How Shaw + Smith became Australia's definitive sauvignon blanc

The cousins whose collective skills created a genre-defining white wine reflect on 30 years in the business.

By Nick Stock, October 9 2019

The dynamic duo behind Australia’s definitive sauvignon blanc, Shaw + Smith, have celebrated three decades in business together and reflected on the outstanding success of a plan hatched over lunch in Paris in 1988.

The following year, cousins Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith founded their Adelaide Hills label and debuted with a wine that has stood firm in the face of significant competition, much of it from New Zealand’s dominant sauvignon blanc producers.

It stands today as a classic and category-defining wine, and the quality of the latest-release 2019 vintage is testament to the high standards Shaw and Hill Smith command.

A dominant drop - the Shaw + Smith range is about far more than just sauvignon blanc.

 

‘Our plan was that we didn’t have a plan’

Back in the heady days of the late 1980s, Shaw was off working in Bordeaux as a gun-for-hire ‘flying winemaker’, while Hill Smith was busy becoming Australia’s first Master of Wine. “Our plan was that we didn’t have a plan,” Shaw recalls. “What we did have, however, was a number of shared principles.”

The cousins’ skills fit together in what has become a very symbiotic style of relationship. “The sum is certainly greater than the parts,” Hill Smith tells Executive Traveller. “The combination of Martin’s winemaking talent and my newly-minted Master of Wine worked pretty well then, and still does now.”

Winemakers Martin Shaw and Adam Wadewitz with the fruit of their shared labours.

A pillar of their three decades of success in the often-challenging Australian wine scene is they have held true to a clear vision, and combined their individual strengths so well.

Cool-climate kings

And although the Shaw + Smith brand has evolved considerably from that debut ’89 sauvignon blanc, the principles behind it have not.

They make quintessential modern cool-climate wines and have not wavered from a focus on one region, the Adelaide Hills. They continue to set the pace for cool-climate sauvignon blanc in Australia and are continually at the front of the pack with chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah.

A much younger Martin Shaw, hard at work establishing a dynasty.

“In the beginning we ran a very lean business, and all profits were reinvested into establishing Shaw + Smith as a really credible international name,” Shaw explains.

They focused on creating all aspects of their brand – the wine styles, wine quality, packaging and story – to a model that would stand the test of time. “In my opinion that's how great estates are built,” he adds.

A genre-defining drop - Shaw + Smith's Sauvignon Blanc.

Hill Smith remembers dining with a group of businesspeople in the early years before they owned vineyards and a winery, who thought that the model was inspired. “They said ‘you guys are so clever, you don’t have any vineyards, you don’t have a winery. You've avoided the pitfalls of everyone else’,” he recalls.

But 30 years later, they now own a large percentage of their own vineyards and have a state-of-the-art winery in Balhannah. In 2012 they purchased a 20-hectare vineyard at an elevation above 500 metres in Lenswood, and evolved their cool climate mantra a step further.

The Lenswood vineyard.

“Higher and cooler means more natural acidity, slower ripening, and more intensity of flavour,” Shaw says, “and we know our future lies at higher altitude in the Adelaide Hills.” 

It is this vineyard that has driven their run of highly acclaimed chardonnay and pinot noir releases in recent years. It is a clever move given the changing climate, and one that strategically diversifies their interests deeper into chardonnay and pinot noir and makes the business less reliant on sauvignon blanc.

Careful and constant evolution

Anyone running an organisation knows it is important to maintain constant forward momentum.

With such a tight and consistent range of quality wine delivered over the last 30 years, it may appear that Shaw + Smith has been fairly static. But they set themselves on the right path so accurately from the outset that the challenge has been one of careful and constant evolution and refinement.

Michael Hill Smith MW looks after the business side of the wine empire.

“Martin and I used to run Shaw + Smith over coffee,” Hill Smith says, “We'd meet in the morning and talk over the issues of the day. Martin would deal with all the winemaking and production issues, and I'd deal with sales, marketing and PR.”  

They realised over time the need to build a team and surround themselves with outstanding people who would challenge them, a team that is today the envy of the Australian wine industry.

Rock ‘n' roll inspiration

“We followed the rock n’ roll management handbook,” Hill Smith grins. "If you are an ageing rock and roll band, what do you do? You go out and hire the best musicians you can!”

Martin Shaw's winemaking nous has proven to be spot-on.

They hired an experienced CFO in Grant Lovelock and the multi-talented David LeMire MW to handle sales and marketing. Winemaker Adam Wadewitz was lured home to South Australia from Seppelts Great Western, and legendary viticulturist Ray Guerin worked with them for three years before passing the mantle to Murray Leake, one of the Adelaide Hills’ most respected viticulturists.

Keen intellect, expertise, a considered and a frank approach to business and a deep understanding of the global wine game have collectively seen Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith build one of Australia’s greatest cool-climate wine partnerships.

Blessed by the early success of sauvignon blanc, they’ve astutely built a business, a team and a brand that will most likely be at the forefront of great Australian wine in another 30 years from now.

Nick Stock

Nick Stock is one of Australia’s most popular and well-travelled wine critics, covering great wine from all corners of the globe.


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