Meet the Winemaker: Ben Rector

Meet the Winemaker: Ben Rector

We are extremely proud to introduce Smithbrook Winemaker Ben Rector, who has over 20 years’ experience in the wine industry from all over the world.

We speak to him about his passion for winemaking, his love for the Smithbrook estate and what makes cooler climate winemaking in Pemberton different to other parts of Australia.

When did you first become passionate about wine? When did you know you wanted to be a winemaker?

Growing up on the doorstep of the Hunter Valley, I remember spending school holidays pruning vines, or helping on the bottling line of a local winery.  Upon finishing school, I was invited to get my hands dirty in the winery, crushing grapes and dragging hoses, I never really looked back. 

I soon completed a Bachelor of Oenology (wine science) at Adelaide University, before becoming a ‘flying winemaker’, working multiple vintages each year, within Australia and beyond. 

The wine industry became my passport to work and see the world, meet great like-minded people, and have input to making the wines that I enjoy drinking. 

What countries have you worked vintage in?

France, South Africa, USA, New Zealand, just about all of Australia.

What places were highlights for you and why?

Discovering the famous wine regions of France was incredible. I think most Australian winemakers aspire to make wines that compare to those produced within the famous Chateaus. I was fortunate to work alongside vignerons more than willing to share their knowledge and culture. 

Central Otago in New Zealand is stunning, and I gained valuable knowledge about premium Pinot Noir production. 

More than any other country, I draw upon my experiences gained within Australia; The Hunter, Barossa, Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley where I’ve learnt from and worked alongside many of today’s most influential Australian wine producers.

What do you love about working with fruit from the Smithbrook Estate/Pemberton region?

I’m always looking at every opportunity to get out of the office or tasting room and get into the vineyard throughout the year.  The Smithbrook vineyard is beautiful year-round, and always provides a great contrast to a day working in the winery. 

There are some critical phases during the year where I try to get amongst the vines, and whether it be winter to assess pruning, or veraison to monitor canopies or yield estimates, there’s always plenty to do. 

The harvest period is probably most critical, and there’s no substitute for walking rows and tasting individual berries to determine the picking date of the various varieties. 

What do Smithbrook wines represent to you?

I love that Smithbrook represents the soil and terroir in which the vines are grown.  All of the wines produced are 100% sourced from our Pemberton estate vineyard, so the wines really speak of their origin. 

How do you think Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Nebbiolo are suited to this cooler climate region?

While Pemberton sits on the doorstep of the maritime Margaret River, the styles of wines produced are invariably different due to its continental cool climate.  The warm days and cool nights are especially suited to the production of our premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, where mild daytime temperatures help promote and retain varietal fruit flavours, with retention of acids critical for these styles.

Cool climate regions tend to produce more elegant styled wines in contrast to the rich ripe full-bodied counterparts, and this is demonstrated stylistically by the Merlot and Nebbiolo, which both produce unique and appealing characteristics from the Pemberton region.

What are the top things that winemakers need to focus on when working in cool climate regions?

Cool climate vineyards present a range of challenges for producing quality fruit, however the reward for effort is great.  

Careful management of the vine canopy during the growing season has many benefits, and has a huge impact on the quality of fruit produced.  It is critical to maintain a canopy that allows enough sunlight in to the fruit zone to allow for metabolism of the berries, however too much light can cause sunburn and excess shrivel. 

Identification of vine pest or disease is also made easier by maintaining a healthy balanced vine canopy, so the timing of wire lifting, or vine hedging has major consequences on quality and yield each year.

From a winemakers perspective, what makes Smithbrook terroir unique?

The 100-hectare Smithbrook property is diverse in aspect, soil type and slope. Different varieties are planted throughout the estate, and each has been selected specifically to thrive in the particular site. 

Gingin Chardonnay clones are planted on a North facing slope, with sandy/ gravelly soils that encourage drainage while maximising sunlight. Meanwhile Merlot and Nebbiolo are planted on rich gravelly ironstone clays that are critical for these late picked varieties.  

How do you make sure to express this in the winery?

The expression of the terroir is maintained by picking and vinifying each block separately throughout the winemaking process. These individual parcels can then be compared and assessed depending on the vintage variation, to ensure they are blended to maintain the style that has been developed for each variety. 

Nebbiolo is still a relatively unknown varietal in Australia. Is it exciting to be working with this fruit and how do you think its future looks in the Australian wine industry? Is there a particular style you strive for?

I’m confident that Nebbiolo will become more recognisable throughout Australia in the future.  Admittedly, it was foreign to me before being entrusted with the Pemberton fruit, however many late nights of research have given me some insights to the variety, and I now understand why it is regarded so highly in its native Piedmont region of Italy.  

The variety has a tendency to produce a wide range of terroir driven styles, almost all featuring the unique rose petal, dark cherry aromatics, with lighter coloured hue, but astonishingly complex and robust tannin structure that really sets it apart from other varieties popular in Australia just now. 

When producing the Smithbrook Nebbiolo, I’m hands off.  The aim is to preserve the natural nuances of the variety rather than be heavy handed and try to force the wine in any direction. Less is more when making Nebbiolo.  The variety is famous for producing some of the most long-lived reds, and the youthfulness displayed on the 2020 Smithbrook Single Vineyard Nebbiolo suggests this vineyard is well suited to the variety.

What is your favourite wine?

That’s like being asked about my favourite child, isn’t it?  My preferences tend to change with the weather.  My wummer ‘go-to’ wine would be a complex, crisp, and mineral textured Chardonnay, while during the cooler winter months I’m more likely to indulge in a ripe, multi-layered Cabernet Sauvignon. For a special occasion I might decant an Italian Barolo (Nebbiolo) and year-round you’ll find Coopers Pale Ale in my beer fridge.  It takes a lot of beer to make good wine.

What is your favourite Smithbrook wine to drink right now?

The Single Vineyard Pinot Noir keeps getting better and better. Bright and lifted aromatics – unmistakably Pinot with wild strawberry, cherry, and forest floor savouriness.  Soft and jubey flavour profile, with just a hint of sweetness compliments of the seasoned new oak.  Quaffable and serious at the same time, drink it while young and fresh.

What do you like to do outside of work?

When I’m not work, you’ll likely find me outside with my wife and two boys – maybe snorkeling in Geographe Bay, or throwing the arm over in the cricket nets.  Despite my NSW Rugby League upbringing, I’m now a proud West Australian, and have switched codes to become a Fremantle Dockers AFL club member and I even coach our Junior Dunsborough AFL team. Go the Sharks!

Browse the Smithbrook wines here.


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