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Wow what a great event to catch up with interested wine consumers! Jo was nominated as one of the 12 Young Guns of Wine for 2016. Check out http://younggunsofwine.com/about-us to see what the fuss is about. The Melbourne public tasting was on 30th June at Prince Wine Store - Jo and I poured the wines she’d submitted: the 2015 The Affable Barbera and the 2015 The Alluring Tempranillo. These grape varieties originating from Italy and Spain respectively garnered loads of interest and we enjoyed pouring and sharing them with keen customers. We were proud to see such a strong Victorian representation in the competitors and winners. These awards look for innovation, intensity, regional authenticity and a point of difference.
Tick tick tick tick for Billy Button wines. The varietal interest and the approachability of the wines were paramount in the comments we received. Folks were interested to know the history of the varietals, and also the intriguing history of the North East and particularly the Alpine Valleys as a region where Italian (and other) prisoners of war were held during WW2. The immigrants willingly replaced the labour of those men gone to war and they brought their love of wine, coffee, home grown produce and familial hospitality to the region. And they stayed.
The region embraced them and is now blessed with wonderful alternative grape varieties grown by passionate local producers.
Jo works closely with the growers to maximise fruit quality and takes pride in producing wines of outstanding quality reflecting the grape itself and the benefits of the climate. And she doesn’t stop at those more familiar ... check out the website for the new releases of Refosco and Schippotino (although both are sold out now) and don’t lose the chance to check out Fiano and Fruilano. So much goodness. Gutsy wines begging for good food and good friends.
Go for the unknown and let us know when you’ve tried them. We look forward to your feedback!
Ningxia is a provence in north central China, bordering Inner Mongolia. It is basically a desert, with a mountain range on the western flank and the Yellow River running through it. It is small by chinese standards with just 6 million people. The capital is Yinchuan, which has 1.3 million inhabitants. Although the region has a very long history, most of the city is new and there is a huge amount of construction going on. Unlike cities in Australia that have suburbs that sprawl in all directions, Yinchuan is a very compact city surrounded by a ring road, and everyone lives in high rise apartment buildings. Grapes and goji berries are the main industries here, the wine industry is still in its infancy but there is huge investment in wineries here with some very spectacular buildings, ranging from ostentatious Loire inspired Chateaus to traditional chinese design, and everything in between. Despite the fact that the city is in a desert, there are a huge number of trees and gardens here, all on irrigation from the Yellow River. Lining the highway in all directions are closely planted trees - willows and poplars mainly. Throughout the city there are trees lining every road and flowerbeds on the corners of all the major intersections.
The winemaker at my host winery, Liu, speaks English quite well and has been enlightening me about the culture in Ningxia, and greater China. The food here is quite different to what we associate with chinese, as what we have in Australia is mainly southern style chinese. Here in Ningxia the sauces are generally tomato or vinegar based, not much soy sauce. Tomato and potato, which we do not normally associate with chinese cuisine, are quite commen in the dishes here. Mutton is the primary protein, but chicken, beef, donkey and fish are also common. If you order a chicken dish, expect to get the whole chicken chopped up (minus the head), so there is a lot of bone, neck pieces and feet. If you order fish, it will most likely be carp. Carp is quite the delicacy here. My winemaker took me to 'famous tourist area' the Sand Lake, where the famous food served at restaurants is fish head. Carp head. And you get to choose your carp from a tank out the front of the restaurant. Luckily it includes the front part of the fish as well, which was actually quite succulent and not too muddy. I declined the offer to eat the fish brains.
I am staying in a hotel here where there is a buffet breakfast. When it is busy, they have a chef making fresh noodles from dough. It is quite amazing to watch, within 30 seconds he turns a lump of dough into fine noodles, which take about 30 seconds to cook and are then served in a spicy broth. Everything is garlic and chilli here. And lots of it, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Suits me fine.
Meals are early here - lunch is usually 11.30 - 12.00 and dinner is 5.30 - 6.00. Liu suggests to eat rice for lunch and noodles for dinner, because noodles are easier to digest. Meals are accompanied by a glass of hot smoky plum syrup. I've come to enjoy this quite a lot. Many of the vegetable and noodle dishes are served cold and usually seasoned with vinegar. At every table there is a container of chilli and a container of vinegar. Liu always adds the vinegar to the noodles. The chinese also believe that drinking cold beverages, particularly with a hot meal, is unhealthy so it is very hard to get a cold beer!
