Blue Poles Vineyard
Out and about …
Well it has been a month of travel and promotion along the east coast of Australia for me while the vineyard takes a break. Vintage is over and the vines go through a phase of growing their roots with the energy stored in the canopy, in preparedness for the following season. We feel it is not a good idea to prune too early because of this returning of “energy” into the ground – but the month has been that cool, matched with the early break of season, this process seems to be over and pruning can begin in June, a couple of weeks earlier than in previous years.
Many vineyards actually put out a spray of sulphur so as to ensure leaves shut down and that any pesky end of season mildews get cleaned up. I am not so keen on the idea myself, as it should be a gradual process of root growth and not fore-shortened by artificial means and that catching mildews now is a bit silly, as any mildews in the ground will be unaffected so it will not make much of an impact on the mildew count at the start of next vintage anyway. But there are so many different takes on vineyard management it is difficult to determine right and wrong, just what works for you.
Photo of Jackson in the vineyard
Gail and I last week took the opportunity to taste through the 2010 wines and we are very happy with what we have in the barrels. I will summarise our impressions below:
2010 Viognier: Straw yellow, with not so much honey suckle this year, more like apricot blossom. Obvious ginger on the nose so we have become slightly more varietal. The palate is broader to last year but the bright fresh acids and ruby grapefruit taste with a nice lifted length gives us great pleasure and the wine will be eminently drinkable.
2010 Merlot: Deep black plum red. The oak is buried in a wall of fruit but that fresh tobacco and lingering cocoa ensures that there is a reserve wine waiting to be found. The palate is very rich, even more so than the 2008, and it has a very long length. This wine will produce a component to match the 07 and 08 reserve wines, and keep the line going.
2010 Cabernet Franc: Deep black purple. What a rich and intense nose of fruit – huge hits of blackcurrant and sweet mulberry with the most amazing zing of allspice / cinnamon. The palate is excellent, much fuller than all previous years and giving rise to the thought that a barrel of this should be made into a reserve. Great length and an exciting wine for the Allouran blend.
Walking away from the tasting it was pleasing to see that the wines are still distinctively Blue Poles wines, but with the vine age and them settling into a good growing vintage the wines continue to improve. These wines will not be available for a couple of years, but if you have the time and give us fair warning, a little barrel hall experience could await you (and believe me trying wines without any “pre-bottling” activity is not only teeth staining but quite mind blowing).
A tiny corner of France …
Each month I like to discuss an aspect on wine that relates to the current state of the industry or to the perception of wine. But enough of this, time for some delving and digging into a wine, a name, a region, an understanding - this month I am going to discuss a vineyard, a very important vineyard in the history of the grape variety Viognier.
My first encounter with Viognier was from a wine made in Gisborne, NZ – in the late 80’s. It was unusual wine and quite bitter on the back palate but I did like the aroma and the unusual stone fruit tastes and smells. Upon arriving in Australia I touched on Yalumba’s versions, and before the vineyard was developed we tasted 10’s of different producers in Australia and abroad – with the best being Cuilleron’s and Perret’s from Condrieu, the heartland of Viognier itself. But the Holy Grail and the most iconic wine from this grape variety is Château-Grillet, (pronounced Gree – yay), a tiny 3.5 hectare estate on the southern edge of the Condrieu wine region.
Image of the Château-Grillet label
Château-Grillet was apparently the source of all French Viognier, as it is stated to have been planted in 281AD by Emperor Probus when cuttings were brought in from Yugoslavia (possibly related to the native Krstač grape of Serbia which is often similarly described?). Cuttings from this source then spread initially north along the Rhone valley, and then into southern France. By the late 18th Century Thomas Jefferson was made aware of the wines of Château-Grillet while in Paris, and ordered some for his accommodation and had some forwarded to Mendocino upon his return to America. In the early 19th Century Jullien, Tovey and others classified Château-Grillet as one of the great wines of France, and hence the world, making the demand for this wine quite significant one would have thought. By ~1830 the Neyret-Gachet family had purchased the estate, and to this day the vineyard is managed by family members.
The wines from Château-Grillet must have been excellent, as when Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) laws were introduced in the 1930’s this sole vineyard and winery was classified as a “monopole” AOC (of which there are only a few in France, Romanée-Conti is perhaps the most well known of these). So on December 8th 1936 a decree was passed for Château-Grillet to be its own AOC, the second smallest in France. So here we have it, a tiny, immensely respected vineyard with an exotic history from the 3rd Century AD, has in the last 40 years become a relative unknown and anonymous vineyard with more brickbats than bouquets raised when discussed in the wine community. There is a question that needs answering here, so I have started doing some digging and chased down a few leads, and from this a “story” has appeared.
Château-Grillet is located in a small pocket like valley on the southern edge of the Condrieu AOC. It faces to the South and South East and is protected from the cold northerlies, and traps the heat of the long summer due to its aspect. It is also very, very steep with the vineyard over 500 vertical feet, it is terraced from top to bottom with huge thick ramparts built in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The steep slopes and terraces of Château-Grillet
Geologically it is unique as well, as the soil is often referred to as soft and powdery and the sub soil loose and frittered – and this is within an area of granites that are quite solid and unweathered. The reason for this is twofold, the granite in the small pocket of Château-Grillet appears to be very mica rich (a “platy” mineral that looks like the remnants of a broken disco ball when weathered), and possibly a small fault zone that has crushed the rock through compression; has meant that this pocket was formed and the sub-soil and regolith have been weathered and their “pores” opened. A rich mixture of primary and weathered minerals within a deep weathering profile, facing the sun, and avoiding the cool destructive northerly winds appear to be the perfect setting for Viognier.
