The artisan of Murdoch Hill

Murdoch Hill winemaker Michael Downer will be pouring his wines at the Hills Heist event. (Photo: Grapegrower & Winemaker)

Michael Downer is one of that second generation of winemakers who have been given a leg up by their parents. They established the vineyard and brand, and Michael has jumped at the opportunity to take Murdoch Hill to the next level.

It’s only five years since Downer, 32, returned to the family vineyard near Oakbank after travelling and working in other people’s wineries.

“I didn’t want to change the core range too much, or disrupt the client base, but instead add another layer to it, using a different approach.”

His father Charlie had established the vineyard, which now covers 20 hectares, in 1998. He’d worked in the cellar door at Shaw + Smith while studying at Adelaide University, graduating with his degree in Agricultural Science/Oenology in 2006, then worked vintages at Shaw + Smith 2007-10, two stints in retailing at Adelaide’s East End Cellars between 2006 and ‘08, fitting in a vintage at Cape Mentelle in 2006, Vietti in Barolo in 2010, Best’s Great Western in 2011, helping make the Jimmy Watson winning shiraz, and Peter Leske’s Revenir winery in 2012 – where he came in contact with the inspiring Taras Ochota. He counts Adam Wadewitz as another key influence: he worked with him at Best’s and again at Shaw + Smith.

He’s been the winemaker at Murdoch Hill since 2011: before that the wines were made by veteran Brian Light.

Success came quickly. He was a finalist in the Young Guns of Wine in 2014, ‘15 and ‘16 and their winemakers’ choice in ‘15 and ’16 and outright winner this year, by which time the Gourmet Traveller WINE judges had already selected him as winner of our young winemaker award.

Downer’s wines have done well in the Adelaide Hills Wine Show. His shiraz was best shiraz in show in 2014, and his pinot meunier was best other red varietal in 2015.

Like Ochota, Downer is a formally trained winemaker who successfully combines sound technical knowledge with an adventurous spirit, embracing ‘modern’ trends such as whole-bunch fermentation of reds (shiraz, pinot noir and pinot meunier), some skin fermentation for whites, wild yeast ferments, fermenting unclarified juice, and forgoing filtration.

The new ‘layer’ of wines he’s added at Murdoch Hill is the Artisan series – each wine named after a horse-drawn carriage. The pinot meunier is The Surrey, the pinot noir is The Phaeton, the syrah is The Landau, and the chardonnay is The Tilbury. Michael’s grandfather was a collector of such vehicles and there is a collection of them at the property.

“I wanted the Artisan wines to have their own story, and a tie-in with the family. We have a project to build a cellar door early next year, and we may put the carriages on show.”

Says Michael:

“I’m not afraid to take some risks to make the wine better.” There’s no magic: “It’s all about getting the best possible fruit.”

To that end, he also buys some grapes in – from higher altitude sites.

“We are at Oakbank, which is not very high, although it’s very good for sauvignon blanc and shiraz. Higher, colder sites are better for chardonnay and pinot noir, which I get from Lobethal and Piccadilly Valley.”

The chardonnay is superb, the pinot noir also very good in a quite stemmy style.

“I’m continually evolving the amount of whole-bunch: the first pinot noir, 2014, was 100% – because we didn’t have a destemmer then! But I’ve pulled back from that. I want the benefits it gives in texture and structure, but I don’t want it to overpower the fruit. I’m gaining an understanding of where the balance-point is. It’s about getting the harvest date right, which keeps freshness in the fruit.”

His experience at Best’s inspired him to make a straight pinot meunier. Fruit is scarce, and his first make was very small, just 50 dozen, but he’s now working with several growers. Adelaide Hills meunier is normally used for sparkling wine, so he’s aware he needs grapes from warmer north, west or east exposed sites.

He’d just returned from two weeks in Burgundy when we spoke, and was impressed at how organic and biodynamic viticulture have taken on there. He’d already started to move in that direction, stopping the use of herbicides in 2012.

Instead, mowing and cultivation are used to keep the weeds down.

The future is about gradual evolution, says Michael.

“It’s not really about doing the next cool thing, it’s about chipping away slowly; continuing to improve what we have already set up in the vineyard and winery. There’s a lot of work to do.”

*First published in Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine, October-November 2017 issue. Downer is the 2017 winner of the magazine’s Young Winemaker Medal.

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