Standing on the front porch of his home, the Settler gazed out in to the dark, breathing in the evening’s cool air. Sipping on his hot tea, he listens to cicadas as they cut through the night time silence in broad stereo sweeps. A soft breeze moves through the trees, lifting momentarily, stirring the cicadas to chorus, where they are joined in harmony by the gentle howl of an accompanying wind.
The trees continue to rustle, but the wind has now died down. The low sound of voices are written into the night’s impromptu song, and shift sound into sight via the soft glow of burning torches. The Settler’s gaze is broken and he stares out across the paddock towards a bonfire. His thoughts turn to the three waterways that divide this property, and of the three Aboriginal tribes that inhabit this land around him. He remembers seeing a ceremony like this once before, where the three tribes came together to discuss permissions for temporary safe passage between each others territories.
Later, after the stars had shifted their night time positions, and the cicadas had been reduced to a few stutters and clicks, the Settler, watching on from a chair on his porch, noticed that the meeting had concluded as the bonfire was put out. As each of the tribes set out to depart in their separate directions the Settler, as witness, took out his journal and wrote…
… “it’s as if the night sky had been interrupted by a thousand candles.”
That same property where the Settler once sat and witnessed that interruption of “a thousand candles” is now home to a sprawl of vineyards in the Yarra Valley, Victoria.
Thousand Candles is a project led by Bill Downie (winemaker) and Stuart Proud (viticulturist) that was started at the end of 2009 on 1200 acres of existing vineyards in the Yarra. It is a project funded by a wealthy Malaysian business man who, according to Bill, “was looking around for places to park money, which apparently, when you have lots of it, is a bit of a problem.”
It’s not everyday that you get a phone call from a wealthy investor that wants to give you, basically, carte blanche to do whatever you want within the confines of a wine project. Bill enlisted the help of long time friend, and viticulturist Stuart Proud to help get the idea off the ground. Soon enough, the property Thousand Candles now calls home came up for sale, and Bill arranged for it to be purchased as soon as he found out.
“I’d made wine from here previously when I worked at De Bortoli, and had known of the property for a long time,” says Bill. “As soon as I heard it was for sale, I said to the others, ‘Stop everything. This is it. This is what we’re going to do’…
“We’re focusing on farming and looking after the soil,” says Bill, “We’re going to listen with no preconceived ideas, and letting the wine be whatever it’s going to be.”
The Thousand Candles property is a unique site set within the Yarra Valley landscape. The vines are planted on a combination of aspects and slopes facing east, north and west, on soils which are predominately brown clay loam and sedimentary stone. Before Thousand Candles was established, the vineyard was farmed conventionally.
“It was a grape farm and was managed on a very minimal budget, farming for quantity not quality… We’ve set about rehabilitating the soil,” says viticulturist Stuart Proud.
Stuart uses a combination of organic, biological and biodynamic farming practices to care for the Thousand Candles site, and reserves the right to use conventional (chemical) management techniques, especially in times of disease pressure. The theory is that they can utilise the best of all worlds to maximise the ecological and biological diversity of the Thousand Candles environment.
“We’ve picked the best bits of each system,” explains Stuart, “the ones I know that work in terms of what we have.”
According to Bill and Stuart, 85% of the budget for Thousand Candles is spent on farming the property properly, planting a new vineyard from scratch and buying the right equipment to do what needs to be done.
“We make all our own compost teas and brews here on site from everything collected from the farm, such as pasture cuttings, vine cuttings and other stuff collected from the surrounding bush,” says Stuart. “We break it all down and turn it into liquid compost teas and then spray it out over the vineyard, along with manure from our cows, which act as a good source of nutrient for the vines,” he says.
Encouraging the indigenous population of soil biota is Stuarts primary goal, making sure that the soil is vital with beneficial microbes to create an underground food web, which occupies the soil, increases water holding capacity, and makes available essential plant nutrients to the vines in order to allow for new root growth activity, and help suppress disease.
“We know, through a mix of science, experience and understanding, what we’re trying to achieve, and we can see for ourselves the health of the place, and that things are working,” says Stuart.
“And, on top of that,” says Bill, “our understanding of soil biology has progressed so much that you can actually know so much more than was possible to know, even 20 years ago. So why not use all of those tools to go beyond just organics, or biodynamics, but still be informed by them.”
“The Thousand Candles project is an opportunity to meaningfully explore that notion of what is a sense of place in an Australian wine,” says Bill. “Is there any value in having reference to anywhere else, or can you just completely ignore precedent and do something which is properly, proudly and definitively Australian?”
Bill has a hypothesis.
In Europe, the notion of terroir (sense of place) comes from the soil, ie. the landscape. This is because it is the landscape, and therefore the soils, which dominate a European’s perspective of their environment.
“The human element in terroir is about a connection to the land. There are generations of families in Burgundy, for example, that have grown up with a deep unwavering respect for the land,” explains Bill, “it’s a part of them. They don’t voluntarily take a position, they’re born knowing the importance of the land and their connection to it… you might say that in Europe 70% of the expression of terroir is related to geology and soil.”
According to Bill’s hypothesis he suggests that, given the nature of such ancient soils that we have in Australia, things might be inverted.
“If I think about my connection to land in Australia, one of the things I noticed many times, is a sense of space, and the vastness of the Australian sky. It’s this sense of space around us that is one of the things that makes us Australian. The amount of sky relative to land is really quite different to anywhere else in the world,” says Bill.
Bill suggests that the parameters that determine and drive a sense of place in Australia are not the same as the parameters that drive this concept in Europe, because it is such a fundamentally different landscape.
In order to explore and attempt to achieve this Australian sense of place, Bill reckons that the winemaker as manipulator must be completely removed from the winemaking process.
“As soon as the thumbprint of the winemaker is visible to any extent in Australian wine, you’ve lost the sense of place,” says Bill. “To me, it’s always been at the core of everything I’ve ever done in wine. How do I remove myself from the process, and how do I make the wine the least about me that it can possibly be?”
“We don’t do anything,” explains Bill, “because for me, the concept of the winemaker is redundant.” Bill is much more interested in the farming aspects of wine, rather than anything that can be done back in the winery.
“The health of the vineyard and the quality of the fruit has to be in order first, before you can make any wine,” says Bill.
Quite simple, really.
D// – The Wine Idealist