Monthly Report - August 2009
Soon it all starts again …
The last two weeks of August for us are one of the so-called quiet times in our vineyard’s year, pruning is finished and vines are just about to budburst into a new vintage. So for me it should be out with the wine, decent book and the rocking chair … alas not. Even though we now live on the estate, the list of jobs to do has grown ever longer as I try to make the vintage in front of me that little bit easier and the work in the vines timelier.
One job I have put off for a while is a complete clean out of the irrigation system prior to turning it on in December / January … last year I forgot about this and spent a week racing around trying to get valves fixed and the like. Well I have pulled it apart with my spanners and screwdrivers, given it the once over and put it back together, and by golly it even turned on – two days well spent.
Another job which was left last year was the roses at the head of all our rows. This year we have gone in there and sorted them out and reset them for a spectacular show. Now weeding under row is a never ending task, but spraying out wild radish has just meant more was set the following year – it is a nasty weed – so this year we have gone and pulled it out by hand and formed a small hill of the stuff to be burnt as it dries out a bit. The back has been stiff for a few days now, but it will be all worth it when that match is struck! Also just finished the planning of the coming vintages spray program, and it sort of gets you excited with the expectation of the vines up and running and the crop coming through. I have set up little experiments around the vineyard to test the advantages of various ground covers, under vine treatments and pruning methods – this should give me a greater understanding of the best way forward in all these areas, as well as let me play in my beloved excel spreadsheets.
Amongst all these tasks around the vines, we have been busy organising a couple of dinners to showcase our wines. This has been a bit of fun as we are matching our wines with French examples of the same weight and style and the restaurants we have contacted in Sydney and Melbourne have both been marvellous in matching the wines with the courses. I am very much looking forward to the dinners, but having spent so many days in the quiet and solitude of Margaret River this month I may be a bit shell shocked for the first few days in the big “smoke”. You may also note that even our website has had a bit of a scrub and clean so as to make it a bit easier to access and navigate your way around.
Marsanne in Budburst
What is wrong with Australian wine?
Well what is wrong with Australian wine? I believe we make some very good wine but for those of us in the wine industry, it has become almost commonplace to hear unfettered negative opinion on the state of Australian wine. It comes in the form of outright criticism, back handed compliments, discussions on all aspects of the industry, and where the industry is headed. It really has become a media free for all as they clamber over each other to tell you about each and every angle of the “Australian wine collapse”, just in case we may have missed it the first time around.
In this tsunami of blather, there was one really interesting article written by Felicity Carter, the editor-in-chief of Meinenberger’s Wine Business International, a global wine magazine. She presented this in July 2009 at the Wine Communicators of Australia lecture series (t's Not What's in the Glass — Why Personality Matters ) and received heaps of discussion due to the perceived negativity and generalisms presented in the talks. [The article is no longer available online, but these links refer to it]:
Felicity makes numerous points that are worthy of whole tomes of discussion. The way she has presents her arguments gives the reader the impression the wine industry is in a small dark room having the life squeezed out of it, and that even the rays of opportunity seem to be without much substance or structure. Her main points with regards to Wine Australia as I saw them were:
Australian wines are regarded with vitriol by more established wine producing countries
Australian wines stole a march on the world with its clean, consistent, varietal wines that sold an image of “sunshine in a bottle” and “value for money”
Times have changed, most new and old countries make wines to the same quality and price point as Australia, and due to our lack of cultural links to wine we are now “without reason” as a wine producing country
The wine industry TELLS everyone we are in trouble as well, self-priming the publicity pump for more bad news. The transparency of our industry which was seen as a positive is now proving to be negative
Australian wines are represented by large singular organisations, confirming the idea we are one big homogeneous wine region
Regionality of Australian wines needs to be promoted – but this will be at the cost of not promoting some regions as they will not meet criteria
Wine is linked directly to the countries culture and these links must be amplified 100 fold so as to make a “point of difference” – whatever Aussie culture we can find, jump on it and place wine next to it (even use modern cultural icons such as Cate Blanchett as ambassadors)
We must bring back the Australian Personality back into the wines by promoting the winemakers and “crazy” industry identities, so as to show there are more than groups of grey suits lined up behind the wine racks
Provide a more “multi-cultural” face for Australian wine, giving a lead in to the emerging markets of Asia
Reading and re-reading the lecture transcript started to give me a feeling that the wine industry is a flailing mammoth in the tar pit … but after a while I began to see where this analysis has not quite hit the mark and possibly the alternate way forward, even when the bulk of the discussion is solid.
