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Frankland Estate – Isolation Ridge, Frankland River Hunter Smith

Top Vineyards

Frankland Estate’s Isolation Ridge Vineyard has become an enduring symbol of one of the world’s most remote wine regions. The almost 40-hectare property was planted in 1988, with Hunter Smith the second generation to tend the vines, evolving the sustainable farming to achieving organic certification over a decade ago. Riesling leads the charge at Isolation Ridge, but the Bordeaux red varieties, shiraz and chardonnay aren’t too far behind, with newer additions like mourvèdre and grüner veltliner already making striking wines.

After working in Bordeaux for a couple of vintages, Barrie Smith and Judi Cullam established vines on their large Frankland River grazing property in 1988. Back then, there was a firm focus on riesling as well as cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, petit verdot and merlot to make a Bordeaux-inspired blend – called ‘Olmo’s Reward’ after pioneering viticulturist Dr Harold Olmo. Shiraz and chardonnay were also planted, but the 37-hectare vineyard has been tweaked over the years to now include mourvèdre, touriga nacional, marsanne, viognier and grüner veltliner.

When it was first planted, a family friend jokingly suggested the name Isolation Ridge for the vineyard, reflecting the remoteness of the site within Australia’s most isolated and sparsely populated wine regions. That name stuck, and the very nature of that solitude has deeply shaped the kind of operation Frankland Estate is, being tended almost solely by family hands and requiring a good deal of ingenuity along the way.

Today, Smith and Cullam’s son Hunter Smith runs the viticultural operations. “Being a viticulturist in this region makes you think outside the square, solve problems and challenges in unique ways, and with that, we believe we have highlighted the trueness of this unique terroir through a thoughtful hands-off approach.”

Smith has refined the sustainable methods used before him to transition to organic practices in 2006, with certification coming in 2009. “We implemented organics 15 years ago to build resilience in the vines through greater health, increasing water-holding capacity from organic matter, increasing microbiology and improving responsiveness to nutrient sourcing in a balanced way. This approach also improves fruit quality significantly.”

“As my experience with our vineyard site has developed, so too has my confidence that it won’t let me down, but rather reward me for taking a backseat, not intervening for the sake of intervention. As a result, we have seen an increasing rate and consistency of our ‘Isolation Ridge’ character. Preciseness, delicacy, minerality… ironstone, flinty minerality, as we call it, runs more and more vigorously through our wines the more we step back and work with naturally occurring biology and naturally occurring inputs.”

With 80 per cent of the winery’s electricity needs now supplied by solar power, the family is working towards a “closed circuit” approach, where their property can one day be self-sufficient. Smith also sees the imperative of managing a warming climate as much a social responsibility as it is a means to both survive economically and thrive as a wine producer.

“A changing climate and drier conditions have us always thinking in new ways and adopting new practices to allow the vines to be more resilient and healthier,” says Smith. “Being nimble and adapting vineyard practice to suit any given season is now essential… We run 2,000 acres of land that the family have been farming for 40 years, and we have a deep connection to the region and the land. We are custodian to over 150 hectares of native forest, and we have planted thousands of trees over the past 20 years, improving land use for the future.”

The gently undulating vineyard is planted to ironstone soils above an iron-rich clay subsoil, which is a combination that Smith believes defines the wines, and it’s a quality that he’s always keen to enhance. “We’re nurturing the site to further express its uniqueness as one of the most isolated vineyards in the world,” he says.

“As my experience with our vineyard site has developed, so too has my confidence that it won’t let me down, but rather reward me for taking a backseat, not intervening for the sake of intervention. As a result, we have seen an increasing rate and consistency of our ‘Isolation Ridge’ character. Preciseness, delicacy, minerality… ironstone, flinty minerality, as we call it, runs more and more vigorously through our wines the more we step back and work with naturally occurring biology and naturally occurring inputs.”

“The combination of moving to organic viticulture, along with the vines gaining in maturity have allowed us to enjoy the ability to be more hands-off in the winery. The fruit has more purity to it and ripeness levels don’t have to be pushed to get flavour.”

Over the years, with this character in mind, Smith has grafted vines over to varieties that he believes will be climate suitable, but also will make wines that will be enhanced by the distinctive mineral notes that the soils produce, with him listing mourvèdre, touriga nacional and grüner veltliner as some successful examples. Smith also notes that their increasing understanding of the site has also had a profound influence on their winemaking, of which he shares the duties with his brother-in-law Brian Kent.

“The combination of moving to organic viticulture, along with the vines gaining in maturity have allowed us to enjoy the ability to be more hands-off in the winery,” says Smith. “The fruit has more purity to it and ripeness levels don’t have to be pushed to ‘get flavour’. In 20 years, barrel formats have changed at Frankland Estate from 225 litres to 500 litres, and now on to 3,500 litres, and with each change bringing a greater honesty and vibrancy, a truthfulness in the wine that has become more apparent.

“All the wines provide us with the same fine, medium-weighted deeply flavoured profile.” But, notes Smith, “a vineyard character cannot simply be put down to a flavour, as it is as much about the texture, weight and personality of the wines. It’s very much all encompassing, just like it is out in the vineyard.”

Hunter Smith: “We run 2,000 acres of land that the family have been farming for 40 years, and we have a deep connection to the region and the land. We are custodian to over 150 hectares of native forest, and we have planted thousands of trees over the past 20 years, improving land use for the future.”