Michael Hill Smith with his wines at local importer Links Concept's office (pic: Natalie Wang)

Michael Hill Smith with his wines at local importer Links Concept's office (pic: Natalie Wang)

Michael Hill Smith, co-founder of Shaw + Smith winery, likens his winemaking evolution to an aging rock band's quest for fresh notes. From the MMAD project's inception to embracing organic practices, Smith is redefining the wine industry's melody.

With 34th vintages behind him, Michael Hill Smith MW, co-founder of Shaw + Smith, the acclaimed Adelaide Hills-based winery, is more interested in innovating than repeating.

On his first trip back to Hong Kong since the pandemic, Smith visibly weary after a long trip. The fatigue, however, didn’t diminish his presence. Perched high above the city inside his local importer Links Concept’s office, with the vast expanse of Hong Kong’s skyline stretching out behind him, Smith seemed both a part of this bustling metropolis and yet, in some ways, a world apart.

Settling into his chair, without any delay, the interview began. “About 10 years ago,” he began, leaning forward, “Matt and I have decided like an aging rock and roll band there comes a time when you need a fresh note, perhaps a new guitarist or a different backup singer to keep the music alive.”

This sentiment, he explained, encapsulated the recent transformations of Shaw and Smith winery. The “new band members” came in the form of two dynamic talents – David LeMire MW and Adam Wadewitz. Both were named joint CEOS of the company.

“We gave them a challenge,” Smith recalled, referring to himself and his cousin and co-founder Martin Smith, “Find something that genuinely excites you and if you can convince us of its potential, we’ll try it.”

Wadewitz’s roots in McLaren Vale led him to the discovery of Blewitt Vineyard, a gem with iron-rich sandy soil. But what truly set this vineyard apart was its old vines. The Grenache had been planted as far back as 1939, the Shiraz in 1941, and the Chenin blanc in 1964. “We had never done an old vine project before,” Smith admitted. Excited about the prospect about McLaren Vale potential, MMAD was born.

Named after Martin, Michael, Adam and David, the MMAD vineyard contains 20 hectares of old vines: Grenache, Shiraz and Chenin blanc.

Chenin, a white variety that has growing popularity among young sommeliers and consumers, is the new rising white wine in Australia, he ascertains. With Grenache, however, he had his fair share of reservations initially, especially the Australian Grenache.

“They often felt too ripe, port-like, with overpowering alcohol levels. They lacked dimension.” However, his perspective shifted with the emergence of winemakers like Steve Pannell from S.C.Pannell and others from McLaren Vale. They approached old vine Grenache with a fresh lens, drawing out its aromatic, perfumed qualities, reminiscent of Pinot Noir. “It was a reinvention,” Smith exclaimed, “and we hope MMAD will stand shoulder to shoulder with pioneers like S Pennel and Yangarra in this exciting trend.”

The first vintage of MMAD was 2021 and annual production as Smith says would be around 5000 cases, given the low-density planting of the vines.

Another front that Smith was heading towards is organic farming or rather as he prefers regenerative farming, a term that he finds “less prescriptive”. Today at Shaw + Smith, its vineayrds are either certified organic or in transion, he adds.

“People think that because of my age, I am resistant to the newer trends in winemaking, particularly natural wines,” he revealed, dispelling the notion. “While I might not be the biggest fan of natural wines, there are lessons to be learned.”  

Drawing from the lessons of the natural wine movement, which advocates authenticity and low intervention, Smith spoke passionately about the concept of regenerative farming. Unlike the prescriptive checklist that often accompanies organic farming, regenerative farming is an ongoing commitment. “It’s about constantly striving to enhance biodiversity, reduce soil compaction, and overall, improve the health of the land,” Smith explained. Regenerative farming is more about rehabilitating than sustaining the status quo.

Making a contrast with Germany’s Mosel wine region, where organic winemaking is widely practiced, he lamented lack of biodiversity there. “When you look at these beautiful vineyards in Mosel, biodiversity is almost zero. Every single bit of land is planted out to vines and everything is straight down the slope so you are going to get erosion,” he warned, before turning the conversation back to regenerative farming, “It’s a modern way of thinking how to improve biodiversity and the entire ecosystem.”

In wrapping up, Smith’s reflections were tinged with both pride and humility. “Over the past 34 years, we have continued to evolve, and I can honestly say the wines we are making now are better than before. We have kept our focus, and we haven’t been easily diverted, we just try and make the best wines we can that have personality and interest.”

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