Blue Poles Vineyard
It is becoming a regular occurrence in the Gifford household, another year another wedding and another house filled with relatives making their appearance from all around the world. This month my eldest daughter Hannah was married to her partner Tom in Margaret River, and it was a wonderful day and a sensational setting at the Brookland Valley Secret Garden venue. Hannah and Tom have been together since the end of their High School years and they both attended University together before both getting jobs in Perth. It has always been that they were a couple and it is nice to know that they have confirmed their partnership through marriage and we were able to get everyone that is nearest and dearest to them to attend the wedding and share the occasion.
Hannah and Tom with my mother at their wedding – Jan 2018
The wedding was also mostly organized by both Hannah and Tom and it went as would only be expected by knowing the pair of them – like clockwork. Now becoming a bit of a wedding aficionado, one could only say that the speech by the best man was one of the most hilarious I have ever heard – with no notes he boldly went where no best man had ever been before. I was dying from laughter as his stream of consciousness led him down many a blind alley, crazy assumption street and self-revealing pathway – bless you Sam if you are reading this. It was also a special occasion as my sister Joanne made it across from NZ though still finishing off her treatments, and it was wonderful to have her as MC for the evening and to be able to spend time with her and the rest of my immediate family.
Selfie with the bride
Now with all of this activity on the family front one would think that the vineyard and wines have taken a second place – this is not quite true. We have had a wonderful growing season to date with a great start to the vintage and a benign flowering period ensuring a good fruit set and little in the way of insect and mildew pressures. The year has been so consistent with little in the way of heat spikes that I have not irrigated the vineyard this vintage, and it is looking unlikely that they will require watering up to vintage now that we have nearly entered into the last two months of the season. The last of the wires were put into place (still a bit scruffy looking in the Merlot as the thinning I have done was not as tight in other varieties as Merlot is prone to a bit of sunburn), vineyard was slashed down, and the last of the de-legging was completed (though amazingly you still see an occasional vine that needs a further trim which makes me wonder if I am day dreaming when I am doing that job). Almost as a mimic of December, we had a big downpour in the middle of this month. Perth and surrounds which received 100-150mm of rain over a couple of days during the rain event breaking all sorts of records, but we down in Margaret River received only ~20 mm which was about perfect as the rain bought some cool and set the vines up for their final push.
Veraison (the changing of colour and the softening of the grapes), has commenced in all varieties and I am interested to find out how not watering during December / January has affected the ripening of the grapes. The most advanced is the Cabernet Franc, though it is rather hotchpotch in its coverage, followed by the Merlot and Shiraz about equal and a bit more consistent. The Cabernet Franc will still be picked off last, but you do need to let the grapes hang out with the Cabernet varieties late in the season to get rid of the “grassy / herbal” overtones that take over a wine if you pick this too early – with the flip side being not to pick Cabernet too late and losing all the fruit freshness and vitality.
Glass of ’85 Pichon-Lalande
Another little treat through the month (apart from the copious amount of beef and lamb we were consuming with the family hanging out for the week of the wedding), was a quick dinner with friends from Perth who were staying in Dunsborough. Having friends with exceptional cellars is handy, and one of the treats was a glass or three of 1985 Ch. Pichon-Lalande from Bordeaux – the delicious red berry smokey oak interplay was delicious and a bit of funk was excusable due to the lovely balance of the wine.
While sitting down after a day amongst the vines I noted on the table a copy of the latest Augusta – Margaret River Times with a headline screaming “New Wilyabrup Wine Region” or some such excitement. Crikey I thought, what could this possibly mean, and upon reading Therese Colman’s article fully I felt a little sick inside. Here is a link to the article Wine Sub-Region Proposal - AMR Times
Now once you have read the article there is a lot to unpack, but I will first give you a brief history of Margaret River region and its “Geographic Indicator”, which classifies wines from the region and is critical in protecting the integrity of wines grown in the region (much like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barossa, Mosel, Rioja etc etc etc). When the first commercial plantings of classic wine varieties were developed in the late 1960’s by the 3 medicos Pannell, Cullity and Cullen, these plantings were all within a few kilometers of each other in Wilyabrup. The area from Cape to Cape (Naturaliste to Augusta) was recognized by agricultural scientist Dr Gladstone as being suitable for the growing of grape vines for the making of fine wine, and he emphasized the planting of wine grapes on iron rich gravels with good loamy soils and his advice had aided the medicos back at the start. Taking this on board they noted that many areas of Wilyabrup were cleared and farmed, and had suitable soils mapped, were closer to Perth from which the doctors made their weekend trips, and this became the “kick-off” point for the region regarding the planting of commercial wine making vines.