Wine is still not very popular here, beer is widely available, but the drink of choice is Baijiu, 'white spirit', which is a (grape) spirit usually around 65% alcohol - it's lethal! The equivalent of 'cheers' here is 'ganbei', except that ganbei involves downing the contents of your glass in one go. They really like ganbei here, whether it's Baijiu and red wine. And there is a ganbei custom here at special dinners, where each person at dinner individually takes a bottle of the alcoholic beverage of choice and then goes around to each other person at the dinner and in turn fills their glass for ganbei. Not so bad if there is only 4 or 5 of you. But when there is 10 or more people, this can be a challenge, particularly if the person charging your glass likes to fill your glass full. When you cling the glasses, you keep your glass lower than the other persons as a sign of respect.
I would not want to drive a car here in a fit, it's chaos! Traffic lights, road signs, lane markings are all just a guide, people do whatever. One day we got stuck in a traffic jam on a country road because there were people selling melons on the side of the road and cars would just stop in the middle of the road to buy them. And then other cars would move into the opposite lane to get past them, and then other cars would then try and get past those cars, so you have 3 cars abreast on a single lane road with oncoming traffic. I've seen at least 6 accidents since I've been here. Car insurance must be through the roof! The city is full of new european cars, but as you travel out towards rural areas, electric motocycles become the transport of choice. Many people have the 3 wheel type with a tray on the back. These are used as road side stalls selling food and drinks and all manner of things. There are also a lot of the truck version of the 3 wheeler, with a noisy engine that sound like a steam engine. These vehicles chug around the rural roads (and the highways too) carrying massive loads of all sorts of things, sometime taking up both lanes of the road with long pieces of bamboo or plywood.
Other things that are a bit different here are that after lunch naps are very common (like Europe), the toilets are nearly all the squat type and never have toilet paper or soap, and the beds are rock hard. In the 'international' hotel I'm staying at, I have a mattress that is a bit like an ironing board, while at the more traditional guest houses the beds are usually woven bamboo with no mattress.
The people here all seem lovely and very eager to please. Because it is such a remote region of China, well off the beaten path, they do not see many foreigners here so we are quite the celebrity. I've gotten quite used to being stared at in restaurants. Quite often people will try out their english on you as you walk past 'hello', 'nice to meet you', or occaisonally 'will you marry me'.
I've enjoyed my time here, met some great people, enjoyed the food, but it is nearly time to leave. And I'm really looking forward to a cold beer that is more than 3.3% alcohol, and a soft bed!
I am sitting here in my hotel, writing this blog while drinking a nice cold can of beer. Very unusual for China, because I am a woman drinking beer (I have had many people photograph me doing this) and because the beer is cold - the Chinese do not drink cold beverages because they believe it is bad for your health.
I have been at this winery Senmiao Moon Valley for a week now, and I'm starting to feel like part of the family! I picked my Cabernet on Friday and was one of the first to do so. There is a large vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon about 1 1/2 hours south of Yinchuan and each winemaker randomly selected one block from it of at least 3 hectares, so that we can each harvest 15T for the competition. I think I was lucky to select one of the best blocks, it was one of the ripest, the fruit had very good flavour and it was very clean and free from disease.
Lovely small berries and bunches in my Cabernet block
Friday morning myself, the winemaker Liu, and her director Mr Yin drove down to the vineyard ready for picking. I was again lucky, because only 2 winemakers were picking that day, so there were many pickers available for our block. At least 60. Maybe 100. Entire family groups, older people, many women, older children and some very young children. At 7am everything kicked into action.
Start of picking!
I quickly worked out that the families picked in groups, and the crates they picked were stacked together at the end of the rows for counting, as they were paid by the crate (I don't even want to think about what they got paid). I asked if there were a spare pair of snips so I could pick - the people from the winery couldn't understand why I would want to. I found a pair and got to work,the pickers couldn't believe that a 'foreigner' was picking and thought I was very fast. But I was only allowed to pick one row, then I had to 'rest'.
