Neill Robb doesn’t like the word “artisan.” Neither does he like to talk about winemaking in terms of love, either. Or art. Or mystery.
“I’m a tradesman,” he says, in a way meant to dismiss hype. “I’m just a professional winemaker, and that’s all. It’s not about passion. It’s about making the absolute best wine I can. People don’t want to hear that. They think I’m a cold, heartless bastard, and I am a cold, heartless bastard when I make wine.”
Small and compact of build, with an intensely ruddy complexion, Robb is being modest; he’s apparently been making sensationally delicious wines since he first opened his Redbank Winery, in Victoria, Australia, in the early 1970s. I haven’t tasted his past vintages, but his current releases impress me a great deal. More importantly, though, I love his way of talking and his no-BS lack of pretension.
Robb grew up in the Australian wine industry, following around a viticulturist father. The moment of truth came when he was in his early twenties. “I had no money and a pregnant wife, so I did the only intelligent thing I could do: I resigned from my job. I was pretty much unemployable, anyway. I was too angry,” he says. “Decided to go out on my own, borrowed some money to buy property.”
The land he bought, in the Australian Pyrenees region, was largely overgrown with red ironbark eucalyptus trees. “Hard as hell that wood, ruin all your tools,” Robb tells me. He knows what he’s talking about, too; he built himself a house with that wood. He also built himself a winery, planting his first vines in 1973. He’s got 45 acres of grapes now, and he produces 8,000 cases a year, both for an export label he calls Hundred Tree Hill, and for the 1,000 annual cases of a bottling called Sally’s Paddock. Named for his wife, it’s a single four-acre block where he dry-farms the entire blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
I ask about the joys of his life. “Wake up in the morning and I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he tells me. “I do what I feel like. It’s a pretty free life.”
And then we begin to drink.
2005 Hundred Tree Hill Chardonnay, Redbank Winery
Grapes: 100 percent Chardonnay
Aging: 40 percent of it spends four months in 1- to 2-year-old French oak, so the oak flavor is very subtle, strictly background.
Price: $24.99 online
My Tasting Notes: I thought this was very balanced and accomplished, a take-me-home-and-love-me kind of wine.
2004 Hundred Tree Hill Cabernet
Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc
Price: $24.99 online
My Tasting Notes: This one had a big, herbaceous nose, and when I asked Robb about it, and if that came from the Cab Franc in the blend, he said something funny. “Yeah, I used to use the term forest floor, until I tasted a forest floor,” he said. “I find a lot black cherry—sour cherry—character in this wine. There’s thyme in here, spice. It’s fully mature fruit as opposed to ripe fruit.”
2005 Sally’s Paddock
Grapes: Robb reckoned it was 35 to 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 35 to 40 percent Shiraz, 15 percent Cabernet Franc, 5 percent Merlot, and some Malbec
Price: AUS$49.99 online
My Tasting Notes: I liked this wine so much it made me want to shake the guy’s hand, so I did. It’s flat-out terrific, mouth-filling and complex and full of character, but also very specific. Not at all a big, generic international red.