Blue Poles Vineyard
It was a cool Monday on 7 April – showers lined up across the skyline to the west and the pickers arrived in their white mini-van (a few short) at 7am. Buckets had been set up for the first row of 10 and the tractor was idling away with the first bin of 6 to be filled. By 11am it was over, the united nations of pickers were off to help finish off a pick at Cape Mentelle. Showers had flitted across all morning, but nothing of value fell until the last bin had its lid securely fastened.
I must admit to being a bit tired and sore – with nearly all the girls now off doing tertiary studies or working it came down to Gail and I to ready the vineyard for the season and this meant a few hours manhandling nets, trimming off unwanted fruit on daily passes, a bit of leaf plucking, and a continuous walk of tasting and testing as we neared vintage. But the reward was there in the bins. Sensational Cabernet Franc, and I believe a very very good Merlot which had been picked off in late March. No Teroldego this year – alas the season meant the sugars were reaching for the skies while the skins and pips needed time to resolve their structural components.
The last bin delivered for vintage 2014
I still have some clean up in the vineyard to do, but I have had to go abroad to earn my keep so to speak. That awaits in May – as does the slow sleep of the wines as they settle into their new and 1-2 year old barrels.
A sense of place…
During the month I have been thinking quite a bit about “sense of place” in wine. I think this is due to the number of wine tastings we have held for various visitors to the vineyard and me rambling on trying to keep them awake with my stories and anecdotes. We often get asked why our wines taste like they do, and what is it that can make our wines so distinctive, especially the merlot dominated wines. My answer always tend to follow a similar path with reference to the soils, the topography, our location relative to the coast, our southerly aspect for the Merlot and Cab Franc vines, the way we tend the vines etc etc etc. However, the varietal character of the wines as seen in Bordeaux can be found in our wines, and this counterpoints where we are and what we do to make the wine. So you see, this “sense of place” (or “terroir” if you’d like), stuff isn’t as easy as that; it can be rather tricky and filled with riddles.
Shiraz. Syrah. However you like to put it, it is perhaps Australia’s favorite red wine. It fills the most expensive category in this country as well by about a ratio of 10 to 1 at a guess, with the Penfolds Private Bins and Grange being pretty much top of the tree. But the funny thing is, the Shiraz wines of Australia actually bear little in common with best Shiraz wines of the old world (Northern Rhone wines being the “peak” one could say). You could say hoorah for that, but you see this is the odd one out of the major grape varieties – Pinot and Chardonnay producers worship and attempt to mimic the wines of the Cote d’Or, similarly Cabernet and Semillon producers worship the outwash gravels of the Bordelaise, and even the “natural” winemakers take some of their vows in the hills of Jura. Australian Shiraz (and being completely honest New Zealand Shiraz, South African Shiraz, American Shiraz et al), do not actually mimic the great Shiraz wines of the Rhone. Not even close. Not the same street, suburb, city.
They are their own wines, and when you buy them you are actually drinking the region and maker’s interpretation of the grape.
The rules of combat when sitting with a white coat on and looking at 20 glasses of wine in a blind tasting is that the wines you taste, taste of the grape they are made from. Thus our little “best of breed” wine world litters the floor with those that buck the norm. For most varieties, the “best of breed” actually references old world wines, but for Shiraz I don’t think that has honestly ever been the case and they have admired a “regional” style as the key. And the reason for that was that it has become apparent over the decades that Shiraz is the one grape that picks up where it is grown ahead of all other varietal, winemaking, soil, climate, and aspect artifice. A Barossan Shiraz is distinctive, so is a MacLaren Vale version, and Great Southern, and so on and so on … it is the ripeness of the fruit that takes over and the level of raspberry through to blackberry jam with whippings of oak and spice/herb become the demarcations.
The wide broad expanses of the Barossa Valley – South Australia
“Old world Shiraz is not dominated by the flavor of fruit. New world Shiraz is.” Me, 2014
And no amount of toning down the ripeness of the fruit on the vines throughout the new world, or the seeking of cooler growing sites has altered this one tasting truth. Now this is not necessarily a good or bad thing – it just simply is. Robert Parker upon his “discovery” of South Australian Shiraz (mainly from the Barossa and MacLaren Vale), basically anointed a new wine, not a new Shiraz. There were no equivalents to this and it took off, with the US lapping up these wines and fortunes were made (and still are to a degree). These wines were uber Shiraz, pack filled with flavor and fruit punch, and they became the Aussie icons of the 1990’s and into the early noughties. They weren’t particularly balanced wines, and from that time to now there has been a move to balance the wines with some acidity to match in with the richness and the oak – but they still taste of home, one could say.
