Blue Poles Vineyard
September and the start of October form one of the two periods in the vineyards year where I can take time to promote our wine, or even have an extended break. This year I have had an opportunity to complete a vintage in Bordeaux working in an area just south of St-Emilion for six weeks. So here I am, in the heart of Merlot and Cabernet Franc country spending time with the Despagne family and working with them on their highly regarded Ch Girolate wines (to read more they have a website at www.despagne.fr and in typically French fashion it is well designed but not that regularly updated). Of course with me abroad this does leave the my family to get the vineyard ticking along as well as feeding the dog and the chickens as well as all the other 100s of jobs that keep popping up.
Currently our vineyard (via regular updates from my wife), has begun budburst with the Marsanne and Merlot just through and the Viognier, Shiraz and Cabernet Franc getting closer. With this timing it appears that we are running about normal to slightly later in timing, and that should favour good flavour development with a slightly later vintage (if the weather happens to stay “normal” as well). In Margaret River we are fortunate to have quite a mild climate during this potentially dangerous period of budburst as the most damaging weather being frosts are extremely rare, with only hail being the most potentially damaging to the vines.
Now as I have had only 10 days of the month in West Australia and 20 in France, I will provide a summary of the vineyards on the “Right Bank” of Bordeaux, which is the spiritual home of Merlot – and really what else could I talk about as I look outside over stone Maisons and acres of French vines.
Ch Girolate (courtesy of www.despagne.fr)
Right Bank Bordeaux
We all have perceptions of how a place or person looks or feels like based upon our desire to meet an ideal. I assumed when I was quite small that all All Blacks were man mountains and made of a form of stone – my Grandmother one day introduced me to Ponty Reid, a half back of incredible skill that played for the All Blacks during the 1950’s and was a household name in my home town as he owned a local clothes shop. At 10 years of age I was nearly as tall as him, and I reckon by the time I was 13 I would have nearly weighed as much; I was astounded and it gave me a much greater world view on what anyone is capable of if they put their mind to it. Thus in a longwinded way I have introduced my doubts on to how I would see the vineyards of the Right Bank after my perception has been clouded by postcard scenes of rolling hills covered in vines, with church spires and stone wineries dotting the horizon – heaven help me if I ride on past an oil refinery or such like, I would be shattered. Well there is some good news, the place is as pretty as the postcard romantic view and I breathed a sigh of relief.
The “Right Bank” region of Bordeaux is shorthand for an area from Fronsac in the West, to Cotes de Castillon in the East, an area of approximately 30km long and about 20km wide. It is most well known for the two regions of St-Emilion and Pomerol, but there 11 unique Appellations within the umbrella term of “Right Bank”. The major town of Libourne is situated on the western corner of the region, and all of the Appellations are on the Northern side of the Dordogne River, which flows murkily to meet with the Garonne, as they join to form the Gironde (or more accurately the estuary of the Gironde), just prior to entering the Atlantic. In total area it is smaller than either the Medoc or Graves (large “Left Bank” regions), but it is extremely populated in vines with vineyards covering nearly every square inch of arable land in the well regarded Appellations (next to a large shopping centre in the centre of Libourne was 10 rows of vines nestled between the supermarket and the electronics store), and there are 100s of wineries to process the grapes. The landscape is so well regarded that the region around St-Emilion has been listed by Unesco as a world heritage site.
The region is dominated by red grapes – Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon – and though they could plant white grapes in all my travelling I have yet to see one, and I have never seen a bottle of white for sale from a Right Bank winery. With red vintage delayed until about 2-3 October at Chateau Girolate, I have had access to a bicycle and I have had a few days riding around the region and it has been both exhilarating and exhausting. I will give you a run down on what I saw and my impressions of the major wine growing areas.
The biggest single Appellation of the Right Bank, and with Pomerol form the magnificent two. I rode into St-Emilion from the south, crossing the Dordogne at Branne and onto the flats of southern St-Emilion. From the river to the base of the slope which protects the old roman fort of St-Emilion the town, a distance of about 7km, you pass acres and acres of vines grown in the Dordogne flood plain, and they are big and green and not under any stress even in such a dry year as 2010 has been to date. It is hard to believe that this area is classified as St-Emilion, and there are many Chateaus I have never heard of before and it may be due to the fact that the wines are not sought after outside of France. There was one known winery in the flats, and this was Chateau Monbousquet, owned by Gerard Perse of Chateau Pavie (think big rich alcoholic Parker pleasers). Soils in the area were predominantly sands with patches of gravels, and the vines were planted in the “default” setting of all wineries in the region, 2m wide rows with 1m spacing between the vines.