Crates stacked at the end of the rows
Within 3 hours we had nearly finished picking, but then the waiting began. The crew who stacked the cratees on the trucks were not the same crew who picked, so we had to wait for the loading crew. And wait. And wait. About an hour, but then the crates were finally being loaded. We got a ride in the first truck heading back to the winery. I used the time to take a nap, I woke up along the way and quickly decided I was much better off finishing the trip with my eyes closed.
When we got to the winery the processing equipment was setup and ready to go, so we started almost immediately. Every winery has sorting tables, similar to France, so the bunches are sorted first, then the berries are sorted after destemming. My fruit was quite good but it was still good to be able to sort. There were some rogue varieties in the vineyard (not Cabernet), some shrivelled fruit, some underripe fruit and a tiny bit of mould. I later helped another winemaker sort their fruit, which was much more variable and the sorting tables were very useful to ensure only the best fruit ended up in the fermenter.
My winery uses students from the local university studying winemaking to work in the winery, so the sorting was very good. Friday afternoon we finished the first truck - 6.5T but left the next 2 trucks til Saturday. It tooks us most of the day Saturday to finish processing - using the sorting takes about 30 mins per tonne.
The winemakers have a set of instructions for making wine there, so they were quite intrigued by my 'project', which was quite different to theirs. I decided to do a natural ferment on my Cabernet, like I do with my reds in Australia, which is not very common here. It is day 4 now and my ferment has not yet started, every day they ask if I am going to warm it up (it is at 15 deg) and add yeast. I keep telling them we will wait. But I think they will start tomorrow, there is a small amount of activity on the surface.
The race is on now - I have 9 days until I fly back to Australia and I really want to get the wines pressed off and dry before I go. So I really hope the ferment will start tomorrow!
A friend of mine posted a link on their Facebook page to the Ningxia Winemakers Challenge, so out of curiosity I opened it. 60 winemakers to be selected from around the world to be flown to Ningxia, China, to make wine from the same vineyard of grapes. Competitors could return up to 3 times a year over 2 years to check on their wine, then in 2017 the wines will be judged and money awarded based on the medal they achieved. All flights, accommodation and meals to be covered by the competition. It almost sounded to good to be true, so I thought why not? And here I am now, sitting in my room at my host winery, getting ready to make wine from some Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon.
Organisation of the event was a bit haphazard leading up to it. All we knew was that we had to be in Ningxia by September 20 and stay for a minimum of 15 days. Not much other information. 5 days before I was due to leave I still didn't have my flights. They came through in the end and I arrived in Yinchuan (capital of Ningxia provence) on Saturday 19th at about 5pm, after an unscheduled delay in Beijing after missing the connection. A casual dinner in the hotel that night and a chance to meet the other participants, although there were still about 10 winemakers yet to arrive.
On Sunday morning we visited Chateau Changyu-Moser, a Loire styled chateau on the outskirts of Yinchuan. They had quite the visitor experience with a lot of history about winemaking in the region. Except no wine tasting!
Chateau Changyu Moser
After lunch was quite a strange affair. We went to the big agricultural expo building for the ballot to see who got which winery and which part of the vineyard. We were all chatting and laughing when we walked into the building, to find a big room with about 4 rows of chairs in a big U in front of a stage. There were a number of people sitting in the chairs with one row empty (apparently for us) and a large number of photographers and camera crews standing around the stage and the chairs. We took our seats and then listened to a very long speech in Chinese. Finally it was time for the ballot. There were 48 winemakers (12 pulled out) and 48 wineries. The representative of the first winery went up on stage and a computer program started cycling rapidly through the names of the winemakers, then the representative called 'Tíngzhǐ' (stop) and the name of their winemaker was displayed. I was selected quite early in the process and was warmly greeted by a man in a business shirt and slacks. I had no idea what the name of the winery was, but when I was guided to take the seat next to him at the inner row of chairs, he gave me his business card. Senmiao Blue Valley Vineyards. I had a name but nothing else. The process continued until every winery and winemaker were paired up. Then the same process for vineyard selection, although it was the winemaker that got to call 'Tíngzhǐ' or 'Stop'. I was allocated block 39, again this didn't really mean anything to me. We were told the vineyard was Cabernet Sauvignon, at least 10 years old and at least 3 hectares each, with a maximum crop of about 5.5T/ha.