We grow a Shiraz – top of the block, looking west, are the vines. When the vines were planted I had hoped that we could make a wine that had flavor and character that grounded the wines in Margaret River, but had characters of the grape from the Rhone. It just cannot be. Our Shiraz to date has a lovely fresh raspberry sheen to it, nice soft oak and tannins and has an element of white pepper – but as a straight Shiraz it has no similarities to Cote Rotie, Hermitage, St Joseph or Crozes Hermitage. It is simply a Margaret River Shiraz – a very good one – but nothing of the variety in its place of origin.
I remember Paul Chapoutier from northern Rhone came to Australia to make a Shiraz here, with the ambition of having his “stamp” on the wines. Careful site selection and growing followed and applying biodynamic principles and oodles of money – he made an Australian Shiraz. After a few vintages the experiment has effectively shut down with little more press and publicity, nothing could alter the simple fact the grape just will not pay homage to itself.
We also have Tim Kirk of Clonakilla in Canberra who went to the slopes of Cote Rotie and witnessed the addition of Viognier to the ferment and the style of wines made, and came back and followed suit – and the wines he makes are of very very high quality. But are they even remotely like a Cote Rotie Shiraz? Nope, the streak of “Red Indian” raspberry takes over that middle palate and glass filling aromas making the fruit the main course and not the sides.
The steep slopes of the Cote Rotie – Rhone Valley, France
The concept of place, varietal flavor, and wine making overprint is a Rubik’s Cube of options and it is confused by the desire of all wineries and industry bodies wishing to use and abuse some portion of the tetrad. We are all guilty. An example of how we bind ourselves by our own words would be the Margaret River sub-regions. Of which I passionately defended the right of wineries to use the sub-region names in last month’s report. But are the sub-regions actually there in any form at all anyway? I do not think we will ever know, as the guiding wine variety that is being used to define the characteristics of these regions in Margaret River is Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is the most varietal wine of all with little to no nod to the soils or climate when in close quarters. In Bordeaux, the separation of appellations is predominantly based on the “blend” of varieties present rather than on a single grape variety.
In my dusty study I have two bottles of extremely memorable wine. One is a classic Cote Rotie from Jean Louis Chave, an absolutely beautiful expression of Shiraz. The other is a Merlot, but not from my beloved Pomerol or Saint-Emilion, but rather from Italy, a truly magnificent wine called Masseto and a wine which told me there is no one place in the world to make world class Merlot. Those two bottles to me highlight all that is possible and impossible, but they sit next to each other on my shelves as the wines were exquisite unforgettable wines. And what else can we do but say hoorah to that.
April is generally the start of the “season” which is a cut down way of saying it rains, gets colder and the grass can grow again. In the good old days it used to rain for months on end, but for the past 15 years we have had very few seasons which have had rainfall in excess of the average (with 2013 being the wettest year for over a decade, and it was only just over the regional average). The small amount of rain we received in March was not followed up by much in the way of rains in April and this has led to grass seed sprouting away to only wither away with little in the way of further falls.
The numbers for the month and last year’s figures are provided below:
April 2014: Avg Maximum Temp 23.0oC (Daily Max recorded 31.0oC)
Avg Minimum Temp 11.2oC (Daily Min recorded 5.2oC)
The maximum and minimum temperature averages are a lot lower than last years, indicating a change of the seasons. Rainfall is also lower this year even with the lower temperatures, though both years are below average for rainfall with the overall rainfall average for April being much higher (48mm).
April 2013: Avg Maximum Temp 24.5oC (Daily Max recorded 32.3oC)
Avg Minimum Temp 13.2oC (Daily Min recorded 4.9oC)
Wine settles in …
May is the month in which you can look back over a vintage and have a think about how it all went. Though we are extremely pleased to get such a great vintage for the Merlot and the Cabernet Franc, we will need to make plans to get our Shiraz and Teroldego sorted for 2015. Lots of odd jobs still to work through – I think a reset of the shed is in order – but at least the rush of vintage is not knocking on the door.
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.
Blue Poles Vineyard