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Monthly Report - February 2012


Life in the quiet lane …


I must admit to a level of guilt here.  I would normally be providing you with a trailer load of information on where the grapes are in regards to vintage, how they taste, how the vintage looks and so on and so on.  But I am not.  I have not so much as ran a sample through to check for pH and TA – have not even checked the sugar levels in the vineyard with my refractometer.  I feel a little bit like a fraud – but once we made the decision to only pick off the Teroldego for the 2012 vintage everything just went into a holding pattern.


I am still doing some work out in the vineyard mind you – I am not completely without some love for my vines.  But it is simple cleaning up jobs, keeping the vines in shape and making sure they will be fine for their recess.  Irrigation continues to go out as the big dry in the west continues, and yes it continues to be warm, but not as warm as January, thank heavens.


One other bonus is that I am writing this monthly report from my office in my house.  I am not in Africa or Asia where this tome got compiled in the past two months – and I have loved the peace and quiet this gives me.  Still have acres of consulting work to complete, and I am mixing that with the minor vineyard work which appears to be the best of both worlds.


So apologies all.  Next month will have the Teroldego safely in tank under the care of Clive Otto and his team, so that will be exciting and well worth a paragraph or two.

201202_Teroldego Ripening - Blue Poles.j

Teroldego grapes looking good

The Penfolds (Pavlov’s) response…


As I sit here and type away at this topic of the month, I would have as a guess that there are hundreds of wine buying folk out there scouring the online wine purchasing websites trying to find the cheapest price for the recently released Penfolds wine range.  It is a phenomenon that is quite unlike any other as it affects the wine novice to the wine expert in Australia, with all having their saliva measured and tested by the marketing team at Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) to ensure it never fails to excite.  Now why is this?  Why are we in this yearly cycle of frantic searching for the wines at the cheapest prices?  Why have the Australian wine lovers not grown out of this old fashioned label and started new trends with estate wines, terroir driven wines?  Well this is an old fashioned combination of perfect storm conditions that Penfolds (read TWE) continually whip together, and are terrified of ever losing.


Let us take a step backwards.  Penfolds wine is seen by most in Australia and the world as the highest quality wine in the country, rightly or wrongly.  The infamous Grange Hermitage Bin 92 takes all before it – it has a story of development that has become folk lore, it has a continuous run since the early 50’s that makes us feel like we have a “history” of fine wine in this country, and it has been made by the finest and most innovative wine makers.  And for every “awe” struck note written about Grange, the gist rubs off on all of its little brothers and sisters – which are also Bin wines, with near identical labeling.  Though Penfolds is only 1 of 100’s of TWE labels, it is one of the highest volume, the highest priced, most profitable, and the most recognized of all their labels.  So well-known are the Penfolds wines that mimics pop up all over the place (love the Benfolds label made in China – same everything on the label except for the B), and Penfolds (TWE) has spent years ensuring that the label remains top of the tree.


The famous Penfolds Bin range

For the past few years, Penfolds has moved from selling their iconic story in USA and Europe, to pushing it heavily in the new market of China.  So much so that they are now not just stating Grange as the best of the best, but they are releasing unique extremely highly priced red “Bin” wines as equivalents of Grange – and they are doing this in China and not Australia.  It is a massive international drive to make their wines to be seen as the equivalent of the best in the world, and with prices to match.  The prestigious market is one that everyone craves, but now Penfolds are right in the heart of it and they will not let go of their position under any circumstance.


So at the end of this February, TWE gather selected wine scribes and flew them into the Barossa or any other suitable location to sit at the Penfolds long table. This is the beginning of a blitzkrieg of press that will hit the stands within the week.  The august group know the history of Penfolds as well as they know the back of their hands having attended numerous tastings of the Bin wines over many years, and in some cases decades.  You can see them all arriving at the designated time outside the tasting rooms (I am guessing here, but let us pretend for a minute or two), chatting amicably, spying friends and mates and shaking hands around a crowded arrivals hall before being ushered into a large long table, beautifully bedecked with pens, paper, set of Riedels, and possibly some notes to help jog their memories later.  Wine maker Peter Gago would be at or near the head of the table with new scribes such as Mike Bennie sitting a bit further to the back of the room.  All are both excited and tense as it is a matter of checking out the Emperor’s status, and who cannot have a few butterflies?


Tasting does not commence with the 10 or so new releases – that would be too easy.  No you kick off with a refresher course in the “ageability” of Penfolds wines.  So the old beauties are laid out – for the Bin 389’s Mike Bennie reported that the 1966, 1976, 1986, 1996, and 2006 were tasted as a group – some sublime, some less so, but they are great ambassadors for the brand.  I would have as a guess that older vintages of other Bin wines were also trotted out on the day, and by the time they came to taste the newer vintages they would have been wowed and dazzled by the quality of these old wines.  Then (possibly after a lunch), the new wines arrive and it is down to business.  Quiet bent heads, scratching pens, swirling and sniffing with pained expressions would be the order of the hour as the wine scribes worked through their 1st line-up, then their 2nd and possible even 3rd … at the end of it they would look up like Meercats checking for predators, and the discussions would begin.  Comparisons to the old vintages, excitement of the quality of specific wines, stylistic discussions … on and on it would go.  Until they slowly wander off back to their accommodation or pre-set dinner destination.


