A WINE TASTING SOJOURN

Many people may have the impression that South Australia has little more to offer than wine. Indeed, the increasing popularity of leading wine-makers like Penfolds has led many an oenophile to visit this southern paradise. They ramble amongst the vineyards, both large and small, with glasses in hand.  But South Australia is so much more than just a wine lovers’ paradise.

There are two very different routes on offer for the drive from Adelaide to the Shaw + Smith winery.  For the frequent traveller or wine buff, the direct journey east via the M1 Motorway will get you there with a minimum of fuss; whereas the first-time visitor to Adelaide should consider taking Greenhill Road, allowing one to experience the majestic Mount Lofty Ranges up close.  The locals unanimously agree that the scenic route is the way to go.  Approaching the mountains, I am overwhelmed by the magnificence of the landscape unfolding before my eyes, flanked left and right by breathtaking valleys.  The meandering road up the mountain reveals beautiful houses on sprawling estates with meticulously manicured gardens, and fascinating mailboxes adorned with exotic house number and name plates.  Situated in the mountains and looking out over the sea, these homes represent the idyllic South Australian lifestyle.

Entering the mountainous region, the landscape turns distinctly pastoral; with large tracts of paddocks populated by herds of cattle and sheep grazing lazily in the sun, as well as orchards and vineyards.  Every so often, I just want to stop and drink in the awesomeness that is the Adelaide Hills.  It’s early April, and the vineyards have just completed their most critical annual task, namely the harvesting of the grapes.  Capturing the vineyard in pictures, with the mature grapes still on the vines, would have been the icing on the cake, but alas, it was not to be this time.  For those who wish to see the grapes, be sure to not leave your visit to any later than mid-March.  Following Greenhill Road through to the end, a right turn into Jones Road meant that we were nearing our destination—the Shaw + Smith winery. 

Seasoned wine tasters will tell you that the best way to learn about a wine brand is to take a stroll through its vineyard, and they offer another truth—be sure to sample the wine at its origin, as it will never taste the same elsewhere.  Whether it be the length of decanting, the temperature, the tasting order or even the choice of glasses, the winery’s sommelier will provide each guest with the most enthusiastic, considerate and professional wine tasting experience.  Without visiting the winery, you’ll never be able to fully appreciate how best to drink the wine.

The signature wine of the Shaw + Smith’s brand is its M3 Chardonnay, which has become recognised by the industry as the benchmark of ongoing refinement and evolution of Australian Chardonnay.  Shaw + Smith was established in 1989 by cousins Michael Hill Smith MW (Master of Wine) and Martin Shaw.  The first vintage was in 1990, and the early vintages were grown and produced outside of the Adelaide Hills at Wirra Wirra and Petaluma.  Shaw & Smith soon discovered the higher, cooler and wetter Adelaide Hills’ propensity for producing naturally superior wines, with suitable grape varieties including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Shiraz.  So, when the opportunity presented itself, the cousins unhesitatingly purchased a 46 hectare property at Balhannah in 1999 to establish a high-end winery, specialising in viticulture and new wine-making techniques.  At the centre of the estate, the winery and Tasting Room were built, ready in time for the first Balhannah vintage in 2000.  Their investment was quickly rewarded by the quality of their wines improving markedly, leading to the recognition of the Shaw + Smith brand as a major player in Australia’s wine market.  In 2012, a second vineyard was added to the Shaw + Smith stable, a 20 hectare property 10km away at Lenswood, being designed specifically for growing the in-demand Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.  Shaw + Smith has quickly become an institution within the precious Adelaide Hills wine-growing region.

