Murdoch Hill

A Gun Adelaide Hills Producer on a Stratospheric Rise

Adelaide Hills is buzzing with change and innovation and Murdoch Hill is a producer that is at the vanguard. It’s worth pointing out that Murdoch Hills is not a new player in the Australian wine scene—the Estate vineyards were planted by the Downer family in 1998. But it has been the return of the family’s youngest member, Michael Downer, to take over the vineyard management and winemaking duties, that has created the excitement here.

Michael cut his teeth at Shaw & Smith, Vietti in Barolo and Best’s Great Western before returning home to take over the everyday running of the family estate in 2012. He quickly burst onto the scene with his adventurous small-batch Artisan series, working with fruit from exceptional parcels in the Adelaide Hills. And, while this series continues to showcase Downer’s exceptional eye for quality fruit and progressive winemaking chops, he’s never lost sight of his transition from winemaker to grower, which he believes will come to define his career at Murdoch Hill.

Murdoch Hill’s Oakbank property was planted by Downer’s parents in 1998. The first action upon his return was to bring the winemaking in-house and address soil health, which he admits was “pretty bleak” at the time. With 20-hectares under vine (and 300-head of cattle) to manage, the process has taken time. Michael Downer is not trying to reinvent the wheel, he explains. Instead, he is making incremental adjustments to his farming to better coax the inherent natural beauty and purity of his fruit from soil to glass. In Michael’s own words, “It’s really just taking the best possible fruit that I can grow in our vineyard and capturing that and putting it in the bottle. Not taking too much out of the wine or putting anything into it.”

The Australian wine industry has certainly taken note: Downer was a Young Guns of Wine finalist in 2014 and the joint winner of the ‘Winemaker’s Choice’ in 2015 and 2016. He took the title of Young Gun of Wine outright in 2017. His wines consistently receive rave reviews from respected critics.

And boy, can Downer grow quality fruit. Underpinning the dramatic rise in quality of the home block wines is the policy to cease the use of synthetic inputs to control weeds, pests or disease. Instead, Downer works with under-vine cultivation, organic sprays and cover crops to regenerate the soil.

In terms of the vineyards, the original 1998 Estate plantings are situated around the winery, nestled in the undulating hills of Oakbank. The shallow red loam soils here are shot through with varying levels of schist and ironstone. In addition to the home vineyards, Downer also works with a range of nearby sites in Lobethal and Basket Range and the high-altitude Uraidla vineyard in the Piccadilly Valley. These sources offer Downer a broad range of flavour, structure and texture with which to do his thing, which includes wild yeast ferments, various degrees of whole bunch, extended skin contact and a greater amounts of old wood in the aging.

The Murdoch Hill range has gone from strength to strength in recent years, with each release outshining the last. The Artisan Series includes not just one but two of Australia’s most exciting Chardonnays, both crafted in a high-tensile style that fuses terrific concentration and natural acidity into a single, scintillating and seamless package. And while Downer’s name may have become synonymous with Chardonnay (and rightly so) the quality of Murdoch Hill’s red wines is ever more electrifying. Downer’s Pinot Noirs are now encroaching on the quality and purity set by the whites, and, frankly, this grower is one of the best things to happen to Pinot Meunier in Australia (see Downer’s Surrey PM as Exhibit A).

The Range

Murdoch Hill Chardonnay 2023
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Murdoch Hill Chardonnay 2023

Few do Chardonnay better than Michael Downer, and this is another cracker. The lion’s share of the fruit for this year’s Chardonnay comes from Murdoch Hill’s estate vineyards: the home vineyard in Oakbank and the newly acquired 8.5 hectares of vines in Lenswood. The balance is grown on sites Michael Downer has worked with for years in Lobethal and the Piccadilly Valley. All the sites share some common traits: high elevation, sustainable farming practices, and vines that are over 20 years old. The top block on the Oakbank property, sitting at a lofty 420 metres, is home to Bernard clone vines and forms the backbone of this year’s blend at 50%. The Lenswood site, at 30%, brings an open and generous fruit profile, providing a lovely contrast to the more linear and tight nature of the high-altitude Piccadilly and Lobethal material that rounds out the blend. The cool, mild conditions in 2023 meant the fruit was handpicked about two weeks later than the 10-year average. The Oakbank portion was destemmed while the rest of the fruit was pressed as whole bunches. Wild barrel ferments and maturation occurred in puncheons and barriques for 10 months (about 20% new). To “build the back end” of the wine, Downer let a portion of the wine go through malolactic conversion while all parcels rested on gross lees and some barrels were stirred. He tells us he aimed to make “a salivating, delicious and mineral Chardonnay with great tension and acidity.” 

