Young Guns of Wine, a barometer for new talent on the Aussie wine scene once described Bill Downie as: This century’s original enfant terrible of wine. A cheerful iconoclast that scythed through convention. The Bill Downie who we spoke to last week didn’t seem like a hellraiser, he was self-deprecating and honest, and incredibly thoughtful about the viticultural and winemaking decisions he makes.

Born and raised in Gippsland, Bill has been making wine in southern Australia and Burgundy for 15 years. In 2006 he had the chance to put his ideas into practice fully when he bought a farm and planted a vineyard 20 minutes from where he grew up. Gippsland is 1.5 hours southeast of Melbourne, below the Yarra Valley, east of the Mornington Peninsula. His farm is on the foothills of the Strzelecki Range, below the Great Dividing Range. The land is north facing, and although most people think Australia is dry and hot, this is cool climate with high rainfall, you can see a ski resort in the distance. Initially he purchased fruit from the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and South Gippsland for his own label, but now his vineyard is established he has focussed on Gippsland, and stopped making single vineyard wines from Yarra and Mornington.

Bill explained that although Gippsland is the second largest GI in Australia by geographical area, it’s the smallest by production. This is reflected in that the first wine we tasted, Cathedral, the 2021 vintage is made from grapes he bought from Mornington and King Valley, there isn’t enough fruit coming from their vineyard, or available in the local area. It was named Cathedral because originally the grapes came from a vineyard in the Cathedral Ranges (north of the Yarra Valley), but due to recent poor harvests he had to look elsewhere. It’s an excellent introduction to his wines. It’s aromatic, with crunchy cherry fruit on the nose, and a slight leafiness. The acidity is fresh, it’s mineral with fine tannins and a lightly textured finish.

“I hate comparisons, but it’s my Beaujolais, it’s not trying to tell you an origin story, it’s just meant to be a really good drink”!

The case for high density vineyards

He currently has two hectares of vineyards on the farm, he’s planting more and aiming for five. He planted at 10,000 vines per hectare, which is uncommon in Australia.

Why did he decide to plant at this high density?

“It’s a combination of factors. Earlier in my career I was obsessed with wine, now I’m obsessed with agriculture”. He spent some time in Burgundy early in his career. “One of the things which appealed to me about the wines from there, compared with a lot of new world Pinot Noir, is there’s a difference in structure in the wines. There’s a different relationship between tannin and texture, and mid-palette weight.

“There’s often a mid-palette sweetness in new world Pinot, and I was interested to understand why that was, because it wasn’t a character I enjoyed”.

Part of the reason I was drawn to Burgundy was the absence of that sweetness, there was a definition and a balance to the wines which appealed to me. After looking at some other high density vineyards in Australia, and the wines that came from them, I realised that if you have a vine which is only ripening six bunches, as opposed to 30, the relationship between the various parameters of grape maturation change completely. You get a different density of phenolics, a completely different structure in the wine”.

“The only way to achieve this and have a balanced vine, what isn’t stuck in a vegetative cycle, is to plant at high density. Once I realised, there was no other option, I had to find a way to do it”.

Getting the viticulture right

It’s not just been a case of planting vines, looking after them for 3-4 years, and making wine. So far he’s only bottled and sold wine as named cuvees from the home vineyard twice in 14 years, because Bill has felt the wines haven’t delivered what he’s looking for.

Bill explained: The process of finding a piece of land he thought looked interesting; establishing a vineyard according to the principles he believed in, it’s certified organic, he hasn’t used herbicides since start, he doesn’t use machinery; learning how to work the vineyard with a horse has taken a long time. “Now that we’ve got to the point we have an understanding we’re expanding the plantings, you will see a wine from here”.

What has made the difference, what are they doing right now?

“A combination of things, part of it was learning how to compromise. Having worked a decade or more I was never willing to compromise on my regenerative agriculture principles, which meant no cultivation, no synthetic chemicals or fertilisers. And it turns out, we’re in a high rainfall area, higher than in Burgundy, one of the wettest places in Australia where vineyards are planted. We initially thought vigour would be a real problem, and chose to plant on devigorated rootstock (101-14 a Riparia cross), which doesn’t have good drought tolerance. Which we thought was fine as it rains all the time, except when you don’t cultivate you have grass species that grow year round. If it stops raining for ten days, which can happen in January or February, the grasses suck all the moisture from the top 50cm of soil in a couple of days. The vine leaves go yellow, and we don’t harvest fruit with enough natural acidity to make a balanced wine.

“The compromise is that we have started to do some cultivation, we disk a bit to cut back the grass in the mid-row, and we do some under vine cultivation to remove plants which compete with the vines for moisture. It took time to explore other pathways which might have mitigated that moisture deficit at the end of the season, we spent ten years building organic matter in the soils, but this wasn’t enough. So now we’ve started some light tillage, which should solve the majority of the problems”.