The problem that Australia has, and no amount of massaging of facts or dates will fix it, is that we have no history of fine table wine in Australia. Now before you jump up and down and splutter profanities, think clearly for a minute. All of our now famous “historic” table wines are just on 50 years old – in fact my parents could have drunk them quite cheaply in the 60’s and 70’s. The classification of our finest wines really has come about in our lifetimes, and I am only 45 years old (which is still very old according to my daughters), but I remember clearly when wine became the new black in the 1980’s.
If we go back to the start, all of our pioneering wineries were built as close as possible to the first major settlements in Australia, as that was where the market was. Perth’s Swan, Sydney’s Hunter, Melbourne’s Yarra, Adelaide’s Barossa / McLaren … you see the connection. These early pioneers were simply fulfilling the needs of any 19th Century colony for alcohol, the fact that the environment was Mediterranean meant that vines flourished with a bit of care and the product was quite drinkable. The predominant wines made were fortified wines, table wines may have been made in small amounts for the owners and the “Governor’s House” but they were a rarity until the late 40’s and 50’s (which matches almost perfectly with the arrival of the European war refugees taking their culture into Australia, unsurprisingly), and even then they were not common. Thus the regions that we now revere for their fantastic table wines, really only started making these wines from the 1950’s, and if you encounter a table wine made before this in Australia you are looking at the rarest of rare. Thus, a large table wine loving public is a relatively modern phenomenon, and this is the case you could argue throughout most of the new world.
Let us leap forward to the early 1980’s when wine really started its rise in the public’s consciousness. The wineries that had been around for a while were now producing solid table wines to meet the growing demand of a more “aware” public, and at the same time could see the huge marketing opportunity that was in front of them. New wineries also started to appear, but most of the early well-established wineries that were well run basically took over the “volume” side of the industry. The owners were innovative and knew that their profile by being the first and having the largest plantings (or access to the largest plantings), meant opportunities grew from every corner.
By the time the 90’s had come around the industry had re-invented itself; large publicly listed companies holding sway over huge plantings and wineries, began to place our wine throughout the world in huge quantities. The initial export forays were by the primary winemakers and owners and they went down well, especially in the UK, but over time “corporate” wine swamped this market with its price pointed wines hitting a whole wave of new wine drinkers. By the late 90’s the USA had discovered (well RPJ did and he told them) a sub-section of Australian wines, the South Australian Shiraz and they were quickly taken up by a less discerning, but much wealthier marketplace. Filling in on the back of this greater Aussie recognition in the US were the “critter” labels that filled the price points that all new drinkers came in at, and they were tailored to a sweeter palate and less stuffy pretence.
During this period of ~1980-2005, Australia gained huge market share in the UK and US market … but lately it has all started to unravel. Having two major corporations with the majority of the wines in these markets, and having them see profit based upon the turn-over, price wars broke out everywhere and the market began to imagine that Australian wines meant “4 for the price of 3”, and at the same time cheaper wines were turning up from Chile, Argentina, Eastern Europe, and even France – and they were drinkable. Why stick with this “discounted” Australian stuff, when I can have a good Argentinean Malbec, or Languedoc Chardonnay? As Australia had been promoted as this homogeneous state, bringing up how good our wines were from all these little “regional” producers really was a waste of time – who was now listening?
Well the press was not. The publicity machine makes or breaks every new winery in Australia. It is often the sole way of getting the message out that your wines are drinkable and available. The wine industries reliance on the media is at times sycophantic and horrid to watch – thus when the press clippings turn negative; there is a mass wailing like never heard before … and the reason? Well it is because we have no history of fine wine in Australia – we rely on the history being re-represented every week in one article or another, and again every year in the annual wine reviews.
Bringing up this lack of history again, brings up another important factor; our lack of ownership “heritage”. Very very few wineries in Australia are owned by descendants of the original developers of the estate. Where there is a heritage link, the wineries tend to be very well known and iconic as they were able to ride the boom years of the 80’s and 90’s giving them the head start on those who followed. With this lack of vineyard “heritage”, the expansion of the known wine regions plantings and the development of these vineyards and wineries are in the hands of only those who can afford to complete this very expensive exercise. Many new owners therefore have little interest in wine but more interest in the opportunity (e.g. one of the most well-known and revered labels in Margaret River has an owner that does not even drink wine). Making fine wine therefore is not so much a goal of many an Australian winery but a potential if everything goes well (you may note that every vintage is between 8-10 out of 10 for most wineries in Australia, how convenient) – now how are we to possibly sell that to a world’s market that has become sick of charlatans and suits?
