Once known for its stickies, Australia has earned a reputation for making lots of value-priced wines produced from grapes like Shiraz (Syrah), Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Riding the unprecedented success of Yellowtail ten years ago, more producers have begun churning out like-minded wines, rich with fruit and offering extreme value. Many of these wines became known as critter wines, due to the omnipresence of animal-related wine labels. For a while, it seemed like any grape could be grown and planted to produce wine. In an extreme case, Pinot Noir, which generally thrives in cooler climates, was unconscionably planted in the hot and dry Barossa Valley. Now, the movers and shakers of Australia are looking to the cooler climates in Australia’s 65 growing regions, and gents like Mr. Smith are confident that “the best days are ahead”.
It’s not that hot regions aren’t worth the trouble, it’s just that hot climates tend to have shorter growing seasons and if the
wrong grapes are planted, you could end up with bunches that lack depth of flavor and aromatics. Longer growing seasons in cooler climates give the appropriate grapes an opportunity to ripen slowly and more completely. Whereas France and Italy have had hundreds of years to learn which grapes grow where, Australia, and many other countries, are still going through the growing pains.
The stereotypes for Australian wines are that all Chardonnay are dark gold in color and rich and creamy from long maturation in new oak barrerls, and all Merlot and Shiraz are full-bodied and jammy. On the surface this may appear to be true, but Michael Hill Smith feels that the pendulum is swinging back to making wines that speak less about the winemaking process and more about the provenance of the grapes. In Mr. Smith’s opinion, “Australian Chardonnay is best when it exhibits Burgundian complexity with Australian subtlety”.
It’s not just the white grapes that are being revisited, but the black grape varieties are as well. Shiraz producers are experimenting with different vineyard practices and fermentation methods such as whole-bunch fermentation which give the wines earthier and stemmy flavors. Wineries are also laying off the new oak and opting for larger and older barrels, yielding better fruit and tannin integration.
Michael Hill Smith was the first non-UK citizen to obtain the highest honor of wine supremacy, Master of Wine. He agreed to take up residence in the UK just to sit for the prestigious exam. He’s now one of the leading wine advocates in the world and a successful winemaker in his native Australia. His latest venture, Shaw + Smith, with partner Martin Shaw, is heralded as one of Australia’s new leading wineries. Based in Adelaide, the winery specializes in Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Shiraz, among others. For more information on him and his current projects, visit shawandsmith.com.