Meet Shashi Singh, perhaps the first India-born female winemaker in Australia

When Red Hill Estate winemaker Shashi Singh started her extraordinary career more than two decades ago, it was a field that was totally new. Starting her first vintage brought 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.

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.

One the children got older, she decided to study winemaking. 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.

It was working in her husband’s restaurant Siddhartha (later called Tulsi) in the Peninsula and studying the parings of different wines with food and visiting different wineries that kindled her interest in wines. Singh thought one can do small, unique things in wine and still be appreciated, shared and enjoyed.

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.

It was a happy co-incidence when she bought her 10-acre property Red Hill at the Peninsula in 1998, an already established vineyard producing Pinot Chardonnay, Shiraz and Merlot. 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. 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 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.

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 Sanskrit 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. Cooler site means it allows maximum hang time of the grapes from the vine. “It 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. There are 12,000 lines planted which is comparable to some of the Grand Cru vineyards in France, says Devendra.

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 working with Phillip Bass marry well.

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.”

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.

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.”

“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 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, Hongkong, Shanghai and to Osaka but have just recently started to look at exporting more places. “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.”

For the Singh’s, 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