The Wheatbelt Way

Ann Rawlings
The West Australian

Since 1976, Rex Hayes has enjoyed helping people find the perfect drop, initially as co-owner of the liquor store in Narrogin, and more recently as the proprietor of Downderry Wines. But his friendly hospitality goes far deeper than simply selling a bottle or two, or making the odd scone – Mr Hayes lives and breathes good wine.

Mr Hayes’ journey as a vigneron, alongside his wife Jan, started in 1998 with the first plantings of chenin blanc, semillon, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon on a small block just outside of Narrogin.

Determined to prove that the clay soils could host healthy vines, it is safe to say the Hayes have learnt from the ground up.

“I have not done a viticulture course, but if I speak to a consultant or somebody with experience I pick their brains for advice,” Mr Hayes said.
“It’s a learning experience and I have learnt as I have gone along.”

The couple’s main challenge was to set up a vineyard with little help in the way of local knowledge – wineries in the Wheatbelt were few and far between – and the second challenge was to grow good fruit.

“We are not in a wine growing region, but our soil adds different complexities to the wine. The shiraz generally has a lovely earthiness to it,” Mr Hayes said.

“While the winery is not cosmetically beautiful, we have always had good fruit.”

New varieties

Over the years, the Hayes have added plantings of zinfandel, muscadelle and tempranillo to the mix, and, more recently, the white Italian grape variety fiano and sagrantino, a red wine grape indigenous to the region of Umbria in central Italy.

While not commonly found in WA, Mr Hayes said the latter two varieties were chosen because they were early maturing and were well-suited to hot seasonal conditions.

“The vineyard is taking a bit of a battering. We would not normally have picked fruit until March 7, but in the past three to four years, we have been picking around February 23. The hot weather is harsh,” Mr Hayes said.

“We’ve got climate change, regardless of what people say. If we can get a variety that is going to mature earlier, then let’s give it a go, and the fiano is a beautiful wine – crisp and spicy.”

Harvest is a community affair at Downderry, with several local sporting groups and charities working together to pick the grapes. “We initially sent out a number of letters to clubs and charities asking if they were interested in picking our grapes,” Mr Hayes said.

Some groups have been helping at harvest for five years, with more signing up every year.

“It is a good way to raise money, because it is social,” Mr Hayes said. “They start at 6am, knock off at 9am for a bit of morning tea, and are back in the vineyard until about 10.30am, when it starts to get hot. Then they may come back the next day.”

At the end of harvest, each group is paid based on the number of members in attendance. “You hear laughter and the radio and they all work hard to get the job done,” Mr Hayes said. “When we knock off, we have lunch with wines and beer and they have a ball.”

Another challenge in the heat of summer is ensuring the vines get enough water. Despite having three dams on the property, last year Mr Hayes had to cart 620,000 litres of water from the local standpipe.

“It took me an enormous amount of time,” he said.

“We have a bore and the water was satisfactory for the vines as long as the salt content did not increase. But as we drew from the bore, the salt content increased. So I have bought a reverse osmosis system to reduce the water to drinking quality.”

Help at hand

Mr Hayes is not afraid to admit that managing the vineyard takes up a great deal of his time, nor is he willing to experiment in making his own wine.
Consequently, he enlists the help of Denmark winemaker Coby Ladwig, of Rockliffe’s Wines.

Mr Hayes said it was important to find a winemaker who could work to a brief and that maintaining a good working relationship was integral to the whole process.

Awarded The Wine Society’s Young Winemaker of the Year, Mr Ladwig’s knowledge of the industry has helped Downderry to win awards in its own right, including several Wandering Wheatbelt Wine Awards.

Formed by a group of volunteers in 2005 to showcase wineries in the region, the Wandering Wheatbelt Wine Awards attract entries from Northampton to Esperance.

In the past 10 years, Downderry’s semillon has been judged Best Wheatbelt White four times, while the winery was awarded Best Wheatbelt Wine in 2013 for its 2010 zinfandel and last year for its 2014 chenin blanc. In 2012, Downderry’s 2010 shiraz was judged Best Wheatbelt Red.

With the Hayes’ wines gaining recognition, the couple decided to establish a cellar door in May 2013, tastings, and visitors can also feed a host of friendly animals on the property, including alpacas, sheep
“We are open Friday to Sunday but if the gate is open, we are open,” Mr Hayes said.

With upwards of 10 wines on the tasting agenda, visitors are also in for a treat when it comes to sampling Downderry’s vintages. “I know my wines are quality, and I have made sure of that,” Mr Hayes said.
“Families stop by to have something to eat, and they sit on the veranda and enjoy the quietness of the winery.”