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Australian terroir based on light, not soil

Australian producers should focus their notion of terroir less on soil and instead wake up to the far greater impact of light, according to leading winemaker Bill Downie.

Bill Downie
Bill Downie

Gippsland-based Downie, who also heads up the high profile Thousand Candles project in Yarra Valley, called on Australian winemakers to move away from what he feels is a very French-led perspective on terroir.

“An enormous amount of weight is given to geology and soil composition,” remarked Downie. “They speak about it a lot in France, as they should, because they have very young soils and geological formations.” However, he argued: “It’s the opposite in Australia. It isn’t about new formations like limestone with lots of nutrients here. We’ve got very old depleted soils so the thing that has the most impact is light.”

Linking this angle to the country’s identity as a whole, Downie remarked: “In Australia it’s that vastness, that sense of space, the nature of the light that’s the most important aspect of sense of place. That’s what’s important to me.”

While acknowledging that soil does have a degree of impact on Australian wine, Downie, who has spent time working in both countries, continued: “If terroir in France is 30% above ground, in Australia it’s the reverse. Australian terroir is driven by light more than it is by rock, but I can’t make Australian winemakers think about it in that sense.”

He extrapolated this argument to the concept of single vineyard wines, saying: “All the time I see people emulating Burgundy – that single vineyard model is emulating Burgundy.” However, argued Downie, “With single vineyard, very often people have arrived at that site with a preconceived idea of what they’re going to do. That means it might be single vineyard, but it’s not a wine of place.”

Applying this outlook to Thousand Candles, a project backed by a Singaporean investor which produced its first vintage in 2011 and retails in the UK for around £60 per bottle, Downie summed up: “It’s solely a farming project, letting the wine be what it is.”

Recalling the start of the venture, he outlined: “I said right, let’s focus all the money and energy on farming and the wine will be what it will be. We won’t have any preconceived ideas of what the wine will taste like. At the time it was probably the most controversial thing that’s happened with wine in this country for a long time because we farmed and we listened.”

Due to this approach, Downie acknowledged: “We’ve ended up with a wine that is very unusual by many people’s standards so it’s been a bit controversial as a result.”

In terms of understanding the site, which currently has nearly 100 acres planted to vineyard, he commented: “We’ve still got a few years to go. It comes on incrementally, but the last 10-20% can take a lifetime.”

Nevertheless, with the 2013 vintage about to launch onto the market, Downie reported: “We’re now in the third year and to me, finally, this is the first time I’ve bottled a wine and

The new 2013 vintage of Thousand Candles
The new 2013 vintage of Thousand Candles

been able to say that this is a wine of place.”

Similarly to previous vintages, Thousand Candles 2013 is a blend of 55% Shiraz, 40% Pinot Noir and 5% Sauvignon Blanc – the varieties that were already planted when the estate was bought.

“Variety is completely and utterly irrelevant,” insisted Downie on the subject of this unusual combination of grapes. “The only thing that matters to me so far as varietal selection goes is when is its optimum maturity? The only thing I ask is does it ripen in the second half of March? Then it’s worth planting.”

Despite its current prominence in the final blend, Downie noted: “Pinot Noir doesn’t ripen in the right window on that site. I’d never have planted Pinot; Shiraz is far more expressive of site in that place.”

Looking to the future, he revealed that the Thousand Candles team has now planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet France and Malbec, although Downie added: “I don’t know whether we’ll use it in the final blend or not.”

Nevertheless, he signalled particular potential for Malbec, based on his own experience of trying this variety during a tasting of blending components for fellow Yarra producer Mount Mary back in 2005.

“I thought it was really beautiful and a wine I was sure I could identify as Yarra,” Downie recalled. “It was kind of what you imagine Pinot Noir might be in the Yarra but never is: structured, delicate, elegant.”

Both with his own Gippsland projects and “day job” at Thousand Candles, Downie outlined his ambition to create wines that are inspired entirely by their Australian setting rather than any outside influence.

“We’ve been schooled in this county into thinking that all the wine from other countries is better than here,” he remarked. “It’s had a profound effect on me that for the last 20 years, everything that’s been done in this country has been a version of something else.”

However, returning to his theme of terroir, Downie maintained: “Having spent a few years in Burgundy, it’s pretty clear to me that Australia is a fundamentally different place. I don’t think we’ve ever properly appreciated that Australia is unique.”

In short, he concluded: “Australian wine could be – and should be – the equal of other places in the world, but we have to stop emulating other places.”

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