Monthly Report - March 2021

Vintage “kinda” ends…

 

The “kinda” bit in the heading is in reference to our Shiraz that is still sitting out, but with the vineyard taking in 10mm of warm tropical like rain in the past 3 days, it may well be that botrytis may be the eventual winner in the Shiraz stakes.  It has been a frantic month as we have picked off our Merlot and Cab Franc and it is apparent throughout the region that yields are down and that varieties that are affected by botrytis, or vineyards that were naturally susceptible to it, were going to have major problems.  We have been very lucky in the sense that our planning for this potentiality at the start of February was effective and that our Merlot and Cab Franc came off clean and surprisingly rich and flavoursome – and I say that with a genuine wry smile.

 

Let’s take a step back.

 

End of February had the Chardonnay in the bins, in the press, and by the start of March in their barrels blowing bubbles through the airlocks.  This vintage has the pleasure of being stored in some lovely new oak and 2yo Burgundy barrels and we have an extra 400 litres than in 2020 – which is brilliant …. as it tastes amazing.

 

A great step forward with the Chardonnay this year and the wine when tasted from one of our special 300l Nadalie “Le Bois du Roy” barrels, it was as if I was sipping on a Kumeu River Chardonnay all those years ago.  The wine had the same weight and intensity as when I sat across from Maté Brajkovich in their barrel “room” in the mid 80’s and tried for the first time a Chardonnay from a barrel – it is a memory that flooded back and just made me so happy in regards to the personal journey and the wave of recognition.  Like tasting the 2007 barrels of Merlot – this has ensured that I have the confidence to know our Chardonnay can be something a step above, always a watershed moment as doubt and insecurities get to leave the building.  Awesome.

 

So, we now move into the reds – and with a much cooler wetter February bringing the vines back into shape we were looking at a delayed vintage – and this proved to be the case.  Early March just to throw a spanner into the works, 45mm of rain fell on 4 March and with the vineyard already green with all the rain in February it just went straight into the ground and the mid-rows became soft and lush with grass growing as if the change of season had passed.  This was (and still is) so unnerving when you are in the vineyard – vines with grapes ripening and green grass up to your shins.  The Merlot and Cab Franc never really dropped their basal leaves, never really looked stressed, and never ripened in an orderly fashion – they did their own thing and having had 5 years of being dry-grown I believe this saved the vintage for us.  I say that as they never restarted leaf growth as many many vineyards had occurring though this time, and that takes the vine’s eyes off the “prize” of enriching and ensuring delicious “thick” grapes.

 

It was three weeks post the rainfall event before we took the Merlot off.  Three strangely stressful weeks, as though the weather kept dry and kept pretty much warm it never felt like it would stay that way.  My neck is a bit of a barometer with a few cracks and snaps having healed and trapped some fluids and this means I am good for weather predictions (not much else), and I had a month of aches and pains putting vintage on edge for me.  Daily sampling and the twice weekly full analysis was giving good sugars, high acidity but flat flavours.  From 8 March to 18 March I was pretty anxious but by the weekend of 20-21 March I breathed out – there it was – flavour had flooded in and now I had the issue of finding a spot at the winery.  Clive and Alex created the space and we decided that Friday 26 March would be the go – and the Merlot came is as below:

 

Merlot:

Date                   26 March

Tonnage:           4.03t

Baumé              13.6Bé

pH                      3.23pH

Titratable Acidity      6.40TA

 

And the fruit also came in a little late as our trucking contractor had a bit of a problem with his old Bedford – much to the amusement of Clive and the team as our truck arrived on a truck.

202103_Truck on a truck.jpg

Merlot grapes being delivered by "truck on a truck"

 

 

Cabernet Franc as you may be aware, is a damn tricky grape to pick at the right time.  Too early and you have added too much fresh capsicum to your salad – too late and you have a tired tasting glass full of Ribena.  As with the Merlot – it was not giving away much in the first three weeks of March but as we were picking the Merlot you could see and taste the change going on in the block next door.  Lovely crisp red berries and rich tannic skins started to get a whack of dense character coming through, so vintage was not to be too much later than a week or so after the Merlot pick.  And this proved to be the case with the Cab Franc picked off on the auspicious 1 April.

