Hoddles Creek: where quality and value meet
You can sit on the verandah of the shack at the Hoddles Creek Estate with a shotgun in your hand and take pot shots at wild deer. They are out there, roaming in the loaming, their hooves strutting at vineyard dirt, looking for leaves, grapes, fallen sweetness – though even the deer don’t seem to like sauvignon blanc.
Mind you, shooting here would be tiresome. Hoddles Creek is at the wild end of the Yarra Valley in Victoria, the end where it’s hilly and bushed and you can hardly see the houses for the scrub. Because of a warren of local by-laws you’d have to call the police before you fired the first shot, and warn them that you’re thinking of shooting at deer, or at rabbits, and not at your family, and once you’ve warned the police you’d then have to warn your neighbours, and once you’d warned your neighbours you’d then have to stop and try to remember whether it was two glasses of pinot noir or three that you’d already downed while the police had you on hold – hell, the stuff is so delicious and so cheap that it’s very easy to lose count.
To make it worth it, you’d also want to be on good terms with a slaughterman: there’s about 150 kilos of venison in those beasts (apparently), which would go magic with pinot noir, but there’s the small point of what you’d then do with it all – you’d need a big extended family to make it worth it. Besides, the deer are really cute. And the neighbours would then start referring to you as the Bloke Who Shot Bambi. All, fair to say, enough to make any normal person chew a screwcap open with their teeth and lean back and see how the chardonnay is coming along.
Not that the D’Anna family, who own Hoddles Creek Estate, are few in number – and they all work together. One uncle loves dams and digs them all over the property, another loves concrete and has trucked in a mountain of it, Franco D’Anna runs the vineyard and makes the wine and Anthony, his twin brother, and Franco’s wife, Jacqui, market and manage it all. They make their own salami, make their own bread, run their own chooks (and use the egg whites to fine their wines) and enjoy every step of it. Soon after another dam was put in on the property a Yarra Ranges council inspector came to look around and remarked, on noting a fresh-dug dam, that you need a permit to dig a dam these days. ‘What do you mean, that dam’s been there for years,’ a D’Anna said. This was a favourite family anecdote for a bit; until the council imposed a $10,000 fine.
If that sounds a bit cowboy-like, stop worrying: these are massively enjoyable folk who seem to massively enjoy debunking the smoke and mirrors of wine – of life. Make it good, set a reasonable price, sell it all out in a blink. Now what was so hard about that?
But then, the Hoddles Creek Estate story is not about greed. And perhaps that sets it apart from most other wine stories. Their chardonnay is like catnip– you take a gulp and you just can’t stop going back for more. The 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 especially so. The 2004 through 2006 Hoddles Creek pinot noirs, a variety that is so much harder to do, is just as good, maybe better. It’s complex, juicy, drinks well now and has the structure to age – at less, in Australia, than 20 bucks per bottle. Personally I would pay double that price for the 2006 pinot noir, it’s that good. And double too for the 2007 chardonnay. Maybe folks would take them more seriously if they did cost more.
‘We use a lot of different yeasts, and a lot of different woods (oak barrels). We work in small batches and run all the batches differently. It takes a lot of work,’ winemaker Franco D’Anna says, ‘but it’s pretty simple. That’s the beauty of it – we buy oak from five different coopers, from three different forests, mix it all up in what we use for what, give lots of different things different treatment, and in the end you have a more complex wine. Some things build the front palate, some aromatics, some the back palate, some just fill up the mouth with flavour, that’s it. If you just did things one way, it wouldn’t be as good.’
All this different treatment is for, of course, a single vineyard wine: every wine is a blend of barrels, even if it’s single vineyard, single winemaker, single vintage, whatever. At Hoddles Creek Estate they’re simply putting this inevitability to good effect.
This is especially true with the 2004 pinot noirs, which really is staggeringly good for the money. ‘When we do our vintage classification,’ Franco says, ‘we usually pull out the best ten barrels and put them aside as a reserve – but in 2004, it didn’t work out that way. Nothing really stood out as different – it all just looked pretty good. So we thought, Well, there’s no point in making a reserve, let’s just put out one pinot, make it really good, sell it at the usual price and see what happens.’
What happened was that a really good wine was made, though how they can happily make and sell it at such an eager price ($17.95 retail) I’m not quite sure – not that I’m complaining. Anthony D’Anna, twin-brother of winemaker Franco: ‘The thing is, we grow our own grapes, we do our own distribution, and we don’t have to pay a winemaker – that’s how we do it.’ And they laugh. Because, of course, he’s taking a shot at his twin brother.
And I laugh too, because I’m about to buy myself a case of the 2007 chardonnay – it’s probably the best value chardonnay in Australia. The 2006 pinot noir, which I drank just recently, is just as good again. Matt Kramer, long-time US wine writer and Burgundy (home of pinot noir) expert, wrote in the New York Sun in 2005 that he’d tasted a US$16 Californian pinot noir that ‘if I were served it blind, I would have sworn (that it) was a really good Bourgogne rouge’.
Staggered at how good new world pinot noir could be, at such a low price, Kramer then presented the US$16 pinot to a Burgundy importer. ‘I asked my friend if Burgundy could create a Bourgogne rouge as good as the 2003 Saintsbury Garnet (the wine in question) and put it on the street for US$10 wholesale. ‘There is no way,’ he conceded. ‘Absolutely no way’.
‘I tell this story,’ Kramer continued, ‘not to put Burgundy in a bad light, but rather to underscore the sweeping changes we’re now seeing throughout the wine world. Burgundy producers will have to face the fact, like it or not (and they won’t), that their pinot noir monopoly is finished. After 1000 years, the Burgundy empire is crumbling.’ Not at the top end – yet, and maybe never – but certainly at the more affordable end, Burgundy is on the brink of getting hammered.
When you taste a wine like any of the 2004, 2005 or 2006 Hoddles Creek Estate pinot noirs, you feel Kramer’s words running across your tongue. It also makes the basic details of exactly how a new world producer goes about it a touch more relevant: Hoddles Creek Estate, or the land for it, has been in the D’Anna family for 40 years. Forty acres of it were planted to vine in 1997, and because the two planted areas are on steep, opposing slopes, all vines are both hand pruned and hand picked – and managed to crop at less than 2.5 tonne of grapes to each acre, which keeps the flavours concentrated. The D’Anna’s own and run a wine shop in Balwyn in Melbourne, and the D’Anna boys have worked in it since they were 13 – at 21, Franco was the chief wine buyer. He then studied viticulture, learned winemaking at each of Coldstream Hills (which, he says, taught him the value of impeccable winery hygiene), Red Edge, and more recently with Mario Marson (ex Mount Mary) – the latter having a seminal influence on him. The split-level Hoddles Creek winery has a large cool cellar three metres below ground, and like any self-respecting Melbourne-Italian family, that three metres is 100 percent concrete – 180 cubic metres of it to be exact. Gotta love that. Indeed, you’ve gotta love these wines. This is Australian wine, simple, complex, affordable – world beating.
Hoddles Creek chardonnay and pinot noir can be found at retail stores for $17.95. Hoddles Creek is soon to launch a new label called 1er Yarra Valley – as a reserve range. These wines will be priced at $35 per bottle.
By Campbell Mattinson is the co-publisher of www.winefront.com.au
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