A Winederful Chat with Franco of Hoddles Creek Estate in the Yarra
I met with Franco of Hoddles Creek Estate on a warm Tuesday morning in the Yarra Valley. The border between metro Melbourne and regional Victoria that had been set up during the COVID-19 pandemic had just been removed a few weeks earlier so I was keen to visit especially with the popularity of Hoddles Creek wines at Swanny Cellars.
The property was bought in 1961 by Franco’s parents and was named after the Hoddles Creek that runs across the land. In Italy, as Franco explains, they had always had a farm and therefore once they had saved enough money, bought this land with the knowledge the creek would provide irrigation for their vegetables. As children, Franco and his three siblings, would come up here on weekends to tend to the vegetables. However it was another 40 years until the first vineyard was planted encouraged by their good friend Mario Marson (who has been the winemaker at Mount Mary and Jasper Hill).
Franco’s identical twin brother Anthony helped to plant the first vineyard in 1997. Then after studying his Commerce degree, Franco joined the family business in 1999 with the intention to only stay for 2 weeks and is still there today. He soon started a viticulture degree while working full time and looking after a young family with his wife. A talented and unassuming winemaker, I felt privileged to have the time with Franco who describes himself a “farmer” and loves spending time in the vineyard. Franco took the time to answer my questions and take me through the winery tasting from one of the fermentation vats and in the barrel room.
All the wines are from the vineyard around the winery with minimal intervention focusing on keeping the balance in the vineyard. As Franco explains, “We try to get everything right during the growing season so pretty much the wines make themselves. We don’t filter, use fining agents or add acid.” As an unassuming winemaker, Franco doesn’t add that it also requires the talent and skill to make great wines.
Franco also doesn’t highlight that it was he and Mario who put Pinot Blanc on the map with huge success. And it was from that success that many other wineries around Australia started planting this grape variety. “Pinot Blanc retains its acid really well and shows site as it is not about the sunshine but more about the soil it’s grown in. We planted it in 1997, and the first commercial release was 2008 as it took a long time to work out.” And the wait was indeed worth it.
A boutique winery
Hoddles Creek Estate which is described as a boutique winery. Asking Franco what boutique means to him, he says, “We run the farm now like we have always run it. Like a small operation. All my staff including me are out in the vineyards every day and only really go into the winery when there is work to be done. I’d rather be looking after the vines. Boutique to me is getting your hands dirty and physically doing the work.”
The Syberia label
There are currently four labels (Estate wines, Wickhams Road, 1er Yarra Valley and Syberia) and I was intrigued by the Syberia label and wanted to find out more about the story and how the altitude affected the wine.
“Syberia is our highest block. Back in the early 2000’s when we were getting a lot of heat spikes and sunburn we needed to have a block that ran East-West so the sun would be directly overhead and not smashing the fruit. The name ’Syberia’ was from an old potato farmer who called it that. When it was hot, it is really hot, and the opposite in winter. The only thing that grew there was vines and the soil was so poor. It makes the vines struggle, limits its yields which creates a wine with finesse but great concentration.” I was lucky to try this wine and the concentration is phenomenal.
How the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Franco and the business
Living in Victoria during the pandemic, it has affected everyone differently and I wanted to find out how Franco had managed.
“As a family, we have had the best year of our life. Staying up on the farm has shown us what you really miss out on when you concentrate on work so heavily. The kids know how to drive a manual, drive a truck and grateful they have seen all the seasons on the farm. In a business prospective, we were fine. Sales were strong and I think we are lucky enough to work in this industry.”
Hopes for the winery in the future
“Maybe one day the kids will take over, I want to keep making good wine and most importantly enjoy what I’m doing. I don’t want to get bored!”
Franco’s ‘go to’ wine
With so many years of tasting and making wine, I’m always curious to find out what a winemaker’s drink of choice is when they’re relaxing.
For Franco, “Anything really, it really depends on what we are doing. Sometimes sitting outside enjoying a cold glass of bubbles. At the end of the day, wine is a beverage and we overcomplicate it sometimes.”
I can’t imagine Franco has much spare time outside of work with the hours he spends in the vineyard.
He says, “I love spending time with the family, and golf is my passion. I’m not very good at it but it gives me an out from the rigours of work and life at home with four daughters.”
Hoddles Estate truly remains a family business with the four siblings (Franco, his twin brother, older sister and younger brother) each responsible for different parts of the company.
Perhaps the third generation will take over in the future, but for now, with such high demand for their wines, they are in the best position to keep making their boutique wines from their single estate.
Text written by Ruth Turnbull, Swanny Cellar’s Roaming Reporter.
About the Roaming Reporter:
Ruth Turnbull is the Roaming Reporter for Swanbourne Cellars. Having studied the WSET Advanced Certificate and WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits, Ruth has worked in the wine trade in both London and Perth for over 15 years. While living in WA, Ruth was a regular Panel member on the Liquor Barons Panel and managed the digital marketing for Swanbourne Cellars. Now based in Melbourne, with COVID restrictions easing, Ruth is meeting winemaker in order to highlight and share their story on the Swanbourne Cellars blog and social media channels.