 

Cabernet Franc:

Date                   1 April

Tonnage:           1.60t

Baumé              12.8Bé

pH                      3.43pH

Titratable Acidity      6.0TA

 

Yields were low.  Frustratingly low with the final value working out to be <5 tonnes per hectare.  But the grapes were beautifully clean with no hint of any moulds or bird damage – and oh so small.  Intensity of flavour was there, and I have a feeling the tannin is there in spades as well – skins just felt “chalky” all of March for some reason.

202103_Cab Franc.jpg

 

Funnily enough, I do not think we are going to get deep deep colours in our reds from the vintage post ferment – skins had a lighter hue and were not as black and “slippy” as in previous years.  But I have this gnawing thought in the back of my head – this vintage is going to be very good, up there for 2018 for us.  A twentieth anniversary vintage with our vines planted in 2001 – this series of picks highlight our massive advantage of dry grown, hand tended, and an aged vineyard.  I could not be happier.

 

 

Pandemic Update…

 

Nothing to report in Western Australia – we are in our own bubble.  This protective sphere has also meant that our State Government has won an election this month by such a landslide that it was brutal.  Thus, we are safe and sound here, but we now live in the limbo land of waiting for the vaccine roll out which seems almost “unhurried”.  My hope is that vaccinations are complete in the next 4 months and that travel can be wedged open for those who are vaccinated – it would be wonderful to be with Marjory after having 13 months apart so we both have our fingers crossed that the world can start a process of generating normalcy (give or take a few variant hiccups).

 

 

The rise and rise…

 

This is a topic that I have tiptoed around, due mainly to the perception that we would be seen as somehow taking “old guard” pot shots at a part of the industry that we can only look in at.  This is the rise and rise of the independent winemakers and their relationship to the marketplace as a whole.  It is not the impact that they make in wine volume – the major companies have ensured there is no problem filling that bladder of booze – but it is the impact they have on the splintering of the wine industry through dicing up a small independent market pie into smaller and smaller pieces - and how this plays out amongst the smaller independent wineries in an already marginal business.

 

Do not get me wrong – I am in no way saying that small independent winemakers should be restricted or hindered.  They must have exactly the same rights and market access as any other producer, and to be honest without them the industry would be stagnant and being managed by suits and marketing departments from the majors – a horrific thought.

 

We as a small independent winery are becoming a rare bird.  We grow and make our wines from a single estate that we own.  This is not common – or not as common as you think it would be.  It has the major issue of being very capital intensive, against which profits are earned to cover the capital outlay as much as any operational costs.  Yes, a vineyard is a massive asset to the owners, but at the same time it is an extraordinary set of expenses.  A winery is also an asset, but it can be located in a shed (leased or owned) and filled with items that can be bought and sold at a much reduced price to the costs of developing a vineyard.

202103_Dormilona Winery.jpg

Dormilona Winery – Margaret River Light Industrial Area

The broader wine industry has this capital intensive outlay, thus like most agricultural pursuits it does not pay staff and itinerant workers much.  So, over the past 30-40 years winemaker courses at various universities have produced 100’s of graduates who enter an industry that sounds romantic but in fact becomes a merry-go-round of part-time positions and locations.  Many start off by doing vintages twice a year – one northern hemisphere and one southern hemisphere as assistant winemakers, before potentially graduating to permanent roles.  Only the rare few work their way up into highly paid positions, and in a way, they must generate their own fame and self-identity (apart from having great winemaking skills), to reach those lofty goals.

 

And of the rest?  Of the new coming through this system now bloated with experienced wine makers, with a similar number of positions to be filled as was the amount in the 1990’s – what are they to do?

 

They see the obvious and have done so for the past 10 years.  The most profitable end of the wine industry is in the final sale - either retail or direct.  A few tonne of fruit ($10,000) generates a few pallets of wine ($100,000) – thus, obtain a license and you can access this profit centre.  Differentiating yourself is key, and this is why over 90% of the “natural” winemakers in Australia would be independent – the traveling for work throughout the northern and southern hemispheres, witnessing many many styles of wine, and seeing the hole in the market back in Australia has ensured that this is now a major section of their turf.

 

The other differentiation that is often forgotten is their age and circles that they work in – us “landed gentry” are nearly always older, much older, and as such do not have the capacity to easily connect to the restaurant and retail industry that has similar aged, underpaid staff and managers to these new age winemakers.

202103_Vallee du Venom.jpg

Rhys Parker and Paul Hoffman from Vallee du Venom – making interesting wines and looking the part.