Searching for an ‘Australian-ness’

The next wine we tasted was Gippsland 2021, the wine is softer on the nose with pretty iris notes and savoury potpourri. On the palette it has a spicy edge, very fine persistent tannins, and a lovely weight to the fruit. Grapes mostly come from a Gippsland grower just on the south side of the Strzelecki Range, it sometimes includes a barrel or two of declassified fruit from his vineyard or one of the others he works. It has a slightly different character to the wines from his side of the Strzelecki, but still distinct from Mornington or Yarra.

Bill’s winemaking is consistent across the range. The only difference being that Cathedral is fermented in stainless steel and bottled early, whereas the other wines spend 9-10 months in mostly French oak, with some acacia barrels. He’s working on a project to use native Australian blackwood acacia timber for barrel production. He’s been milling timber and ageing staves for a around seven years, and is about to make some barrels. Acacia can have a perceptible flavour influence on wine, part of the reason he hasn’t made barrels until now is that he’s been seasoning the wood, he thinks it may need up to ten years.

“It’s an experiment. In the context of what we’re trying to do here, it doesn’t make sense to use French oak barrels if we’re trying to make a wine of place that speaks to the Australian landscape, which is not like anywhere else.”

“So we’ve been trying to figure out: is there some timber grown, are there trees in Australia that are suitable for barrel production; and what do they contribute to the character of the wine. Can we make a more Australian wine by using trees that grown in the forest at the back of the farm, than if we use French oak”?

They hand harvest everything into 10kg crates; bunches are hand sorted; everything is fully destemmed and transferred by gravity into into open wooden fermenters. Fermentation is hands off, there’s no temperature control, no pump overs or punch downs, no additions. The wine is pressed into tank after around four weeks of maceration, he doesn’t separate into fractions, and left to ferment to dry. The wine is then transferred to barrel, he makes a small SO2 addition post malo or pre bottling. Cathedral is filtered the others aren’t.

We asked his thoughts of the fashionable topic of stem inclusion.

“When I say we de-stem everything, I mean everything apart from the fruit from our own vineyard. Another reason we plant at 10,000 vines per hectare is that I feel it’s the only way to make 100% whole bunch wine which doesn’t taste of stems. The wines from here are 100% whole bunch, and they don’t taste stalky.

“I’m not opposed to stems, they have to come from the right vineyard, planted and managed in the right way, otherwise it’s a distraction from the truth of the place”.

Terroir reflection in the single vineyard wines

We moved on to his two single vineyard wines. The two vineyards are less than four kilometres apart, but they’re entirely different wines, despite having the same soil profile, geology, planting density and material. Camp Hill vineyard is about 12 kilometers northwest from his farm, it’s on a outcrop in the middle of the valley, the highest point between the Strzelecki and Great Dividing Range. It’s planted right on top of the hill.

“The vineyard gets the very first light that comes over the horizon in the morning, and the very last light as the sun sets in the evening. This wine is always about the sky, it’s light and bright, it’s floral, it’s never earthy or deep it’s about its connection to the sky. It’s a spacious wine, you have a sense of exposure of being right on top of the hill, certainly where compared to Bull Swamp“. (his other single vineyard wine).

“It’s all about florals, spice, the iron blood character is a feature of this area, the soils are very high in iron, and free draining”

Bill Downie at his home vineyard. The wines (L to R) Camp Hill, Cathedral, Bull Swamp, Gippsland

Less is more

“Fruit grown in this area has the structure to give definition, but pump-overs and punch-downs are not a good way of extracting. In modern winemaking where you can de-stem and keep the berries intact, which wasn’t possible 30 years ago. Now, if I de-stem and don’t touch it, the skins are in contact with the juice 100% of the time, no cap forms, it’s a tank full of berries. The second I do a punch-down I bust up a bunch of berries and the skins float to the top, you have a cap above the liquid, and then you have to pump-over or punch-down to re-submerge the skins so they’re in contact with the liquid and extracting flavour and tannins. I’d have to do that three times per day, for the skins to be in contact with the wine 40% of the time, whereas if I don’t do anything at all they’re in contact with the liquid 100% of the time. It’s a more effective extraction, the compounds are water or alcohol soluble, they don’t require movement”.

“We’re trying to achieve skins in contact with liquid, the best way to do that is to carefully de-stem intact berries and leave them alone”!

Bull Swamp, is at a lower elevation and surrounded on three sides by hills, it’s a bit warmer (than Camp Hill), they harvest a couple of weeks earlier and see more maturity.

“Here you get a feeling of connection to the earth, the wine speaks about the soil, it’s denser, more earthy, more savoury, fruitier. People probably think that sounds like complete bullshit but I always feel like that”!

“The tannin structure reflects the richer soil with less sunlight exposure, but the vines are 40 years old, properly old, which changes the tannin structure”.

We’re excited to be working with Bill and have these thoughtful, expressive wines on our list. Get in touch if you’d like to taste the 2021s with us.