Monthly Report - October 2010
He return-eth, and work-eth awaits…
Well Iam back in the embrace of the south west of Western Australia – and loving being home. The sky is crystalline blue, the sun is above my head and in the right quarter, my impossible accent is actually understood by local folk, and my bed has never been softer. But the experience of Bordeaux and to visit the vineyards of SW France and northern Spain was fantastic and has brought back many ideas and concepts that I am keen to apply to make a better and more interesting wine for all those who enjoy a great glass of wine.
I have come back to an extremely strange situation within the vines and the region. As you may be aware from earlier reports, this winter has been extremely dry and this has made life very difficult for the local farmers who have had a terrible year for hay production (down 50% on last year), and it could also have impacts throughout all the various agricultural pursuits of the region, vine growing included. We rely heavily on winter rainfall as it fills up the groundwater, and as spring progresses into summer the plants follow the groundwater down as it recedes from its high.
This year the groundwater has been dramatically reduced and this means that our paddocks and vineyards are already drying out very quickly (driving home from the airport with my wife, we both commented that the region looks like it is 2 months into summer, already) – and this puts a lot of added pressure on the vines and this may lead into a tremendous vintage, or possibly a difficult one as the vines start shutting down due to heat and water stress during critical growth periods such as flowing and veraison. I am startled by the leap of growth that has occurred as the vines have jumped from budburst and are now a week to 10 days in front of our “average” for various growth stages – and this is from an “average” set of budburst dates and within 6 weeks. It is like a race out there as the vines are trying to use what water they can, while they can! Margaret River is a special place for growing grapes, we tend to be able to produce good fruit in all sorts of various seasons – but this will be testing for everyone and may mean loss of volume and possibly quality if all of the viticultural fraternity are not on their toes.
So for my 7 days back in the vines I have started the slow but vital process of thinning out the excess growth and cleaning up the trunks of the vines. As I may have indicated in the past, but we spend as much time in the vineyard getting rid of any excess growth, as well as fruit dropping and wire setting as we do pruning the vines, in fact nearly double. So while many vineyards go into auto-pilot during this period, we are very much busy all the time through to January as we try to set the perfect fruit for that excellent bottle of plonk. The worry is when and how we irrigate the vines this year; usually it is not an issue as the vines do not really show much stress until the end of November, basically post flowering. However this year may be different with our record low rainfall and it will be one piece of the jigsaw puzzle that I will have to spend a bit of time trying to squeeze it into its spot. But we are optimistic as it was dry for the 2007 vintage and we made some lovely wine and it is drinking beautifully at the current (and as a guess for a fair way into the future), so it is exciting as always.
I do feel obliged to complete the tour diary for you all so as to either show you where I have been or to pass on what or what not to see. But that would be too simple and provide you possibly with a deep level of resentment or pity on my travels – so I am going to mix it up. I am going to highlight a few moments and insights along the way that made travelling to these far flung lands that much more interesting and exciting. So here come the bullet points, it is not definitive or possibly even correct but this is how I saw aspects of my time in south west France and northern Spain.
1. The French and Wine – This may sound strange to our ears, but to be quite honest the French really are not that fussy about wine. The culture revolves around “drinking” wine and defining the “location” of the wine – it is only in the most anal natural wine bars of Paris do you encounter any resemblance of honoring a wine maker or specific vineyard. The emphasis is placed on where the wine comes from and this determines its quality and price – such that nearly every wine bar blackboard has a list of regions (Medoc, St Joseph, Beaujolais, Chablis etc etc), but no mention of the maker or the vineyard. A bit like having “Margaret River” on the board and then saying “it is a big wine, quite tasty” to describe it. As you move into restaurants it does become a bit more defined, but the concepts are the same, you pay more by the region than the maker. While in Bordeaux I tasted some lovely wines provided by my hosts, and the wines I had were generally local wines of which they looked for consistency of flavor as much as quality of wine, as terroir rated very highly with them. I am still undecided on whether this is a good thing or not, as for those wineries that make the effort in a “poorer” region they will never really get much recognition for their efforts – but by understanding regions alone it makes the understanding of wine that much more easier and many people travel to these locations for holidays and the like and as such become ambassadors for the “brand” of Provence or Cahors or wherever.
A natural wine bar in Paris
2. The Perfect Oyster – I was a doubting Thomas. I have eaten oyster fresh from the sea all my life in Australia and New Zealand and I thought nothing could top some of those beauties chipped from rocks, or knocked back from the Bluff Oyster supplier. But I stand humbled; the oysters I had from Cap Ferret were simply amazing and huge in size to make the experience even more lingering. The taste is difficult to describe as the oysters are subtle and lifted, with the taste of sea spray and ozone within the mix. It was great to see them so freely available and the locals eating them with gusto – but the shock was how cheap they were when you visited an oyster seller. It would be oyster overdose if I was living in Bordeaux!
A basket of Oysters – Cap Ferret
3. The Spanish Government – Travelling into Spain and travelling through the northern wine regions of the country was extremely memorable and very exciting (and not just because my satellite navigation system kept on sending me into mad road scenarios). Through the northern areas of Rioja and Ribera del Duero where I travelled, the area of small bush grown vines was expansive and at times appeared to be the only agricultural activity surrounding many of the small towns. While in Haro, one of the excellent cellar door guides explained to me how much the industry means to the local population and also how much influence the government has over the production and style of the wines produced. It would be hard to explain to a new world wine maker that the grapes that you receive will be picked at a date that the government declares, the volume of fruit will be what the government allows, and that every stage of the wine making will be overlooked by a government official – I am sure he would quickly turn on his heels and run out of the door! But in Spain it somehow works, as the wines I tried in Haro and while touring through Ribera del Duero were uniformly very very good, and so incredibly cheap by the glass in the numerous bars that fill town and city centers. I raised my glass on many occasions to the good folk of the Spanish government wine bureaus as they seem to know how to provide a social service to the region but also ensure the regions wine quality – quite astounding.