Thus our lack of heritage matches into our lack of history, and with the development of many wineries as an opportunity to retire in a nice location, thus can we really be expected to be taken too seriously on the wine world stage?
All of Felicity’s points therefore have weight as we do not have a wine culture or really a wine history to add on to our wines for the sake of export. Her solutions through the use of wine “characters” could only be considered a stop gap measure, they simply cannot get out enough due to their wine-based knitting and basically publicity is fleeting. Linking into Australian cultural (is this an oxymoron?) events are very point specific and costly, and unless the linkage is through combined interest (e.g. does Cate Blanchett even drink wine?) then it is doomed to be like an expensive cocaine party in LA – easily forgotten. And trying to break into Asia with the use of “multi-cultural” ambassadors is destined to failure as the bottom line is price and prestige in this market – no matter what you say or who says it!
So what is the solution to our Australian wine impasse? Regardless of the comment from Felicity:
“ … Australia focused too much on what was in the glass and, in the quest to make wine accessible, overlooked or even derided some of these intangible (cultural) associations.”
I believe that the wine itself still must be the difference for the consumer, and the cultural links which relate to the wine are of the vineyard’s terroir and its own cultural associations. Our table wine story in Australia is not a 1000 year history, or even a 200 year history – heavens above, we have major grape growers that do not even drink wine in Margaret River and Barossa, and so there is no point in linking “Australian” table wine culture with our wines.
We need to link wine culture from Europe to our table wines of Australia, and do it in such a way as raising the profile of both when done well. Almost every area of our fine arts links back to the history of Europe, why not wine? All wineries with an eye on making quality table wines will benchmark their wines against those of Europe. Tim Kirk of Clonakilla heavily promoted his time he spent in the Rhône Valley as the influence on the style of wines he produces, and his wines are now seen as “our” best expression of those wines of Cote Rotie and Condrieu. David Lloyd (Eldridge Estate) and numerous other Mornington Peninsula producers spend time in Burgundy France to get a greater appreciation of the wines they are producing … their wines do not mimic those of Burgundy, but they have the stamp of care and understanding which they have taken away from the great estates and négociants of the region.
Blue Poles wines must be seen as quality wines, with a sense of place, made with homage to the great wines of their varietal origin, and be value for money. Not an easy ask, but with this in mind we are prepared to place our wines against excellent examples from France in a series of dinners in Melbourne and Sydney this coming month as discussed above – such that all who attend may see just what we are trying to do, what our wines taste like, and how we are creating the linkages. But we cannot stop moving forward because of a few good wines, our next step in the process of making great wine will be making the wine on our vineyard. However, before we go down this path, I must do an apprenticeship in Bordeaux to gain my “cultural” certificates, as it is the only way forward if we wish to gain the cultural identity of fine wine. Thus, planning to work the 2010 vintage in Bordeaux is currently under way, and each of these little steps will ensure the wines we make in the future will become more consistent, quality driven and delicious.
Cool and consistent...
The month of August is a very variable month as it links into the Spring weather in the south west which is generally quite warm and dry – if this weather arrives too soon, we end up with vines moving too quickly for their own good. Though we have not had the storms of July (though some were promised but not quite delivered), we have had a lot of rainy days throughout the month. Towards the end of August, we started to see some of the summer weather patterns start to emerge, which generally brings a drying trend before it warms up.
The numbers for the month and last year’s figures are provided below:
Avg Maximum Temp 16.2°C
Daily Max recorded 18.7°C
Avg Minimum Temp 9.0°C
Daily Min recorded 3.1°C
It has been a cool month, with the Average Maximum even cooler than July's, and significantly cooler than 2008. The much higher rainfall in 2009 has meant significantly more cloud cover than the dry blue skies of 2008, and this has provided much of the finishing rains required to keep the groundwater levels high and reducing premature budburst which occurred last year.
Avg Maximum Temp 17.3°C
Daily Max recorded 20.8°C
Avg Minimum Temp 5.3°C
Daily Min recorded 0.7°C
Dust off the glad rags …
Well I have one more week of crossing jobs off the list, before I head off to Melbourne and Sydney to do some wine promotions for a couple of weeks. Upon return it is all full steam ahead with weeding, vine spraying, wire dropping, mulching, thinning and numerous other little tasks that keep the days full. Lots of walking in there, so I will be swapping my gumboots for my boots at some point during the month – also possibly moving on to shorts again … “Children, avert ye eyes”. Springtime in the south west of Western Australia is a fantastic time and one we always look forward to – but you must remember your sunscreen as red noses are common for a while as we wake up to our bright sun again.
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