Ten minutes with … Bill Downie

Published by Sally on March 7, 2011

Gippsland Vineyard

Gippsland Vineyard

Having lived and worked half the year in Burgundy for five years, Bill Downie set up by himself, in Victoria, in 2003, with his first Yarra Valley pinot noir, under the William Downie label.

His main focus is on regional expression of pinot noir, and he later added a Mornington Peninsula, and a Gippsland pinot noir to his portfolio.

Gippsland represents a return to his childhood roots.  He has now (2008) planted a vineyard there at high density, between 10,000 and 11,700 vines / ha.  He said with “lower bunch numbers per vine, I am more able to make the wine I aspire to make.  You get better phenolic maturity at lower sugar, and a different structure, more precision, more detail.” His 2011 vintage, from all his fruit sources, will be made at Gippsland too, in a new winery.

Many would agree that Aussie pinot noir is now making a success on the international stage. Downie said “I feel the level of sophistication we’re at is to make very good expressions of Yarra Valley, Gippsland, Mornington Peninsula.  That’s enough.” For the moment.  Other producers are working with single vineyard expressions, and these may come to light as the world gets to grip with regionality of Australian pinot noir. He added “in a few generations it might be worth digging a little further [though] we’re still a few steps away from doing that to a high standard.”

Part of this challenge is that the owner of good sites and the winemaker are often different businesses, let alone different people. Downie said “there’s not a history in Australia of thinking in way of single vineyard site and ownership” as there is in the old world.

He also said “the single greatest limiting factor” is not controlling the site to express the site, adding he’s found it challenging, though not impossible, to find good growers who work in the way he wants to work. “It’s an evolving process” he said.

Bill Downie (L) as part of the Yeastie Boys, with Paul Bridgeman (M) of Yarra Yering and Mark O'Callaghan (R) of Yarra Burn

Bill Downie (L) as part of the Yeastie Boys, with Paul Bridgeman (M) of Yarra Yering and Mark O'Callaghan (R) of Yarra Burn. On drums is Stuart Proud, Downie's viticulturist

Downie’s work at Domaine Fourrier in Gevrey Chambertin and Hubert Lignier in Morey St Denis has inspired him to pursue precision and place. And he happily admitted “the closer I get to the type of wine I aspire to, the further it gets from Burgundy, and the more reflective it is of place, with the least impression of the hand of the winemaker.”

Oak is used to “add an extra dimension to the red fruits, to enhance the expression of place.” And one of the things that have become important to Downie is to fill the barrel as soon as possible after it’s been toasted and constructed.  He uses 40-50% new French oak from a Burgundy cooper, made by an Aussie cooper who imports the pre-seasoned staves. He said “I can fill a barrel within 24 hours of it being made … who wants to eat a cold piece of toast?” Of the immediacy of filling newly made barrels, he said “they opened up the wines in a way I hadn’t seen in Australia before.

Tasting notes, Yarra Valley, October 2010.  

William Downie Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2008, ~£35
Savoury and sweet combo. Forward, mellowing warmth behind it.

William Downie Gippsland Pinot Noir 2008 ~£35
Deeply aromatic, violet, parma, rich, ‘light’ tannins, full and appealing. Quite sumptuous. Darker fruit.

William Downie Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir 2008 ~£35
Sweet, lush red fruits, perky. Full sweet savoury profile. Super lifted red fruits, takes a while for the substance of the wine to come through.

My research visit to Australia in October 2010 was sponsored by Wine Australia.

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