Monthly Report - March 2009
Bringing in the grapes…
Well some at least, with the Viognier picked and safely in tank or barrel completing its ferment. This year we have a good 61/2 tonnes of Viognier so we will at last have a good supply of this wine which was so popular when we made it last in 2007. A combination of barrel fermenting and tank fermenting is being used to add complexity to the wine as well as give it a bit more body to match the lovely nectarine and honey suckle flavors we see in our version of the wine.
No reds have been picked as yet and I am not sure if we will utilise all our grapes this year as I doubt some of the varieties will be able to meet a sufficient standard to be in a Blue Poles wine. The Shiraz is looking fine and it should be picked in 10-14 days, and our Teroldego will reach ripeness in about the same time frame. We are very excited about the Teroldego as the fruit to date just tastes sensational with gorgeous cherry flavors and lovely bright acids – hardly any new oak this year as we work out what is the best way of handling the variety but if the flavors follow through to the finished wine we will all be in for a treat. The Bordeaux varieties of Merlot and Cab Franc have had a difficult year with the flowering and cap fall very disrupted and a cool start to the vintage which has pushed the fruit ripening out of sync with the fruit flavors. We will continue to monitor, and if we get some heat to finish off and these varieties react well, we will make our signature wine – but if not, it may be a case of looking ahead to next year.
Shiraz grapes ripening
The rise (and fall?) of Parkerized Australia…
It is an interesting time in the wine industry throughout the world. We have perhaps the biggest financial crisis since the great depression of the 1930’s which will directly impact on one of life’s little luxuries, wine. Since about 2000, the price of top end wine from anywhere around the world has gone right out of the stratosphere and for middle of the road folk like myself, the opportunity of purchasing well regarded wine from anywhere was dramatically reduced. Throw in a desire to hold on to your money until we know how all this financial chaos will end, then who will be purchasing the pantheon of exclusive wines around the world? One area of the expensive wine world that will be absolutely smashed is the high end wines from Australia that are exported to America, and this is what I would like to talk about here.
The rise and rise of Australian wines exported to America can be pin pointed back to almost a single event, a moment in time. The release of Robert Parker Jnr’s (RPJ) 23rd April 1999 Issue #122 of “The Wine Advocate”. It was like a bolt from the blue, often scores were rarely over 94-95 points in RPJ’s world, some Bordeaux tastings of 1000’s of wines from a specific vintage may accumulate <20 wines that were rated so highly, and often they were the very pricey first growths and “garagiste” wines that most wine drinkers could only dream about. But here was RPJ giving out extremely high scores to what appeared to be very reasonably priced wines from Australia – anyone with $30 could effectively go out and buy a 97 pointer, and a little bit more and you are into 98, 99, and even 100 points … the holy grail. The wines that Parker loved were the super concentrated Shiraz and equivalent wines of the Barossa and McLaren Vale of South Australia. Over 70% of all his recommendations came from these two areas alone, and as for the very high points it was only these table wines that floated his boat (he does enjoy Rutherglen fortified wines, but who doesn't!).
It rolled on like a train down a hill, by 2002- 2003 there were significant threads on forums in American wine circles on which Aussie wines will be purchased, where the best pricing was, and the rising costs of these “beauties”. With this obvious market ripe for the picking, many wineries from both the Barossa and McLaren Vale suddenly found that you can generate $100+ bottling for a specific market if you had a wine which met an expectation. Many virtual wineries were generated and the older growers must have felt like all their Christmases had come at once, as prices for old vine Shiraz fruit went through the roof as these wineries were desperate to get access to the American market and all that it entailed. While all this “noise” was being generated, the balance of the Australian wine industry just got on with making wine which best suited their regions – of course many tried to make super wine equivalents and often these wines received some notoriety but were never considered typical of the growing zone from which they came.
The other spin-off of this attention to Australian wines by RPJ was the Yellow Tail phenomenon – or “critter” labels as they became known. Australia already had a presence in the US with wines from the major wine companies, which filled a cheap and cheerful gap – Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay is an example of that, huge seller at sub $10 and not a bad drop. But with the fascination for these RPJ wines coming out of Australia, a new group of wine drinkers entering the market place who wished to share in this culture, and a fascination with “value” – the cheap and sweet wines of the Yellow Tail stable simply took wine from Australia to another level. I will not delve into where this market segment is going as I have no real knowledge of it, but I suspect that Cassellas wines and other Australian equivalents can get through these times alright, as they can move their product to where the market is trending with regards to price and taste – the super premiums can not as they are locked into the RPJ world where the expectations are unchanging and unchallenged.
