Friday 15 April 2011

Michael Hill Smith can't use the 'e' word

Michael Hill Smith has a problem with the word ‘elegant’.

‘There’s just something not right about an Australian using it – like a Barossa producer pulling out a bottle and saying “and now this is our elegant Shiraz”.’

We’re at the noisy but excellent restaurant L’Anima in Bishopsgate for Hill Smith – founder of Adelaide Hills winery Shaw and Smith – to demonstrate Australian wine’s journey toward delicacy and refinement (he still won’t use the ‘e’ word, that’s just his natural Australian reticence. Elegance is what these wines are all about).

Hill Smith and David Gleave of Liberty Wines have selected two Chardonnays, and two Pinots, all from Shaw and Smith, and then a flight of six Shiraz – his own 08 and 09 Adelaide Hills, John Duval, Clonakilla, Greenstone and SC Pannell.

Australia’s in the throes of change. I remember Andrew Wigan at Peter Lehmann in Barossa telling me four years ago they were ‘pulling back from oak at 100 miles an hour’.

That’s now the orthodoxy among producers of Hill Smith’s stamp. Whereas reds always used to be about tannin management (in many cases they were managed out of existence), it’s now all about acids and freshness.

And like all great wine regions energetically searching for a new style (Rioja comes to mind) the best Australian producers are managing to find the modern while preserving the best points of the traditional.

So there’s cool climate Shiraz and there’s warm climate Shiraz, each trying to find that uniquely Australian style.

‘With the cool climate style we’re trying to avoid the leanness and hardness you sometimes see in cool climate wines,’ Hill Smith says. ‘We don’t want skinniness – we want some flesh on the bone.’

Modern Australia, Hill Smith says, is all about moderation and control. Chardonnay, he says, shows more than anything ‘the refinement and ongoing evolution of Australian wine’.

‘It’s very exciting. The best Chardonnays have this bright minerality, with sweet nectarine and peach fruit. It’s no longer just fruit seasoned with oak and bottle age. We are barrel fermenting, ageing on lees. We’re making Chardonnay inspired by Burgundy but with an Australian twist.’

Margaret River, whose proximity to the sea has such a beneficial moderating effect on the climate, is of course the flagship region for top Chardonnay.

Hill Smith namechecks Adelaide Hills, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania as striving for that modern style.

And then there’s the Pinot, still relatively untried in Australia but ‘a hot category’, the producer says.

That’s at the high end, of course, where Pinot lovers, and Pinot completists, will search out anything new.

‘There are fanatical Pinot consumers in Australia. They cite clones at you. They ask “Is this MV6? Is it 777?”’

Here’s Andrew Jefford on Chardonnay in Decanter magazine:
'Everyone could do their own thing with it. Initially, that tended to mean something oaky and rich; latterly, by contrast, it has meant a wine of finer grain.'

The Wines
(all available from Liberty Wines)

Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc, Adelaide Hills 2010
Delicate, bright and zesty lovely fresh acidity

Shaw and Smith M3 Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills 2009
Very fine, very classy, with peach, pineapple, some sweet citrus, hints of exotic smoky perfume, excellent acidity, very long

Shaw and Smith M3 Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills 2010
From a much cooler vintage, tighter and gentler than the 2009, fantastic texture, long and delicate

Shaw and Smith Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills 2008
‘The first thing you want with Pinot is to get it to taste like Pinot,’ Hill Smith says. This has restrained strawberry and raspberry, sweetness held in check by good acid and ripe tannins. Aussie Chardonnay at its best can rival Burgundy but this has a way to go

Shaw and Smith Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills 2009
Strong aromatic, almost earthy Pinot nose, not a big wine, with very fine colour, fruit more on the raspberry and cherry than strawberry side

Shaw and Smith Shiraz, Adelaide Hills 2008
Superb ripe, juicy, spicy Shiraz with white pepper and elegant (that word again!) black fruit. Very long, knitted tannins. Excellent

Shaw and Smith Shiraz, Adelaide Hills 2009
Ripe and juicy with real tannic heft. It’s young and bright and needs a year or more, but it went perfectly with the delicious rare beef tagliata and rocket main course.

John Duval Entity Shiraz, Barossa Valley 2007
A tour de force from the former Grange winemaker. Rich, powerful, pure Barossa, broad-shouldered but still fine, with dark (what they used to call ‘brooding’) blackberry fruit, juicy and savoury tannins. Real presence.

SC Pannell Shiraz/Grenache, McLaren Vale, 2006
The Grenache lends a mouthwatering juiciness to the palate, and adds brightness and lift to the fruit. Spice and dark fruit, knit tannins and bright long finish

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, Canberra District 2009
Extraordinary perfume and texture from this unique producer. The Viognier (there’s a decent amount – 6%) adding giving it an agreeable unctuousness and hint of violets. Exotic. Delicious

Greenstone Vineyard Shiraz, Heathcote, 2009
Powerful, finely-made, old-fashioned Shiraz. Aromas of cherry, plums, pepper, grippy, fine tannins. Power and finesse.

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