Michelle Holt – Poonawatta Wines

Michelle Holt’s family have been growing grapes in the Eden Valley for generations, but it was only in 2002 that Michelle and her husband tried their hand at producing their own wines under the Poonawatta brand.  Here is Michelle’s fabulous story!

When, why and how did you first enter the wine industry?

It’s been the only industry I’ve ever worked in! My first job out of school was with Hoffmans Winery, and later I joined Peter Lehmanns. 

Where has your career taken you so far?

After years of gaining experience with larger producers, I left Lehmanns to set up Poonawatta with my husband Andrew, while also bringing up our two girls.

You are the Proprietor at Poonawatta. Can you tell us the story of why, when and how this happened?   

Living on the Poonawatta property, the grapes were being sold to other wineries. We knew we had something very special in our old vine shiraz planted in 1880, so we started making experimental small batch wines – and were excited by the results. The 1880 vineyard is one of the smallest, and oldest in the region, with a really interesting history. We knew we had a great story, backed up by 5 generations in Eden Valley, and the experimental batched looked very promising, so in 2002 we took the plunge and made our first wine for commercial release – The 1880 Shiraz.

What is the philosophy behind Poonawatta?

Our philosophy is built on several pillars – Single vineyards, Eden Valley, Sustainability and Family.

We tell our story through single vineyard wines, where each season is an expression of the vineyard, the season and viticulture and vinification decisions. The provenance of these vineyards compliments the provenance of our place in Eden Valley. We are Eden Valley through and through; it is our home, the home of our heritage and a region we are passionate about. Sustaining our piece of Eden Valley is very important to us – not just maintaining the natural environment but improving it where we can, so that future generations can continue to build on what we have done. And now with the 6th generation getting involved in Poonawatta, family is the foundation of these pillars.

What grape varieties do you make wine from at Poonawatta? And where are they sourced from?

On the Poonawatta property we have four separate blocks. The 1880 shiraz is the original vineyard, with The Eden Riesling planted in 1972, followed by The Cuttings Shiraz and our latest planting, the Insurance Block Shiraz. We produce single vineyard wines from each of these vineyards.

We also purchase shiraz, cabernet and when we can get it, Grenache from local Eden Valley growers for our Regional Series range of wines. 

What are your personal favourites from those you produce, and why?

The Eden Riesling  – Riesling is a great variety, which you can have on its own or with food. I love our Riesling when it is young, it is zingy freshness with lovely fruit characters. Andrew prefers them with a bit of age – it’s such a versatile variety.

The 1880 Shiraz – who wouldn’t love this wine.  With vines planted in 1880 the wine delivers with layers of complexity.  We call it a Monday to Thursday wine.  Have only one glass every day (if you can) and smell and taste the changes to this amazing wine.

Within the business – what’s a typical day like for you?

Where do I start?!  I have many hats that I wear in a small family owned business.  I do all the admin, from invoicing, paying accounts, export, sale enquiries, to private tastings, delivering wine to local businesses, putting orders together as well as minor labelling requirements.  I also help in the vineyard, when necessary, but one thing I will leave to Andrew is winter pruning. It is just too cold!

What is your absolute favourite wine and food pairing? And what should we keep in mind when matching food and wine?

My all-time favourite paring is Thai Chicken Green Curry with a current vintage Poonawatta Riesling – a match made in heaven!

In general I am not really fastidious about matching wine with food, but generally stick with fresh and vibrant whites with seafood. Current vintage to more developed whites and lighter, softer reds with chicken, duck and pork. Off dry Riesling works wonders with pork and spicy dishes. I quite fancy lamb with Cabernet, and Shiraz with red meat cuts and rich cheese. But I live by the belief that if it works for you, then enjoy it, and I have done the opposite to the above on many occasions – just because it worked. 

As a woman working in the wine industry, have you faced any particular challenges where your gender has ever been an issue?

Fortunately not. I have found great acceptance amongst peers. Perhaps that is as much about the modern industry and the great community we live in. 

In your experience, do women think about or talk about wine differently than blokes do?

Yes.  In my experience, most women don’t wax on about a wine to the same degree that some blokes do. The ladies either like the wine or they don’t. When the ladies are asking questions, they are usually more general about the wine, vineyard and our business. Some fellas want to know every detail of the making of the wine, right down to the nitty gritty.  

What’s your number one tip for tasting wine?

Try new styles and not be a “I only drink sauvignon blanc” type of gal.  There are some great wines out there, be adventurous!

If there was one thing you could tell the sisterhood of wine-lovers out there, what would it be?

Don’t drink the wine if you don’t enjoy it, even if someone has said this is a great wine.  Everyone is different and have different taste.  Peter Lehmann once said to me “I enjoy cabbage, you might not like cabbage, everyone is different”.