Once the formalities were over we had a chance for a quick chat with our host wineries before heading back to the hotel. The winemaker at my host winery was a young female and I was told the winery was only 5 years old and that they had a hotel at the winery where I would stay.Then back to the hotel in Yinchuan and down the street for some traditional hotpot.
Monday morning we were up early and on the bus for the 1 1/2 hour trip to the vineyard. We were met by our host winery and taken to our individual block. The trellising was almost non-existent, the soil quite sandy but didn't look too vigorous so I was hopeful. At this point in the competition we were all worried that the Cabernet wouldn't be ripe until when we were due to fly home because we had heard they were still harvesting chardonnay in many parts of the region. One taste of the grapes put that worry to rest. The fruit was quite sweet, the seeds were brown and crunchy and the flavour was remarkably good. I walked up and down the rows and was quite impressed by what I saw and tasted. I think I can make some decent wine from this fruit. The manager of the vineyard was with us and he told us it was the best block on the vineyard. But then maybe he told everyone that... A quick baume check revealed the sugar content to be about 13.5 baume - which meant it was nearly ready to pick. Acid was a bit low but that is easily fixed!
Block 39 Cabernet Sauvignon
Today I was picked up by my host winery and I finally found out what my winery was like and where it was located. I think I struck it lucky. The winery is set in a complex of business that include the winery, cellardoor, vineyard, a hotel, restaurant and bar and botanic gardens, among other things. The winery is quite impressive to look at, not quite as ostentatious as some of the others we saw, but grand none-the-less. And it actually houses the winery! Many of the others are just show pieces for the visitor experience and the cellar is somewhere else. The accommodation is great and the botanic gardens are just stunning, it'll be so great to getup and walk through them every morning. We had a quick meeting this afternoon to discuss winemaking and have planned to pick the vineyard this Saturday and Sunday.
Stay tuned for further updates - I hope to add a blog every few days
The Senmiao winery
The onsite hotel
The entrance to the botanic gardens
We are very excited to have released seven new wines last week for your drinking pleasure! Five 2015 whites and four 2014 reds, the last of the reds to be released from last year's vintage. Some classics and some new and intriguing styles to try.
The 2015 is the second release for the Riesling, the Gewurztraminer and the Vermentino. All have been favourites in the range and the new releases from this vintage are at least as delicious. The Gewurztraminer was the first wine to sell out last year as we only receive a small parcel of fruit and we've only made 33 dozen! We suspect it will sell out quickly so get in to cellar door or online and try some before it disappears.
New to the range of white wines are the 2015 Arneis and Pinot Blanc. Again fruit sourced from our growers in the Alpine Valleys and both varieties grown is small quantities in Australia so they're not wines that everyone has tried .... we think you'll enjoy these examples and we'd love to see you at cellar door to pour them and discuss them with you.
In the reds we have released the 2014 Tempanillo and Shiraz. Both needed more time in barrel to mature and develop than our previous two releases, and the wait has been worth it. Showing that cool climate combination of intense varietal fruit character and elegant structure.
All the new releases are currently available for tasting and purchase at Cellar Door and by the glass, bottle or to take away when you visit Birbante Pizzeria, who take over from Cellar Door att 5.30 of an evening.
They are also available online - check out the online store for details.
Or perhaps the easiest way to try them is to join the newly minted Billy Button Wine Club! Click on the Wine Club tab at the top of the page and find out full details. In summary the many benefits include three deliveries a year of winemaker Jo Marsh's selections of new releases, discounts on prices, free shipping to some states, and exclusive previews and access to rarer wines.
And if you join before August the 7th you will receive a bonus bottle of the sought after, sold out, 2014 Friulano!
Vintage may have finished a couple of months ago, but by the time I managed to get all the wines put to bed (20 varieties this year!!) it was time to start preparing the first 2015 whites and the last 2014 reds for bottling. Now those wines are safely in bottle I finally have time to put pen to paper (or keys to keyboard actually...) to summarise the vintage.