A few years later in the early 1970’s the Woodlands and the Gralyn vineyards were developed in the Wilyabrup area, as well as plantings near Margaret River townsite with Cape Mentelle, Xanadu, and by the mid 1970’s Leeuwin Estate and many others began their vineyards. Gladstone during all of this continued to work in viticulture and he did release a seminal book called “The Climate and Soils of Southern WA in Relation to Vine Growing” which highlighted the wine growing regions of Western Australia, as well as aiding in the definition of their GI classifications.
An interesting aspect of the book was that in later editions the Margaret River GI became subdivided into 6 distinctive sub-regions. Working from North to South you had Yallingup (the ridge line that forms the Naturaliste peninsula), Carbunup (the remnant ocean flats that go from Geographe Bay to the first hills in the hinterland), Wilyabrup (just the area of the Wilyabrup stream catchment), Treeton (an area trapped between the ocean flats, and the Wilyabrup / Margaret River catchments), Wallcliffe (basically the Margaret River catchment area), and the largest of all Karridale (everything south of the Margaret River catchment, in essence the Blackwood River catchment). Interestingly, none of these sub-regions were divided up by soils or specific climatic conditions, but simply the catchment areas such that our vineyard located 20km inland from the coast is in the Wallcliffe sub-region, the same sub-region as Leeuwin Estate and Cape Mentelle a mere 3-5km from the coast as the crow flies.
Margaret River Sub-Regions as defined by Gladstone (1999)
There was discussion many years ago to try and enforce some sort of GI definition using these classifications, but it came to a grinding halt when a number of wineries adjacent to the Wilyabrup region thought it was to work against them, and the most blindingly obvious reason of all – there is little support for it from the wines being produced in the region. Thus, everyone became comfortable with the status quo, and wineries such as Vasse Felix, Evans and Tate, and Cape Mentelle happily developed very large vineyards and bought large volumes of grapes in regions such as Jindong and Karridale knowing that they are within the Margaret River GI and these more fertile and productive areas were ideal for making larger quantities of wine for their increasing production levels and wider range of wines.
It should also be noted that our Margaret River Wine Industry Association (MRWIA) concentrated solely on the promotion of “Margaret River” as the brand for the area, and the sub-regions became a small offshoot of activity. The only major sub-region event currently being run is a Cabernet tasting held annually where the wines are defined by the sub-region they were grown in, and the winemakers of Margaret River spend time looking over the wines and discussing their similarities and differences. I have not attended any of these tastings mainly due to the fact we do not have Cabernet Sauvignon planted, but from chats with various attendees you tend to find that the style of the winery is more distinctive than the wines of any particular region – thus you cannot classify wine quality or style solely from the location alone as there are far too many other factors for this to make any remote sense.
And now we circle back to this proposal for a Wilyabrup GI, promoted by (and I am assuming sponsored by) these five wineries - Cullen Wines, Fraser Gallop Estate, Lenton Brae, Moss Wood and Woodlands Wines. All of these wineries make excellent estate wines, though Woodlands does now take grapes from a wider range than their primary plantings adjacent to Moss Wood. The interesting aspect of the “band of five” is that some of the other earliest Wilyabrup wineries are not present in the group (Vasse Felix and Gralyn), and it could be assumed that they could either have concerns with the proposal or did not wish to sponsor the push, even though they stand to gain by the proposal.
