A Turn Toward Refined Elegance

Vintners in South Australia are pioneering a new style of wines
May 22, 2002
Michael Hill Smith and Martin Shaw of Smith & Shaw
  Australia Wins With Its Whites
The country better known for big reds makes world-class Chardonnays and dessert wines, too

Australia may be synonymous with full-bodied, gutsy wines, but efforts toward an alternative style are surfacing all along South Australia's wine trail. From the Clare Valley in the north to McLaren Vale in the south, winemakers are seeking out cooler regions and experimenting with new varietals to produce more approachable and food-friendly wines.

Brian Croser, the founder and winemaker of Petaluma winery, has become a leader in this new direction because he believes that Australian wines are in danger of falling into a homogenized style.

"Australia's success has grown out of championing the warm-climate wines that are big and obvious," Croser argues. "The market is not balanced. It has been, and continues to be, a struggle for recognition against market expectation about what Australian wine is all about."

Croser is a highly respected figure in the wine industry, both for his innovative winemaking skills and for pioneering Australia's quality cool-climate sites. For over 25 years, Croser has been making what he calls "austere, minerally, savory, European-style wines" from cool-climate regions in various parts of Australia. He has discovered many cool-climate sites now widely recognized as premier winegrowing regions, including Mount Barker and Adelaide Hills.

Among the many Australian winemakers influenced by Croser is Michael Hill Smith, co-owner and winemaker of Shaw & Smith winery in Adelaide Hills.

"Brian Croser was the person who had the vision for the Adelaide Hills, and a lot of us have followed that vision," says Hill Smith. "Now the top Sauvignon Blancs and the top Chardonnays come from this region."

Sitting back in a sleek, black leather couch in the winery's lounge, Hill Smith does not seem like the typical South Australian winery owner and winemaker. With his smoothly shaven head and his black mock turtleneck, he could very well pass for a hip New York businessman. His voice is loud without being aggressive and his tone carries the confidence of someone who is used to speaking in public.

"I was chairman of the recent Adelaide Wine Show [held October 2001]," Hill Smith says, "and I noticed two parallel trends in the industry. On the one hand, you have the traditional styles -- well-worth preserving -- such as aged Hunter Valley Sémillon, Coonawarra Cabernet, Barossa Shiraz, Clare Valley Riesling and so on.

"On the other hand, you have this new-wave Australian thing happening, which in the main tends to be from cooler sites. You've got finer, more elegant styles. ... You've got people playing around with varietals like Pinot Gris or Mourvèdre. Ten years ago, you couldn't give away Grenache, no one wanted it. Now it's extremely popular. There is increasing demand for medium-bodied rather than full-bodied wines."

When Hill Smith decided to establish Shaw & Smith in 1989 with his cousin and partner, Martin Shaw, he specifically sought out the cool-climate region of Adelaide Hills.

"There is a lot of similarity between the regions in Napa and Sonoma and the South Australian region. There is a lot of Chardonnay grown in Napa; then, as people wanted to make a finer, more elegant style, people moved to Sonoma. Similarly, those in Barossa and McLaren Vale are coming to places like Adelaide Hills because it is cooler here. They don't come to make big, rich Shiraz. If you want to make heroic Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Merlot and finer Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, this is the place."

For over a decade, Shaw & Smith have been producing lively, focused wines from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Merlot. The white wines have consistently earned "very good" ratings from Wine Spectator (85 to 89 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale); they sell for $15 to $25 per bottle in U.S. wine stores.

However, the Shaw & Smith winery is only a year old; in vintages prior to 2001, wines were made using other wineries' facilities. The "tin shed," as it is affectionately referred to by Hill Smith, nestles comfortably in the landscape of Adelaide Hills. The three-gabled building, made of inexpensive, prac- tical metal, possesses a modern simplicity that doesn't infringe upon the integrity of its nat- ural surroundings.

"We chose the material because it was cheap," Hill Smith says. "Martin came up with this modular idea of a shed within a shed. The thermal properties of the shed are terrific. The modular concept allows easy expansion of the winery for the future, which was a key factor in the design." The simplicity had other practical advantages as well; the partners were able to build the winery, which cost less than 3 million Australian dollars (about $1.5 million), in only three months.

And, he adds, "if we were going to have to make the winery out of this cheap material and have a tin shed, then we were going to make it the best tin shed we possibly could." Floor-to-ceiling windows run the length of the winery, and all the rooms, including the dining room, offices, tasting room and laboratory, have spectacular views.

