Monthly Report - January 2022

Old Fashioned Summer…

 

I do remember the first time I stepped off a plane at Perth Airport when we had decided to emigrate to Australia.  It was mid-October 1988 and the connecting gate to the plane was open sided, so the heat blasted down the tunnel – the air was as if a hair dryer was on level 10, and it smelt of dust and dry dry wood.  Having just flown out of London and its dull grey misery, it was another world, and the gate attendant must have noted and said “wait until summer” as if to highlight how apparent our fish out of water looks were.

 

It took a while to adapt to the Western Australian summers – but having 2-3 years working out of the Pilbara for me meant coming home to 35°C was blessed relief after weeks of 43°C+ in dodgy camps with dodgy air conditioners.  Anyone that has lived in south-west Western Australia knows the ”feeling” of a hot one – it starts with a morning easterly before it dies out by 9am and then the air just heats up as if someone is turning up the thermostat.  This goes on until either the sea breeze tries to breach through or the sun sets – but by this stage everything is hot and radiating back at you.  Suburbs in Perth have shimmering mirages hazed in the empty roads and parks and that dry smell of dust permeates – no one moves when the mercury is filling the thermometer.

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For several years now we have not had the “endless summer” of blue skies and melting days in January – they have often been moderated by more tropical air moving south and giving some cloud cover and humidity.  Not this year, that thermostatic heat within a blue-sky capsule has been pretty much a constant and this has given us our warmest January at Blue Poles since 2012 (which had the counterpoint of a cooler February).  Older neighbours have had great joy in stating how “old fashioned” the season is – the relentless blue sky and dry dry heat only tempered by a sea breeze that does its best each day to take back the warmth from the land.

 

The vineyard is being totally dry grown this year and it is concerning to see not so much as humidity being able to help out – but the vines have kept clean and strong and have managed to go through the month with only slightly reduced growth rates.  The changing of colour and the softening of the berries (veraison) has begun with all the varieties – the Chardonnay being the most advanced and the Cabernet Franc with only the occasional grape in the pink.

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Chardonnay post-Veraison

I normally would have completed a “thinning” pass through the vines by this time of the vintage – not this year.  We want the shade and the active leaves this year – reducing access to cover for the bunches and energy for the vines is not wise in this dry season.  With the season being warm, the vines have not put up as much foliage as before which also provides further justification to put my hands behind my back.  Two sprays went out to control potential mildews, just sulphur as no chance of botrytis within the canopy as the parched air has ensured a clean set throughout the vineyard.

 

Yield is down.  I am not sure by how much, but enough to make me know I am going to be annoyed when the last bins are sent off to the winery.  Our vineyard is producing lovely wines at the current, and my feeling is the 2022 vintage will be excellent as well.  The wet spring and the dry summer have meant the vines had access to water when the growth and flowering most needed it, but with the water table dropping and the rainfall becoming a memory the vines have gone into protection mode, ensuring that the fruit is looked after in every way.  Twenty year old vines help of course and having enough clays and deeper and well fed soil profiles also keeps the shape of the vineyard.

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Dry as a chip – desiccated Merlot mid-rows

Looking back to last years lush green mid-rows in early February is now a very distant memory.  Walking around the vines is like walking over straw – everything is tan and devoid of any form of life – and the vines with their green foliage are a dramatic counterpoint.  It is looking good – just keep those fingers crossed as we enter the final 2 months of our vintage.

 

Bottling…

A busy month in the winery as we finish the bottling of the 2020 red wines and get them put into cool storage awaiting release.  The 2020 red wines and the 2021 Chardonnay are now suited up with our newly designed labels and they look magnificent.  It was a long and windy path to finally get to the point in which our label and presentation with the “Luxe” caps and premium bottle is near a point where both Tim and I are super comfortable – it has been something that we knew we needed to update and now we can sit back for a few years before the thought tickles the back of minds once more

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We will be releasing the Chardonnay once the weather cools, and we most likely will have the Reserves from the 2020 vintage available in Spring.  When Clive and I sat down with the reds before posting them off for bottling we were very happy with all three (Merlot, Cab Franc, Allouran) – but by crikey the Reserve Cabernet Franc is superb.  You may remember Clive and I had run through a series of high-end Bordeaux’s not so long ago and marvelled at the oily texture obtained by these top wines – the Reserve Cabernet Franc is mimicking this, and we could not be happier.

 

The main issue we have is simply the lack of volume of our wines.  2020 was the year of the birds – no blossom in the surrounding forests of the region forced the birds to put an incredible amount of pressure on the vintage.  We lost a percentage of our grapes – others lost the lot – so we are grateful for the wines we have managed to make, and we are grateful that the standard we have set continues to be met.

 

The price you pay...

Tim and I own and operate Blue Poles Vineyard as a partnership – we own the land, we own the wines, and we maintain the debts.  Whenever we talk to various people and groups and we indicate that we are vineyard owners, we on many occasions get that eye roll from the person we are speaking too, as if to say, “of course you do”.  Though I am pretty sure we do not look like hobos (well Tim doesn’t at least), it is a broad assumption that to own a vineyard and wine label in Margaret River you are required to be listed in the top 100 richest people in the state or a generational owner of one of the first families.

 

These attitudes are very peculiar as there are so many levels to this industry that many actually forget that the industry is an “agricultural” pursuit, and any landowner could plant vines and sell grapes.

