Foot-stomping approval followed critical acclaim with the announcement of Shaw + Smith as the winners of the latest Hot 100 Wines competition. For the winemakers, the award is another significant step in a continuing pursuit to perfect their Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is a variety notorious for the fascination it exerts over both drinkers and makers. For Shaw + Smith, a Balhannah-based winery which is perhaps best known for its cool-climate Shiraz, mastering the demands of making top-notch Pinot Noir has been a painstaking, step-by-step process.
Co-founder and co-owner Martin Shaw says the variety cast its spell early in the winery’s history: “It was in fact the first block we planted here back in 2000”.
“So we started messing around with Pinot Noir in ’04 and ’05,” he says. “Michael [Hill-Smith] and I were both passionate about great Pinot Noir, whether it be from Burgundy or Oregon, or New Zealand or Australia. We kind of ‘got’ the complexity of growing good Pinot Noir and of making good Pinot Noir: it is the Holy Grail, I think, from both a viticultural and a winemaking perspective.”
A sacred quest dictates a lack of compromise. The winery has recently turned over its original Pinot vineyards at Balhannah to Shiraz, and their Pinot fruit is now entirely generated at a higher, cooler site at Lenswood. It’s wetter too, with more than a metre of annual rainfall.
“It’s all fruit we grow ourselves,” Shaw says. “We’ve done an enormous amount of work on that vineyard: Adam [Wadewitz] and Murray Leake in particular have been involved in doubling the vine density, changing the pruning methodology and changing the clonal balances. Since about ’14 and ’15, our Pinot really started to take a leap up.
“Another thing, unquestionably, was the arrival of Wadewitz on the scene in 2013. While history tells you he has been more successful in making great cool-climate Shiraz, his passion for Pinot and Chardonnay and for great wine in general, and the changes he has implemented across the board and with Pinot specifically, have been a massively important piece of the puzzle.”
Adam Wadewitz and Martin Shaw
For his part, senior winemaker Adam Wadewitz says the price of quality in Pinot Noir is constant vigilance and an intimate knowledge of vineyard and winery processes.
“There are so many parts to the Pinot puzzle, and you need a constant understanding and renewing of how your plot works, how one aspect is different from another and how you might treat that in the winery,” Wadewitz says.
When a good season arrives on cue, as it did in 2016, the ducks all line up.
“If you get things right in the vineyard – in terms of the clonal mix, in terms of managing the canopy, of the way we worked the soil – it all pays off, and if the right season arrives, you can capture it.”
Clones are yet another part of the puzzle, Wadewitz says.
He says while there is a trend towards novelty in choosing clones, the real trick is to understand what works where, and how different clones contribute different attributes, such as depth of flavour and “prettiness”. Shaw + Smith’s Pinot draws on a mix of three or four clones, each sited to enhance its characteristics.
Wadewitz says attention to detail and patience are other vital factors of success.
“We sort every berry; every thing is hand-harvested and put across the sorting table,” he says. “We don’t pump any of our must, it’s all gravity fed. Berries and bunches go in the fermenters, and we don’t have any time pressures on turning fermenters over, so we watch and we taste. We don’t add anything from there – the wine goes in to French oak and we try not to filter it. We rack things really cleanly and bottle it on the estate.”
Hills winemaker and Pinot pioneer Stephen George once observed that making Pinot Noir
should not be attempted by lazy winemakers, and Martin Shaw emphatically concurs.
“It’s really easy to bugger up very good grapes. You’ve really got to be on your game and there’s no question that with Pinot, more than any other variety, there’s no recipe.”
The Hot 100 win was very welcome, Shaw says.
“Because Pinot as a style continues to grow in importance and quality, the better producers continue to improve. It’s really nice that Pinot is getting that sort of accolade.”
Wadewitz says he particularly appreciates the Hot 100 prize because of its direct line to
consumers: “I really like the relevance of the way the wines are judged in conjunction with food”.
Shaw says the winery has no intention of resting on its laurels.
“For me, I reckon we’re just starting – I don’t think the journey is anywhere near finished. I think the Shaw + Smith Pinot and the single vineyard Pinots from Lenswood will get better and better.”
Photography: Sia Duff