Now please do not assume that I am against these RPJ wines from South Australia, I personally do not enjoy drinking many of them, but apparently a lot of people do and good on them. The issue I have with these wines is simply that they are deemed to be the “best” wines in Australia from one of the world’s most influential wine critics and through the subsequent pricing of these wines in the market place.
So what can the rest of us do? We can take inverse snobbism to another level, comparing our wines to the best of Europe and other “classy” new world producers, and trying to belittle RPJ – but that becomes petty and who really cares? Our wines do not exactly taste like those wines and vary in quality enough to have critics of our “presumptuousness” to destroy our la-de-da attitude. We must simply make high quality VALUE wine that can be promoted on the world stage – we should not presume to be world's best and then charge accordingly as it will unravel as we are about to see for even the best wines of France.
Back to the story … sorry about the diversion.
All was going swimmingly for the Parker portion of the Australian wine industry until cracks started to appear – RPJ stated that he was standing down from tasting the Australian wine portion of “The Wine Advocate”. In itself this is not unusual, RPJ has many tasters for his journal and his replacement “Dr Jay Miller” was effectively a clone judging by his comments on wine for and within the Advocate itself. Dr J had attended many of the Australian tastings with RPJ throughout the years and seemed a sensible replacement. But you can imagine the nervousness of many of the wineries that were relying on this Dr J and how his comments were to be accepted by the high end wine buying public of the US. They held their collective breaths and early this year out came the Australian reviews in Advocate #181, titled …
Australia 2009: Into the abyss
Now this title was not a great start, however if you were only looking at the scores the world was safe and secure as the usual suspects were getting terrific scores and they still had terrific prices allocated to each of the wines. But unfortunately the text of the report was also read by the RPJ buying public and they did not take to what was being presented at all. Apart from the 40% of all wines recommended which failed to have a tasting note beside their name, Dr J made the error of indicating that he considers that there “are” wines of high quality from outside the Barossa/McLaren Vale consortium, but did he rate any of these wine, ahhhh, no. With this frank admission that other wines (and styles) in Australia may exist he put RPJ in the frame, as he has dismissed almost all other areas as insignificant (apart from the occasional notorious wine that has a go at meeting the RPJ “standard”), and he seems to be in text undermining what wines he has promoted through high scores.
All of these issues were not lost on the forum members of RPJ’s website and they slammed into Dr J with all guns blazing. From the tasting methodology, to the reliance on importers (and their somewhat cozy relationships), to his comments, and lack of tasting notes – it was a free for all, and for the first time in many years there was no major rebuttal from RPJ or from his most ardent followers. The attack thread was closed, but by then the damage was done and it leaves me with the feeling that all things at The Wine Advocate are not well.
RPJ is used to criticism due to his huge status within the world of wine review - he has put it back on everyone with the argument “If you don’t like it, don’t follow me”. Which is more than fair enough, but, for one tiny point, he makes wines sell and to not follow a Parker model (especially for an American winery), risks losing your business. But even in the land of RPJ there comes a time when the subservient masses can turn around and bite you. If you have time, have a look through this documentary on the state of play in the Napa through the eyes of a Mike Moore wannabe Tina Caputo:
Like the cracks in a dam, shots fired by well respected winemakers in Tom Eddy and Randy Dunn of the Napa Valley pour scorn on the edifice of the “big is better” model. This continues with the losing relevance of RPJ to many wine making nations because simply, they can not be heard. Add to this the disbelief of the continuing high scores for Australian Shiraz wines from Dr J, even though many have commented that these wines do not age and are not “food friendly”, for a better term. And you have a feeling that the edifice that is The Wine Advocate is starting to crumble – if not falling.
[Closing my eyes and thinking deeply for a minute, all I can see is that within America there is a huge opportunity for an intelligent, wine savvy importer – if they can provide the spark of interest in non-parkerized wines, matching the mood of many Americans. Access to excellent wines in Australia is almost without hindrance – the amount of wines from outside of the “critter” wines and “Parker” wines is huge and many are excellent and superb value regardless of style preferences.]