Onwards! Crossing the flats I could use the spire of St-Emilion as my guiding light, but as I approached this blooming great slope heads up out of the plain and surrounds the southern access to the town. For this woeful cyclist, it beat me badly and I walked the last portion into the town. To my relief as I reached the southern limits of the town I came across the most famous Chateau Ausone vineyards, glued onto the slopes by a thin layer of clay and rubble over the limestone base. In fact within a good golf shot from the top of the town you could land a golf ball in 4-5 of the best vineyards of the region, with the vineyards being on the flat or slope adjacent to the town itself - Chateau Canon is a large walled vineyard on the town’s western edge and looks particularly impressive. The town itself is a ludicrous maze of cobbled steep streets and wine sellers – life advice is not to visit in slippery shoes during a rainy day.
To the east of St-Emilion the town it is a large area of rolling hills heading to Castillon-la-Bataille, with little vineyards of note (but some very good wines none the less as I have had a couple of lovely wines while here from around St-Hippolyte and St-Etienne) – but to the west was where I am most keen to visit as this is where Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Figeac reside. Riding west the land drops slightly for 3-4km passing lovely but more generic vineyards, until you cross a drainage channel and the road starts to rise slightly to get up on to the Pomerol plateau which slips into the top north west section of St-Emilion. In fact the soils are so distinctive that from Figeac through to the far side of Pomerol the soils are all related – and much to my satisfaction look very similar to our brown clayey gravels of the Blue Poles vineyard of which I planted Merlot and Cabernet Franc due to these soil similarities. The vines are more cabernet based in this portion of St-Emilion and I was informed that in the whole of the Right Bank this small portion is the warmest location (followed by Pomerol, and then the town of St-Emilion. Viewing Chateau Cheval Blanc was not possible unfortunately as they were in the process of constructing some massive cellar and winery (two cranes filled the skyline), but the vines were closely spaced at the “premier” spacing of 1m rows and the vines 1m apart.
As you ride past Cheval Blanc on the D245 you enter Pomerol with its famous plug of brown clays and gravels – for the wine “trainspotter” it is like entering London’s central station marshalling yard. Ch La Conseillante on your right, Ch Le Evangile on your left, then 200m on turn on to Route de Lussac and ride past the vines of Ch Petrus and Ch Lafleur. So within an 800m stretch you’ve past some of the most delicious and expensive wines on the planet. And this is just the start, as you can quickly get about within this 3km x 3km Appellation as it is pretty flat and well criss-crossed by roads. All “premier” plantings here, with extreme vine management in place making portions of the estates looking like formal gardens more than a vineyard. Merlot is the vine of choice, many of the estates claim 100% Merlot, and at best Cabernet may reach a paltry 20% of any single estate – still trying to understand this with the adjacent location of the Cabernet rich Cheval Blanc why more isn’t planted, a mystery. Very few “walled” vineyards here due to the desire to use every inch of dirt – as an aside they are in the process of selling off the race track in the centre of Pomerol, the last unplanted portion of the Appellation, I dread to think what prices will be set for these 20 odd hectares.
Leaving Pomerol to the North, crossing the Dordogne tributary the La Barbanne, you enter the Appellation of Lalande-de-Pomerol. It may only be a matter of a few 100s of meters, but in regards to the prestige and wine quality it may well have been light years. The soils here are simply dramatically different, no iron rich clays just grey sandy clays with muddlings of rounded gravels – like a cruel joke the plateau of Lalande-de-Pomerol slightly overlooks Pomerol below it, but it has nothing of the quality or character of that region. Again Merlot dominates, but prices reached for the wines are rarely above 12€, and this is for 95% of all the 200 odd estates. Machine harvesters were at work when I rode past, and they simply don’t work anywhere near as well as in Australia – and the reason is simple, with 1m spacings and a low cordon the row is like a picket fence, in Australia with a 2m spacing and a high cordon it is like a wire fence, which is easier to give a good shake? Watching the French machines bash and crash, I really do involuntarily wince.
