Chris Hill is as happy at 45 degrees to the tarmac racing his Grand Prix bike as he is checking out the contents of Vat 45. SUSAN KEEVIL takes a spin with this multi-talented Australian winemaker
‘I’m a gentleman biker – not like these young kids trying to kill themselves. For me it’s just a bit of fun. My talents are in winemaking not in biking.’ And they’re in winemaking quite by chance, as it happens. Chris Hill is a qualified exploration geologist. Copper, lead and zinc were his subjects, and he was busy looking for new deposits in Tasmania when it occurred to him that he was stuck in the middle of nowhere making the wrong kind of discovery. ‘I was relatively young, I ended up in some relatively remote towns. I ended up thinking: “What options do I have here? I’m bored of never seeing anyone, but what other careers are there where I can work creatively, outdoors?” As I come from South Australia, wine was the obvious thing. And once you’ve got wine in your blood there’s not much you can do.’Hill took his gregarious soul off to Roseworthy winemaking college and changed his life for the better. He couldn’t have trained at a more optimal time. There were several legendary winemakers around to learn from, but not many technicians. Opportunity in the Australian wine industry was abundant. Hill was then in his early twenties. When he left Roseworthy in 1983, he went to work with Barossa Valley legend, Peter Lehmann. A few years’ winemaking under his belt (with Lehmann, at Leo Buring and at Karrawirra wines, all in the Barossa), Hill then headed for Sydney to broaden his talents and try out wine marketing. Also to involve himself in the new family wholesale business, Blue Hills Liquor Distributors. Hill was appointed by his father, Terry, to oil the wheels and get things going. Forging links into Sydney’s burgeoning restaurant network proved the outlet for more of his non- geological talents, and when Hunter Valley wine guru Len Evans spotted this, he lost no time in acquiring these skills for the esteemed Rothbury estate. In brief: Hill took on domestic sales and marketing for Len, increased turnover fivefold in three years and then, when Rothbury was taken over by Fosters/Mildara Blass, he decided to head back to the family unit again.
More on winemaking
Now, with all the alchemical tricks up his sleeve for moving wine from grape to glass (and enough capital from the success of the distribution business), he decided it was time to get back to the heart of the matter. In 1996 the Hill group – with Hill as general manager – purchased Basedow winery in the Barossa Valley, completing a portfolio which also included Fern Hill Estate (purchased in 1994) and Marienberg in the McLaren Vale (purchased in 1991). Hill now had the reserves on which to indulge his true passion, winemaking.Today, Hill is very much a businessman-winemaker (he works with Grant Burge as consultant). The Hill Wine Group is based in Sydney still, so his office work is mostly done on an aeroplane. He wears two watches (‘because I’m not very clever’): a smart analogue with New South Wales time, and a plastic digital watch set to the hour of his destination. The latter might be anywhere in the world, but during vintage it’s a commute to Adelaide by 8am, Barossa by 9.
So is all this big business, or small? ‘Well, we’re not a Rosemount or a Southcorp or a Hardys. We’re probably at the small end of medium and the high end of small. We treat each one of our three wine brands as its own unique parcel so Basedow (Barossa, famed for its Semillon) is a fair sized one; Marienberg (McLaren Vale, home of the prestige Bellevue Village series) is a bit smaller, and then the new vineyards are 45ha (hectares) in the Adelaide Hills. We’re lucky enough to be distributed in 21 different countries, but we’re still part of “Brand Australia”. You don’t see us everywhere, but people know who we are.’
Ambition oozes, but despite the big aims, the ideals are boutique-scale. Hill thinks too much winemaking is done by numbers. ‘What I learnt in Burgundy was that good wine is not just about a Beaumé reading for sugar, or charts for acidity or pH, it’s about the flavour development you detect on the palate. Numbers that you had on a bit of paper last year may not give you the same flavour this year. It’s not like making a cake!’
Bulk blends defence
Are the bigger Australian wineries using recipes? ‘I think the answer is no. It’s actually harder to make a consistent-tasting quality mainstream wine than it is a top-notch barrel of “reserve”. Those tend to make themselves. Our biggest selling brands are successful because they are consistent and reliable for people who want a low-risk experience. Not everybody who consumes wine has the same level of understanding, or passion, about it!’By defending the bulk blends, you again get the feeling that Hill wants a piece of the big time for himself, but his heart is sensitive. ‘As winemakers, all we do is manage things, let them express themselves. It’s like raising children from the freshness of youth, through puberty to adulthood. The entire job is to let them go through that but with a bit of encouragement. Not to try and make a Rhodes scholar out of an artist,’ he laughs, ‘and not to try and prevent a person, or wine, with individual character from displaying it. So if you have a particular nuance of vineyard, or terroir, encourage it to come out rather than subduing it, and rather than making everything the same by, I guess, restricting the adventurous ones and encouraging the less adventurous.’
Inevitably, all this starts in the vineyard. The new Adelaide Hills vines, purchased in 1998, are taking up a lot of Hill’s valuable time. Consider that just a few years ago these were potato fields and you see why. ‘They’re going to give us our new brand eventually. We’ve got Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Merlot. You don’t get the high levels of ripeness here, as you do out of McLaren Vale or Barossa. And Merlot is nice, a kind of structured, cool-climate wine. We’re getting quite aromatic, intense flavours at low sugar levels, which means the alcohols won’t get too high.’Hill won’t tell us what he’s going to call these new wines – not yet anyway – but maybe it’ll be something Burgundian, as this is where his (non-Aussie) inspiration lies. ‘I hate to use the term, but I like that small grower, peasant mentality. I find Bordeaux a little intimidating and Champagne the same. I’m not sure, but I guess it’s part of being Australian. We have an approachable, friendly culture and expect to see others being the same.’
California vs Australia
And the Californians? ‘I see in California what I saw in Australian winemaking in the 1980s: “a little bit’s good, but a lot’s great!” And that’s the same whether it’s piling in wood, alcohol, or bulking up the price. “I’ll copy you, but I’ll copy you better!” I suppose there’s some satisfaction in one-upmanship, seeing the price of your wine increase all the time, but I think they’re overdoing it. In some ways it’s the formula versus the craft. I’m certainly not at the level of being a connoisseur of fine art, but there is something immediately obvious about the simple beauty of great pieces of art, or sculpture or even music. Things that have huge quantities of all the right elements won’t necessarily be as pleasurable to the eye (or palate) as the original.
‘In Australia, our top wines are pitched at a more manageable price level. I’d like to think we offer value for money. For me it’s not about getting medals, but about being with people that I don’t know, and who don’t have to say nice things. When they do say nice things about your wine, you think: “They might really mean that!”‘Hill sums it all up with a nod to his mentors, to Peter Lehmann and Len Evans. ‘Peter taught me loyalty and to be committed to what you really feel. A true respect for every part of the chain. Len taught me to sell the message, and don’t take no for an answer!’ You can see he lives by these messages. Gentle giant and gentleman biker he might be, but there’s a determined streak that’s going to take Basedow and co very far.