Weekends are the busiest at the Tasting Room, often attracting long queues of eager wine tasters.  Fortunately, we had booked our wine flight in advance, and didn't need to arrive early.  Being a modern facility, the Shaw + Smith winery is different to the region’s other wineries, which retain the historic architectural style dating back as far as the mid-1800s.  The winery sits at the base of Mt Lofty, and boasts a wonderful Tasting Room.  The Tasting Room also doubles as a Cellar Door, as well as a fully-functional restaurant often used for commercial functions, private parties and other events.  Opening hours are from 11am to 5pm daily, including most public holidays.  While seated comfortably in the Tasting Room, you can peer out through the floor-to-ceiling window to take in the breathtaking view out over the Shaw + Smith vineyard and beyond to the Adelaide Hills.

The recommended and most popular wine-tasting experience at Shaw + Smith is their “wine flight” – a bargain at $18 – where you sample five Shaw + Smith wines and three local cheeses.  While we sit quietly and sip water, the sommelier would pour each wine in turn, briefly introducing the wine and offering advice on suitable cheese to accompany it.  The wine flight is ordered by strength of flavour, so as not to diminish the taste of what follows; whites before reds, light-bodied before full-bodied: (left-to-right) Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz.  I especially note the attention to detail of this tasting experience, with every visitor having their own take-home place mat, upon which is documented a brief history of Shaw + Smith, and introductions to the grapes and wines being tasted.  If the sommelier even picks up the slightest hint that you are a genuine wine lover, he or she will not hesitate to share their insights into wines, and may even offer you one or two of the superior Shaw + Smith wines.

Mention Australian red wine to anyone and they will instinctively think of Penfolds, with its excellent yet moderately-priced Bin 389 (Cabernet Shiraz) and Bin 407 (Cabernet Sauvignon) wines being especially popular in the Asian market, through to the much-more expensive RWT Shiraz, Bin 707 (Cabernet Sauvignon) and, of course, the iconic Grange Hermitage.  This may lead many to believe that a good wine should be expensive, but it needn’t be so.  Fine wine is not necessarily prohibitive, as exemplified by the Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay bottle in front of us—this benchmark white is a steal at just $46 a bottle.

During an engaging conversation with our sommelier James, he shared that the M3 was his favourite drop, and with some passion declared that the Shaw + Smith Sauvignon Blanc and M3 Chardonnay were recognised as Adelaide Hills’ finest.  It had only been a matter of days since harvest.  Unlike many other vineyards where there is mechanised harvesting, in the pursuit of quality, every bunch of grapes is picked by hand at both Shaw + Smith’s facilities.  Wines are always vintaged from that season’s harvest, with whites such as the M3 Chardonnay being ready to drink within a matter of months, whereas the Shiraz will not mature until the following year.  Thanks to modern and mature wine making techniques, the overall production of wine throughout Adelaide’s wine regions is now very stable, and wines do not vary significantly in taste from year to year.

Soaking up a lazy autumn afternoon, I sit and drink with friends and we muse about the wines we have just tasted.  Looking up from my glass, I am overcome by a wall of green, from the valleys to the top of the mountains beyond, interspersed with small ponds sparkling like diamonds in the sun.  Wild waterfowl are at play on the water.  At this moment, I enlighten to something that no advertisement could ever hope to convey; namely that to drink wine at its origin is not merely about the wine itself, but to also absorb the entire life journey of the grape—from its planting in this idyllic paradise, its harvesting, fermentation and maturation, right through to how that tiny taste of paradise has entered the glass in my hand.

Always take a good sniff of the wine before tasting; in the case of the M3 Chardonnay, you’ll be greeted with the subtle aroma of an oak barrel and mineral mixture.  It reminds me of a “petrol drum” smell, and it is unique to this Chardonnay.  The M3 is the perfect embodiment of Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills, offering distinctively citrus fruit flavours, and featuring complex layers on the palate and a long aftertaste.  But every person is different, and what is pleasing to one may not be so to someone else, and thus by taste alone, it’s not possible to generalise what is a good wine and what is a bad one.  Whenever I taste a new wine, I am always delighted when my taste buds are able to distinguish so many flavours, and I take that as a personal challenge to recognise the wine and bask in the pleasure its taste.

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