Last year, I headed into vintage planning to make 6 varieties, and ended up making 10. This year, I approached vintage planning 16 varieties and have finished up with 20! All from the Alpine Valleys, except the Riesling, and all considered 'alternative' except Riesling, Chardonnay and Shiraz.
This year I decided to add a Prosecco to the range because of my long history (at Seppelt) and love of making sparkling wines. But this won't be your run of the mill Prosecco I have all the equipment to make it traditionally, so it will be bottle fermented, lees aged, hand riddled on riddling racks and hand disgorged! I'm hoping to create a Prosecco with character and complexity.
New additions in the whites are Malvasia, Pinot Blanc, Arneis, Fiano and Moscato Giallo. Malvasia (Istriana) originates from Friuli, Italy, so will be a great addition to the range alongside my Friulano and Verduzzo, also from Friuli. I was very excited to be able to pick up Pinot Blanc this year, it's one of the varieties I've always been keen on with its combination of elegance, finesse, minerality with intensity and complexity. Arneis hails from Piedmont in Northern Italy, the Australian examples I have seen vary greatly in style so I was quite intrigued to see how it would behave. I'm pleasantly surprised at its ability to combine fragrance and intensity in a tight, punchy package. I managed to score a very small parcel of Fiano, the first in the Alpine Valleys and I'm very excited - based on what I saw this year it has a great future ahead of it up here. And lastly, I decided to take on an experimental batch of Moscato Giallo. It is a fantastic Italian muscat variety bursting with flavour. Usually it is made into a Moscato style, however I have attempted to make a different style with it, quite dry and adding in some complexity to the vibrant fruit intensity As I said, quite experimental and I'm still not sure if I'll put it in bottle this year as I only have 200L!
The new red varieties I picked up are all very exciting - Nebbiolo, Saperavi, Refosco and Schioppettino. Nebbiolo really needs no introduction, I've made it a few times in the past and I'm just having fun with it. Saperavi is a Georgian variety known for its intense colour, it is one of the few wine grape varieties with red coloured flesh It makes a very unique wine, combining perfumed floral and musk notes with dried herb characters. Refosco and Schioppettino both orginate from Friuli in North East Italy and are very rare in Australia The Refosco I have found to be a lighter style of red with lovely fragrance and a delicate palate. Schioppettino I am very excited about (it seems I am quite easily excited re-reading this post...). Fantastic natural acidity, aromas of black pepper, berry fruits and floral notes with a firmly structured palate and great length. It is a very late ripening variety so could be a challenge in cool years, but will be worth it based on what I've seen so far.
The summer of 2015 was very one of the coolest in the Alpine Valleys for many years, with daytime maximum temperatures ranging from the mid 20s to low 30s without a day over 40 degrees. This cooler weather was perfect for retaining natural acidity and bright flavours, but with such near perfect ripening conditions the vines never stopped photosynthesizing and accumulating sugars leading to the earliest start to vintage on record. It all most seems counter-intuitive that vines would ripen faster in cooler conditions than during that hotter summers, but during times of excessive heat, the vines shut down to prevent water loss, and hence cannot continue to produce sugars. Any rapid increases in sugar observed under these conditions is usually a result of dehydration and concentration of sugars rather than physiological ripening.
The white varieties were very compressed and nearly all picked by the first week of March, making for a very busy few weeks! The varieties came in thick and fast – Gerwürztraminer was the first variety in for Billy Button with the best natural acid I have ever seen in the variety, closely followed by Chardonnay and more Chardonnay. Then Prosecco, Pinot Blanc, Arneis and more Chardonnay. Next the first red – Tempranillo came in then more Chardonnay followed by Friulano, Fiano, Verduzzo, Vermentino and Malvasia Istriana. At that point the reds cranked up with more Tempranillo, Shiraz, Sangiovese, Barbera and Saperavi. Riesling from Whitlands and a trial parcel of Moscato Giallo finished off the whites. Then vintage was brought to a close with the late ripening Italian reds Nebbiolo, Refosco and Schioppettino. All in by the end of March!
Despite such an early and rapid vintage, quality is exceptional. Certainly the best vintage I have seen in the Alpine Valleys (in the 4 years I’ve been here…) but also the best vintage the growers have ever seen in the 20+ years they've been growing fruit in the region. I find it quite difficult to choose the highlights of the vintage because it was so strong across the board, but certainly the traditional varieties Chardonnay and Shiraz are extremely strong.
