It’s been a bit of a busy week, between ANZAC Day on Wednesday and having a friend from overseas visiting on Thursday and Friday. As such, I have not had a new post in a few days, which is not at all how I prefer to run this blog. Rather than waiting until Monday to post something fresh, I’m instead going to write about something that’s relatively easy and familiar for me. It’s one of my all time favourites, the Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay 2010.
It almost feels like cheating to write up this wine as I needn’t rehash the Adelaide Hills too much, and I’ve covered a number of other Chardonnays, but it does give me more time to wax poetic about Shaw + Smith. But just to make sure I cover all the bases, a word about the Adelaide Hills.
The second wine I covered, the Ashton Hills Piccadilly Valley Pinot Noir, is from the Adelaide Hills, and as I said then, it’s essentially the hills due east from Adelaide, extending quite a ways north toward Eden Valley and south toward MacLaren Vale. It’s generally considered cool climate (by Australian standards) and the soil type is sandy loam, but given both the size of the region as a whole and the variation in altitude from vineyard to vineyard, it’s worth looking into the specific location whenever possible. In this case, Shaw + Smith makes this wine largely out of fruit from a vineyard they own near Woodside, which is pretty squarely in the eastern middle part of the region. The soil there is sandy loam over clay with a shale base.
Shaw + Smith is named after the two founding winemakers, Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith. Martin Shaw is one of the Australians who formed the core of the flying winemakers movement, whereby an individual winemaker would work vintage in several different locations, typically alternating between hemispheres. Shaw himself has worked in France, Spain, Chile, Australia and New Zealand and continues to consult around the world.
Michael Hill Smith is likewise a winemaker of renown, but I hold him in special regard because he is a Master of Wine, and was in fact the first Australian to win that honour in 1988. He founded Shaw + Smith the following year. As someone freshly graduated with my WSET Diploma, the MW program is like a huge cliff face in front of me that I may someday strive to climb, and I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who has taken up that challenge. In addition to winemaking, he has a background in running restaurants and apparently is a trained Cordon Bleu chef. Somehow he manages to find time to contribute to wine education for the likes of me, and I’ve had the pleasure of attending a Chardonnay tasting and lecture he conducted last year. (He gave a similar one this year but I couldn’t make it, alas.) For his service to the Australian wine industry, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2008 by Queen Elizabeth II. Hill Smith’s reaction was allegedly “Obviously, she has made a terrible mistake”. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to describe him as one of the foremost experts on Chardonnay, and here is how he makes his.
As I said, most of the grapes are estate grown. Much of the work in the vineyard is by hand, in particular pruning and picking. Hand picking is essential as the next step is whole bunch pressing, that is pressing without destemming or (prior) crushing. Machine picking typically gives you individual grapes (or in some cases, a pile of wet mush). Whole bunch pressing is generally gentler, and does less damage to the skins resulting in less extraction of solids and phenolics into the juice. You also tend to get less juice than conventional pressing, so it comes at a cost in terms of volumes. Wild yeast ferments the juice in barrels of French oak, where it stays for maturation with extended time on lees. Some barrels see malolactic fermentation.
Even though this isn’t the first Chardonnay to grace these pages, or even the first from the Adelaide Hills, a very quick word about the grape. Chardonnay can be difficult to pin down. It can consistently ripen to good sugar levels, and so it is successfully grown nearly everywhere, across a wide range of climates and soils, expressing a potentially huge array of flavours. On top of that, it can be handled in many different ways, to produce still, sparkling or late harvest wines. And within those wine styles, there are many different treatments that can be applied (or not) to Chardonnay with noticeable differences in the resulting wine. As described above, the M3 is whole bunch pressed, wild fermented in oak, and then left on lees in oak for maturation, and it yields a particular style, but other winemakers produce quality Chardonnay from machine harvested grapes, no use of oak, specially selected, commercially grown yeast, and no time on lees after fermentation. Some of those decisions are based on economics, and the M3 is not cheap, but others are purely determined by the style the winemaker is aiming to produce. Oak, time on lees (especially with lees stirring), and malolactic fermentation can give more body, texture and softness to a wine, which you might want to avoid if you are after a flinty, more mineral Chardonnay with a lighter body and texture.
Shaw + Smith produce a small range of wines, certainly for an Australian producer. Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling round out their whites and they produce a cool climate style of Shiraz that is quite the contrast to the bigger, warm climate styles of the Barossa Valley and MacLaren Vale. They also produce small quantities of Pinot Noir, though it’s largely only available directly from them. It’s in contrast to the Sauvignon Blanc which is produced in relatively huge quantities but sells out consistently.
This wine is clear and bright in the glass, with a pale lemon colour and thin legs when swirled. The nose is clean with a developing character and oaky lemon on the nose, with some green peppercorn and a bit of cream. The palate is dry, with medium plus to high acidity, medium body, full flavour intensity, medium plus alcohol, and medium length. The body has a certain softness – there’s substance to it, but with a very gentle texture. Flavours on the palate include lemon, toast, and white pepper with a lime finish. One component that’s noticeable for its absence is minerality, but this is not a steely, austere style. Neither though is it a warm climate butter bomb. It’s full flavoured with citrus and oak both, but neither overwhelming the other. If anything, the oak is as much a structure as a flavour.
Obviously, I really like this wine, so much so that in the past I’ve purchased a magnum of Shaw + Smith Chardonnay (at auction) from before it was even branded M3. While this 2010 is drinking very well right now, this is a wine that maintains its acidity over time, but picks up lovely honeyed notes as it ages. While I don’t usually talk about price, as I said, it’s not an inexpensive wine. However, it tastes much more expensive than it costs. I’m guessing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the expensive oak that goes into this wine (or rather, that this wine goes into) is in some way subsidized by the huge volume of Sauvignon Blanc that Shaw + Smith also produce. In any case, it’s a lovely wine, year after year, and well worth cellaring.