Monthly Report - December 2011
And it closes …
As the year 2011 comes to a close, it comes with the reality that trying to run a small boutique winery in Margaret River as well as a professional career to support it, is very, very difficult. I am typing this report from the city of Conakry in Guinea, West Africa. The air outside is dry and warm, very much like home, but the sights, sounds and smells of this sprawling West African city is nothing at all like the quiet and solitude of our house on the vineyard.
I really should be home completing vine thinning, last of the wire lifts, fruit dropping, and numerous other little jobs that makes our wine, our wine – but the fact that the cost of making our wine is such that it demands financial support during our “growing” phase, means I am sitting here watching another world outside of the window.
For those of you who have followed the Blue Poles story along the way, you will know that both Tim and I are geologists “by trade” and decided that there was more to life than mine site camps in the middle of the West Australian desert. Over the 10 years in which we have raised the vines from a bare paddock, to the making of 6 vintages of wine we have both had to continue working to meet the ever growing costs of the vineyard and winery. We do not begrudge this, it is simply a fact of life – but the difference is that I made a conscious decision to complete as much of the vineyard work as I could and that has meant a slowing down on geology jobs during pruning, spring growth, and vintage. This has also meant we have had to live a more “fundamental” life, but the positives of the lifestyle choice has far outweighed any loss of restaurant meals, or Armani suits, and I believe I am much healthier and alert because of it. But this year has been different with a lot more costs being attached to the wine making process (we had an exceptional red wine vintage in 2011), and the sales not matching the increasing pressure – thus here I am in Conakry.
At the market - Hoare Bendia, Guinea
The world of small wineries in Margaret River is an unusual and diverse place. Many if not most come from the background of quite wealthy folk who are into the idea of owning a winery. Few have a deep understanding of wine, most are lawyers and doctors who see this rural pursuit as one of both tax benefit and social benefit. They hire all of their staff to complete the many tasks required to make it all work, and they do what they can to get their label promoted – it is the realm of image as much as the realm of wine. Very few go off the beaten track, and stick to the varieties in which the region is well known, and if a viticulturist or winemaker has bent their ear, they may throw out an unusual wine into the mix (often as “wild” as a rosé or a petit verdot). As such the region of Margaret River is a bit disjointed and actually controlled by the winemakers of the region much more than the owners. Of course there are many exceptions, but when broken down to the basics, Margaret River is a controlled environment where the winemakers themselves are now seen as the innovators and the “new wave”.
Is this a good or bad thing? It makes for a lot more “better” wine that is for sure, as owners dabbling around with vats of wine can often lead to catastrophes that they will just not admit they are. But it also leads to dull, insipid wines as the vineyards are planted out by formula, run by a process of ensuring a crop (at reasonable tonnage levels), and winemakers that show most interest in keeping things “clean” on the off chance that the fruit does not have enough character to make a better wine. Owner / winemakers in Margaret River can be placed on two hands – go to Mornington Peninsula or Canberra or some of the new areas in Tasmania for example, and over half of the wineries have owners intricately involved with their wine either in the vineyard or the winery. To me that is where the action is right now, and Margaret River is becoming a bit like the Napa Valley, where our name is instantly recognizable but the wines are seen as generic.
I wish, wish, wish I was filthy rich! But I am not (drat it all), and with that comes decisions that are as much pragmatic as emotional. The vineyard this year has not had a great growing season; it started off very slowly with an unusually cool start to September, but then quickly caught up in October and November. But all through this period there was rain regularly in small amounts that kept mildew pressure on the vines continuously, and during flowering this pressure showed as fruit sets have not been good and even. With the windy weather continuing into December, we have a very patchy set of fruit out in the vines. No amount of spraying appears to have held the mildews to “zero” so this will be an ongoing issue for the balance of vintage, and with the fruit very “hen and chicken” this year we will be dragging flavours not wanted through to vintage unless something dramatic happens.
So everyone, you will hear it here first – it is unlikely that Blue Poles will be making a vintage this year, with the only exception being the Teroldego which for whatever reason has been relatively unaffected by all this activity around it. And for another first – yes it has been a busy month – we will be getting our wines made at Fraser Gallop winery, headed up by winemaker Clive Otto and ably supported by his assistant Kate Morgan (of “Ipso Facto” fame). Hopefully the Teroldego will go through the rest of vintage well and they will start off on a cracking high note.
So as you can see there is a lot happening as well as changes occurring, but through it all we only have one ambition here at Blue Poles and that is to make a GREAT wine from our little 6 ha block of vines in Margaret River. I will continue to work in faraway places, as well as put on my wet weather gear and prune until dark – because at the end of the day everyone has the ability to make a difference, and I would like one of mine to be shared and drunk by family, friends, and those who just love a good glass of wine.
Natural Wine, a touchy subject…
One of the interesting aspects of the wine industry is the continual classification of wines, regions and people into “boxes” as we humans just love to classify. It is like music, as when you hear a new band or musician you instantly classify the music style as “indi”, “ska”, “popular”, “R&B” etc etc etc … why do we do it? Well not being a psychologist I can only guess that it is because we need markers to help our memory along, and by having a simple tag initially it can take us down the route of getting the details out.
Blind Corners natural "Ripasso" wine - Margaret River
So up has popped “natural wine” over the past decade as a category that has jumped into the mainstream and making a rather large noise. But what is natural wine? To be quite honest all wine is natural wine, but I am guessing that natural wine has fewer wine making additives to the current wines in the bottle shop. Also the grapes themselves may in fact be bio-dynamic or organic, thus providing a “natural” base to work from. I do not believe there is a big deal in having these wines in the mix, but they have brought about the most vehement critique by various wine industry bodies and individuals – and this in turn has created its own reply by the natural fraternity. And like any religious argument, you can not really logically argue against faith upon which both camps are firmly entrenched.