It would have been a great day.  They would have the feeling a frizz of history was being made that day and they are the ones to let us know.  Within a week every major newspaper in the country would have a Penfolds article extolling the greatness of the wines (I have yet to see it otherwise), and the public is now primed to purchase the wines.  TWE has just rung the bell, and everyone is drooling…


At the Winefront website Mike Bennie has cranked out the 2009 Bin 389 tasting note and is about to load it on to the site with a number of other Penfolds reds from the day (4 red wines, all scores interestingly had a “+” next their scores indicating their ability to age, such that the old vintages did their job).  Scores for the lower Bin wines were good but not outstanding (90+ - 92+), but the Bin 389 got 96+ points, and that is extremely high indeed.  On the site it goes.  And then the fun begins in the comments section, and this run of time line is extremely educating in how TWE has made the release an occasion, and how Australia reacts to the press impact and pricing strategies of the major chains.


Just before we go through the comments it should be highlighted that there is a SHED load of Penfolds wine made.  We are talking millions and millions of bottles of Bin red wines, such that on release date the wines are available in large quantities Australia wide. The major chains follow the lead of the wine scribes and keep the ball rolling by trying to undercut each other on the release date so as to get the buyers through “their” doors, thus hoping to get repeat buying habits post the deluge.  It is this manic behavior that makes it interesting for wine novice and wine expert alike.


Within 2 hours of Bennie’s 389 note hitting the site on the 24th February, 7 comments note the high score and the high price.  By the 4 hour mark others had come in with their impression of the wine style and the trustworthiness of the label.  The recognized quality of the label has pulling power and the fact that many are now saying Bin 389 is a bit “naff”, most would not turn down the opportunity to drink it.  Take this comment:


“Actually 389 and Miranda Kerr have striking similarity to my mind. It’s probably cooler nowadays to pretend you’re not attracted but if either was actually on offer you totally would.”


While everyone twiddles their thumbs waiting for the release (1st March), a large series of comments started discussing the large volume, multi-region and multi-blend nature of the wine and how that sits within the “new” Australia of site driven, small volume, terroir driven wine.  The answers simply revolved around, good wine is still good wine no matter where the source, Penfolds beats this critique by quality alone.


The day arrives and almost 50 comments ring out prices and availability – far from the $75 price tag alluded to in the RRP, most prices are between $40 and $50 and this in its own way brings in a frenzy as it seems very good value when comparing to what you “thought” the wine would be priced at.  The “loss leading” Penfolds wines is now a feature of the major chains, but they limit it to a week or so, before prices spike up dramatically.  They are there to do a job, hook in new buyers, and hopefully retain them for the next 51 weeks.  One of the major chain managers notes that Bin 389 is a “gateway” wine for wine drinkers to go from cheap wines to premium wines and it is essential to keep this growth path – wine critics agree as they know how the activity is heated over this 2-3 week period.


The heavy level of discussion about the 389 wine and its pricing genuinely surprises the wine note author Mike Bennie and he writes “The democratization of wine communication is here. Interactivity is the future”.  I guess he thinks that this is a genuine change in practice of wine buying, I actually tend to disagree as what we have seen here is a carefully controlled process that is now tracked in the internet as it was tracked in store.


And my opinion of the process?  Well I am actually a little in awe of it – like blitzkrieg you keep your head down and once you look up after it passes the whole place has been changed.  For the next 50 odd weeks Penfolds wines will be those overpriced “naff” wines that most fine wine buyers think they are, but for one or two weeks of the year they are “it” and nothing can stop the marketing tank.  Penfolds would have transferred 100,000’s of cases from their storage sheds into cellars throughout Australia where they will be occasionally raided with varying resultant opinions.


Like it or not, this is the ultimate wine marketing scheme and it has given me a thought and I will have a think and report back …


Summer day blues...


While we continue to have perfect weather, dry and blue, those making wine in the eastern states are dealing with torrential rain and grapes that will begin their ripening trajectory post the deluge.  This is not good for them, and we can only but wish them all the best with the balance of vintage.


The numbers for the month and last year’s figures are provided below:


February 2012:      

Avg Maximum Temp          27.5°C

Daily Max recorded            36.4°C


Avg Minimum Temp           15.1°C               

Daily Min recorded             10.2°C


Rainfall:                               4.1mm

The maximum and minimum temperature ranges are significantly lower than last year, and this brings the January / February combined maximums to be about hot to very hot.  Rainfall was low in both months and this is expected out here in Margaret River.

February 2011:      

Avg Maximum Temp          30.0°C

Daily Max recorded            36.0°C

Avg Minimum Temp           16.5°C

Daily Min recorded             12.5°C


Rainfall:                              0.4mm


Autumn begins …


It is fine and it is warm at the start of March, and we all hope that the weather continues to be clear and sunny with little rainfall, as well as a gradually dropping mercury level.  The Teroldego will be safely picked by the end of March and I will record Clive’s first impression of the grapes in next month’s report.  I have a fortnight back in Africa for work, so I am hoping that goes well and I return able to help with the vintage.  I hope all who read this are well and enjoying the start of autumn and I will see you next month.

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 and we’ll do our very best to answer any question.





Mark Gifford

Blue Poles Vineyard

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