Named after the musings of a nineteenth century European settler on observing an aboriginal ceremony, made by a renowned Aussie winemaker who has been inspired by Pinot Noir’s Burgundian heartland, from an idiosyncratic blend of grapes, and grown on vineyards owned by a nameless mega wealthy Singaporean businessman who’s never visited, Thousand Candles has an intriguing backstory.
Thousand Candles, the name is inspired by the tale of a nineteenth century European settler who upon witnessing an aboriginal ceremony where tribes come together to negotiate and grant temporary safe passage between each others territories, dramatically concluding with the tribesmen holding aloft their firesticks, remarked that it were as if the ‘twilight of the evening had been interrupted by a thousand candles…’.
Picturing hundreds of white dots, interspersed by a few red dots clustered around the centre, the label, design by Adelaide artist Melanie Terrett, draws cultural inspiration from the wine’s Asian backer, white candles signifying funeral, red remembrance.
The Thousand Candles project is funded by a mega wealthy Singaporean businessman who in 2009, invested $14 million in a large property complete with 1200 acres of well established vineyard, but has never visited. Bill Downie was appointed as general winemaker, enlisting his long term friend, viticulturist Stuart Proud. Not long after, a site came up for sale on the Killara Park Estate from where Bill had previously made wine for De Bortoli, and knowing its unique qualities, quickly arranged for its purchase. With the estate covering a large area, they’re able to carry out side projects such as beef processing, however their main aim remains producing outstanding wines.
William Downie is a self taught winemaker and Pinot Noir specialist, who after several years living and working in Burgundy, in 2003 established his own winemaking operation in the Southern Yarra Valley of Australia. Bill is passionate about the quality and source of the grapes he uses, where possible using fruit from vineyards that follow biodynamic and organic viticultural practices. Bill’s methodology borrows the best parts from both the Burgundian winemakers by whom he is inspired, fusing these with the modernistic textbook approach from his Australian homeland, making him one of the most respected producers of Victoria Pinot Noir.
Thousand Candles is made from selected vineyard parcels planted on east, north, and west facing aspects, on predominantly brown clay loam and sedimentary stone soils. Prior to Thousand Candles the vineyards were conventionally farmed for quality not quantity, on a minimal budget, but under Stuart Proud’s stewardship they’ve set about rehabilitating the soil. They make their own compost teas brewed from biological matter soured from their farm, such as pasture and vine cuttings, broken down and sprayed onto the vineyard along with manure from their cows, providing an excellent nutrient source and improvement to the biological activity of the soil. Rather than adopting a strict biodynamic regime they take a pragmatic approach, picking the best elements of organic, biological and biodynamic practices, and resorting to conventional chemicals when necessary due to the vagaries of disease or weather.
Rooted in Burgundian tradition, with Thousand Candles William Downie aims to craft an Australian expression of terroir and vintage, varying each vintage’s blend to make the best expression possible of that year. And as in Burgundy, Bill does not give the grape variety on the bottle, with the blend in 2012 made up of roughly 70% Pinot Noir, one quarter Syrah, with a touch of Sauvignon Blanc.
The grapes undergo a proportion of whole bunch fermentation, higher with the Syrah, while more new oak is used in ageing the Pinot Noir. The Sauvignon Blanc is fermented on the skins for 30 days then aged on the lees for one year. Only a small amount of sulphur is used when bottling, with no additives or cultured yeasts. In contrast to 2011, the 2012 growing season was much better, with the sun shining much brighter and longer.
Whole Bunch Fermentation
Conventional wisdom used to say that whole bunch fermentation, gave greenness and rusticity to red wines. But once thought rustic, whole bunch fermentation has seen a revival. With global warming, the stems are often riper than before, lessening the greenness of the wine. Whole bunch can also help overcome extremes of particular years. In high acid vintages the potassium from the stems neutralises tartaric acid in the wine, reducing the acidity level, and in high ripeness vintages, excessive richness is balanced by the stem tannins, producing fresher wines. Most whole bunch protagonists consider that it gives their wines an extra dimension of complexity.
Red wine making conventionally begins by destemming then crushing the grapes to extract the juice. In whole bunch fermentation, where the grapes are not destemmed, there are many variables. Sometimes the bunches are crushed so that juice is released and fermentation starts. Other times the bunches are left uncrushed, so that the weight of the ones on top crush those below, causing them to start conventional alcoholic fermentation using ambient yeasts. This produces carbon dioxide, causing the bunches above to undergo an intracellular, semi carbonic maceration, resulting in paler wines, with lower tannins and fruitier aromatics. Alternatively just a proportion of the bunches are left whole, with the destemmed and crushed grapes added below, on top, or layered between, again undergoing semi carbonic maceration.
Thousand Candles 2012
Medium ruby towards garnet, almost a slight cloudiness.
Prounounced nose. Starts with a prominent core of black and red berry fruits, fresh and vibrant cherry and blackcurrant, accompanied by floral notes of fushia. Tangy orange citrus zest and dry spice, mace, cassia bark and fibrous coconut shell, followed by some softer more rustic, mushroomy, damp and musty character. Very well integrated and in harmony, with some hints of elegant development.
Dry, medium body, with very fine medium plus tannins, and a persistent finish. Sour cherry stone and distinctive orange juice freshness join the aroma characteristics, with a chewy mouthfeel and defined gravelly minerality. There’s a touch more meatiness than on the nose, rare bloody steak and black peppercorn spice.
Very structured, precise and elegant, though missing the Burgundian poise by which Downie is inspired. Being quite fresh and precise now, I’m unsure how this will develop. An excellent and superbly enjoyable wine, but although I can’t find real fault, this failed to really take hold for me, maybe being too perfect, with too few imperfections and character for my taste.