Eight days of 2011 Thousand Candles at Lunch

1000 candles 004The 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.

1000 candles 0062011 Thousand Candles – Day One

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.

1000 candles 0082011 Thousand Candles – Day Four

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
Alcohol: 12.5%
Closure: Diam
Price: $100
Tasted: July 2013


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18 Responses to Eight days of 2011 Thousand Candles at Lunch

  1. Stu says:

    Far more useful than anything else I’ve seen written on the wine. Excellent write up of a unique means of showing the wine.

  2. Thanks Stu. However I tried I was always going to take a lot of “baggage” into the tasting. It really was an excellent way to explore the wine given that fact.

  3. Michael Charles says:

    Still seems like a lot of fuss for what you describe as a solid but unspectacular wine. I’ve not tried it, and you’ve not really prompted me to do so. Better to read about than to drink from where I’m sitting. Really good write-up by the way! Winemaker looks like he could get a gig as Dr Who in the future.

    By the way, do you like Mezcal? Difficult to buy any decent stuff (from Oaxaca) here in Australia, at least for a reasonable price. Los Danzantes Reposado is probably my favourite. Don’t think I’ve seen it in Australia. Tequila is quite commercialized, often industrial, but Mezacal is far less so. More homely and artisan. Most of it is made in sheds. If there is any beverage that conveys a sense of place better than Mezcal, I’m yet to find it. It’s as if there’s a little bit of the Mexican countryside in ever bottle. It’s that weird smokiness and cactusy sappy undertones. I don’t love it, but it does make for an interesting change of place. Oddly best served in Champagne flutes so that the nose is appropriately channelled (a tip I picked up from a high-end restaurant in D.F.).


    • I’ve tasted a few but nothing that’s really “high-end”. Wine soaks up pretty much all of my beverage allowance. If I found I had a fondness for mescal it would only cause trouble :)

  4. I think you’ve summed this up brilliantly.

    “Those that criticise this wine based on some sense of objective value for money are probably spot on.”
    Correct. We’ll get to the wine in a moment. But as is always the case, a pricey wine will get, and regardless of quality, deserves, to be challenged on price. We sometimes conveniently forget that the expensive hallowed and entitled wines of the old world also cop their daily barrage of price criticism, so it isn’t a cultural cringe thing. Its universal. Nobody is demanding a producer don’t make that bed. But hearing the broken record of informed and uninformed price comment is a part of lying in it. Build a bridge.

    On quality, I love your evolving notes of enjoyment. Me personally, I like the actual wine. I even like it when it is opened and in the first few hours. Yes it makes my head snap to see the Sauv Blanc influences in the first moments of life, but that’s part of being able to step outside of all conventional boxes, and I love how even a mere hour shows enough shedding of puppy fat to hark of what evolution may be to come. Its easy and fair to smash this wine’s hype. But it is ludicrously narrow minded to try it in a comparison format or snap judgement format. Anyone who claims to love wine outside the ticked boxes of correctness surely cannot help but either enjoy it over a long session, or at least be fascinated by its individuality. To not be able to do so shows a far too rigid adherence to narrow conventions or preferences.

    Not a criticism, but this type of exercise, even if produced over a less challenging lower number of days, will work for a vast array of wines, not just this one. So rather than being a unique point of interest, this is also partly an “every best foot forward / best possible light” exercise. Which I love doing at home.

    Michael, the wine is not unspectacular, unless you are forcing yourself to use a narrow conformity of ticking boxes on a template check list made to fit all wines on the planet. Quality “delivery” is something that can be expressed in so many ways. I feel sad that even we wine lovers on forums get very commodity driven in our rigid evaluations, no less so than the bulk of the less engaged Australian wine consumers many are very quick to criticise. That’s not aimed at you. Just a rant. Do I really, really want wines like this to exist, to challenge, to show a diversity we can at least “visit” now and then, whilst day to day returning to our more regular programming? I sure do. For our regular programming is all the better for it.

    • Michael Charles says:

      Tony, I certainly agree with departing from regular programming, but not so that I can watch something I won’t enjoy much. From Jeremy’s description, or rather my interpretation of it, the wine seems an incongruous array of components that could be interesting in their own right, but incoherent as a whole. At least at the moment. Often the most enjoyable wines, at least for me, are those where you struggle to write anything about it. The wine just ‘is’. We all have our personal predilections. And I am aware that I can be rather rigid in my views, though I’m very flexible about changing them as new information comes to hand. Some of us see the lived experience as a series of postulates that we must test, so as to form new postulates, and so on. Perhaps that’s not so clever, but I think I fall firmly into that camp. Others do not claim knowledge or understanding until they have experienced what they seek to find out about. That is true empiricism. I guess that’s just not me!