 

A larger percentage of the grapes grown in the Margaret River region are owned by farmers who have no intention of making wine.  Hectares and hectares are operated by families that do not wish to be any more than the providers of fruit – not for them the risk of making a product at great expense before realizing they cannot sell it.  This was the case with the Credaro family who have 100’s of hectares of vines that provided a large percentage of the grapes to Evans and Tate, before they took the step into winemaking and eventually their own label.  They still sell 100’s if not 1000’s of tonnes of fruit – the advantage of the Italian / European migrant families that spent every cent they had in the 1950’s through to the 1980’s securing more and more land in the southwest.

 

If you look at the newer labels you start to see the trend of young winemakers buying fruit from undisclosed sources (those farmers of above), which is simply because buying land is onerous and not required.  Some of these up and comers do lease vines and manage them to reduce costs as they have increased their sales and profitability, and this is a bit of a trend as possibly the older farmers are seeking a more secure income (years of stress selling grapes in fickle markets is not enjoyable).  These wineries themselves may also be wanting to control what happens to the grapes during vintage – organic / biodynamic principles can be adhered to if they are the ones driving the tractors.

 

When reading an article on www.janeanson.com about the cost of vineyards in Bordeaux (more specifically Saint-Emilion), it dawned on me that our wine region is literally ripe for the picking.  In the article it indicated that to purchase a hectare of vines in the area you would need to pay between €250,000 and €4,000,000 / hectare (A$400,000 – A$6,350,000) – such that a vineyard such as Blue Poles with its 7 hectares under vine is priced well north of $2.5mil at the lowest pitch point.  Now, you rightly say that there are much cheaper vineyards throughout France – and you are correct – but can they demand high prices for their wines?  And the answer is no, they get a pittance whereas Margaret River estates can charge prices equivalent to Grand Cru status Chateaux, thus the comparison is real.

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Classic image of St-Emilion, Bordeaux

There is a major break in the “value” present in Margaret River vineyards and the fine wines of the world and I wonder how long it can last.  It is apparent the locations of all of the highly priced estates of the world are not in the furthest reaches of the world either – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, even Napa are amazing and beautiful locations and near major world cities – but I would contend that a maritime setting in a well-resourced region and also with beautiful locations could match this.  Then you can add in having some added benefits in regard to opportunity to expand and develop due to the lack of overarching wine bureaucracy – there is real value at play.

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Classic image of Margaret River, Western Australia

 

So why are we still languishing at low property values, and limited if not stagnant growth in the region?  I have no idea and it genuinely stumps me.  It is recognized with effort you can generate $100+ per bottle from “new” estates and maintain the roll – Will Berliner at Cloudburst shows this is doable – and you have an international reputation for quality from relatively recent wineries that could play a role in “matching” those fine wines from Europe.

 

We look out at funny money being spent in Sydney and Melbourne on properties, and for many years foreign buyers drove that market.  We also had some older vineyards purchased in South Australia for significant sums, noting the old vine resources in play.  But Margaret River with all its natural advantages and lack of red tape and rules and regulations has languished.  Even with prices for grapes from the region at all-time highs, no one is rushing out to plant more vines – in fact many hectares of vines are untended as there is a lack of funds to maintain the estates fully.

 

Is it a matter of time?  Is Margaret River ripe for the plucking?

 

Those questions genuinely stump me as well.  Are we heading towards a booming economy post-Covid similar to the 1920’s post the Spanish Flu?  Or are we going into our spending shells as the countries try to control inflation resulting from spending lavished on keeping their respective economies ticking over?

 

What I do know is that if the financial “Eye of Sauron” spins around and looks at Margaret River it could be a game changer for the region.  It has always been threatened but never acted on and now I am beginning to think that those rogue billions of gobbled up government money from the wealthiest sectors will start a search and it may settle on our region as an “opportunity” worth owning.  At that point, what price will be paid?

 

Warming trend...

A super warm month this year with very little cloud cover and winds from quarters that are not usually chosen by the weather gods.  We had a very warm 5-day spell from 18-22 January with the maximum exceeding 36°C each day and minimums near or above 20°C each night – and with no rain to take the heat out of the ground the grasses in the region are now all toasted a light brown.

 

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

 

January 2022:        

Avg Maximum Temp          29.2°C

Daily Max recorded            39.2°C

 

Avg Minimum Temp           14.2°C

Daily Min recorded               9.3°C

 

Rainfall:                               0.6mm

The maximum was warmer than 2021, with the minimum being slightly lower.  Rainfall total for 2022 was lower than in 2021, though there was basically no rainfall in both months.

January 2021:        

Avg Maximum Temp           28.9°C

Daily Max recorded             38.9°C

 

Avg Minimum Temp            14.6°C

Daily Min recorded                9.0°C

 

Rainfall:                                3.1mm

 

Critical Component…

 

The last two months of vintage are always ones in which you wring your hands and hope that the weather just plays nicely.  Having decided to dry grow all the vineyard, we are a little susceptible to another period of extreme heat, but surprisingly any rainfall at this time would not spell too many problems.  Last mildew spray on 1 February, nets will be set out and walking walking walking will be the order of the day as grapes will be checked for ripeness and health daily.

As always if you have any queries about what has been written or about wine in general, do not hesitate to contact us either by email, Instagram or Twitter and we will do our very best to answer any question.

Cheers

 

 

Mark Gifford

Blue Poles Vineyard