Quest for greatness

Martin Shaw (Photo: Shaw + Smith Wines)

Cousins Michael Hill Smith MW and Martin Shaw of Shaw + Smith (tastings) are already at the top of the tree, but they’re continually fine tuning – striving to improve their wines. The Tolpuddle Vineyard (tastings) in Tasmania is one example.

“We think Tolpuddle can be one of the great single vineyard wines,” says Hill Smith.

The cousins are well on the way to achieving that, but meanwhile, a major effort has been going into their Adelaide Hills base, both in the winery and vineyards.

All of their grapes are hand-picked, even for the market-leading (over $20) Shaw + Smith Sauvignon Blanc. This is a one-per-center, a small quality measure which costs a lot.

“Hand picking is very rare in sauvignon blanc,” says Martin. “The cost for machine picking is $80 a tonne versus around $500 for hand picking.”

But he believes the expense is worthwhile:

“Managing the phenolics (tannins) with machine-harvested fruit is difficult – you have to fine the hell out of it.”

Excessive fining removes flavour and character from wine.

As well, the 2016 sauvignon blanc has no added acid. This is because the grape sourcing “has gone higher and cooler over the years”, says Michael. When Michael’s brother Matthew left the business he took the Woodside vineyard. It was replaced by vineyards at Lenswood, Lobethal and other higher altitude places.

“There are a lot of low-cropping, older vines in this wine, and we are picking half a degree Baumé lower than we used to,” says Martin.

The vineyard changes have also benefited the M3 Chardonnay: the 2015 vintage takes this wine to a new level. Its grapes came from high-altitude Lenswood, Ashton and Lobethal sites. With all natural acidity, harvested a little earlier and yielding just 13% alcohol, and undergoing 30% malolactic, it’s a refined style which retains generosity of middle-palate and combines power with finesse.

The big excitement for Shaw + Smith in the Hills has been their newest vineyard purchase, at Lenswood. Their first Lenswood chardonnay, 2014, is a cracker and the follow-up 2015 is even better. Before Shaw + Smith bought it, this was Treasury’s favourite sparkling wine block. Covering 24 hectares, at 500 metres altitude, it was planted in 1999 and purchased by Shaw + Smith in 2012. They’d been buying grapes from it for several years prior. Veteran cool-climate viticulturist Ray Guerin was retained to advise on converting it from sparkling to table-wine production.

One of its assets, says Martin, is the many different orientations: the hilly terrain affords many exposures including cool east and south-facing slopes. The grapes have high natural acidity. It’s mostly planted to chardonnay and pinot noir with a little sauvignon blanc.

“The first thing we did was replace the G clones with Bernard clones,” says Martin. “We changed the canopy to have a lower cordon height and a high curtain of foliage.”

The spacing was 2.8 by 1.5 metres, but in the chardonnay block that produced the single vineyard Lenswood chardonnay, it was decided to double the number of vines by halving the vine spacing within the row. They did this by layering – which is where a long vine shoot is buried in the soil half-way between two vines so that it sprouts roots and grows a whole new vine. After the new vine becomes self-supporting, the link with its parent vine is cut.

The new spacing between vines is 0.75 metres and the density is 4,760 vines per hectare. It’s a bold idea and the full outcome won’t be known for some time.

A lot is happening in the vineyards, but just as much has changed in the winery. Large new cool-rooms have been erected to pre-chill grapes, so chardonnay comes out of the press at 7 degrees Celsius. New equipment includes a sorting table, and fermenting space has been increased so that shiraz fermenters never have to be used twice in one vintage. This allows winemaker Adam Wadewitz to give shiraz unhurried maceration time on skins. They were about to install a new basket press when I visited.

“We are regarded as crazy for hand-picking shiraz,” says Martin. “Then it’s sorted on the sorting table. This way we can regulate the picking of individual blocks of vines. We use lots of whole-bunch and whole-berry in the fermentation. We have a long extraction time, and if you sort the grapes you can be sure you’re extracting what you want to extract.”

So, no eucalypt bark or leaves, for one thing. Martin deadpans: “We don’t do mint.” Indeed, whether or not you enjoy minty red wines, this is not something you’ll ever taste in a Shaw + Smith wine.

No surprise then that the 2014 Shaw + Smith Shiraz is a very smart wine, and the 2014 Balhannah Vineyard Shiraz is simply outstanding, with great elegance, succulence, deliciousness. It’s not the most powerful or dense shiraz, but fine and almost ethereal.

The final piece of the jigsaw is the bottling line. They bottle their own wine and can’t entertain the thought of sending it off in a tanker to a bottling contractor. It’s all part of controlling every aspect of quality, or what Michael calls the “berry to bottle” approach. There is no question that Shaw + Smith are on a quest for greatness, and they will spare no expense to achieve it.

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