May 30, 2023
Wine & Dine

Shaw + Smith keeps the wine in focus

Shaw + Smith’s newly expanded Balhannah tasting room represents the pinnacle of a journey built patiently over three decades, and its founders Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith aren’t done just yet.

Shaw + Smith has opened its newly refurbished and expanded tasting room. Photo: Charles Phillpot.

The chill of winter has arrived at the Adelaide Hills where the shorter days have lulled the vines into their annual dormancy; lush green foliage has turned to orange with leaves that will soon fall to the ground, leaving only the undulating rows of bare trunks.

The sweeping view at Shaw + Smith’s Balhannah winery is dominated by wintry vistas and it seems as if the vines have shut down for the season.

However, there is plenty going on beneath the surface as this annual chilling phase is crucial for bud break later in the season.

“It certainly feels like winter has arrived, but that’s alright,” says Shaw + Smith co-founder Martin Shaw.

“All the grapes are off, so the weather can now do what it likes: rain, hail we don’t really mind.”

The wintry view from Shaw + Smith’s Balhannah tasting room. Photo: Ben Kelly.

There is a reason Martin is so casual about the cold: the winter cooling has been a key ingredient of Shaw + Smith’s winemaking over the past 33 years.

Martin and his cousin Michael Hill Smith had no solid plan when they decided to make wine together in the late 1980s; it was simply the region itself that underpinned their focus.

“We didn’t have much in the way of a business plan or a great vision for the future, but from day one, the important thing was that we would be fiercely regional,” says Martin.

“The Adelaide Hills was the region we chose to focus on.”

They picked varieties that would perform best in the Adelaide Hills – chardonnay and sauvignon blanc – and patiently built the brand over three decades: acquiring vineyards, building a winery and tasting room and refining their winemaking.

Shaw + Smith co-founder Martin Shaw.

“It’s been a slow, organic growth over a reasonable period of time,” says Martin.

This month, Shaw + Smith has opened its newly-rebuilt Balhannah tasting room: a significant upgrade to the original space that was built 23 years ago.

A pet project of Martin’s, the new tasting room was designed by Chris Connell and JBG architects and built by the Ahrens group, who constructed the original cellar door in 2000.

“From design through construction, the entire project has been both challenging and exciting, and the feedback’s been extraordinarily positive and that’s always nice to hear,” says Martin.

“We think that the Adelaide Hills as a tourism destination still has plenty of room to grow and while the facility was working really well, we needed more space.”

Doubling the size of the former tasting room, the expanded space enables Shaw + Smith to host functions of up to 60 people, for which the winery has enlisted chef Andre Ursini (Orso) to provide on-site catering.

Meanwhile, although the winery does not offer a restaurant, it does have a new kitchen spaces which enable the tasting room team to serve small dishes.

The dishes are “small, light and simple” and designed to complement the wines that are offered in the form of wine flights.

What has stayed the same is Shaw + Smith’s focus on making a cellar door visit enlightening – something which Martin believes set them apart when they opened 23 years ago.

“Right from the beginning, our view was always about trying to make the experience more educational,” says Martin.

Photo: Photo: Charles Phillpot.

“The people we employed on the floor were young people who were very knowledgeable about wine in general, so it was really about trying to give the customers a more interesting and educational experience.

“Since then, a number of other wineries have also gone down a similar route, where it’s a more interesting experience than it was in the old days.”

It is simply the wine – accompanied by the light food and stunning views – that do all the talking at Shaw + Smith .

Now a benchmark for sauvignon blanc, Shaw + Smith owns three vineyards in the Adelaide Hills: Balhannah, Lenswood and Piccadilly Valley, totalling 60 hectares.

“We put an enormous amount of work into our vineyards. Balhannah and Lenswood are both certified organic, and this year we picked out first grapes from our new vineyard at Picadilly,” says Martin.

Photo: Charles Phillpot.

“The Piccadilly Vineyard project is a vineyard that we’ve planted at super high density, and we’re very pleased with the results we’ve seen so far.

“In more recent times, our single vineyard wines have been really exciting, but (Sav blanc) is still a very important variety for us.

“We haven’t changed it stylistically that much, but I think that over the journey, the wines have gotten better.

“We’ve gone to higher and cooler sites, we’ve always focused on trying to lift the quality bar with sauvignon each year.

“It’s not been so much about volume, it’s been about quality and consistency.”

The business is this month starting work on a new tasting room at its Tolpuddle vineyard in southern Tasmania, while it has also been involved in the acquisition of an old-growth vineyard in McLaren Vale.

“I think if Michael and I would sit back and reflect, we would be pretty proud of where we started and where we are now, but the important thing is, there’s still a long way to go,” says Martin.

“We’ve got plenty more exciting wines to make in the future, new projects and I think the future is looking bright.”

Photo: Charles Phillpot.
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