Owning and managing a winery are nothing new for either Hill Smith or Shaw. Both are descendents of the Hill Smith family, who owns Yalumba, Australia's oldest family-owned winery. Hill Smith sold his shares in Yalumba, then made his mark in the wine industry when he became the first Australian Master of Wine. After establishing Shaw & Smith, he branched out in 1992 to open Universal, a popular restaurant and wine bar, in the heart of Adelaide.

The restaurant quickly became a meeting point for those in Australia's booming wine industry. Universal's biweekly wine tastings, led by Hill Smith, attracted winemakers eager to taste and learn about wines outside of their region. "When winemakers or visiting journalists came to town, they would leave their bags there [at Universal]," Hill Smith recalls. "If someone needed a place to work, they'd set up in the tasting room upstairs. It just became a quirky, funny place; a center for those working in the wine industry."

In October 2001, Hill Smith sold Universal for an undisclosed sum to an Australian rules football player. For Hill Smith, it was time to move on and focus his efforts on his new winery.

"I could have kept Universal for another five or so years, but all I would be doing is keeping it at the same level." Hill Smith opens his arms, as if to embrace the winery around him. "There is so much happening here."

Hill Smith is particularly excited about his 2001 Merlot. "We do exactly what they do in Bordeaux, in particular Pomerol. We ferment, then leave [the grapes] on their skins for one month and we mature [the wine] in French oak. This is not common in Australia," claims Hill Smith. "The typical Australian approach to red-wine making is to place the grapes in big rotator fermentors for two to three days, then finish the fermentation in American oak."

Shaw & Smith Merlot will be competing with a growing number of more elegantly styled red wines from the traditional, warmer regions of Australia. Chester Osborn, the fourth generation winemaker at d'Arenberg winery in McLaren Vale, has noticed that Grenache and his other less tannic, extracted red wines are becoming increasingly popular.

"We do very well with Grenache, and we are expanding our wine portfolio to include lighter styles," Osborn reports. "We made our first Tempranillo this year, and the response has been very good. We intend to make Sangiovese and Sagrantino eventually."

If Hill Smith is polished, even slick, Osborn is his opposite. With his untended brown locks hanging down to his shoulders and his casual Australian drawl, Osborn looks right at home in the vineyard. He is often found roaming between the rows of thick, gnarled 100-year-old vines of which he is especially proud.

"These Shiraz vines are over 100 years old. We use these to make our Dead Arm Shiraz," Osborn explains. "[But] I'm playing around with all kinds of varietals, and I find people are now becoming more receptive to them." D'Arenberg has plantings of Chambourcin, Petit Verdot, Marsanne and Roussanne, among other less familiar varieties.

Osborn is especially hopeful about his upcoming Sangiovese. "There are a few vineyards in McLaren Vale already making Sangiovese. The clones that are available now are much better quality than the old clones, so Sangiovese is going to do very, very well."

But despite their differences, Osborn affirms Hill Smith's approach. "We are not aiming to make soft reds. We want to make long-living wines, given what we have to work with. People are looking for new, lighter styles and the varieties we are working with now offer that. People find them interesting and easier to consume with food."

Brian Lynn, winemaker and owner of Majella winery in Coonawarra, agrees with Osborn that there is a growing demand for more-approachable wine styles. "There is definitely a trend away from big, highly alcoholic wines, not just in Australia, but internationally. People are looking for food-friendly wines. What food would you serve with [Penfolds] Grange?"

Lynn, whose Cabernet and Shiraz have received "outstanding" scores (90 to 94 points) from Wine Spectator, is a self-professed food lover. "I don't choose a bottle of wine and ask myself what I want to eat with it. I decide what I want to eat, and then I choose the wine that works with the food. I am not alone in this." Lynn continues, "Australians consider wine as part of their meal -- whether it is in a restaurant or a backyard barbecue. People are not reaching for a bottle of wine and wondering what food to have with it."

Lynn pauses and smiles. "Anyway, there are more important things than wine -- good food to eat, women to love."

While demand for more elegant wines is increasing, it still pales in comparison to the continuing popularity of wine in Australia's big, classic styles. Croser, for one, recognizes that there is still work to be done.

"Yes, there has been growth in the cool-climate regions," says Croser. "But the huge increases have come from the traditional warmer regions and the irrigated inland areas." For Croser, the picture is still monochromatic. "Australia has a large style potential that is just being realized. We are yet an undiscovered aspect of Australian wine."

Jeannie Cho Lee is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong.