By Franz Scheurer
Stephen and Rhoda Doyle established a vineyard in Orange, NSW in 1983. Not only was it the first vineyard in this high altitude area, neither Stephen nor Rhonda had any commercial experience in wine growing or wine making and there was no local history or expertise to help them along in their pioneering ways.
The vineyard is located on the mid slopes of a free standing, north and easterly facing headland comprised of some of the oldest soils on this planet. Low vigour soils of calcareous silt stone, greywake and limestone breccia overlying a friable red clay base and a deeply fissured Middle Ordovician parent material provide an ideal environment for the manageable growth of vines in what is a soft, cool and sunny continental Australian environment. Annual rainfall averaging a little over 750 mm is winter dominant, with the ripening months of February, March and April traditionally the driest. Although the area experiences regular snow falls during winter and into spring, the mean temperature of 20º C for January helps bring the mean annual temperature up to a comfortable 12.8º C.
They planted Merlot Noir, which thrived in the gravely soils at Bloodwood. In 1986 the first vintage of 600 litres followed and over the next 19 years Stephen and Rhonda planted different varieties according to carefully selected soils, according to their perceived potential, on their property. High quality, cool climate fruit was (and still is) the cornerstone of the path to quality in their wines and the word ‘compromise’ simply never existed in their vocabulary.
These days Bloodwood grow Merlot Noir; Cabernet Sauvignon; Shiraz; Cabernet Franc; Malbec;
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, on 8.072 Hectares, producing 55 to 75 tonnes depending
on the season.
Q: What made you give up a good job and city life for an uncertain future in the country?
A: We really weren’t cut out for a nine to five regulated existence (not that any body works
those sort of hours these days) and could see the writing on the wall. That writing, which
was to be found on the newly constructed Eastern suburbs railway in Sydney way back then
read “be born, be silent, consume and die” Being from a country background and having
developed a strong interest in food, wine and winemaking at the time, we decided to act
on the urge. After almost 20 years at Bloodwood we’re content that we did.
Q: Your philosophy is ‘Beyond sustainability towards restorative viniculture & vinification’,
according to your website, would you care to explain and expand?
A: As everyone must by now be aware, the planet is in an environmentally tenuous state.
The Australian wine industry projects a fair bit of smugness in deluding itself that it is basically
clean and green in its approach to wine production. This attitude is a bit like a smoker of mild
cigarettes fooling him self that jumping off the 49th floor is better for his health than leaping
off the 50th. With this in mind, we are trying to successively “close the loop” when it comes
to viticultural and vinicultural inputs. Take for example, our vineyard soils. After hand
pruning, the canes are slashed and side delivered to each vine row in a similar manner to
our nitrogen rich green manure crops. We also return all processing wastes (bunch stalks,
skins, mark, tank yeast and malo lees and pressings) to the vineyard in which they originated.
We use only soft chemicals in the vineyard spray programme such as copper and sulfur both
naturally deficient in our soils. Over time this sort of approach not only holds the line in
soil health, it gradually improves the health and bio diversity of our vineyard soils. This is
what we mean by restorative. Eventually we would like not only to entirely hand make
our wines on site as we do at present but to hand bottle and package using as much
recycled Bloodwood glass, cardboard and energy as possible. We have already started
this approach in a small way with our current Pinot Noir.
Q: I first encountered your wines about 6 years ago and immediately fell in love with
your Chardonnay and Merlot Noir. In my experience, every successive vintage exceeded
my expectations, although I know you had your fair share of bad luck. It seems that the
weather gods are not always kind?
A: Wine growing, for all its technology is an agricultural crop. This means that the real arbiter
of the quality of any vintage is the seasonal weather or more particularly the ripening weather.
We have had our share of hail storms at Bloodwood over the years, particularly New Year’s
Eve 1989 and 19th October 1999, but the weather is generally kind to us at Bloodwood with
long dry sunny autumns and good moisture over winter and early spring when it is needed most.
Having said that, if you are contemplating farming of any sort in Australia, it may be advisable
to undertake some sort of counselling to help you cope with the inevitable grief associated with
the random loss of a year’s income from what may only be a 10 minute thunderstorm on an
otherwise balmy summer day.
Q: A couple of your wines carry interesting names, like the Maurice and the Schubert.
Can you explain the rationale?
A: The Maurice is a selection of the best half dozen barrels of red wine we produce.
This is always a subjective procedure at best, however it does represent the pick of the vintage
reds from our point of view. The selection varies from year to year. For example the 98 was
almost pure Merlot Noir while the 99 assemblage ended up being 5 barrels of Cabernet and
1 barrel of a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot Noir. The troubles of the 2000 vintage
explained above meant that there was no Maurice from that year, however we have our
eyes on some smart wine in barrel from vintage 2001. The wine is named in honour of
Maurice O’Shea of Pokolbin who was a master winemaker and blender. He had the habit
of picking the eyes out of cellars he visited across New South Wales while constructing his
various premium blends and even released a wine called Stephen. Rhonda says we are
returning the compliment. The Schubert is a Chardonnay in which malo-lactic fermentation
is discouraged and extended barrel maturation is undertaken. Stephen was breaking the
soil for this small patch of grapes the day Mr Max Schubert finished up. This wine is a
tribute to Max and is an especially food friendly style with naturally high acid and a palate
which is very satisfying.
Q: The first time I visited your winery, Rhonda whipped up a terrific meal, carefully
orchestrated to show off the Bloodwood wines. Her artistry as a cook surpassed everyone’s
expectations (although Stephen’s dexterity with a fire extinguisher came in rather handy)
and I want to know wether you cater for your guests often and are you self-taught or
have you undergone some kind of formal training?
A: We are entirely self taught in both winemaking and cooking, though Stephen and I
specialize in our interests. ie. Stephen in winemaking and cooking for me. We consult each
other in critical stages of a wine or recipe development. What follows is a whole lot of open
bottles with dinner to check out opinions on the best food and wine match. Customers of
ours know that when we launch new wines, we provide tastings with some bites to eat and
cater for a seasonal food and Bloodwood wine experience using predominantly Orange
Q: I am very happy to see that many influential palates agree with mine and we are
starting to see your wines on some of our countries best restaurant’s wine lists.
What does the future hold for Bloodwood? What is Stephen and Rhonda’s vision?
A: We have always shared the same vision and made an elegant style of wine. Our grapes taste
best when they have a wonderful counterbalance of sugar and acid. Medium bodied wines
better suited to being enjoyed with a meal. Big beefy Aussi wine, whether it’s a peaches
and cream “buttery” style Chardonnay or a huge Shiraz you drink with a knife and fork,
can be a meal in itself and overpower much of the food we eat today.
We have pretty much taught ourselves over the last 20 years and are so happy to be
working in an area like Orange which still has so much more to teach us about food and wine.
Thanks a lot to Stephen and Rhoda for their time and, foremost, for their terrific wines.
For more information ring Stephen or Rhonda on 02 6362 5631
e-mail them at BigMen@bloodwood.com.au
or visit their website at: www.bloodwood.com.au