When Red Hill South Estate winemaker Shashi Singh started her extraordinary career more than two decades ago, it was a field that was totally new. But when she started her first vintage, she experienced an adrenalin rush. “I never wanted this vintage to end. I loved what I was doing.” She found her calling. Today, Singh produces two labels Avani and Amrit that have found their place in some of the best restaurants in Australia and abroad (more on that later).
It was in the early 1980s that Singh moved to Australia following her chef husband who was based in the Mornington Peninsula. The initial years were spent helping her husband in his restaurant business and devoting more time towards raising her two young children who were born here.
But as the children got older, she found time in her hands. Breaking free from the confines of a housewife’s life, she decided to study winemaking. Not a very common choice of study but living in the Peninsula, and home to some of the very fine wines in Australia, she found herself on a path that has steered in the right direction for over 20 years now.
Sitting in her Red Hill South property nestled amongst the vines, Singh never imagined in her wildest dreams that as an Indian woman she would be growing grapes, making wines and owning a vineyard. She realises, of course, this is an opportunity that living in Australia has given her. “Very few people in their life find what they want to do. I think I was very fortunate as this is what I love to do,” she reflects.
It was working in her husband’s restaurant Siddhartha (later called Tulsi) in the Peninsula that sowed the seeds of her dreams. Studying the pairing of different wines with food and visiting different wineries kindled her interest in wines. Singh thought, unlike other things that one needs on a bigger scale, one can do small, unique things in wine and still be appreciated. She wanted to create a boutique, tangible product that could be shared and enjoyed.
It was a happy co-incidence when she bought her 10-acre property Red Hill South at the Peninsula in 1998, an already established vineyard producing Pinot Chardonnay, Shiraz and Merlot.
But the beginnings were not easy. The Singhs purchased the property without any background in viticulture or winemaking. They got into the business pretty fresh, but Singh was determined to make it work. A Master’s degree holder in Chemistry from India, Singh enrolled at the Charles Stuart University and went on to complete a double degree in wine, science and viticulture. Alongside her studies, she also worked as an apprentice wine maker for eight years with Philips Jones, owner of Bass Phillip Wines, and reputed to be Australia’s foremost maker of Pinot Noir.
For the first 8-10 years, Singh was managing the property, studying and getting work experience. Incorporating good farming practices at first came from her own intuitive observations of the land. “We were living in the property with two young children and initially for health reasons I wanted to practice organic farming. But what I learnt during the process was how it makes a difference in the products when you grow the natural way and, later, that very much showed in the wines that I made.”
Growing up in Haryana, the farming experience there had a big influence on her. When she changed from conventional farming to organic and biodynamic farming in 2004, Singh says it opened her whole mind and imagination on how her grandparents used to do farming back home. “They made their own compost, never used any herbicide, made their own methods to control insects, funguses, etc. I incorporated all that into my practices and have never looked back since.”
Biodynamic farming not only brought about a change in the quality of her wines but also improved the plant health of all other fruit trees on the property. What’s more, it enriched the eco life on the farm with different birds and insects. “And now the frogs, it is just amazing and gives me so much pleasure,” laughs Singh.
However, the most important change was seen in the compacted soil as it started to gain more structure and frailty. “This is one of the farms that is not irrigated at all, it’s dry farming. We rely very much on the rains,” explains Singh, adding, “But we are very lucky at the Mornington Peninsula to have clay as our subsoil and salt and that means it is able to hold on to the moisture. My job is to preserve the moisture and I work on ways to do it such as mulching. For me, looking after the soil is of utmost importance.”
Interestingly, that’s where she derived the name of her first brand Avani, which in Sankskrit means mother earth. “It’s all about looking after our mother earth,” Singh philosophises. “It is so forgiving that we are amazed how quickly the farm has changed. The soil changed first, then the plant health and then the fruits.”
In 2007, Singh realised Shiraz was the best varietal expression from her site as it was cooler and started making the change – planting, replanting, grafting, et al.
“The reason it is important to actually find a cool site is that it allows the hang time of the grapes from the vine, that is important because you want to maximise the flavour development within the grapes. What we found is that through biodynamic agriculture, we were able to get early physiological ripening on this site and we have a long hang time which enables us to grow fruit which has great intensity of flavour and great quality,” explains Singh.
Today the whole vineyard is dedicated to Shiraz. “But it’s a work in progress,” she rues.