Grapes being unloaded from traditional picking baskets, Haro Spain
4. Yes, 2009 Ch Latour is ... well … fantastique – What a thrill this was, a chance to taste one of the best wines in Bordeaux, as well as taste a barrel sample from this Chateaux from a magnificent year which was 2009. You may not believe this but “Blue Poles - Proprietor” does not open as many doors as one would assume, but having a friend who has connections I was able to spend a day touring and tasting at 3 excellent wineries in the Medoc – Ch Latour, Ch Pichon-Baron, and Ch Beychevelle. It was a brilliant day of vines and wines and discussing all things that went to make these wines such delicious drinks that they are – all three used quite different approaches to making the final wine, but the fruit handling and the vineyard work was near on identical such that it became site over effort as the only real major differentiator. I enjoyed all the wines immensely but the standout was the 2009 Latour, it was all things that you could ever ask of a red wine – my notes are full of literal oohs and ahhs, but it was simply the depth of lovely clean fresh “fruit” lifted from the building blocks of fine tannin, Cuban cigar oak with pitch perfect acid and structure that made me go “Crikey, this is good”. I had another lovely moment in Ch Coutet with Aline Baly, where this extraordinary sweet wine from Barsac was poured for me to try and it made me just swoon with delight, as is there a better aroma than the highest of quality orange marmalade? Both of these wines were pure decadence for my simple soul.
Aline Baly at Ch Coutet
5. Alain Brumont – I had read about the grape variety Tannat and the thumping wines that this grape variety made, but I had never tasted one or seen the vines. It was easy enough to find, the area was called Madiran and it was about 120kms due south of Bordeaux so it was the first stop on the road trip. The known beacon of excellence in this region were the wines from Ch Bouscassé and Ch Montus made by the living legend Alain Brumont who not only fought for the region to be defined as its own AOC (defined quality region for wine), but also for the wine styles and grape varieties that were to be allowed within the AOC. He is considered one of the best 6 wine makers in France and he regularly puts his wines up against the best of Bordeaux and the world to confirm his wines quality. I turned up at the cellar door to be met by a very well dressed young chap who was immensely proud of their wines and showed me through a range of great wines, and then proceeded to take me of a tour of the barrel hall. As I left I passed on a bottle of Blue Poles Merlot for the vintage crew and Alain to have at lunch – well this immediately led to an invite to lunch with Alain and staff the following day. It was like meeting Picasso – there were about 20 people around the table and many were there just to answer any queries Alain had. I sat opposite, poured a generous whack of our red and waited for the polite “This is nice, but…” comment. Alain did not swirl and sniff or even wait around, a great big mouthful, drunk it down, looked up at me and simply said “Magnifique”. So for the next hour I sat and listened as he gave me some sage advice (some of it very French … get this “Fruit is like a mistress, but structure is like a wife. You must have a good structure to have a healthy wine … but quality fruit is also good, no?” I thought that was “magnifique”), and I racked my brains to put forward questions that would not annoy him. I left as he put our empty bottle next to an empty bottle of Ch Margaux, another winemaker that had made the pilgrimage. What a great afternoon, it is one that will go straight to the “pool room” of top memories.
It was a great six weeks, maybe a couple of weeks too long due to the vineyard back home, but it was an invaluable course in all things vinous and as such will help me out no end. I really must thank my wife for holding the fort, so to speak, and to Tim who kept it all ticking over while I was gone. There were many fine folk who I met along the way and to those who are reading this, thanks for your company and your time and if you are ever in this neck of the woods you can be sure of a very very warm welcome.
Dry and warm...
It has been a month that has caused a lot of angst in this farming community and across the south west corner of the state of Western Australia. It has been warm and there has been frontal weather come through, but little to no rain has fallen and this matches in with only 34mm last month and only just over 100mm the month before – it is a shocking scenario for growing grass and raising animals and we feel for the farmers out there who are now either having to buy in feed or destock heavily.
The numbers for the month and last year’s figures are provided below:
Avg Maximum Temp 21.0°C
Daily Max recorded 27.5°C
Avg Minimum Temp 7.7°C
Daily Min recorded 2.4°C
The maximum temperature range is a lot warmer in comparison to last year, but the minimum is quite low, giving the impression that it was a cool month. Rainfall is a little bit more but really with such low groundwater levels and the hotter months still in front of us we really do have a very dry year to contend with.
Avg Maximum Temp 19.7°C
Daily Max recorded 30.4°C
Avg Minimum Temp 9.8°C
Daily Min recorded 4.8°C
The vineyard calls …
Let us just say it is head down for a few weeks as I try to whip the vineyard into shape. Sooo much thinning to do, 7 hectares of wire lifting and a couple of sprays to ensure those mildews leave me alone. We have had an infestation of weevils in the past fortnight and hopefully they will peter out with the season as it moves forward – but it does mean a fair bit of work of the smaller plants to ensure they are not too damaged. I think I have enough to get on with.
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