      Again, I’ve not tasted it, and I could well like it, but what I take from Jeremy’s observations is that this would not be a wine for me. So this is what I must conclude at this point. I’m not saying the wine shouldn’t exist. Far from it. Just that I will direct my resources in other directions.

      In short, my response is not to the wine. It is to another’s response to it. There’s an epistemological conundrum in there I suppose!

      By the way Tony, what do you mean precisely by “commodity driven”?


  5. As I said Michael, my post wasn’t aimed at you. There’s been enough commentary you and I have seen on this wine for my comments to go out to a wider audience.

    Commodity wines (very generally) might mean wines that need to tick boxes to be accepted as they are labelled. For everyday consumers, it might mean a popular label that looks a certain way, and needs to look very faithful to that year after year to keep its fans happy. At a more involved and premium level, it might be about more engaged wine lovers using information on the label to create a set of expectations of what it tastes like within a certain range of potential characters.

  6. I should add, I don’t find this wine to be “incoherent as a whole” at the moment, even when first opened. It can be perceived as so if we (sadly) enter the tasting room with our check list to be ticked off. When we do so, we may as well all be wearing a white lab coat.

  7. Simon says:

    What a damn good way of reviewing a wine. Top marks all round. I do hope we see this done more often.

    I was as interested as everyone else to taste this wine, although (it seems) one of the minority in the “I want it to work” camp. I shall describe the experience as “challenging”, as I just couldn’t work out what was going on. I love stalky wholebunch action, but thought they may have gone too far. I didn’t rate it, and preferred the 2012.

    However, I have thought about the wine several times since, because it was challenging. I’m a bit sorry I warmed to the “safer” 2012, with flavours I taste every week. I certainly haven’t thought about the 2012.

    People can say what they like about the project, the price, the vegetal flavours…but you can’t deny it is different. In a world of wine made from a textbook, we really should encourage this sort of thing.

    God, I’d love to try it again with hindsight…


    • Simon,

      You sum up I think where many people lie.

      The problem is this: Those who are in the “I want it to work” camp aren’t all banding together to buy some and help make it work. Our industry has a horrid habit of wanting there to be a group of consumers to enact the behaviours we are unable or unwilling to do ourselves. We say something is deserving of better, but all stand there looking around at someone else to step up and actually make that happen.

      There isn’t some magic hideaway of premium consumers on tap, sprinkled sparingly throughout the land who are there to answer the call now and then to support some or all of the various expensive offerings that are worthy of interest and patronage.

      This is not a slight. $100 wine that is left of centre is not for everyone, and not in everyone’s affordable range. Fair enough, so I don’t expect every supporter of this wine or lover of what it represents to stump up the cash if they can’t or have other priorities.

  8. GW says:

    It’s a special treat, almost always, to drink wines that have been open for eight days. I’m running a solera system at home to keep up a good supply of oxidised red and white. ;)

  9. Sanjay says:

    “This wine makes me think and thinking is fun” – gold!

    When I first read about the equivalent dinner that was to be held in Sydney my first thoughts were critical / “what a complete and utter wank”.

    Excellent and balanced writing above + speaking to a friend who went to one of these has moved me to the “I want it to work” camp although I haven’t tried either vintage, I’d now be willing to buy a glass to see what it is like, something I wasn’t willing to do when the wine was released and on by the glass at a couple of places. Also 2 of my (relatively conservative) customers who I would have guessed would have hated the 2011v loved it and put it on their wine lists. Despite being basically retail prices on their list ($110 & $120) neither have sold a single bottle in the 6+ months the wine has been on there.

    Maybe I should just buy a bottle? – will call a restaurant this afternoon and ask them to double decant it as I’ll be in on Friday …. sure they won’t mind :)

    • Ha, should be singing for you on Friday for if you remember to do that :) I’ve seen it on wine lists at near enough to retail price as well. Esquire in Brisbane have it at around $130. I’ll have to ask how it’s going there.

  10. Pingback: That pesky quality-price ratio: QPR reconsidered | STEVE HEIMOFF| WINE BLOG

  11. “But why would you give a wine so much power over you…?”

    Great sound bite. Let us acknowledge the importance of context, but accept that 99% of premium priced wine lovers don’t want to be stopped in their tracks to be made aware of ceremonial context. I refer not to this wine, but to the concept in general of wines that insist on a formal introduction to be able to be seen in their fullest context. Many a contributor on here or other wine forums would have to admit that for all the times they’ve worked to understand a wine that deserves an intricate look, on many other occasions they’ve cast a judgement on another wine at a simple one off taste with no relevant story at hand.

  12. Yes, between yourself and Steve I think the problematics are quite clearly enunciated. I can only nod in agreement. It’s a complex area and I need more time to think about it before I can add anything.

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