Exploring the Artful World of William Downie: A Masterful Winegrower from Gippsland, Victoria

By | 11 June 2024

Website: https://www.williamdownie.com.au/

William Downie, a prominent and insightful Australian winegrower, first welcomed me for a visit in December 2015. I had the pleasure of meeting him again at a technical conference in Adelaide in 2017. Recently, I tasted his wines once more during his first UK visit in 8 years, where he presented his Pin Streleases from 2023.

Having been in the wine-making business for 20 years, William’s journey is quite captivating. He and his wife Rachel, whom he met in Burgundy 22 years ago, originally envisioned their life in France. Rachel was employed by Kermit Lynch while William worked in the Gevrey vineyards. The couple dreamed of living off the land by cultivating grapes and other crops, and raising animals. Eventually, their plan shifted, leading them to purchase 40 acres in West Gippsland in 2006, located slightly southeast of Yarra Valley. Despite being just 80 minutes from Melbourne’s central business district, many locals are unaware of the viticultural potential in their area.

Bill, a native of Gippsland and a musician, frequently traveled to the city for band performances during his younger years. During these commutes, he would pass a particular hill that caught his interest as a potential vineyard site as he learned more about viticulture, soil, and climate. Over the years, his growing knowledge and passion convinced him that this hill was the ideal location for establishing his vineyard.

During their visit to Australia, Bill and Rachel encountered a captivating hill which was for sale. Although initially unable to purchase it, they returned 18 months later and, upon discovering it was still available, they bought the property. In 2008, they planted their inaugural vines. However, the hot, dry summer of 2009 proved devastating to the newly planted vines, resulting in almost total loss. Undeterred, they replanted in the same year. Over time, they expanded their vineyard to include more than 10,000 vines per hectacid, and also acquired additional blocks for lease.

Gippsland stands as the second largest Geographic Indication (GI) area by size yet ranks smallest in production within Australia, highlighting the need for specific location details within the GI. Unique to this part of Gippsland, none of the vineyards are irrigated, a rarity across Australia.

The vineyards in the West Gippsland region are distinctively positioned on iron oxide-rich loam soils, which include red volcanic substances mixed with large basaltic chunks, providing a friable texture that ensures good drainage despite significant clay content. Nestled between the Great Dividing Range and the Strzelecki Ranges, the area’s high elevation includes a ridge of red soils acting as a natural watershed. With 1200 mm of annual rainfall, the well-draining soils are essential as they prevent waterlogging, which is crucial for successful vine cultivation in the region.

Bill notes that the high iron content in the soil imparts a unique flavor profile to their wines, characterizing the distinguished offerings from their region.

They opted out of organic certification in 2023 due to prevalent diseases that destroyed their crop. To save it, they used phosphonates, which are prohibited in organic farming because they are systemic. They have since re-entered the conversion process to organic farming. “You’ll scarcely find rape growers in southern Victoria claiming to be organic. Some of this is due to laziness, some due to control over the fruit source, and some because of a lack of interest,” he explains. He also mentioned, “Australians have an absurd and obscene obsession with herbicides.”

“I aim to farm attentively, letting the wine shape itself,” he states.

“The aspect of my job I enjoy the least is winemaking. It is primarily an agricultural task, and our objective is to cultivate in a manner allowing the wine to reflect the truth. I’m not judging the wine’s quality but questioning if it reflects the integrity I seek. My goal isn’t to produce the best wine, but the most authentic wine, driven by differing goals and visions,” he shares.

Bill remarks, “My journey into wine began when I tasted some varieties and recognized that wine could embody a particular locale, which originally fascinated me about winemaking. Our goal is simply to learn how to achieve this in our context,” while Rachel comments, “We didn’t anticipate it would require so much time to accomplish.”

Interest in Gippsland’s viniculture has spiked as its potential for producing distinctive wines becomes increasingly recognized. “Gippsland offers an unrivaled opportunity for wines that reflect their origin, though it presents practical difficulties,” admits Bill. “Financially, it’s a precarious endeavor.”

Bill’s team produces both estate and negociant wines. “Adopting the negociant model was a pivotal shift for us,” Bill explains. “We began vinifying in 2003, shuttling between the Yarra Valley and Burgundy.” Initially working at De Bortoli with a focus on Pinot Noir, in 2006 they expanded to include wines from Mornington, and by 2008, Gippsland became their primary focus, abandoning other ventures. Farming in Gippsland proved tough for these first-generation farmers who bore the initial investment costs. In response, they expanded their output with a negociant Pinot Noir named Cathedral.

