Ben Ranken has been tirelessly restoring his Wilimee vineyard, which is one of the Macedon Ranges oldest. Converting the vines to being dry grown, while implementing organic practices (not yet certified), his focus is on chardonnay and pinot noir planted to two distinct soil types – granite and Cambrian – with two varietal wines currently made that are reflective of site and farming, with winemaking taking a backseat. Ranken also matures bottled pinot noir underwater for five years – a shipwreck-inspired endeavour.
In 2013, Ben Ranken and his wife, Sally Richardson, purchased the old Portree Vineyard, near Lancefield in the Macedon Ranges. Sitting at 600 metres above sea level and with most vines over 30 years old, this was a significant purchase, but the vineyard had experienced several years of neglect, with the project of restoration and restructuring both lengthy and ongoing.
“No fining, no stabilisation and no filtration, no additives, only sulphur, as I believe you spend time growing great fruit, so why take characters out of the wine. The only major winemaking influence is the use of oak barrels, around a third new.”
“We are actively re-invigorating the vines,” says Ranken. “We’ve pulled out large gum trees from the end of each row, as they were sucking water from the vines, converted pruning to ‘soft pruning’ or Poussard pruning, cut out eutypa vines and are re-growing new vine trunks. We stopped using herbicides and are converting to organics with the end-goal being biodynamics. We use basalt rock dust, soil aerating, compost and feed the vines with kelp, fish, goat’s whey, silicate etc.”
Ranken also notes that they use very small applications of copper and sulphur, which are classic organic disease control measures, but the long-term aim is to eliminate these entirely, too. “Sally and I are both from large farming backgrounds,” he says. “We were simply pursuing a country life for our kids to enjoy and we believe in improving our land for the generations to come, hence farming sympathetically with our land, be it organic, biodynamic or in a regenerative way.”
The winemaker at Galli Estate for several years, Ranken now manages his home site duties with the winemaking role at nearby Mount Monument. Prior, he has worked with De Bortoli’s Steve Webber, and also in Burgundy at Domaine Michel Juillot, at Domaine Clavel in Pic Saint-Loup and at Chateau Lafleur in Pomerol, as well as in the United States.
Ranken’s vinous history stretches back a bit further than that, too, with his childhood spent on a farm and vineyard in the cool territory of Tumbarumba, at the foot of the Snowy Mountains. His ancestor, George Ranken also planted some of this country’s first vines in 1841, at Bathurst.
On Cambrian (for chardonnay) and granitic (for pinot noir) soils, the Wilimee vineyard stands next to an ancient Wurundjeri quarry – called Wilimee Mooring – used as a resource of greenstone for fashioning stone hatchets/tomahawks. The soils are some of Australia’s oldest, and Ranken is focused on seeing them expressed in the wines, with the elimination of irrigation a vital factor. “The vines are dry grown,” he says, “so yields are very low and hence fruit is concentrated, reflecting the soil.”
A program is also slowly being effected by Ranken to graft pinot noir onto chardonnay and vice versa, so that they can see how the varieties reflect their mix of geologies. “I don’t aspire to make a particular wine,” he says. “I’ve learnt to listen to our vines and let them do the talking. I still have a long way to go, as the vines are still transitioning to a regenerative way of life. I guess the posts will always move and bar rises ever higher, but it’s the journey not the destination that inspires our quest for better wines and vines.”
The winemaking is simple, with natural alcoholic and malolactic ferments, and the wines are racked on a new moon to bottle. “No fining, no stabilisation and no filtration, no additives, only sulphur, as I believe you spend time growing great fruit, so why take characters out of the wine,” says Ranken. “The only major winemaking influence is the use of oak barrels, around a third new.”
Additionally, Ranken has been experimenting with maturing wine submerged underwater. The inspiration for this comes from bottles of wine that have been rescued from the watery graves of shipwrecks and proven to have not just survived, but thrived. A quarter of the production of Wilimee pinot noir is stored under 5 metres of pressure for five years, the first being the 2015, which is due for release in 2021.
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