 

 

Thus, they market themselves well.  They interconnect well with their generation and peers in the hospitality and retail industry.  They have a niche that older conservative vineyard and winery owners cannot tap into without an expensive and risky makeover.  They are not often encumbered by the large outlays required to own land and buildings.  They are a solid force that is eating the core of the “independent wine” market and making a large percentage of it their own.

 

But.

 

And it is a big BUT.  Is it sustainable?  Is it a passing fad, a memento of our time?  When their generation moves up the age chain, can they move with it knowing that access to the marketplace will fall to the following poorly paid generation?

 

Vineyards that grow the majority of the grapes for all wineries, big and small, are held by long-term owners.  Family estates.  Unmoving and rigid – having seen the ups and downs and often stared them down.  They now move grapes into a number of channels and these young winemakers race to secure tonnages of the scarce and the aged – the illusion is that there is an endless supply when in fact there is not.  Not owning your source means you are risking your future income – so for those successful independents now try to secure vines with their current excess, are they thus succumbing to the lure of the land?  And this is where they have a problem – growing good grapes is a graft, it is hard consistent work, and it is not creative or lightly touched (comparable to you grinding the flour while the chef makes the cake).  It is unlikely that many of these well “profited” winemakers could produce the same quality of fruit as recorded in the past simply because of this “attitudinal dis-convergence”.

 

This big melting pot of wines and styles has generated the raving and ranting of the “old guard” within our industry against natural wines (by default independent winemakers).  It is pure silliness.  Their position is one based on fear and seeing their market share dwindling. I have no interest in them and their opinions as it does not address the bigger issue.

 

The key to all of this.

 

The wine will still have to be bloody good to maintain its spot in this many splintered and fractured wine world that we now live.  Make fantastic wine and you have an immediate arrow in your quiver – this is the one of the most important facets in our control at Blue Poles and we must use that to our advantage and never relent.  Good marketing is like flared jeans; when they were hot, they were adored, when they went out of fashion the became something to be mocked.  Independent winemakers are excellent marketeers – but if they tip into “fashion”, it date stamps them and this is a slippery slope.

 

All good independent winemakers must eventually make the same decision that us vineyard owners had to make from the start – longevity can only be maintained by quality and consistency, and how will they intend to do that?  If they can maintain their quality and consistency through securing their grapes, using their skill, and lots of hard work - then by all accounts they can therefore maintain what appears to be their never-ending rise and rise…

 

Grassy knoll...

 

I am still surprised by the so-called mystery of the JFK shooting as it was an obvious terrible accident of him being fatally shot by his security when panicking due to the shots being fired by Leigh Harvey Oswald located in the Texas School Book Depository.  Now that has been put to bed; the grassy knoll is a good descriptor of the current state of the vineyard.  The weather in March has been warm but not hot and with some heavy rain at the start of the month and cooler nighttime temperatures providing heavy dew sets, a lot of grass has grown well ahead of the true break of season.  The rain that has come through was sourced from the north and not the south, and this has also aided in growth with the higher nitrogen content and warmer temperatures post rainfall.

 

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

 

March 2021:        

Avg Maximum Temp          26.1°C

Daily Max recorded            34.8°C

 

Avg Minimum Temp           14.0°C

Daily Min recorded               7.6°C

 

Rainfall:                               49.4mm

The maximum was similar to 2020 with the minimum being quite a bit lower.  Rainfall totals were similar with only minor differences; in 2021 the bulk of the rainfall (>90%) fell on a single day early in the month (4 March), whereas in 2020 the major rainfall event (>80%) was mid-March (15 March).

March 2020:        

Avg Maximum Temp           25.8°C

Daily Max recorded             32.0°C

 

Avg Minimum Temp            14.9°C

Daily Min recorded              10.7°C

 

Rainfall:                                53.7mm

Cleaning Up…

 

Well, it has been a roller coaster of a vintage – hot and cold, wet and dry, up and down.  First job will be cleaning the shed and stacking away the bird nets and putting away machinery and the like as we have a few weeks away from walking up and down rows.  This idyll may be snapped back if we are to take of the Shiraz next week – I will give you all an update next month.  Red wines will be put to barrel and I will have a check in on their status in May once they have settled in.  Take care everyone.

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.

Cheers

 

 

Mark Gifford

Blue Poles Vineyard