirs are also good but the most surprising arrow in D'Anna's quiver is pinot blanc. There are few wines of this variety in Australia but Hoddles Creek's doesn't sell on rarity alone. It's an excellent wine in its own right. Eschewing barrels, D'Anna ferments and raises the wine in stainless steel, giving its innate honey, pear-like fruit and mineral qualities free expression. It's taut and linear: a good food wine.
The 2010 1er Yarra Valley chardonnay and pinot noir and 2011 pinot blanc will be released on Thursday.
* Stockists of Hoddles Creek Estate wines include Australian Wine Centre; Northbridge Cellars; Vaucluse Cellars; Five Way Cellars.
HICKINBOTHAM'S FAMILY TIES
Jackson Family Wines, of California, has added the large Hickinbotham Clarendon Estate to its McLaren Vale holding, which includes Yangarra Estate. Jackson is the estate of Jess Jackson, who died last year aged 81, the founder of highly successful winery Kendall-Jackson. Ten years ago, the Jackson family bought an old McLaren Vale vineyard, which they re-named Yangarra Estate. This latest purchase substantially increases their commitment to Australian wine. The Hickinbotham vineyard was established by the descendants of Alan Hickinbotham, who was the first oenology lecturer at Roseworthy Agricultural College and first wine educator in Australia. The Hickinbotham Clarendon vineyard is on a 186-hectare property and has provided fruit for some stellar wines, including Penfolds Grange, Eileen Hardy shiraz and Clarendon Hills single vineyard wines. It's known for its shiraz, grenache and cabernet sauvignon grapes.
You can be as sceptical as you like of wine show results but when a wine comes to the top repeatedly, it's probably worth taking note. Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 ($44) has come up against the all-conquering Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2010 in the taste-off for top white wine of show at three recent capital-city wine shows. In two encounters, Vasse came off best - Royal Adelaide and Sydney Royal - while in Royal Melbourne, Yabby Lake triumphed. As Yabby winemaker Tom Carson points out, his wine is more delicate and carries less oak than the Vasse and is perhaps not as immediately impressive. It's the power of Margaret River, Vasse Felix versus the finesse of Mornington Peninsula, Yabby Lake. But the Yabby didn't go without, still winning a trophy at Sydney: The AP John Coopers Trophy for best varietal chardonnay. Both Yabby Lake's 2010 chardonnays are outstanding, the $80 Block 6 Single Block Release being all Mendoza clone and more concentrated, showing more acidity. ''Our chardonnays are unfined and have nothing added except SO2 [sulphur dioxide],'' Carson says. ''The grapes are partly crushed, partly whole-bunch pressed and fermented on high solids by wild yeasts.'' Wonderful wines indeed.
SLEEP TO HELP HOMELESS
Hunter Valley winery Tamburlaine is doing its bit for the homeless on March 9. It's a sleep-out, at the Tamburlaine winery, dubbed CEOs With Soul. It's to support non-profit organisation Soul Cafe, which helps feed and support the homeless of Newcastle. Business leaders and their staff are invited, on condition they donate or raise at least $1000 each. The target is $170,000 to fit out a new kitchen. See ceoswithsoul.com.au.
TURN OF PHRASE
Quote of the week, from comedian Dave Barry: ''Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is wine. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.''
With thanks to Cuttaway Hill Wines of Mittagong.