So, the big question is why has the “band of five” gone ahead and sought a distinctive GI within the Margaret River GI? In the article Nigel Gallop noted “…it was “all about protecting the name (and) providing accurate information to consumers” And their application states: “It is apparent that Wilyabrup is in general use to define a particular style of wine. When consumers see the word on the label or in marketing material, it strongly suggests that the wine is of that style and produced in that area. Only by registering the name as a sub-region can we ensure that consumers are informed in a way that conforms with the objectives (of the Label Integrity Program).”
And here is the crux:
And this is when I say, I have my doubts. In fact, I would go as far to say, this seems to be a process which in effect resets the region through classification as defined by the potentially advantaged wineries themselves.
The whole concept of the Wilyabrup GI is really just a loose set of boundaries as defined by a small / major streams catchment – for example, you would have no idea when you have crossed into the Wilyabrup GI while driving down Metricup or Caves Rd – and as a geologist who has studied and reviewed the Margaret River region pretty extensively, it is just a boundary of convenience. With regard to climate, the variations can also be considered minimal if not non-existent with regards to temperature (minimum / maximum), humidity, and rainfall to adjacent sub-region areas. And to top this, the inference that there is a wine style that is unique to Wilyabrup is not supported since the commencement of the sub-region tastings at Vasse Felix (if not by simple common sense), and the proponents should know this.
The outcome these five wineries seek is the right to claim precedence within Margaret River and eventually charge more for their wines. It is that simple I am afraid. Though they already have the advantage of being in the epicenter of the Margaret River wine region’s development and can and have quite rightly traded off this for years, they still want to have more exclusivity heaped upon them. By classifying a smaller zone within the larger region by default you become more exclusive, and then by linking the more consistently superior wineries into the process you can assume that there is a defined zone of “quality” now in place. Like comparing Margaux to Bordeaux, or Romanée Conti to Burgundy – you know that the defined wines are “better” than the generic wines, it is human nature to assume so.
So where to from here?
We have sent a letter to the MRWIA stating that we are opposed to the proposal, and I can imagine that a number of other wineries will also be concerned by this development. It becomes the nick point for the start of the cracking apart of the Margaret River image and concept. Located where we are with few other wineries and vineyards present in our vicinity and only a small area suited to making great wines (based on my own understanding of the geology / climate and the physical area of gravels around the Rosa Brook / Osmington area), we are on a hiding to nothing with the splintering of the Margaret River brand. We will watch on with interest as the “band of five” start the process of seeking their own GI against what could be seen as common sense and the protection of all of us who work and invest in the Margaret River wine region.
January has the capacity to be scorching hot and dry as a chip, but fortunately for us this year the temperatures were stable and warm with just enough rainfall for us to continue not irrigating. As discussed, we anxiously watched the sky in the middle of the month as an ex-cyclone made its way south and deluged large areas of the state, including Perth just 230km north of us. As the weather arrived it was petering out and the total rainfall ended up being about 20mm all up – but it brought some cool cloudy skies, and this let the vines take a breather before their final push.
The numbers for the month and last year’s figures are provided below:
Avg Maximum Temp 25.5oC (Daily Max recorded 33.8oC)
Avg Minimum Temp 14.0oC (Daily Min recorded 9.4oC)
The maximum temperature average this month was lower than last year, though the minimum average this year was higher with some cloud cover lifting temperatures. The rainfall total is higher than last years due to an ex-cyclone causing rain from 16-17 January this year, against a more lighter series of rainfall totals in 2017.
Avg Maximum Temp 26.3oC (Daily Max recorded 35.7oC)
Avg Minimum Temp 12.9oC (Daily Min recorded 7.0oC)
I have never been sailing, but the America’s Cup has made us all experts and setting that final tack is critical in getting to the line fast. So February becomes that setting up for vintage, there is not much you can do but put out the nets to keep the birds at bay and to complete some thinning / fruit dropping if the growth was too excess on any particular vine or block. I will be abroad for the start of February, but I come back to work through vintage and with luck fulfil the promise this vintage has given from the start of the season way back in September/ October. Exciting times ahoy!
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