Meet the Winemaker: Ben Ranken
Ahead of the launch of Vita Food & Wine’s exclusive Macedon Ranges Wine & Food Tour Gianni drove down toward Lancefield to speak with Ben Ranken of Wilimee Vineyard.
Lucky that I did, as yesterday Ben was deservedly awarded the 2021 Young Gun of Wine Vigneron of the Year! An evolution of the awards that provide an opportunity to connect emerging wine making talent with wine drinkers. It is important to also acknowledge Ben’s partner Sally Richardson and their girls for the support and contribution to make the award possible.
With the mist still low in the valleys and the morning dew wet on the grass on a typically fresh Macedon Ranges morning Ben and I had a chat over coffee about his passion for wine making, viticulture and his family’s journey at Wilimee.
Q. HOW DID YOUR JOURNEY INTO WINE MAKING COME ABOUT?
‘Definitely fell into it. Mum and dad had a 20-acre vineyard in Tumbarumba NSW, it was actually the second ever vineyard planted in the area in the early 80’s. So I grew up on a vineyard. I was studying Surveying & Cartography at RMIT in Melbourne and not really getting anywhere so applied to Viticulture & Wine Making at Charles Sturt Wagga Wagga. Wine making was harder to get into so put that as my first preference. Didn’t think I would get into wine making, thought I would get into viticulture if I was lucky but got accepted into wine making and thought ‘oh well, lets give it a go’ Didn’t know anything about wine making as Mum and dad were viticulturists, they sold the fruit and never made any wine. Ended up loving wine making, wine making was awesome! So I then became a winemaker in the late 90s.’
Q. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST WINE MAKING JOB?
‘2001 was my first vintage at De Bortoli in the Yarra with Bill Downie and Steve Webber. So that is twenty years/vintages exactly now in Australia plus all the vintages in Europe as well.’
Q. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE COUNTRY IN WHICH YOU HAVE WORKED IN EUROPE?
‘Without a doubt, France as a country for wine making because of the culture they have there. Château Lafleur in Pomerol the standout experience by a mile. The best way to describe the culture there in France is the great analogy that during vintage you have black hands because you have been getting your hands dirty with all the grapes. In Australia you go into a shop with black hands and people think you’re a mechanic whereas in France they think you are a winemaker. A simple analogy of the difference between the two countries and the same goes for Germany, Italy and Spain where I have also been lucky enough to have been part of the backend of vintages and the wine making process as well. This experience cemented wine making us a passion for me travelling between the two continents chasing vintages. The life, culture and relationship with food and wine is the great learning experience. Something that we are developing here in Australia.’
Q. WHEN YOU ARE NOT DRINKING YOUR OWN WINE WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DRINK?
‘At the moment we are probably drinking a lot of Pinot Noir and I guess Riesling and Chardonnay at home. Epis Pinot Noir from Macedon Ranges is a great local one that springs to mind. My wife Sally is not too keen on the heavy reds so we tend to go with expressive, lighter style wines that go well with food and are representative of a vineyard, terroir and climate. Love a lot of Italian reds as well such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and the wines from Sicily.’
Q. WHAT DREW YOU AND THE FAMILY TO CALL THE MACEDON RANGES HOME?
‘Sally and I are both from country farms so we wanted that life for the kids regardless so it was only a given that we would be drawn back to a rural community. The Macedon Ranges was a huge draw-card from a wine making perspective. We were always keen on this area and/or Gippsland for climate change and to be able to produce cool climate wines. It just so happened I was working a bit up this way in Sunbury and Heathcote and we were coming up to the area every weekend and Gippsland was a bit too far away from family.’
Winemaker Ben Ranken and family on their Wilimee Vineyard in the Macedon Ranges
Q. HOW DID YOU COME ACROSS YOUR WILIMEE PROPERTY?
‘Sally and I were having a drink with Jenny Kolka of Curly Flat in 2013 who knew we had been looking for a place and she asked if we had heard of the old Portree Vineyard on Mount William and we hadn’t. She mentioned they tried to sell their property six years prior and may still want to sell. After a little bit of research I gave them a cold call to introduced myself and said ‘heard you were for sale, are you still interested? The rest is history. The previous owners are friends as they live in Lancefield so I am sure they are happy to see the progression of their land and the wine from the property. Especially since they were considering bulldozing the vines as no one was buying. Their legacy continues.’
