Wilimee is one of the oldest vineyards in the Macedon Ranges, originally planted in the early 1980s to pinot noir and chardonnay. A cool site at around 600 metres, sparkling wine production was a cornerstone for over two decades, before hard times stopped operations. In 2013, Ben Ranken and Sally Richardson bought the ramshackle vineyard and set about resurrecting it through regenerative agricultural practices. While the Wilimee brand has expanded, Ranken still cultivates much of the site to sell grapes to some of the region’s most respected makers, including Matt Harrop and Joshua Cooper.
The 4-hectare Wilimee vineyard was first planted in 1982, making it one of Macedon’s oldest, with additional vines going in the ground in 1996. The site was solely planted to chardonnay and pinot noir, with viticulturist and winemaker Ben Ranken now increasing the volume of pinot by gradually grafting over some of the chardonnay vines. All vines are on own roots and are now dry grown.
The lack of irrigation has not always been the way, though. The vineyard fell into disrepair for around eight years, with the tap turned off and commercial production ceasing. This actually had a positive knock-on effect, with the vine roots digging down in search of sustenance, accessing water and nutrients from deeper in the geology.
When the Ranken family arrived in 2013, those vines were in disarray, but they were also somewhat more adapted and better equipped than when they were last returning a crop for wine. That’s not to say that the neglect hasn’t created its fair share of challenges, though, with Ranken running an ongoing program to reinvigorate the old plants and manage vine diseases such as eutypa (or dead arm), a trunk disease that results in dieback.
“I love our property, its landscape, soil and climate,” says Ranken. “The vines needed complete reshaping of the crown, which we’ve converted to the Poussard pruning method. Also, a lot of vines have eutypa. These vines have been cut back to the ground and a new trunk has been grown up the cordon wire. I love these vines and I’m proud I was able to save them…”
This idea of preservation and connection to place runs deep with Richardson and Ranken. “No-one owns the land, as we are all caretakers for the next generation. A long-term farming and land-care mentality is paramount, i.e. 50 to 100 years, not the next one to five years. We manage our farm regeneratively, building resilience into our vines and storing carbon in our soils, while respecting our local culture and community.”
That respect for culture saw a renaming of the vineyard after they purchased it in 2013, with Portree (a town on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, reflecting the previous owners’ heritage) giving way to the name of an ancient local quarry used by the Wurundjeri people as far back as 1,500 years ago, making it one of the oldest known quarries in the world. That site is called Wilimee Mooring, and it was traditionally used to harvest greenstone for axe heads. For Ranken and Richardson, giving their vineyard and home that context was critical.
“In the Macedon Ranges, chardonnay and pinot were grown for sparkling wine, as it was too cold for table wine. In 40 years, the harvest has moved forward by six to eight weeks, therefore it’s perfect for table wines now. Climate change is huge. As they say, people that grow plants believe in climate change and people who don’t grow anything – like politicians – don’t believe in it.”
“Wilimee brings recognition back to the original owners and our significant location,” says Ranken, “plus it shines a light on our history, as we’ve found many locals weren’t aware of the Wilimee Mooring quarry, and now they know about it.”
Tending the site with only organic and biodynamic inputs, Ranken focuses on building organic matter and soil health. “Soil aeration is important to have better water penetration and create more oxygen in the soil to encourage fungi and bacteria, which helps sequester carbon and better retain water content. We’re also building organic matter, as every percentage increase in OM per hectare increases soil water-holding capacity by 150,000–170,000 litres, from reduced runoff and water capture in the soil.”
That focus on water retention is a big one for Ranken, not just as the vines are unirrigated, but also due to the shifting weather patterns. “In the Macedon Ranges, chardonnay and pinot were grown for sparkling wine, as it was too cold for table wine. In 40 years, the harvest has moved forward by six to eight weeks, therefore it’s perfect for table wines now. Climate change is huge. As they say, people that grow plants believe in climate change and people who don’t grow anything – like politicians – don’t believe in it.”
Though Ranken employs organic and biodynamic methods, his vineyard is not certified with either protocol, however he doesn’t use synthetic chemicals on the site at all. Utilising compost teas, kelp, fish and molasses to activate soil fungi, as well as mineral-rich basalt dust, Crop Biolife (an organic plant superfood) and biodynamic preparations to increase vine health and resilience, Ranken works hard to diminish the need even for the organic mainstays of copper and sulphur, using them sparingly and only very occasionally.
“We want to make our own compost and compost tea,” says Ranken, listing just a few future projects, “plant flowering shrubs around our vineyard, buy a tractor with treads instead of tires to reduce compaction, have time and money to graft more pinot, chardonnay and chenin blanc onto our two soil types to continue exploring how the soil influences our vines, research into Australian native grasses as part of our inter-row crop… Vineyards are intense time consumers, there’s never enough hours in the day or days in the week!”
Those two soil types are key to Ranken’s long-term plans, with that exploration of terroir vitally linked to his approach to farming. “Wilimee has two distinct terroirs plus many nuances within each. Chardonnay is grown on the dark red, clay Cambrian soil and pinot noir on the more loamy and grey granite soil. We’ve started the grafting process to eventually have one of each variety on each soil type.
“Wilimee has two distinct terroirs plus many nuances within each. Chardonnay is grown on the dark red, clay Cambrian soil and pinot noir on the more loamy and grey granite soil. We’ve started the grafting process to eventually have one of each variety on each soil type... Our pinot noir is more concentrated, due to small berries and bunches. Fruit tannins are fine, and prevalent, colour is always dark and brooding. If we irrigated, I have no doubt we would dilute our terroir, as vines would be more vigorous, bunches larger and no doubt have a different tannin structure.”
“As we don’t irrigate, each soil’s water-holding capacity and the vigour of the vines differ greatly…. As a result, our pinot noir is more concentrated, due to small berries and bunches. Fruit tannins are fine, and prevalent, colour is always dark and brooding. If we irrigated, I have no doubt we would dilute our terroir, as vines would be more vigorous, bunches larger and no doubt have a different tannin structure. By managing Wilimee organically, and using little to no copper and sulphur, our soils will only be enhanced to produce more healthy vines and fruit that reflect each terroir.”
Ranken still sells about half of his fruit each year, down from around 80 per cent, which has reduced as the Wilimee brand has developed, but he also takes great pride in the wines that are made from the grapes he sells to the likes of Curly Flat’s Matt Harrop, for his Silent Way wines, as well as to Mitchell Harris and Joshua Cooper.
Ranken’s connection also extends to cultivating a deep relationship with the tight-knit Macedon wine community to work together to develop and promote better practices.
“I’m on the committee of the Macedon Ranges Viticulture Association,” he says. “I’ve organised field days for our members with Dr Mary Cole about organics and managing vineyards with less chemical intervention, with another on the cards about under-vine practices. I’ve started a group on regenerative viticulture via WhatsApp, where we all share our thoughts and ideas and help each other with any questions. It’s been great to bounce ideas around and keep each other accountable. We also bulk buy things like basalt rock dust, which helps us all.”