Richard Smart, Tamar Ridge Wines, TAS

Name: Richard Smart

Vintage success for Tasmania's biggest little winery

It's no small claim by the self-described 'flying vine doctor,' who has allowed Pinot Noir research to become both passion and profession since moving to the island state in 2003. Based on the size of the facility's floor space and the sheer quantity of its 400-plus Pinot Noir ferments in 2007, the Tamar Ridge consultant might indeed be on safe territory.

Tamar Ridge Wines is the largest single producer of wine in Tasmania. Its Kayena winery and 138ha vineyard - 45km north of Launceston - play host to a small but dedicated band of wine industry researchers led by Smart.

In any case, no-one can deny the man his unabashed satisfaction in seeing the facility's successful transition from 'Chateau Shearing Shed' to a centre of excellence in viticultural research and micro-vinification in less than six months.
Smart proposed that a micro-winery be located in the State when he first took on his consultant role there four years ago. At the time, he put forward a strong case for its establishment.

'I think there are very big opportunities here in Tasmania because Australia has not developed particularly well this cool-climate sector of its wine business,' he argued.

Smart had little trouble finding an academic partner to back his plans. The Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research - which represents a joint venture between the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries and Water (DPIW) and the University of Tasmania - teamed up with Tamar Ridge in mid-2005.

Their goal was to establish funding for the appointment of two PhD scholars to conduct investigations into viticultural factors affecting Pinot Noir wine quality.
The inaugural scholarship holders - Tasmanians Fiona Chopping and Reuben Wells - took up their research positions in late 2005 and early 2006. Together, the pair have since initiated more than 20 vineyard trials to explore the effects of winter pruning; shoot and bunch thinning; leaf removal; vine vigour and yield; under vine mulching; trellis design and trimming height; soil nitrogen; and late season vine leaf health.

Smart made the first micro-vinifications at Tamar Ridge in 2005. He used an existing shearing shed/cool store on the property and equipped it using petty cash. The first Pinot Noir ferments were crushed by feet then pressed in muslin bags. Fermentations were carried out in plastic buckets and fruit preserve jars.

In that first year, about 50 wines were made. Some reflected studies of the effects of virus on wine composition. Others measured the effects of vine vigour and leaf health.

For vintage 2006, Chopping and Wells carried on the work at the same site. More buckets were purchased from the local discount store and a temperature-controlled room was established by lining the walls and ceiling of a small room with bubble wrap, then laying scraps of Bondor installation on the floor. There, a total of 250 micro-vinifications were completed. Each was carried out according to standardized experimental designs and winemaking practices, using 10kg parcels of hand-picked fruit.

Around the same time, Smart and Dr Steve Wilson of TIAR made application to Tasmania's Department of Economic Development for funding to establish a new facility to replace the one that boasted an inventory of oenology equipment worth barely $1100.

Supporting the bid were industry peers and colleagues from the University of Adelaide and the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI). Among them was AWRI group manager for industry development and support, Peter Godden. He added his voice to the group's funding claims, stating, 'it's very important to the industry that we have these regional nodes, focussed on addressing regional needs and regional research priorities.'

In August 2006, the initiative received approval and $125,000 under the State Government Research Partnership Program Grant. An additional commitment of $260,000 in cash and in-kind investment by Tamar Ridge Wines - and similar funding commitments from TIAR - sealed the deal. That enabled plans to be drawn up and submitted to the local council within a matter of weeks.

The refurbished and re-equipped former shearing shed was officially opened in March 2007, barely days before its first crush of the new season's Pinot harvest. Looking back over a month-long vintage, Chopping says her on-site work schedule ran more smoothly and effectively this year than last, thanks to the micro-winery's purpose-built fruit receival area, its additional coolroom space, and Tamar Ridge's funding allocations for the employment of three workers. Friends and family also lent their support at peak processing times.

'Having other people help pick and process the fruit and carry out all the basic laboratory analysis was a real bonus. When you process in 10kg batches, there's a lot of time spent just cleaning and washing things down,' Chopping explains.

'Being able to work in our own lab was great. Previously, we had to do a lot of that at night, whenever the staff down at the bigger winery facility had finished for the day and could give us access to their gear. Just having our own autotitrator has made a real difference.'

The full article can be found in the July/August issue of Australian Viticulture.

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