So as to share my views on the topic, from the point of view of a winery determining the usefulness of the opportunity to step into the realm of natural wine, I will provide some opinion for discussion. I am not right or wrong here, but much of what both camps are saying does make for an interesting debate.
1. That biodynamic fruit is “better” fruit…
I love this one, as it is never said by the biodynamic grower but by their admirers. So you can not accuse the grower/winery of fluffing their credentials, but the smug SILENCE is a dead giveaway that they love this resolution. Let me say categorically, I do not believe biodynamic fruit is “better” fruit. The site and location is a much more important player in the fruit quality, BUT in the process of being biodynamic the extra work in the vineyard is significant and this would ensure the fruit can arrive in a much better condition and a much more well-known state. It is man-hours versus vineyard size equation – the more you put in, the better the fruit, regardless of your vineyard management methods. But site, soil, and climate still reign supreme in my book.
2. Natural wines highlight the terroir…
This is a classic comment by association. Because less is added in the growing and winemaking process, by logic alone it must highlight the site upon which the fruit was grown more clearly. Well on this one I am saying a big, poppycock. The thing with natural wines is that they are “let go” during the process of fermentation and with wild yeasts and a rudimental controlling temperature regime, they actually tend to get similar flavours regardless of where they came from. While in France last year I went to a few (well ok, a lot) of wine bars and many of them were promoting natural wines – and EVERY white natural wine I tasted from Loire to Provence had the smell of apple cider. For the reds it is not as clear, but there is a distinctive acid “tang” to the taste of the wines which more points to the winemaking style than the grape source. None had a sense of place, just a sense of natural wine.
3. You can’t guarantee quality of natural wines…
Yep, that is right you can’t, but that is one of the wines major attractions and where the big end of town gets its knickers in a knot for no particular reason. It becomes a simple reductionist argument of mum’s home cooking versus the big mac – and you will sit wherever you want along this fence line. I mean we have had for years the lottery of cork (and it still goes on in some producers wineries), and now with the better seal the screwcap produces we have reduced bottle variation dramatically – but with natural wine you know you will get something unique to that bottle, for better, for worse. It is the anti-controlled will of the people wanting to risk it over something, and a bottle of wine is not such a bad choice. Like swimming in the nude late at night, there is the thrill involved that is half the pleasure and natural wine producers know and promote this.
4. Natural wine is better for you…
Another connection by association. Alas this is really just a mythology that comes with the territory, and is seen more by the drinkers than by the wineries. If you have problems with excess sulfur in wines, my advice is to drink better wines!! The most highly sulfured wines are those commercial wines for quick turnover – basically booze in a box. Once you step up the levels of good things such as anthocyanins in red wine is quite similar in both the natural and commercial wines.
5. Natural wines the future?
The quick answer is no. The more complex answer is maybe. The reason for the quick answer is that most natural wines are a dalliance, like hippies in the 60’s and 70’s – it is alright for a while not having new clothes and regular showers, but you just simply grow out of it, get yourself an iPad and join in with the mob. Sometimes you would buy a natural wine just to show some solidarity (like purchasing a green carbon offset on your airplane ticket), but the reality of it is that we are creatures of comfort, and if comfort is not having to think too hard, we take it 90% of the time. But, there is an expectation out there that all wineries should be trying to be sustainable, and once you put on your green tinted glasses, that implies more “natural”.
So could Blue Poles go down this natural path? Well not really, and not maybe for the reasons that you are thinking. I am not actually too hooked on the chemicals and the science of viticultural and winemaking land, but I see their purpose and their effect. With bio-dynamics, well that is a leap of faith and we will not go there, but the principals of organic fruit production is a worthy goal and worth contemplating. But the downside is that natural wines just are not that good, when the best is compared to the best. You could argue Domaine Romanee Conti is “natural” and perhaps the best wine in the world, but I would dispute that their winemaking process is totally hands-off and as such is the best of both worlds. We should all take a good look at these wines and learn from them, as every grab of knowledge that could make a better wine for us is definitely worth having, but we are not running to the egg shaped fermenter wrapped in basalt gravel and being played Bach through speakers attached to its shell … just yet.
Sam Hughes of Natural Selection Theory raising his "egg" of wine
It has been an unusual month of weather simply because we have had so much weather. Storms have threatened every week, very hot days have turned up, followed by quite cool days in comparison. With this there has been a variety of wind directions carrying weather from very strange quarters, so it has all been a bit baffling.
The numbers for the month and last year’s figures are provided below:
Avg Maximum Temp 26.7°C
Daily Max recorded 38.0°C
Avg Minimum Temp 13.6°C
Daily Min recorded 7.9°C
The maximum temperature ranges are significantly higher than last year (the complete opposite to last month!), but minimums are roughly the same. Rainfall in December was higher than average, and higher than last year, though the reason was predominantly a single rain even in which 34mm fell in the vineyard within an hour. As we have reached the end of the year the annual rainfall figure for 2011 was 999.9mm and by comparison 2010 had the miserly total of 681.8mm. Thus this year’s rainfall was about average.
Avg Maximum Temp 24.5°C
Daily Max recorded 32.6°C
Avg Minimum Temp 13.6°C
Daily Min recorded 6.7°C
A new year …
Well what will the New Year bring? It is an interesting year ahead as we consolidate at Blue Poles and hopefully start a new export market in the first quarter of 2012. The vines will continue to be tended, I most probably will continue to travel for a little while longer, but eventually it will all balance itself out and settle down into the patterns of the seasons once more.
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