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Billy Button Wines

Blog and News

Jo Marsh
8 October 2015 | Jo Marsh

Ningxia culture and customs

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!

Time Posted: 08/10/2015 at 12:13 AM
Jo Marsh
29 September 2015 | Jo Marsh

Making wine in China!

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.

Bunch sorting

Berry sorting

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!

Time Posted: 29/09/2015 at 9:15 PM
Jo Marsh
22 September 2015 | Jo Marsh

Jo goes to China

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

Time Posted: 22/09/2015 at 10:46 PM
Jo Marsh
2 July 2015 | Jo Marsh

2015 - the whirlwind vintage!

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.

Time Posted: 02/07/2015 at 1:55 PM
Jo Marsh
14 May 2015 | Jo Marsh

Another one bites the dust!

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!

Time Posted: 14/05/2015 at 2:21 PM
Jo Marsh
17 August 2014 | Jo Marsh

Taking the Plunge!

Why Billy Button? Why the Alpine Valleys? Why now?

When I'm making a decision on buying a car or buying a new appliance, I research it to death, endless hours spent on the internet looking up reviews and comparisons before I will commit to purchase, a process that generally takes weeks. I am in general quite indecisive. However, when it comes to the big decisions in my life I tend to make them spontaneously on gut feeling alone, with little or no research and planning. I make a decision, I commit to it and I get on with it.

The first such decision that has lead me to where I am today was my decision to study winemaking. In my final year at school I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do for a career, I was good at chemistry and maths, so I decided to study a Chemical Engineering and Science double degree at Adelaide University. I was in my second year of this course, not really enjoying my studies or where it was likely to lead me, when I had a conversation with a fellow student who told me of their plans to work in the wine industry when they graduated. At this point I didn't even really drink wine, just the occasional taste, but it got me thinking. It sounded like it would be fun and involved living in beautiful country areas (I've never been much of a city chick!). By the time I got home that night my mind was made up - I was going to be a winemaker! The next day I withdrew from my courses, went and toured the Waite Campus where the Oenology course was run and submitted my transfer papers. The rest, as they say, is history! But I still vividly remember that moment in my life when I made the decision.

My decision to start Billy Button Wines was not dissimilar. I moved to the Alpine Valleys at the start of 2012 and immediately fell in love with the region and and the people, I had never felt so at home or welcome in any of the regions I had previously lived and worked. Within 2 months I had bought a block of land in Porepunkah and 12 months later had built a house - I knew immediately that this was the area I wanted to settle down. But 2 years on despite doing what I loved doing, living where I loved living and being surrounded by an incredible bunch of people I still didn't feel completely satisfied - was this all life had to offer? The answer came to me one afternoon in late 2013 while I was emptying barrels at Feathertop, where I worked as winemaker. "Why don't I start my own brand?" Just thinking about it made me feel so happy that I knew it was what I had to do. By the time I'd finished emptying those barrels, I had it all planned out and there was no going back. In typical Jo fashion there would be no gentle transition, but instead I jumped right in the deep end deciding to commit to it full time. The next day I handed in my resignation and then began planning how and if I could make it work financially. I clearly remember the response I got from my financial planner when I told him - "it's not too late to get your job back is it?".

From that very first thought, I wanted my wine brand to be sourced exclusively from the Alpine Valleys because I had come to recognise the quality and potential of this region that had become so dear to me. During my time in the area I had developed friendships with many of the amazing growers of the Alpine Valleys so sourcing top quality fruit was not difficult. The next decision was what to name my brand - I wanted it to be fun and accessable and most importantly have a link to the region. Billy Button fit the bill perfectly, these little native yellow daisies grow prolifically on the tops of Mt Bogong (Falls Creek), Mt Feathertop (Mt Hotham) and Mt Buffalo over the summer, creating fields of gold. Thanks to my aunt Maureen for the suggestion!

There have been plenty of ups and downs along the way, but there have been no regrets. Now, 9 months after the idea first popped into my head I'm ready to release my very first wines! 

Time Posted: 17/08/2014 at 5:31 PM