St-Georges St-Emilion / Montagne St-Emilion
The tributary La Barbanne not only acts as a point of separation between the Pomerol’s, but also between St-Emilion and its northern satellites St-Georges and Montagne. It roughly is describing the southern slopes of the town of Montagne which forms the St-Georges satellite, and the surrounding plateau which forms the Montagne satellite. The region is an approximate mimic of the soils and vineyards around the town of St-Emilion and as such is based on clays over limestone. The limestone here however is a bit more deeply buried and the clay somewhat thicker and denser, so little gravels are seen around the Appellations. But the wines I have tried from both regions were very good, and the prices are a bit more steeper which indicates that there are pockets of these two Appellations that have real potential and could mimic those excellent near plateau town wines of Canon, Clos Fourtet, Valandraud etc. Lots of subtle landscape here and very pretty to ride around, though my legs were beginning to rebel and my inquisitiveness was beginning to temper.
Puisseguin St-Emilion / Lussac St-Emilion
To the north and east of Montagne these two Appellations start to see the break up of the solid vineyards and now other crops (corn and cornflower) and copse of trees start to take hold. The vineyards are located on the sections of slope that generally face south (though the direction of the rows can be any which way, these French), and the vine spacings have reverted to the 2m x 1m standard. Apparently a fair bit cooler, and more deeply buried limestone and deeper clays, the region does not have any well known champions yet and as such is still very low on the Bordeaux buyers radar. I am sure there would be some great locations within these Appellations but there would need to be some dedicated sniffing out of wines and soils to get them to the table.
Fronsac / Canon Fronsac / Cotes de Castillon / Cotes de Francs
I was not brave enough to ride across the town of Libourne to visit Fronsac and Canon Fronsac, but by all accounts the area is considered to have great potential with the soils related to those delicious brown clayey gravels of Pomerol, as well as some limestone “islands” with their thin clay and gravel over the rocky base. I will make the trek when I get access to a vehicle (though driving from the passengers’ seat does make me queasy), as there is a lot of noise about these wines and the value continues to be very good.
The eastern Bookends of Cotes de Castillon and Cotes de Francs have a similar feel to Lussac and Puisseguin where vineyards share the landscape with numerous other uses and thin to the east as forests start to make a stand. A very pretty landscape, and similar to Entre-deux-Mers where towns, fields, forests and vines sort of merge in this old landscape.
The Right Bank of Bordeaux has lived up to its reputation as a glorious landscape and beautiful towns. The simple understanding of the regions by Appellation alone is not sufficient for you to make a decision on the quality of a wine bought, as there are many changes in soil types and vineyard placement, before you even get to know how the wines were picked or vinified. The most prized wines are in the areas of the most prized soils, and even here there are exceptions (between Cheval Blanc, Figeac and La Conseillante of Pomerol are two small St-Emilion estates of Ch La Grave Figeac and Ch La Tour du Pin Figeac – unknown to the world generally, but oh what a location!), and it keeps the mystery of the place intact. Any wine lover who could get to Bordeaux should go; it is wonderful and surprisingly full of very friendly French men and women.
Spring is in the air…
Well it is a bit presumptuous of me to discuss the weather back at Blue Poles while I am sitting in the heart of Bordeaux, but by some strange co-incidence both regions have near of identical weather at this time of year. The weather was quite cool at the start of the month, but has turned on some sensational spring weather to end the month, with a few red noses acquired by folk who went to Perth for the Royal Show (Gail helped out at the CWA tea and coffee stall by all accounts – anything for a free ticket!).
The numbers for the month and last year’s figures are provided below:
September 2010: Avg Maximum Temp 18.3oC (Daily Max recorded 25.0oC)
Avg Minimum Temp 6.9oC (Daily Min recorded 3.0oC)
A month of two halves, but the clear skies late in the month have given some cool minimums, but also high maximums with the resulting low rainfall. In comparison to last year it is a significantly warmer month and this will bring vine development forward slightly during the growing season. Rainfall is an issue as the dam only just overflowed, and is now receding with the warmer weather – this implies groundwater levels are not high and impact on the grapes earlier this year.
September 2009: Avg Maximum Temp 15.9oC (Daily Max recorded 20.5oC)
Avg Minimum Temp 8.8oC (Daily Min recorded 2.2oC)
Making Red Wine …
As you can imagine my days walking among my own vines will be limited this month, but I do get to commence making some top flight Merlot in Bordeaux, and frantically writing down all the tricks of their trade so as to apply it to our own wines if warranted. Flying back into Western Australia will occur in mid-late October, and I will be straight into the spray program and the debudding just to ensure I do not think I can just laze around. It is busy but it is great and it should ensure even better wines will be made at Blue Poles from now and into the future.
Take care everyone, and if you have any queries 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