People tend not to consider winemaking as a physically gruelling activity, but on a stinking hot summer day in February at Dale Wheeler’s Chum Creek vineyard, it was clear that a certain level of physical resilience is definitely required.
However, Queensland-born Dale is probably used to the heat, and seemed to be oblivious to the sun beating down on our heads.
A student in Melbourne Polytechnic’s degree in Agriculture and Technology majoring in viticulture and winemaking, Dale walked the avenues of Chardonnay and Syrah vines high on the hills of Chum Creek, north-east of Melbourne, and described the journey that had led to him and his business partner, Rhen Dodd, launching their independent wine label, Strenua, in 2014.
According to Dale, a Brunswick resident, it was a combination of a fortuitous opportunity and lots of hard work that has led to their current success. In 2011, the owners of the Chum Creek property had purchased the place complete with twenty-two year old vines, but didn’t have the resources or desire to manage the vines.
Pulling up the vines was potentially an expensive operation, as well as a shame given their age, so in 2013 they contacted Melbourne Polytechnic to see if any of the viticulture students were interested in managing the vines and harvesting the grapes.
Dale and his friend Rhen, a former Melbourne Polytechnic student, jumped at the chance, recognising a unique opportunity to start their own label using their own fruit, unlike so many labels who have to purchase fruit.
The vineyard is situated in a climatically cooler pocket of the Yarra Valley, with a soil profile of clay loam and the less common ironstone dispersed throughout the site. Dale and Rhen recognised this distinctive combination of environmental characteristics could make the site stand out within the region.
Still, it took two and a half years to revitalise the neglected vines with improved farming practices, but their care has paid off.
“We made a decision early on to run the vineyard completely organically, with a focus on generating greater biodiversity within the soils,” says Dale. “We believe this leads to more expressive wines.”
The pair also made the call to avoid the heavy, glyphosate-based chemicals used to create an under-vine spray strip, which, although aesthetically pleasing, is detrimental to soil health and overall wine quality.
The wines are produced naturally with no additions except for a small amount of sulphur dioxide, necessary to preserve the wines. Natural fertilisers such as cover crops, seaweed and site-fermented fish emulsions are also used for an overall ‘minimal impact’ approach to grape production.
After a lot of hard work, the pair have produced their first well-received vintage of a boutique small-run wine that sells quickly, thanks to the support of Melbourne’s independent wine sellers.
“It’s nice to see that it was well received by the public and not just our mates," says Dale.
The results speak for themselves; the small, single-barrel releases of Rosé and Chardonnay have most sold out, with small volumes of Syrah not far behind.
They focus on selling their wine through a handful of wine bars and independent wine sellers and, having both worked in the wine industry for many years, they are well versed in how the industry works.
Both Dale and Rhen still work full-time in the industry, but hope to eventually make their label a bigger part of their career.
It doesn’t hurt that Dale completed a Bachelor of Business (Advertising) at Queensland University of Technology before moving to Melbourne and pursuing his passion for wine at Melbourne Polytechnic.
“The Melbourne Polytechnic course really complements practical experience and provides a realistic view of what you will be faced with. When you’re working on a student budget with no equipment, it’s very challenging, and the teachers in the course have been very supportive,” says Dale.
Part of the practical experience he gained through the course was taking part in a study tour to Spain in 2014, spending three weeks in Rueda, central Spain, to produce a full vintage of Verdejo, Tempranillo and Garnacha rosé.
The chardonnay grapes at the Chum Creek vineyard were harvested in February, and the Syrah in early March, so Strenua’s customers are eagerly anticipating the 2016 vintage, which is sure to fly off the shelves. Dale and Rhen are currently busy processing the grapes while their two Southdown sheep keep the grass down between the resting vines.
Strenua’s new vintage of Chardonnay and Syrah will be available in September or October 2016 – keep an eye on their Instagram account for updates. Stockists currently include Rathdowne Cellars, Black Hearts and Sparrows, and the City Wine Shop, as well as selected wine bars and restaurants in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs.
Media enquiries should be directed to Melbourne Polytechnic Media Officer, Anita Coia, on 03 9269 1251 or ua.ud1511252804e.cin1511252804hcety1511252804lopen1511252804ruobl1511252804em@ai1511252804deM1511252804
Melbourne Polytechnic operates across six campuses and five specialist training centres throughout Melbourne. The institute delivers high quality vocational and higher education in industry-standard facilities.
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Media enquiries should be directed to the NMIT Communications Officer, James Gardener.