Aussie Wine Wizard Breaks Rules With $110 Pinot Noir

William Downie
William Downie, winemaker for the new wine project Thousand Candles, produces one wine a year, intended to reflect the terroir of the property. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

Start with a mysterious, mega-rich, wine-loving Indonesian entrepreneur living in Singapore. Then tap a talented young Australian winemaker known for his silky, savory pinot noirs.

Add in a property in the Yarra Valley north of Melbourne that once belonged to the father of flamboyant 19th-century opera diva Nellie Melba.

The result is one of Australia’s most ambitious if polarizing new wine projects, Thousand Candles, whose first two vintages debut in the U.K. this month and in the U.S. in January. They’re already on shelves in Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand and Norway.

The price for each, A$100 ($110), has been widely criticized in the U.K. and Australian press. “We have been accused of hubris,” admits winemaker William Downie.

What’s the big deal? New wineries in Napa think nothing of introducing their first cabs with $250 price tags.

I spent time in the Yarra Valley with Downie last month to find out if his wines are worth it.

During several days in this cool green valley an hour’s drive from Melbourne, I discover that he’s one of a half-dozen young vintners there with serious ambitions and fascinating wines.

Yeastie Boys

In addition to Thousand Candles, Downie produces pinots under his eponymous label at his farm in West Gippsland. He also plays bass in a popular winemaker rock band called the ‘Yeastie Boys.’

Tall, wiry and curly-haired, Downie, 39, is wearing oversize aviator sunglasses, worn jeans and a dark gray sweater.

As we sit on gum tree stumps overlooking a long slope of vines to The Great Dividing Range, he spins out Thousand Candles’ surprising backstory and his own semi-mystical wine philosophy.

He says the reclusive owner, whom he has never met, amassed his money from diverse investments including real estate and mining, and wanted to make a “landmark wine” that would change how people think about Australian wine.

In late 2009, the entrepreneur’s Melbourne-based representatives enlisted Downie’s help to find a wine property near the city. When he got a tip that 1,100 acres of the Killara Park estate was up for sale, he “knew this was the only one that would do.” They hired him to run it.

Organic Seaweed

By the end of 2010, the A$8 million deal was done and the owner ponied up another A$4 million so Downie’s high-powered viticulture team could revive the soil with organic seaweed, compost and what he calls “enhanced biodynamics.”

“The owner, who wants to remain anonymous, made it clear he would not be involved in any way,” says Downie, who coddled the pinot, pulled vines from waterlogged spots and planted cabernet and malbec in high-density plots of 7,000 vines to an acre.

“I believe a great wine tells one story: Who am I? In Burgundy, soil is everything,” he says. “But in Australia, it’s the size of the sky. It feels bigger, higher here. That’s what I want to capture in the wine.”

Downie actually makes the wine at a nearby winery, where he takes minimalism to an extreme. “We put whole bunches of grapes in fermenting tanks and do nothing,” he says. In difficult 2011, everyone told him that was crazy.

“Nothing?” I ask.

Recording Engineer

“A winemaker should be like a recording engineer who captures music at a point in time and preserves it for the future,” Downie says.

Over a lunch of thick stew at a house on the property, we sample the first two vintages. They don’t make me think of the vast Australian sky, but they don’t resemble any wines I’ve ever tasted, either.

“I’m not interested in varietals,” says Downie, I’m interested in a true expression of the site.”

The 2011 (700 cases) vaguely reminds me of a savory barolo or maybe a lean Cote Rotie. It’s spicy and perfumed, with edgy acidity, an unheard-of blend of 87 percent shiraz, 10 percent pinot noir, and 3 percent sauvignon blanc. The vintage shows in the acidity -- 2011 was one of the wettest on record -- making this a wine you savor or dismiss.

Though the 2011 is scented and evocative, I prefer the intense, elegant and complex 2012 (1,000 cases), with its subtle earth-and-forest-floor character, riper fruit and silky texture.

Pinot Noir

There is a bit of similarity to the 2011, though the blend is 70 percent pinot noir, 25 percent shiraz and five percent sauvignon blanc.

The Thousand Candles name comes from a 19th century European settler, who observed a “freedom of the bush” ceremony. He wrote that when the indigenous peoples held up their lighted fire sticks, it was as if “the twilight of the evening had been interrupted by a thousand candles.”

I don’t see Thousand Candles as the latest “icon” wine to chase, at least not yet. So, is it worth the high price? If ambition, uniqueness and an operatic story deserve attention and big bucks, the answer is yes.

Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson and Jeremy Gerard on theater in London and New York.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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