Pink grapefruit. I always knew there was something distinctive to the Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc, consistently among the best produced in Australia. I never thought of pink grapefruit before when tasting it, but there it was in the 2010 that Michael Hill Smith was showing me over lunch at Restaurant Michael Mina in San Francisco. Darned if it wasn't the characteristic flavor that comes from his vineyard in Adelaide Hills.
It always struck me as reminiscent of the passion fruit in a riper style of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. "I have always described it as delicately herbal," added Hill Smith, a Master of Wine and one of the better palates in Australia. "Then it hit me what it was." Me too.
A distinctive character is exactly what anyone who appreciates the finer points of terroir wants to find in a wine. I have consumed my share of pink grapefruit over the years, enough to distinguish easily between that citrus fruit and its white cousin. There it was in a Sauvignon Blanc with real finesse. Winemaker Martin Shaw creates a texture of silk and refinement in the mouth to balance the prominent flavor. The wine matched up perfectly with Mina's hamachi crudo with uni cream and green apples.
I always look forward to visits with Hill Smith, who was in California to teach at the Master of Wine seminars in Napa Valley last week. He is articulate, knowledgable and the only ax he has to grind is the one that cuts through to the truth about wine. At one point we got into a lengthy discussion about brettanomyces, the spoilage yeasts that sneak into wine and can cause a range of flavors from bacon to barnyard. Angry about the heated arguments about brett among judges at a wine competition he chairs in Australia, Hill Smith prevailed upon Peter Godden of the Australian Wine Research Institute to organize a presentation to the judges, complete with samples to taste, to get everyone on the same page about the facts.
Hill Smith, by the way, agrees with me that brett is a problem when it masks the fruit and other key flavors in the wine. At low levels it can actually add depth to a wine, but there is always the danger that the little beasties will multiply in the bottle and ruin the wine in as little as a year.
I had to ask Hill Smith, as I do any Aussie winemaker who visits, how he sees Australia's image in the U.S. He agreed that it has been tarnished, a common complaint being how similar many of the wines available to U.S. consumers are. Relatively few Americans know how much variety there really is, however. Even M.W. candidates. "They loved the Rieslings I showed them," he noted, "mostly from Clare and Eden valleys. Most of them said they never paid any attention to Australian Riesling before."
I would have stared dumbfounded at that, but I have heard the same thing before. It's just an example of my pigeonhole theory. The world of wine has become so complex that we want to compartmentalize regions and grape varieties. If it's New Zealand all that matters is Sauvignon Blanc. Argentina is Malbec. Italy is Tuscany and Piedmont.
Australia, the mind set goes, must be ripe, bold Shiraz.
So I asked him, what can we expect from Australia to counter that false impression?
"There has been a shift in Australia," he responded thoughtfully. "For years innovations have come from the big wineries—Grange from Penfolds was the first. Now the big wineries are faltering. A new generation of young winemakers at small- to medium-size wineries, often in regions that produce different styles of wine that the market is used to seeing from Australia, are driving innovation. We have to celebrate that diversity."
Readers of this blog and my coverage of Australia in Wine Spectator already know this, of course, but getting the word out to wine drinkers at large may be a bit harder. Just as we got to this point in the conversation, sommelier Rajat Parr happened by to top up our glasses of Shaw and Smith Shiraz Adelaide Hills 2009. The wine was tight and juicy, with lots of blackberry and black pepper, almost an Italian chestnut edge to the wine's medium-weight personality. I asked him, "How difficult is it to sell a wine in a style like this that falls outside the normal range of expectations?"
"If it's the only one on the wine list in that style, we have to hand-sell every bottle," Parr said. "But if the whole wine list is geared to that style, because that's what fits with the food, it's a lot easier."
Shaw and Smith wines have been around a few years. They are established and sell reasonably well. But I don't envy those enthusiastic winemakers from regions unfamiliar to Americans. Their wines may be worthy, but will we pay attention? Maybe a little pink grapefruit can go a long way.
Fred Brown — Maryland — February 1, 2011 9:25pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — February 13, 2011 1:27am ET
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