The vines at Château-Grillet are referred to often as 40 years old, but there appears to be a turnover of vines with younger vines in sections of the vineyard referred to in various correspondences. The first reference to Château-Grillet that I checked was the “bible” of wine, Hugh Johnson’s “Wine Companion”. The note on the winery was quite strange as Hugh did not provide a description of the wine (apart from “highly aromatic”) and then stated that they may not be best suited to aging (though the AOC classification notes “wines that age gracefully” was one of the reasons for this unique “monopole”). My next reference was Remington Norman’s “Rhone Renaissance” – and Remington appears to have visited Château-Grillet and interviewed the owner André Canet (circa 1993-1994). It is almost an apologetic piece and quite sad as you read between the lines.
André Canet married Hélène Neyret-Gachet in 1943, and for 18 years they must have lived a quiet life with André continuing his career as an engineer. In 1961 André’s brother in law, Monsieur Maillet, died and he was made manager of the Estate. During 1965 -70 the Canet family bought out the other Neyret-Gachet family member’s interest in Château-Grillet – you have the feeling that no other family members had an interest in the property anymore and it was either buy them out or sell up. But from this point on the quality of Château-Grillet wines started to diminish and you can not help but think Andre may have been a competent engineer, but a less competent vigneron. But saying this may be unfair, having bought out the other family members, funds must have been tight, thus investing in new barrels and updated technologies must have seemed like a distant dream – thus Château-Grillet was on the wane.
Hugh Johnson’s early 1980’s comment appears at a very low point of the wines of Château-Grillet, and at some point in the 1990’s André handed over the reins to his youngest daughter Isabelle Baratine (referred to as dark and vivacious by Remington), and slowly the wines have improved but not enough to justify their price. Winemaking was done for many years “gratis” by Max Leglise in the 1980’s and 90’s and he was well respected, but very old – and you could see the issues arising with wine management and styles as time passed. Poor wines (yes believe me they were very very poor, I have had 3 bottles from the 90’s and they were shocking), very high prices and a fading reputation has meant the end of this unique estate?
Well not quite. Isabelle has managed to get “super smooth” Denis Dubourdieu on board and involved since the 2004 vintage. Denis has been an Oenology Professor at the University of Bordeaux since 1987, and is considered the architect of bringing Bordeaux white wines back from the brink and ensuring better quality white wines across France. Such that when Jancis Robinson scored the 2005 wine at 17.5 points, this could have been seen as a major victory. I would love to know if Isabelle has a family member who is now getting involved and is enthusiastic about Château-Grillet – it could mean the rebirth of one of the great wines in history and the step towards putting Viognier into the vanguard of top French wines once more.
There is a salient message for all of us involved in the wine industry. Reputations are hard earned but so quickly lost. Even though you may be located on the perfect patch of soil with the perfect aspect, any move away from quality and tasks to ensure that quality can only lead to the demise of your “brand”. Every effort must be made to continually push forward (even when you have reached a peak such as Château-Grillet in the 1930’s), and never rest on your laurels. When I am in France this September, I will seek out a bottle and open it; remembering just how convoluted a path that wine had taken to get to my glass...
Winter is a month early...
It has been cool, very cool and this has meant our vines are shut down and ready to prune (though we will give them a week or two to ensure all is well). The weather has been quite windy and showery over the month and embedded within this has been a couple of frosts and some very wet days. There has not been enough rainfall to get the streams and Margaret River flowing, as this usually takes 200mm of rain in a month, but the soil profiles are well wetted and come winter proper with large cold fronts striking our little corner of the Indian Ocean it will not be long before the water tanks and dams are overflowing once more.
The numbers for the month and last year’s figures are provided below:
May 2010: Avg Maximum Temp 19.3oC (Daily Max recorded 23.9oC)
Avg Minimum Temp 8.8oC (Daily Min recorded 1.0oC)
The maximum temperature range is significantly cooler this year in comparison to last year, but the minimum is not as low as last year due to higher levels of cloud cover. Last year it was one glorious clear day after another until one massive rain burst at the end of the month to herald the break of season. This year the season has already broken so we are in the westerly stream with showers and cold fronts passing over the region very regularly such that we get rain fall on most days of the month. Rainfall numbers are similar between last year and this, but the vagaries of rainfall always amazes me as at the Witchcliffe Bureau of Meteorology site (18km away as the crow flies), the rainfall total for May 2010 was a whopping 162.6mm. Go figure.
May 2009: Avg Maximum Temp 21.7oC (Daily Max recorded 27.1oC)
Avg Minimum Temp 6.7oC (Daily Min recorded 1.5oC)
A wine release and pruning begins …
Well my so called “quiet” month has come to an end, so off to the vines I go (hopefully with a helper or two along the way), with the commencement of pruning. It is a job that funnily enough I always look forward to – the generation of order and definition is a lovely thing and very satisfying. Also this month, the 2008 Reserve Merlot will be released and we are very excited by the wine and the quality – we believe that it ranks with the best Merlots in Australia and helps redefine this variety in this country (big call I know, but try it and you argue otherwise J). Our wines would also have been reviewed in the “Big Red Wine Book”, and we are hoping that our wines continue to score well in what we believe to be the best Australian wine review publication.
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 will do our very best to answer any question.
Blue Poles Vineyard