The controversy has passed, the word ‘ethereal’ has been liberally used and opinions have already been formed – often without even tasting the wine. It’s time to get on with things. What better way to do it than by sitting down with winemaker Bill Downie himself and five bottles of the same wine open for varying lengths of time – a day, two days, four days, six days and eight days. Throw in an excellent five-course meal at The Fish House, Burleigh Heads on the coast in Queensland and you have quite an interesting little excursion.
“I think I should start by giving you the reason this wine exists,” says Bill, “because really, it shouldn’t.” And so begins the story of a mysterious benefactor (let’s call him Abel Magwitch shall we?), a vineyard in the Upper Yarra Valley and the opportunity for viticulturist Stuart Proud and William Downie to pursue a dream with free reign. “Most Australian wine references other parts of the world and to me, that just doesn’t stack up. Stuart Proud and I have a long connection and this project was a real chance. I thought to myself, I need to do this. I don’t have time to do this but I need to do this. We spent about six months thinking about it. At the end of that time we decided to just let the place speak for itself and to not impose anything on it but care.” From that came a strange and unique blend resisting comparisons to any wine I’ve ever seen or tasted from the ‘Old World’…or the new for that matter; 90% Shiraz, 8% Pinot Noir and 2% Sauvignon Blanc, 100% whole bunch fermented.
Not that Downie could give much of a shit about the make-up. “Our aim was to have a wine that was truly representative of place and to do that you need to be really connected and have a sense of empathy. If we can influence a few people and get them to think about this then that would be great. This is about the beginnings of something, not the completion.” So let’s start at that beginning and move on to the first ever Thousand Candles release, opened on the day of the tasting.
A first sniff and my fears are confirmed. It smells to me of asparagus, capsicum and vegetation with some red fruits trying to poke through. I take a sip and it’s all arms and legs. Nervy acid, light-bodied with astringent tannin. “Let’s see how it goes with some food,” I think to myself. Smoked swordfish, raw Hiramasa kingfish and salted anchovies to be precise. Hey, whad’ya know? That kind of works. I’m not a sommelier or a food critic mind you. But having polished off those tasty little morsels I go back to the wine again. You know it’s starting to smell really interesting. Bacon hocks, peat, roses, and spice are emerging from the glass. Another sip. There is some fruit here. Enough to match the cactus like whole bunch characters and the vegetable notes that I can only presume are from the Sauvignon Blanc. Sour cherries and raspberry are shaping up to the task at hand. The texture is becoming a little silky and there’s an appealingly foreign note of lemon myrtle. I am intrigued if not convinced.
2011 Thousand Candles – Day Two
All wines were decanted and then whacked straight back into the bottle and into the cellar. The degree of integration has already increased. I can still smell mescal, capsicum and asparagus but they don’t seem to be putting me off. It’s becoming more savoury as sour cherries and a glimmer of black fruit replace the initial impression of sweet raspberry. The bacon hock is taking on a very appealing gamey edge that has nothing to do with brett. That lemon myrtle is still there and it’s working a treat with the seafood – this time pan fried calamari with tomato concasse, chilli and lemon alongside a plate of char-grilled clams. Throughout the course of lunch it becomes increasingly apparent that this is not a wine meant for red meat.
The aromatics are less pretty and preppy. Roses are turning to wilted violets and a luxurious, musky and complex feminine perfume is providing an alluring counterpoint to the smoked meats. The acid is settling, the tannins are softening and there’s a pine cone and forest aspect slowly replacing overt vegetables and vegetation. Sour cherries are leaning into cranberry and dark brambly notes are distinct. The wine seems to be filling out and gaining body. What’s more, I’m enjoying it. So much that I won’t even mention the food that it’s matched with. You know, I don’t agree with everything Bill’s saying but it’s an interesting perspective and this strange bird he’s put in front of me is stimulating in both a cerebral and hedonic sense. Damn it, I didn’t like the marketing and I didn’t expect to enjoy the wine.
2011 Thousand Candles – Day Six
It’s mellowing substantially. The texture has me beguiled. Any sweetness is sneaking out the back door and a savoury, smoky sausage character is flaunting itself. The depth of fruit is impressive although it’s still a light wine. The word density is being thrown about. That asparagus is back but it’s not bothering me one bit. It’s in the backseat anyway. I’m getting earthy lentils, cardamom and Indian spices. I’m sitting up in my chair. I’m revelling in the exoticism and the evolution. This wine makes me think and thinking is fun.
2011 Thousand Candles – Day Eight
The fact that it’s still animated on the palate is impressive enough to me. The aromatics have become subdued and detail is lost. The acid is now quite mild. A dish of milk fed and crumbed veal cutlet with a stack of creamy potato is delicious but it’s not quite right for the wine at this stage (says he who is not a sommelier and makes no claims to be one). Still, if I ordered this I wouldn’t send it back. It’s not as delicious as on days four and six but it’s still intriguing enough to make me happy with a glass.
2011 Thousand Candles at Home
So I took the bottle that had been open two days home with me to reflect on it in quieter circumstances. No fancy food, no radical philosophies – but still no $100 missing from my pocket. Perhaps that’s the bottom line here. Would I pay $100 for this wine? Truth be told I rarely buy any wine that has a three figure price tag attached. It’s just not personally financially viable. Those that criticise this wine based on some sense of objective value for money are probably spot on. Mind you, having seen it evolve I’m less convinced that some of the technical criticism is valid. This seems to be a wine that needs more time. And while I did often find it rather bloody tasty, it is a cerebral wine…at least to the extent that it’s probably best shared with others and within the context of a discussion if not a debate. Also, some top notch seafood doesn’t go astray. I’ll give you a score, but that’s not really the point of this exercise. Easy for me to say not having paid a cent, I know. But I’ll also tell you that after spending this much time with it, I’m honestly not inclined to trust my numerical rating. I’m not supposed to say that am I? God knows what damage I’ll do if I let you know I’m human. “There are occasions when context matters a great deal.” Yes Bill, I’m with you on that one. 90+
Region: Yarra Valley
Tasted: July 2013