Celebrating 260 Years: Q&A with Robert Hill-Smith (Yalumba Family Vignerons)

To celebrate our 260th anniversary, we spoke with Robert Hill-Smith, chairman and fifth generation family member, about family business, the wine industry, and what makes Australia special.

by Erin Ogilvie

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Robert Hill-Smith, Chairman and Fifth Generation Family Member

Yalumba boasts five generations of winemaking history.  What has helped the company survive?

An international view of things, an innovative gene, a keen sense of survival, and a single focus.  Yalumba has survived wars and a depression, without rebates or subsidies, and that makes you stronger.  We are not a large family, and every generation has been patient and quality driven.  I must admit attracting and retaining good staff has been a wonderful advantage; our team is very talented.

You've been in the business for over 30 years; what do you think is the biggest change in the industry over this time?

There have been many huge changes but my immediate thoughts go to the switch from fortified and brandy production, to great quality dry wines and sparkling wines.  Innovation and better clonal material have given us a wonderful base to achieve success, with deep technical assistance from the Charles Sturt, Roseworthy, AWRI, CSIRO, ASVO and private nurseries.  We are more open-minded than we used to be: we travel, taste, and research.  We are global but still healthily Australian!

 

You are the Chair of Australia’s First Families of Wine, with 11 other family-owned wineries in Australia.  Why did you create AFFW?

The wineries all have multi-generational family ownership so we saw it as an opportunity to portray local wine through a family lens. You get diversity of personality and diversity of story from all the different families, as well as diversity of region and wine styles.  Internationally, I think it’s been very good for the Australian category; we are inadvertently a good group of entertainers and represent a broad range of what makes Australian wine so unique.  We bring colour, soul, and personality to the Australian wine story.  It has also brought the next generation closer to winemaking; quite a number of kids, who hadn’t made up their mind about what they wanted to do with their lives, have now decided to join their families in the wine business.  

 

Yalumba is known for its Cabernet Shiraz blends, nicknamed “the blend that defines Australia”.  Why did you start producing this blend, and what do you love about it? 

We prefer to produce the Cabernet Shiraz (over Shiraz Cabernet) for its structure and length.  Our Cabernet comes out of both Coonawarra and Barossa, but our Shiraz only comes from older Barossa vines.  It is a point of difference that has become a Yalumba theme.  The world seems to like blends at the moment but I love how uniquely Australian this blend is.

 

Yalumba has recently entered into a distribution partnership with Riedel.  What excites you about this partnership? 

It unites two of the best brands, and both family-owned.  I’ve long admired the Riedel family and their achievements; the glass is so important in completing the circle of satisfaction when drinking fine wines, or beer, or gin and tonic!  I am hoping our connection will open opportunities for us both.  It’s incredibly exciting.

 

What do you think is the next big trend for the Australian wine industry?

If I knew then it would be my secret!  But rubbing my magic Riedel glass tells me quality Australian sparkling will grow, as will classy Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Shiraz will never die but Tasmania will remain hot, and new refreshing and affordable Australian white releases will challenge NZ Sauvignon Blanc.  Natural wine is here but remains a curio.  Our wine culture will be even stronger across all age groups and demographics, but we shall drink less by volume.

 

What’s your best food and wine match?

Yalumba The Signature 2012 and a rack of Barossa lamb, or Dalrymple Estate Pinot Noir 2013 with Waechters roast duck breast.

 

To learn more, go to www.yalumba.com.  

Want to read part two of our chat with Yalumba, when we talk to their Senior Red Winemaker Kevin Glastonbury? Or, skip along to our next interview with Colin Campbell, of Campbells Wines.