Insight: Sam Kurtz from St Hugo

January 1, 2015
By Alana House

Sitting down with drinks trade’s Ashley Pini, St Hugo’s chief red winemaker Sam Kurtz looked at 30 years of St Hugo, Chinese wine tastes, an international market push, his history in wine and explained what the future might have in store for St Hugo.

drinks trade: It’s been 30 years, are there big birthday plans
for St Hugo?

SK: We have got a 30-year retrospective tasting in the Barossa where we will go through the whole lot [of vintages] – well, as many as we can find.

We are struggling to find bottles for some vintages, but we should pretty well come close on getting the full selection. It should be an eye opener for most punters. We do a museum tasting every year, but I think it is a favourite for the winemakers when we do the Hugo tasting.

DT: How many vintages out of the 30 have you released?

SK: In 30 years we have only skipped two – in 2011 and 1995. Both were way too wet. Other than that we have gone all the way through.

DT: You have been involved in the brand now for 15 years  – half its life – that is quite significant. You have had a real impact on the life scale of St Hugo.

SK: It is constantly an evolution, but when it’s not broken we don’t fix it. For example, we settled oak a long time ago – we have fined tuned it with different coopers but we aren’t necessarily changing ratios of oak and how long it stays in oak, other than perhaps when it comes down to different vintages. So if it is a more intense or less intense vintage we need to counter-balance that, but we aren’t working from scratch – we are standing on our predecessor’s shoulders.   

DT: You are a sixth generation Barossa – were the previous generations also involved in the wine industry?   

SK: My dad worked for Orlando, my grandparents were grape growers and my uncles on each side of the family were also grape growers.

I grew up around it, but for most kids when you are 16 years old the last thing that is cool or interesting is what your family has been involved in. I studied engineering for a year, hated it, and didn’t know what I was going to do.

I took a job stacking bottles on the bottling line at Saltram, and then once I had done that for the Christmas rush I got a vintage job filling chardonnay and cabernet into barrels. That is when I started to think that the whole wine game was pretty interesting – it has the chemistry, the science, and a lot of things like that that I was interested in, but then it also has an artistic streak to it – it has geography, history, and a lot of creativity in the marketing.

DT: The ‘10 is just releasing now and, as mentioned earlier, the brand is celebrating 30 years. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

SK: The ’10 is a fantastic vintage. It actually started out a little bit worrying because of the record heat in November. We had 40-degree heat in November, which is unheard of.

We were a little concerned about that, but there were good moisture reserves in the vines. It did impact on set a little bit, so it was a little bit lighter, but that actually turned out positive – eventually it settled into a more normal year.

We had a nice mild to hot summer, and then perfect ripening conditions in autumn. The ‘10’s across the board are really strong, really vibrant, really pure, really nice depth of flavour, and in Coonawarra it is a very strong vintage, probably a nine out of 10. 

DT: When do you make that call as to how strong a vintage is?

SK: Normally you get a good feel of classification around July. By then we can see how they are starting to settle down.

It is a constant vetting process right through until it goes to bottle.

DT: What does it retail for?

SK: It retails between $45 and $50, but sometimes you see it for less than that. In the past there has been the odd bit where it has dipped under $30, but we’re really trying hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.

We have a pretty strong market in China, and ultimately if there is too much discounting going on here then we are probably more likely to send the stock to China.

DT: Is it a well-received label in China?

SK: Yes, it is going quite well there. At the moment a lot of prestige is important in China and St Hugo fits the bill very nicely for that.

DT: And will the wine cellar well?

SK: Yes – we have the 30-year tasting coming up, and we have
run through it on a lot of occasions over the years, and pretty
well every single vintage you will find very good bottles dating as far back as 1980.

DT: Is it cork in the Chinese market?

SK: Yes it is. They are still very strong about cork, although it is interesting in that the cork demand seems to be from the very top. When you get to the sales guys and some of the restaurant owners, they seem a lot happier with screw cap.

DT: You are a fan of the screw cap?

SK: Yes – we first started using it back in ’98 with Richmond Grove Watervale, which was one of the first wineries to do it, and also Richmond Grove Barossa Riesling as well. Those wines are still drinking beautifully now.

The only potential risk is the reduction issue, but as long as your winemaking is clean up front then you generally having nothing to worry about.

DT: I am interested in understanding the Jacob’s Creek label – it is under the label, but at the same time it isn’t?

SK: It is in transition; Jacob’s Creek is being moved progressively off the label, and from the screw cap.

We generally bottle things a year or two before we label them. Initially the reason we went to Jacob’s Creek was for the international market perspective. It did grow extremely well under that name internationally but we feel at the end of the day, St Hugo is developing enough of a following and is becoming a very strong brand in its own right. It is certainly very well recognised in the domestic market and is building a strong following internationally.

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