The Wilimee Vineyard is at an altitude of 600m, making it perfect for cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and the vines are about 40 years old making them some of the oldest in the Macedon Ranges. The chardonnay is grown on rare Cambrian soil, while the Pinot Noir on granite soil. The name of the vineyard pays homage to the traditional owners as it lies next to a sacred quarry, once mined for its greenstone, which was used to make stone axes by the Wurundjeri people. Wilimee Mooring means ‘Place of Stone Axe’ in the Woiwurrung language.
Q. WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO TAKE AWAY FROM A WILIMEE WINE?
‘The intention of Wilimee Wine is that the wine making is in the background and it is an expression of the vineyard and the two soil types being Cambrian and Granite. As a winemaker I have had to deliberately do less to try and make the fruit shine rather than intervene, the less intervention the better. My job as a winemaker at Wilimee really is to just guide the wine. Wine on the Wilimee label will always be the best from our property.’
Q. ORGANIC AND BIO DYNAMIC FARMING?
‘We are using organic farming principles and are currently in conversion to organic with the end goal to be eventually bio dynamic. Every year is different. There is always vintage variation. Obviously, I don’t want to produce a faulty wine so will intervene if needed. To be environmentally sustainably you have to be economically sustainably. You’ve got a have a good cake to have the cherry on top. The cherry is the organic/bio-dynamic and if you don’t have a good foundation then it doesn’t matter how much you focus on the cherry it won’t be viable financially.’
Q. WHAT ELSE ARE YOU MAKING?
‘By Ben Ranken label is also another project, I have sourced some Pinot Noir locally from the Macedon Ranges as well as some Fiano and Shiraz from Heathcote. These wines appear under the By Ben Ranken label because they are not from the Wilimee vineyard. They are available in limited quantities and a great entry level wine with food.’
Q. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR UNDER-WATER WINE?
‘I am very excited about getting this wine onto the list and sharing it with people.’
The curiosity for underwater wine was born for Ben after hearing about the concept from his old boss at De Bortoli in 2001 who had a bottle of underwater wine from Spain and thought it was amazing. Ben remembers, ‘The idea stayed with me ever since and I have just been waiting for the opportunity to do it.’
‘I love the story of the shipwreck.’ Ben refers to a number of rare Champagne bottles from the mid-19th century that had been salvaged from a shipwreck off the coast of Finland in the Baltic Sea around about the same time Ben was getting into winemaking as a profession in the late 90s. The bottles lived underwater in relative darkness and at a constant temperature of about 4 degrees Celsius. The discovery gave rise to a small but burgeoning industry of underwater wine around the world. After a hundred odd years the champagne from that shipwreck was in perfect condition’ for which Ben laughed ‘I can’t wait a hundred years.’
‘There are many producers, in Europe especially, who are maturing wine underwater for 8-18 months which I don’t believe is long enough for the wine to change from a maturation point of view. We have used Pinot Noir as our Chardonnay has screw tops and they would rust underwater.’
After spending five years submerged in a tank Wilimee Underwater Pinot Noir will be taken out of the tank in July later this year.
The release will be super limited with only 180 bottles to be available by subscription only in September 2021 under the Wilimee Label. The price will be approx. $140.00 a bottle and quiet possibly by the time you are reading this article all the bottles will have been sold!
Come and meet Ben Ranken and his wife Sally at their beautiful Wilimee Vineyard as well as many other fantastic local vignerons and go beyond the cellar door on our exclusive small group Macedon Ranges Wine & Food Tour. Travellers on the tour will try some of Ben and Sally’s excellent Wilimee Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at their picturesque vineyard.
FIND OUT MORE about this exclusive Macedon Ranges Wine & Food Experience and book your place today!