“Crafting an affordable Pinot Noir at $30 a bottle is particularly taxing,” Bill comments. “Australia struggles with producing quality wine at reasonable prices. Most are mass-produced and lack sincerity. The commercial production methods are overly simplistic and patronizing. Cathedral, though born of necessity, ended up being a fulfilling venture.”

The Downies now manage 6.5 hectares of densely planted vineyards, some areas housing over 10,000 vines per hectare. Despite the region’s high rainfall and challenges like disrupted flowering that result in low yields of about 10 hl/hectare, their estate wines break even financially, supported by their negociant business.

The process of making wine is straightforward. Grapes are harvested in small crates, hand-sorted, and all stems are removed before the berries, largely whole, are placed into open fermenters. The process eschews temperature control, chemical additions, pumpovers or punchdowns, and a CO2 cover. Wooden fermenters are preferred due to their ability to maintain temperature. Square tanks are avoided due to their corners, which can remain cooler. A depth to surface area ratio of at least 1.5:1 is maintained, facilitating a gentle yet effective extraction that includes some intracellular fermentation. Bill allows the natural processes to occur uninterrupted, even in warm years when the center of the mix may overheat, naturally halting, then resuming fermentation as temperatures moderate. Malolactic fermentation typically occurs naturally post-primary fermentation due to residual warmth.

Bill also experiments with barrel materials, including Acacia wood. He is particularly interested in Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), a local species. Initially, some staves were crafted into a barrel, though further experimentation was paused to focus on vineyard expansion. Contrary to popular belief, Bill has found that barrels made from low temperature fired, close grain oak—which are said to confer elegance—actually result in a stronger oak flavor due to the fine wood grain expanding under heat, allowing deeper heat penetration and flavor infusion from the toasting process. He prefers barrels made from medium grain wood that are toasted quickly but not to the point of charring.

William Downie Cathedral Pinot Noir 2023 Victoria, Australia
This négociant wine blends Pinot Noirs from Mornington, Alpine Valleys, Upper Golbourn, and Henty, processed entirely in stainless steel with destemmed fruit. It features a bright, aromatic profile with nuances of ginger and white pepper complementing sweet cherry notes. The palate displays purity and bold flavors of black cherry and plum, supported by fresh acidity and fine tannins. The wine is supple, predominantly showcasing black fruits, and possesses a delicate elegance. The rating stands at 93/100.

William Downie Gippsland 2023 Gippsland, Victoria
This wine predominantly uses purchased fruit from a southern Gippsland grower, benefiting from similar soil conditions as the vineyard’s origin. Avoiding herbicides but utilizing synthetic fertilizers, this Pinot exhibits a complex nose with spicy, tar-like hints and sweet berry and cherry aromas. Its palate is rich and spicy, highlighting lush, silky black fruit backed by a sturdy structure. The texture is pleasant, with freshness and depth, and the lengthy finish is accented with green herbal notes adding a touch of savoriness. This Pinot ranks at 94/100.

William Downie Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir 2023 Australia
This wine, previously allocated to Cathedral, was recognized in 2023 for its exceptional quality leading to the revival of a Mornington specific variety. It is characterized by a floral, elaborate, and plentiful profile with prominent, sweet tones of red cherry, raspberry, and strawberry. The fruit presents a near-lush sweetness, enhanced by a spicy, mineral undertone. Displaying both ripeness and clarity, the wine finishes with a peppery flair, while a slight presence of new oak integrates seamlessly. 94/100

William Downie Camp Hill Pinot Noir 2023 Gippsland, Australia
Grown at an altitude of 250 meters and harvested two weeks after Bull Swamp, this wine expresses a freshness and refinement. It intermingles iron and blood characteristics with soft, sweet cherry and plum notes. There’s a subtle richness, layering to create a fine, fresh, and silky texture. Subtle spiciness and hints of pepper, ginger, and white pepper enrich the lengthy finish, making this wine notably expressive. 96/100

William Downie Bull Swamp Pinot Noir 2023 Gippsland, Australia
This wine emanates from 150 meters elevation presenting a supple texture with sappy green nuances and a core of sweet red cherry and wild strawberry flavors. Beneath its polished fruit lie notes of iron and minerals, complemented by well-integrated tannins and balanced acidity. The elegance combines with ripeness to express a multi-dimensional and precise character, emphasizing both purity and delightful taste. 95/100

Older notes:

William Downie Cathedral Pinot Noir 2021 Australia
Characterized by its aromatic floral tones, this wine integrates flavors of strawberry and cherry. It possesses a supple, fine texture accented by mineral and stony notes, complemented by dried herbs and a hint of pepper, alongside ripe strawberries. With its silky, refined structure and slight grip, it offers substantial weight and a deep, flavorful profile. 94/100

UK agent: Indigo Wines

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