So if the Advocate loses flavor, where does this new age of enlightened wine lovers go to get their point scoring fix? Well this is not a simple transference from one ship to another – there are no major wine critics untainted by at least one aspect of the industry. It is highly unlikely that another Wine Advocate will be developed, as it is simply too unwieldy and cumbersome. It comes down to the “communicatability” of the wine industry, from the simple grape grower to the biggest wine organisations. I have coined this term as it represents our millennial age and even old fuddy duddies like me that try and live within it. To be communicatable you need to be the following:
You must be accessible to the world
You must be able to respond to any requests quickly and efficiently
You must be seen to generate content such that you are always active
You must follow trends in communication and recognise where these trends lead
You must have a desire to share news about your and other’s wine freely and without strings attached
You must never heavily self-promote
The effect of global communications can not be underestimated. With this potential move away from the wine critic hierarchy, the the next best option for anyone interested in fine wine is to check what is happening in the world of wine with a series of clicks and google searches – wineries have to be prepared to designate a portion of their day to this. For a small boutique winery like ours, the added bonus for visitors who contact us is that their queries will be answered directly by the owners – no middle men, just us, doing our best. Hope to hear from you all, you can meet us at this site of course, but also www.twitter.com/BluePoles where there are daily updates on how vintage is going, as well as news of the world around us in Margaret River.
A mixed bag ...
March is always a tricky month to talk about as it contains the end of Summer and the start of Autumn – and not always in that order! This year, with the coolish spring, we knew that March had to be warm and dry to get us through to completion for all our red varieties, and it started off really well with two weeks of lovely weather. But...there is always a but...the weather patterns started moving away from the summer oscillations to more of the winter oscillations with cold fronts touching the capes region of Western Australia and causing light showers and cloudy, cool, windy days. This slowed the vines down in the latter half of the month and some of the red varieties are now unlikely to make full physiological ripeness with their best flavour and acid profiles preserved.
We did have one lucky break at the start of the month with a large storm cell moving through the capes region which missed us by 2 kilometres. Over 25mm of rainfall with destructive winds were associated with the event and we could watch it move across the horizon line to the south of us – very spectacular.
The numbers for the month and last year’s figures are provided below:
Avg Maximum Temp 24.5°C
Daily Max recorded 35.1°C
Avg Minimum Temp 11.9°C
Daily Min recorded 6.5°C
The 2009 maximum temperature average is lower in comparison to last years, as is the minimum temperature average, though they are relatively similar and consistent with the averages recorded for March. Very little rainfall was recorded this year, and even in 2008 there was only one day with rainfall >3.0mm.
Avg Maximum Temp 25.0°C
Daily Max recorded 29.8°C
Avg Minimum Temp 13.0°C
Daily Min recorded 7.7°C
Both Eldridge Estate and Majella have sent in some updates on their respective vintages and it makes for interesting reading. David Lloyd of Eldridge in the Mornington Peninsula has yet to commence vintage with the Chardonnay due in the next few days and then the Pinot Noir in a week or two post that. Crop is very low due to extreme heat events and possible losses to mildews, but David is very excited about the fruit flavors and quality – one to look out for as these late harvest wines also tend to be the more long lived, but there is always less of them! Prof Lynne of Majella dropped in a note from Thailand as he jets around the world promoting his excellent wine. Majella’s Shiraz and Riesling are now safely in the winery with only the bulk of the cabernet sauvignon to come in. He is very confident of a good vintage which is great news.
Here are the weather values for both sites:
Coonawarra March 2009:
Avg Maximum Temp 24.9°C
Daily Max recorded 35.4°C
Avg Minimum Temp 9.6°C
Daily Min recorded 0.9°C
Mornington March 2009:
Avg Maximum Temp 22.7°C
Daily Max recorded 34.6°C
Avg Minimum Temp 12.5°C
Daily Min recorded 5.0°C
Both sites have cooled down from the highs of February and both also have picked up a bit of rain during the month. The diurnal variation seen in the Coonawarra data helps preserve flavors in the grapes, but there needs to be sunny days to bring the sugars up, and this appears to have been the case making the vintage turn out alright. Mornington has had quite a few cool cloudy days, slowing the rate of ripening and giving the vignerons a few nervous walks amongst the vines as mildews can easily bloom in such weather. If the grapes come off clean from Mornington, then there is an opportunity for excellent fruit flavor retention and that means terrific wine.
There are only a few more weeks to go for this vintage. The reds will continue to be monitored with the Shiraz and Teroldego definite starters for vinifying, but we will hold the call on the Bordeaux varieties until we can be sure the fruit will make wine of sufficient quality. It has been a tricky vintage and next month I will have a look at why the vintage seems to have fallen away a bit – we are still super happy with the Viognier and there will also be many excellent white wines from the Margaret River region, but the reds will be on a variety by variety / location by location basis. All the best everyone, and as always if you wish to ask anything of us here at Blue Poles, do not hesitate to contact us.
As always if you have any queries about what’s been written or about wine in general, do not hesitate to contact us either by email or www.twitter.com/bluepoles and we’ll do our very best to answer any question.
Blue Poles Vineyard