“The 2023 Adelaide Hills Chardonnay is gentle and fine, with curry leaves and white peach, green apple and brine. What a lovely wine this is. It is chalky, nutty, and floral and exceptional value for money at $36 AUD. This is unassailable. 12.5% alcohol, sealed under screw cap.”
92 points, Erin Larkin, The Wine Advocate
Murdoch Hill Chardonnay 2023
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Murdoch Hill Landau Syrah 2022
Murdoch Hill Landau Syrah 2022
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Murdoch Hill Landau Syrah 2022

You might think it would be no easy feat to follow up the knockout 2021 vintage but Michael Downer has pulled it off with aplomb. “The Landau 2021 was among the top-scoring wines last year and the 2022 version is no different,” was how Ned Goodwin MW prefaced his note.. 2022 was another great year at this address, with cool conditions and plenty of rain promoting a prolonged, even season. The resulting fruit was exceptional: perfect ripeness and complex, layered profiles.Though not the most expensive bottling in the range, Landau is in many ways Downer’s signature wine. It comes from a single parcel of vines at Murdoch Hill’s Landau block in Oakbank. It’s a predominately east-facing slope at 400 metres above sea level on shallow, red loam soils with varying levels of schist rock and a vein of ironstone. The vines were planted in 1998. Oakbank’s warmer, sunny days allow the Syrah to fully ripen while the afternoon breezes and cool nights promote natural acidity. The block is sustainably managed according to organic principles, with zero herbicides.Downer’s style has always channelled the elegant, spicier side of Adelaide Hills Syrah. Cool-fruited freshness and lacy tannins form the foundation, while whole bunches, whole berries and restrained oak add the colour between the lines. The 2022 fermented with 20% whole bunches and was raised in older oak puncheons (just 15% new) and demi-muids for 10 months.Ned’s note does not oversell the quality. 

“Among the vanguard of exceptional Australian shiraz. Or syrah as it is called here for the sake of differentiating this lithesome, aromatic and mid-weighted expression from the yeomen of warmer zones. Exceptional aromas of violets, crushed blueberries, white pepper, cloves, olives, saucisson and nori. The mid-palate is a sinuous concourse of measured generosity and freshness. The tannins, supple and impeccably shaped. The finish, long and energetic, without being obvious. In fact, nothing here is obvious, which is what makes for such exceptional drinking. If asked my favorite Australian syrah, this would be with the four or five gushed in the first breath. Drink or hold. Screw cap.”
96 points, Ned Goodwin MW, jamessuckling.com
“This isn't your average gear. It's savoury, smoky, nutty, peppery and reductive, with splashes of fragrant herbs and dried flowers flying through bright, refreshing, dark cherried fruit. It carries energy, nuance, flare and joy, which sounds a bit wild, but it's also both balanced and sound, the distinct impression throughout one of intricacy. The 2021 release was our Shiraz of the Year; this 2022 is in the same mould and of similar quality.”
96 points, Campell Mattinson, The Wine Companion
Murdoch Hill Landau Syrah 2022
Murdoch Hill Landau Syrah 2022
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Murdoch Hill Chardonnay 2022
Murdoch Hill Chardonnay 2022
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Murdoch Hill Chardonnay 2022

This pristine Adelaide Hills Chardonnay is drawn from sustainably managed vines with an average age of 20-plus years, rooted in high-elevation sites in Oakbank, Lenswood, Lobethal and Piccadilly Valley. The fruit was handpicked and whole-bunch-pressed with wild barrel ferment and maturation in both puncheons and barriques for 10 months (approx. 20% new).2022 was an exceptional vintage for the Hills, delivering great depth and flavour whilst retaining excellent natural acidity, giving rise to this mouth-wateringly incisive and textured bottling. The wine displays plenty of that Murdoch Hill elegance and finesse, with subtle complexity from barrel fermentation adding to the silky flow of ripe stone fruit, white flowers and complex citrus character. Finishing with a lovely mineral snap, it’s a superb release from one of the country’s great Chardonnay makers.