However, not many wine growers on the Mornington Peninsula are able to grow super cool climate Shiraz. This is where Singh’s winemaking technique and work experience at Bass Phillips marry well. Working under Phillip Jones was the most gratifying experience for Singh whose work is driven by much of what she learnt at Bass Phillips.
Singh’s son Rohit, who is now following the footsteps of his mother while still pursuing a career in accountancy says, “From a business perspective, once we converted this vineyard 100 percent to Shiraz grapes we were really able to focus ourselves and provide a point of difference in the market.”
Till 2008, Singh has been growing the grapes but getting the wine contract elsewhere under a different brand. That all changed in 2009 when she decided to make wine at Red Hill South itself. “We established the winery and since then have been making, bottling and storing here at the property.”
From 2009 through to 2015, Singh was focussed only on making Shiraz through its popular label Avani, the grapes of which are grown in the estate itself. In the past four years, she has expanded her production to make Amrit, her second brand, which includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and skin contact Pinot Gris – all from grapes they bring from other sites in the Peninsula. But the winemaking is consistent across both brands and made with little intervention at the property.
It is all very thoughtful craft. Singh’s wines are small batch and made with minimal intervention and hands-on approach and techniques. “The biggest decision that I take is when to pick the grapes because I want to preserve the natural acidity of the wine. That is important. I use natural acidity, no filtration, no addition of commercial enzymes,” says Singh.
And that is their wine-making philosophy across both their brands – Avani and Amrit. Singh says it is making the wines speak of the site. This is the simple explanation she offers as to why her wines match very well with all kinds of food. “They have balance, structure and intensity. They are an original expression of the land on which it is raised.”
True enough, when Singh took some of the wines to restaurants and wine writers, buyers started to come. “They said this is something different and we really like it. I gave a pat on my back and said ‘wow’ I am in the right direction. I thought I should keep doing what I am doing.”
“In terms of our total production we are pretty boutique. We produce about 1500 cases (a case being 12 bottles) a year across all the different varieties. We are quite focussed in what we are doing,” says Rohit.
Singh is helped by her husband and the children when it comes to the business side of things. As a small private company, the Singhs don’t talk revenues or sales but their wines have been well received by key sommeliers and stocked in a number of reputed restaurants locally such as Point Leo Estate, Jackalope, Ten Minutes by Tractor, Vue de Monde in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.
The Singhs have been exporting in small batches to the UK, Hong Kong, Shanghai and to Osaka but have just recently started to look at exporting to more places abroad. “We found that the natural winemaking and the biodynamic agriculture is something of a focus to the Asian markets as they appreciate wines that are made and grown that way.”
“I think our wine really resonates with people who are looking for something that is a little bit different. Because our wines have minimal intervention, are unfiltered, they are a little bit wild but they also resonate with some of the younger crowd as well as people that really know their wines,” says Rohit.
The effort at the 10-acre vineyard is a whole-year process. “Being a small business, we do all the work ourselves. We have an intimate knowledge of all aspects of what we do, we are passionate about what we do, and we take care of everything. The disadvantage is you only have so many hands, but Rohit is coming more into the business and assisting more. My husband plays a major part,” says Singh.
The hope is to continue to grow and be a notable wine producer focussing on organic biodynamic wine. At the start of this year, Singh created a special space for wine tasting and will be opening the cellar door the first weekend of every month. “We are inviting the general public to come and taste our wines. Going forward into October and January we are looking to do various events at the winery as well like food and wine pops ups, partnering with other like-minded restaurants who also share that passion for sustainable agriculture and sustainable food.”
“We have grown production by over 50 per cent in the past three years, we want to keep on that trajectory because we are focussed on continuing to leave our footprints in the Sydney market and in south east Asia,” says Rohit, adding, “We will not compromise on quality, we want to continue to develop our foothold in the market.”
They realise there are a lot of good wine producers around but don’t really look at others as competitors. “When we look at other vineyards or winemakers doing other interesting things it’s actually an inspiration to us. We love the region elevating itself. Even when you go out of the country, you represent Australia. I went to the Australian Women in Wine conference in London and I was representing Australia.
But we want to do better than New Zealand, for instance, and continue to improve and learn all the time,” says Singh.
For the Singhs, it’s been quite an evolution over the last 20 years but one where the small sustaining ties of family, ethical hard work and quality of their work seem logical and rewarding.
By Indira Laisram