Before taking the reins at the family vineyard, Michael Downer learnt from some of the finest makers, both here and abroad. He now works from the Murdoch Hill home vineyards, near Oakbank, but also sources higher into the Adelaide Hills for cooler expressions, which inform his cutting edge Artisan Series wines. In a nod to his days at Best’s, he has carved a niche with the scant plantings of pinot meunier in the Hills, both as standalone bottlings and in blends, with an emphasis on crunchy drinkability. But Downer is equally adept at more ‘classical’ expressions of chardonnay, pinot noir and mid-weight spice-laden syrah.
Murdoch Hill scaled new heights after Michael Downer (the 2017 Young Gun of Wine) returned to his family winery in 2012 and introduced the adventurous small-batch Artisan Series to complement the existing range of estate wines.
The Murdoch Hill property sits on the eastern side of the Adelaide Hills, past the town of Oakbank in the tranquil Onkaparinga Valley. With its mix of livestock and vineyards, the property has been in the hands of the Downer family for 80 years. The winery is a somewhat more recent addition, with Michael’s parents Charlie and Julie planting the first vines in 1998. While originally outsourcing the winemaking duties, that all changed with the return of their youngest son to the family farm.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Winemaking) from the University of Adelaide, Downer sharpened his skills at Adelaide Hills institution Shaw + Smith, before touring the wine regions of Europe. On returning home, he worked with Peter Leske and fellow Young Gun winner Taras Ochota at Revenir Winery.
As Murdoch Hill’s head winemaker, Michael expanded the label’s range beyond estate-grown wines to include the Artisan Series, which uses fruit from select patches in the Adelaide Hills. The 20 hectares of vines on the Murdoch Hill property are all cane-pruned with an organic approach.
“We created the Artisan Series to source fruit from outside our vineyard,” Downer says. “Slowly, over the next five years, I took the reins of the core Murdoch Hill range and have evolved them to be more of a house style, a regional expression, and, I guess, more approachable in style.”
With each wine named after a horse-drawn carriage (Michael’s grandfather was an avid collector), the Artisan Series includes fun, adventurous blends such as ‘The Ridley Pinot x Three’ (pinot noir, pinot meunier and pinot gris) where Michael uses indigenous yeast, whole-bunch fermentation and extended skin contact. Then there are serious heavy hitters like the Artisan Series ‘Tilbury’ Chardonnay, using fruit predominately picked from a high-altitude vineyard in the Piccadilly Valley.
“Chardonnay is something of great importance to us,” Michael says. “It’s the largest variety we bring into the winery, and we definitely take that quite seriously. Then we have fun things like the Ridley and the Surrey, which is a straight pinot meunier, and these wines are very much about drinkability, but with layers of complexity in there.”
First recognised by Young Gun of Wine (YGOW) as a finalist in 2014, the following year saw Michael tying with Frederick Stevenson’s Steven Crawford as the 2015 Winemakers’ Choice Award winner, as the two South Australians couldn’t be separated after a sudden-death vote. It remains the only tie in YGOW history. Michael made it back-to-back wins as the Winemakers’ Choice winner the following year before being crowned the Young Gun of Wine in 2017.
In early 2019, Michael and his older brother Andrew (a graphic designer, who designed the Murdoch Hill labels) opened an architecturally designed cellar door and tasting room with magnificent views of the Oakbank property.