Last summer's bushfires seem like a lifetime ago, but winemaker Michael Downer remembers December 20, 2019 clear as an alarm bell. The Adelaide Hills wine-producing region was at the mercy of an uncontrolled fire that broke out at Cudlee Creek, and Downer was closely following reports of its destructive path. It bore down upon Lenswood and Woodside, small towns in the south-east quadrant of the Hills, and was looming towards Downer's Murdoch Hills winery in Oakbank, before a sudden easterly spared his business from the worst of the disaster.
Still, he headed to the property of his winemaker friend Simon Tolley, and spent four hours battling the flames there. "When you're in the thick of it, it's so intense and severe. It's hard to describe," says Downer. The Simon Tolley accommodation lodge was saved, but about 80 per cent of its vineyard was destroyed. Across the region, some 1100 hectares – 30 per cent of the region's wine crops – were lost to the fire.
But seven months on, the Hills' winemaking community has rallied together to produce a wine for good. The result is 10,800 bottles of the Hills Appeal wine, a syrah-pinot meunier blend, and sales of the wine will be donated to the Adelaide Hills Wine Region Fire Appeal which supports producers and grape-growers hit hardest by the disaster.
Twenty-one Adelaide Hills producers donated wine from their 2019 vintage, a year characterised by low harvest yields, and fruit with bright notes and good acidity. "Classic Adelaide Hills," says Downer. "We just wanted to put something together that was bright and joyous." And speedy, too – from inception to release, it's taken just six months for the wine to come into being. (From harvest to bottle, it usually takes 14 months to release a red wine.)
Syrah, which comprises about 85 per cent of the blend, brings the dark fruit, spice, and savouriness, while the pinot meunier – one of the three main grape varieties used in the production of Champagne – gives it a little "elegance", says Downer.
Nothing can erase the trauma of the December bushfires, but the region's finest export has become a salve for the community. The food and drinks industry has suffered at the hands of COVID-19, but change is afoot. Cellar doors have been open since June, and there's nothing like the fighting spirit of the Hills people. "There's great optimism in the region and the winemakers because of everyone coming together," says Downer. "In that sense, I think the future's really bright."
The Hills Appeal wine is available online at adelaidehillswine.com.au (six-pack only), or in-store the Adelaide Central Market Shop, and Adelaide Hills cellar doors and bottle shops. RRP $28 per bottle or $150 for a six pack.
To donate to the Adelaide Hills Wine Region Fire Appeal visit adelaidehillswine.com.au/fireappeal