"A mid-weighted expression that plies a riff of mineral tension as much as a generosity of stone fruits rolling across a creamy waft of cashew, nougat and white fig with some oak cuddling the seams. A wine that is as easy drinking as it is subtly complex."
91 points, Ned Goodwin MW, The Wine Companion
"Wow kinda chardy. Tightly wound but with juiciness. Almost on medium weight. Skittish acidity keeping things fresh, saline, briny, flinty notes gently there, a lot of lovely cashew and almond savouriness and then you notice, green apple, tart lime, anise. It’s crystalline and bright. It’s structured and finishes long. Delicious."
94 points, Mike Bennie, The Wine Front
Murdoch Hill Chardonnay 2022
Murdoch Hill Chardonnay 2022
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Murdoch Hill Vis-à-Vis Cabernet Franc 2023
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Murdoch Hill Vis-à-Vis Cabernet Franc 2023

This is the sixth release of Michael Downer’s Cabernet Franc, and it’s fast become a staple of the range. The fruit was sourced from Murdoch’s own Oakbank Vineyard, which sits at a lofty 400 metres and has sandy loam soils lightly peppered with quartz. Downer’s recent plantings of a further 400 Cabernet Franc vines means, thankfully, there’s a bit more to go around in 2023. The vines here are spur-pruned, and the team practises detailed hand-pruning, shoot-thinning and bunch-thinning to ensure they give Downer the lifted, violet and red-fruited profile he’s chasing for this spicy, sappy, Loire-inspired red. The fruit for the 2023 was handpicked and 100% destemmed, then racked into mature French barriques where it rested for seven months.It's clear Downer is hitting his stride with Cabernet Franc. This bright, pure fruited and brilliantly balanced release is his finest yet. Rich in varietal charm, it's layered with berry fruits, a touch of pepper spice and beautifully supple texture. A ripper release. 

Murdoch Hill Vis-à-Vis Cabernet Franc 2023
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Murdoch Hill Pinot Noir 2023
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Murdoch Hill Pinot Noir 2023

After a brief hiatus in 2022, the Murdoch Hill Pinot Noir makes a welcome return in 2023. Cool, high sites in the Piccadilly Valley usually form the basis for this wine, and this is the case for the most part in 2023. 70% of the fruit hails from Piccadilly, with the balance from Downer’s own Lenswood vineyard. The cool, fresh conditions in those high-elevation Valley vineyards delivered fruit of perfume, elegance and structure, fleshed out nicely by the spice-driven, weighty and deep nature of the Lenswood stock.Fermentation took place in small open-top fermenters with just a small portion of whole bunches (5%). Downer decreased that component this year, explaining the Lenswood fruit already brings sufficient spice and structure to this year’s wine. Maturation occurred in barriques and puncheons for 10 months (20% new). It’s an elegant, perfumed and spicy release, full of red-fruited vibrancy with a lovely core of pure flavour and a delicious, mouth-watering close.

Murdoch Hill Pinot Noir 2023
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Murdoch Hill Adelaide Hills Sulky Riesling 2023
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Murdoch Hill Adelaide Hills Sulky Riesling 2023

Murdoch Hill’s delicate and fine-boned Sulky Riesling comes from 20-plus-year-old vines on a small, sustainably managed vineyard in Macclesfield in the southern reaches of the Adelaide Hills. These well-established vines lie on ironstone bedrock. The fruit was picked by hand and pressed as whole bunches to 1500-litre foudres for spontaneous fermentation. It matured for three months on fine lees before being moved to tank for another two months before bottling. It's another beautifully crafted release from Michael Downer, teeming with springtime freshness. White florals, citrus and a mineral edge form a powerful core of flavour, supported by chalky texture and fresh, driving acidity. It’s a textural and mouthwatering release, far from your average South Australian Riesling. 

Murdoch Hill Adelaide Hills Sulky Riesling 2023
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“Hello again, Murdoch Hill. One of the most consistently good wine producers coming out of South Australia, with a raft of interesting wines, side by side with more ‘classic’ renditions, and all typically well priced.” Mike Bennie, The Wine Front

“Producer to watch. To dig into. To die for, really.” Campbell Mattinson, Wine Companion

Country

Australia

Primary Region

Adelaide Hills, South Australia

People

Winemaker: Michael Downer

Availability

National

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