There are so many stories about Wolf Blass that it’s hard to know when fact shades into fiction. Did he really page himself at airports so that other people would hear his name? Did he once drive his Rolls-Royce into an electricity pylon, pitching a city suburb into darkness before disappearing into the bush clutching his personalised number plates? And what about those trademark bow ties? Practicality or affectation?
Frustratingly, Blass’s authorised biography Wolf Blass: Behind the Bow Tie (Fairfax Books) answers only one of these three questions – the bow ties didn’t get in the way when he was tasting. But it provides many insights into one of the key figures in post-war Australian wine, a small man with the energy of a Stakhanovite and an ego the size of Nicolas Sarkozy’s.
Born in East Germany in 1934, Blass worked as a winemaker in Europe before emigrating to Australia in his twenties. The fact that he still speaks with a German accent has never stopped him being popular in Australia, in part because he has always been prepared to laugh at himself. Indeed, he remains one of the most famous (and generally liked) faces in the wine industry, despite moments of toe-curling crassness.
Two things made Blass: an ability to fashion good, commercially appealing wines, and the nous to market them. Using his success in wine shows and his blowtorch personality, Blass helped to change the Australian wine scene for ever: his genius was to create softer, oakier, fruitier, easier-drinking reds that were ready to drink on release.
Blass set up his own company in 1973, after a decade spent working for other people, with an overdraft of A$2,000. He sold it to Foster’s in 1996 for A$560m. Rich he may be, but he is still employed as an official ambassador and visits the office in Adelaide most days.
The 60m bottles that bear Blass’s name each year are generally decent value and can be superb. Four that stood out in a recent tasting were the toasty, mature 2006 Wolf Blass Yellow Label Riesling, South Australia (£8.99, 12.5%, Morrison’s); the rich, complex, aniseedy 2007 Wolf Blass Gold Label Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills (£9.99 each for two, 13%, Majestic); the smoky, spicy, deeply coloured 2006 Wolf Blass President’s Selection Shiraz, South Australia (£9.99 each for two, 15%, Majestic; £12.99, Sainsbury’s, tesco.com) and, best of all, the minty, surprisingly elegant 2006 Wolf Blass Grey Label Cabernet Sauvignon, Langhorne Creek (£19.49, 14.5%, hailshamcellars.com; everywine.co.uk). Not bad for a boy from Thuringia.
Originally published in The Observer