Rebuilding Bianchet Winery

Name: Jeff Wright

Bianchet Winery first plantings occurred in 1976 making Bianchet of a similar vintage as such wineries as Yarra Yering, Mount Mary, Seville Estate and Warramate. A small family winery, Bianchet had four hectares under vine and was planted with a range of varieties in small plantings. But when the original owner, Lou Bianchet, passed away, the property was sold and gradually fell into a state of disrepair.

In 2003 Small Batch Winemakers was set up to fill a perceived niche for small contract winemaking. Rapidly outgrowing shared and leased space in October of 2005 Small Batch moved into Bianchet Winery's property. At that time no wine had been made on site for two vintages. The vineyard had been netted for the 2005 vintage but the nets had not been removed in parts of the vineyard and dropped in the vine rows in others. The vineyard had not been pruned. Phomopsis was present in some of the old vines and the cordons were desperately in need of reinvigorating. No maintenance of any significance had occurred for several years. One old Massey Ferguson was coaxed back into life with the help of a local enthusiast.

First steps were to lift the nets from the grass in the vine rows, prune back to the nets where they had been left on, then lift the nets and put the slasher through the thigh-high grass. This gave us our first look at the state of the vines. It was decided to stage reinvigoration, retraining and rationalisation of the mix of varieties. Where cordons showed most prevalent dieback and cracking, trunks were chain sawed to force new water shoots from the base. The new shoots are being trained as a new cordon. This was achieved in 12 rows of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon with further rows to be developed over the next five years.

The rest of the vineyard was pruned with the remainder of the old Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines spur pruned where there was insufficient good growth to generate a new cane. Because Verduzzo, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc are at the front of the property the vines were in better condition and were cane pruned. Verduzzo, an extremely vigorous Northern Italian white variety was taken to a four cane Scott Henry system to try and control vigour.

In October of 2006 with the property showing signs of responding to 12 months of hard work, an untimely frost struck. First indications were total loss at the bottom of the block but over three days it became apparent that the damage was more widespread as the vineyard progressively browned off. Three hundred kilograms of Chardonnay was picked from an expected crop of 12-15 tonnes. Damage was severe with the lower part of the vineyard burnt down to the cordon. These did not produce fruit in 2007 with a thick mass of water shoots being the vines' response to the devastation. The plan for these vines is to pull up the strongest of these shoots and use them to form new cordons and remove the old tired tops.

Where frost damage was not as severe the vines were allowed to grow through the damage and store nutrient for 2008. In response we are seeing a reasonable crop of Chardonnay, Verduzzo and Cabernet Franc. Where the first vines were reworked there has also been phenomenal growth and we are expecting a reasonable crop of Shiraz with the cordon wires full for the 2009 vintage. Seven rows of poorly selling Traminer were grafted over to Sauvignon Blanc with a greater than 95% strike rate by Prescotts Vine grafting. These are showing sufficient vigour that it is hoped that they may yield a small crop in 2009.

In the winery, a concrete working pad was installed to expand the working area, tanks were installed, a 3t airbag press purchased to replace a 20-year-old basket press and a cold room installed. With little or no fruit from Bianchet in 2006/07 contract work assumed greater importance as a cash flow input. In 2006, 58t of fruit was processed with batches from 500kg up to 5t. A range of varieties including Marsanne, Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Viognier as well as the more mainstream Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir were processed. Sparkling base was processed and sent to nearby Kellybrook winery for tirage.

The widespread frost meant that processed volume dropped to 45t in 2007 with the same eclectic mix of varieties. Even though batch sizes are small, gold medals at Lilydale Wine Show and the Small Winemakers Show have been achieved showing that quality wines can be produced from small parcels. As well, a number of silver and bronze medals have been achieved.

Marketing the regenerated Bianchet brand

The Bianchet brand was maintained as a conscious decision to tap into the large number of consumers with fond memories of the winery. The conjunction of the rare variety Verduzzo with the Bianchet name provides a memory prompt for many people who have tried the wine over a number of years. A second label, Stones Throw, for fruit grown elsewhere has been introduced to allow an increase in production and an accessible price point.

A small attached restaurant, open for lunch five days a week and dinner Friday and Saturday nights, generates turnover of the wines as well as providing a further reason for visitors to stop. A small onpremise presence in Melbourne and the appointment of a distributor in Canada completes the picture.

Regeneration of the Bianchet vineyard, winery and brand has been a difficult process and is certainly not finished. The vineyard is showing resilience and we believe will produce some exceptional fruit over the next years. The wines, although to some extent forgotten, remain in the back of experienced sommeliers minds and in most cases generate a positive response. The cellar door is located at the start of the Yarra Valley and is well placed to tap into the large number of tourists visiting each year.

A good lesson has been the provision of several complementary revenue streams to maintain cash flow during the year. The restaurant, cellar door and on-premise sales all contribute to allow the sink that is the vineyard the opportunity to regenerate. It is hoped in coming years that sufficient fruit will be grown to allow for expansion of sales without the need to purchase fruit and maybe sufficient to allow small amounts to be sold.

There are a number of structural problems relating to ageing infrastructure, lack of mains water and gas and the size of the vineyard but careful management and steady growth should see Bianchet Wines back on good wine lists in a short time.

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