Reign of terroir: William Downie

William Downie
Image courtesy of David Hannah

William Downie may be renowned as a master of pinot noir, but he doesn’t care much for this claim. We check in with the terroir-driven winemaker to learn why.  

Words Jeremy Pringle

William Downie is so highly regarded in Australian wine circles as a maker of top pinot noir that he is almost synonymous with the variety. De Bortoli’s Steve Webber once described him as the “best winemaker in Australia” and a group of sommeliers have even formed a fan club, Team Downie. But if you think this might be cause for satisfaction, you’d be wrong. 

William, or Bill as he is known, is a wiry figure with a head of crazy curls. And despite his rising star, he suggests he would like to turn a lot of what he’s done – and what is considered standard practice – on its head.

“I have zero interest in pinot noir,” he says, somewhat alarmingly considering the variety makes up almost his entire range. “I have an interest in place. Wine is a tool for memory. That is the value of wine – to transport you to another place and time.”

Bill has an obvious love and affection for pinot noir, but it’s not his true love. He doesn’t want to make great pinot noir; he wants to release great representations of the sites where the grapes – regardless of variety – are grown. “We have to give up the quest to be a winemaker and have faith in the site,” he says. “Concentrating on varieties is like allowing the choice of motor car to define the trip, rather than the destination.”

It’s just one of his many strong views. Another relates to the brand name he gave his label – that is, his own name, which he says he now regrets. "I still think there is a great deal of ego involved in Australian wine and I'm sometimes accused of it myself," he says. “The most profound error I made was to put 'William Downie' on my labels. But that was just a legal thing. I had to put something on there.”

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