The first thing I noticed about Shashi Singh was her broad smile. It was evident even at a distance as she drove a small tractor along the edge of her Syrah vineyard. She had been working at the back of the vineyard and was dressed in work clothes and boots. She stepped off the tractor and welcomed us to her cellar door. Shashi’s positive energy became evident very quickly as we talked and we soon discovered that same energy is reflected in her Avani and Amrit wines.
This part of Australia’s Mornington Peninsula near Red Hill South township is impossibly picturesque with its combination of pastures, forest and vineyards. We visited in October 2019 and the vineyard was green with spring growth. Shashi’s immediate concern was deterring the birds from eating the vines’ tender shoots, especially adjacent to the forested areas.
The pattern of damage had changed from previous years, possibly with different bird species, she told us. Shashi uses bird netting to protect the vines when they have ripe fruit on them, but this time of year that’s impractical because of the amount of work the vineyard will require in the coming months. It takes her three weeks to spread and anchor the netting to the entire vineyard. Rather than groaning as she recounted the task, she laughed. Shashi laughs a lot.
When Shashi and her husband Devendra purchased the property in 1998 the vineyard was planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. A bit of everything Shashi laughed. She made delicious Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, though in a style heavier than she prefers, “but the Syrah made a wow wine every year,” she told us. They made the decision to listen to the site and concentrate on Syrah.
Re-developing the vineyard has been a process. Shashi began by taking cuttings from her Syrah to propagate new vines. Yes, she did this herself learning as she went along. In stages Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been pulled out and replanted with the propagated cuttings. Other parts of the vineyard have been grafted.
Because Shashi and her husband lived on the property and had two small children, she converted to organic viticultural practices after farming conventionally for only one year. Her vineyard improved but then hit a plateau. She felt the vineyard could do better and after discovering biodynamic principles she began applying them in the vineyard.
The first changes she saw were in the clay soil, changing from compacted, sticky soil she couldn’t cultivate to soil that is now easily cultivated. And she sees abundant beneficial fungi on the roots of grasses in the vineyard. Shashi explained that her role is to encourage beneficial organisms and discourage the bad ones. The vineyard is dry farmed and has never been irrigated.
Another benefit of biodynamic farming has been that the vineyard is stronger and more resilient to what changeable weather throws at it. As an example, the 2011 vintage was very wet and many vineyards in the area suffered from botrytis. Entire crops were lost that year, but her vineyard remained healthy. Though the yield is relatively modest, she is able to pick on acidity and physiologic ripeness (ripe skins, seeds and stems) with relatively low sugar keeping the alcohol level in check.
Shashi likes to keep her winemaking simple – her choice of words. The Syrah is de-stemmed and left to ferment with whatever yeast comes into the cellar with the grapes. The process can take four to seven days to begin and then two weeks to ferment completely. The grapes are pressed to barrel and aged about 16 months in 50% new French oak. Shashi prefers François Frères, tight grained oak with light toast. Bottling takes place without fining or filtration and only minimal sulfur. Acid adjustments are not necessary.
The translucent ruby-violet color of the 2016 Avani Syrah was bright and clear. Generous aromas and flavors of red fruit, olives and hay had a savory character supported by juicy acidity and drying tannins all in a barely-medium body. Only 12.1% abv. This is a wine to sip and savor. It is the only wine she makes from her estate vineyard.
When we remarked on the quality of her Avani Syrah, Shashi modestly declared, “It’s this place. I don’t have to do anything. I just chase the birds away!” Avani is a Sanskrit word meaning the Earth and Shashi has wisely chosen to respect Mother Earth.
Shashi calls it good karma that she met and learned winemaking from Phillip Jones, the Australian Pinot Noir specialist and founder of Bass Phillip winery. She describes herself as a blank canvas back then, having formally studied winemaking but not coming from a wine culture. “I thank him every day,” she told us.
“So naturally I have to make a Pinot Noir,” Shashi laughed as she poured us a glass of her elegant, red-fruit dominant 2018 Amrit Pinot Noir. Her Amrit line of wines are made with grapes sourced from cool sites in Main Ridge and Shoreham. We went on to taste Pinot Gris from the same site as the Pinot Noir that was so complex and aromatic. It had been whole bunch pressed and fermented in used 300L oak barrels and spent 7 months on the lees. The cool site allows for a very gradual ripening of the grapes enhancing their flavor.
Shashi also has a curiosity for skin-contact white wines. By comparison, we tasted Pinot Gris harvested from the same vineyard, at the same time, made with skin contact that was astonishingly delicious in a different way. We went on to taste skin-contact Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer that were complex, textural and alive with acidity.
We were blown away by all of Shashi’s wines. She makes about 250 cases of Avani Syrah and 1000 to 1500 cases of her Amrit wines per vintage. You will find them in restaurants in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney and online from the Avani website. She exports a small amount, but not to the US.
Shashi told us her journey as a biodynamic viticulturist and winemaker feels familiar in many ways. Her experiences in the vineyard reminds her of the way her grandparents farmed in India. She understands the importance of place and respect for the soil. Her wines reflect that respect for the land along with her curiosity. They also reflect her positive energy. Every wine we tasted was impeccably balanced and complex with a thread of energy flowing through it.
Our tasting with Shashi came at the end of a full day of wine tasting in the Mornington Peninsula. Our day of tasting, organized by Plunge Mornington Peninsula Wine Tours‘ proprietor Arthur O’Bryan, began with sparkling wine, cheese and olives on the beach, continued with three wine tastings, then lunch with wine before our stop at Avani. My palate may have been bordering on fatigued, but one sip of Shashi’s lively wines revived my palate immediately.
Since returning home we’ve enjoyed both the Avani Syrah and Amrit Gewurztraminer that we brought home with us. The wines wowed us as much at home just as they did sitting with Shashi in her cellar door. Surely, the best review one could give a wine. And we still have a bottle of each to look forward to.