Its not uncommon for folks to listen to stories of the crazy time that is vintage then ask: "So what do you do for the rest of the time?"
Well. Lets start with the massive clean up of the winery, trying to make room for the next steps. Important equipment that is used only during vintage such as the press and the crusher get thoroughly cleaned and sanitised then mothballed until next year.
Alongside this is loads of analysis, keeping track of the new whites to ensure that they have finished ferment and are settling then are sulfured as needed to keep them sound. And keeping track of the reds for the same reasons but also they need to go through MLF: malolactic fermentation which is actually a bacterial conversion to clear the wine of malic acid, softening it and making it unlikely to spoil. Given that we have dozens of barrels and many batches in tanks this is a full time job in itself!
Then the 2014 barrels need to be retrieved from the back corner to which they were relegated during vintage. They each get checked for soundness, topped with some wine to keep them full, and analysed and sulfured as necessary. Then the blends begin. Those reds and whites to go to the next bottling get sampled and a "bench blend" is made, to find the best combination of the batches if there are a few, and finalise the style of the wine. The wine is then all pumped out of barrels in to tanks, where it is stabilised and settled and final chemistry is checked.
The whites that are going to bottle soon are "racked": the solids of grapes and ferment have settled to the bottom and the clean wine is pumped gently from above them. The wine is then stabilised and again final chemistry checked and any adjustments made.
Meanwhile Jo gets busy finalising label design for the new wines, ordering bottles, screw caps, cartons, dividers and everything else needed for bottling. Next week the portable cross flow filtration expert arrives with his machine and each wine to be bottled gets a final polish to be clear and fresh.
And of course we are also running cellar door four days a week, managing orders, deliveries, trade visits, press samples and whatever else is needed!
We'll let you know how we go with bottling - exciting times!
It appears that word is slowly getting out there about Billy Button. The Barbera released at Easter sold out in less than 4 weeks and now the last case of Verduzzo has just been snapped up as well. The Verduzzo took a little longer to shine than the Friulano and Vermentino which had so much immediate appeal, but the Verduzzo has developed beautifully and been extremely popular with restaurants in the last few months. Due to this delayed development I have decided to mature the 2015 Verduzzo for longer in the winery and allow it to reach its full potential before release. It will be released in either November or April, depending on how it matures this year, so you may be in for a long wait! But don't worry, I'll be releasing the 2015 Riesling, Gerwurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Arneis and Vermentino at the start of August, along with the 2014 Shiraz and Tempranillo so hopefully everyone can find something to suit their taste!
Can it possibly be only four weeks since we released the 2014 Billy Button Chardonnay, Barbera and Sangiovese?
Well yes, Alex, it's May Day so it's been four weeks since opening cellar door and releasing the new 2014 wines. OK, so already we have had such fantastic reviews from Wine Front. And local, Melbourne and interstate restaurants and wine bars have been ordering up big time. Sales through the cellar door and Birbante pizzeria are flourishing. So now we are down to only two dozen of The Affable Barbera, available through cellar door and Birbante only (luckily we loved it so much we've made double the volume this vintage). It's a fantastic affirmation of Jo's mission to bring beautiful, high quality and less common varietals to the table.
Very satisfying to be pouring our first reds. We are proud of them and as the first quarter of this year has gone by so quickly we are soon looking to complete the barrel blends of the 2014 Tempranillo and Shiraz. Two completely different wines. Both exciting. Both being bottled in June; so look for another new release in August/September.
The Autumn season in Bright is known nationwide as a spectacle of gorgeous trees turning all shades of the rainbow, and the vines do as well. As the weather cools and harvest is complete, the grapevines begin to retreat. They harvest all the nutriton left in the vine leaves and store it for next season - hence the loss of green and change to other colours. Very pretty that!
This coming weekend is the annual Bright Festival and already preparations are underway and the weather forecast is ...... superb! Local streets will be temporarily closed as the floats made by local schools and community groups go by. Street markets will be bustling. Music, food and wine will be abundant. And Billy Button Cellar Door will open early at 11am for all your bacchanalian needs. See you soon!