Situated on McLaren Vale’s Chalk Hill Road and straddling the Blewitt Springs and Seaview subregions, Andre Bondar and Selina Kelly’s Rayner Vineyard is a significant site, suppling fruit to many great makers over the years. With the chance to buy the vineyard in 2014, the couple dived in and have been focused on evolving the viticulture towards their ideal best-practice methods. The 14-hectare site produces the key Bondar label wines, from shiraz and grenache bearing the ‘Rayner Vineyard’ designate, to the ‘Violet Hour’, which was Bondar’s first cuvée, to the continuation of supplying fruit to Brokenwood’s established Rayner single-vineyard shiraz bottling. The viticulture is managed by Bondar and Ben Lacey.
The Rayner Vineyard was first planted in the 1950s, with subsequent additions over the years to now make up 14 hectares under vine. The key varieties are the region’s key varieties, shiraz and grenache, planted across a site that varies between clay soils and a ridge of sand that is part of the Pirramimma sandstone geology. The other Vale usual suspects of cabernet sauvignon and mataro are also present, while cinsault, carignan, touriga nacional, counoise and sagrantino have been planted over the last few years.
“We are planting more climate-appropriate varieties that ripen later in the season, as well as planting on rootstocks that use less water and cope with more salinity,” says vigneron Andre Bondar. “The use of mulch and compost has helped by adding more organic matter, giving the soil greater water-holding capacity.”
Annual cover crops of barley and legumes are grown in the mid-rows of the blocks on sandy soils, while the blocks with clay-dominant soils have a permanent sward of grasses. The annual crops are rolled rather than slashed. “This acts as mulch, suppressing weeds but also limits heat and light radiation off the white sands,” says Bondar, “reducing the temperature of the canopy in the heat of summer. It also adds essential carbon and nitrogen once it breaks down.”
Sulphur is used in the vineyard for disease management, with copper rarely employed, and a focus on opening the canopy through leaf plucking to improve airflow and minimise pressure. “Where possible, we run our vineyard organically,” says Bondar. “We are held back from full conversion by the couch grass that strangles our vines in the sand. We are being pragmatic in blocks where we have problems with couch. We also have other blocks where we run organically with under-vine mowing and dodge ploughing, and we hope to run all the vineyard this way in time but are realistic about controlling the couch grass first.”
Since taking over the Rayner vineyard, Bondar’s focus has been centred on building soil health and microbial diversity while reducing – and perhaps eventually eliminating – the need for irrigation. “The aim is for the vine to be healthy and happy, do what it wants to, limited by the natural rainfall and how that sits in the soil. A true expression of the site.” Several of the block are now dry grown, but drip irrigation infrastructure exists throughout the vineyard, with those vines that are irrigated utilising recycled water.
Additionally, Bondar and Lacey have been focused on areas of the property not planted to vines, with rainfall catchment areas devoted to native species. “One of my first thoughts on this land after we bought it was to replant some native vegetation, specific exactly to this area, in areas that weren’t the best for grapes,” says Bondar. “We are lucky to be a part of the EcoVineyards project where we have done exactly this, also using plants known to harbour natural predators of grapevine pests.
“This sums up my philosophies perfectly. It’s not about squeezing every ounce out of land for fast economic gain, rather it is about creating an environment that allows ongoing success and continual improvement of the land for my family for generations.”
Bondar is also acutely focused on observing as much as he is on actively farming. “With six years behind us, we have garnered a deep understanding of our vines, listening and respecting the style of wine they want to produce,” he says. “Constant wandering through the vineyard, watching the growth habits closely, and then tasting as harvest approaches has highlighted how different certain areas are even within a single block. Our brand has been built around these outcomes.”
While the geology and location of the site was always going to be suited to fresher, more mid-weight expressions, which are suited to Bondar and Kelly’s sensibilities, that generality was still an assumption that was never going to dictate the site management or the winemaking. “Turning blocks that had previously been seen as only good for making commercial wines into blocks that produce great award-winning single vineyard wines,” offers Bondar as validation of that approach.
“This isn’t just about managing vines to good health, but also recognising that each block and even areas within blocks want to make a certain kind of wine, and it’s our job to nurse it to be the best it can be in that guise. Great wine starts from decisions made about planting, pruning, canopy management and many more things that are all carried out prior to harvest.”
As an example, Bondar reflects on their oldest grenache block, planted in 1970. “2015 was the first year we hand-picked this block selectively by area to produce three products, based on the potential in the grapes: rosé, our ‘Junto’ grenache blend, and then perhaps our best wine, the ‘Rayner Vineyard’ Grenache.
“In the first year we managed this block, in 2014, we used more conventional methods, with irrigation during heat events, and all picked together. The result was an okay wine. Now, five years later, with organic principles and the focus on soil and vine health, we find the vines do not need irrigation at all. With the selective picking of the three areas, our three products have all improved markedly year on year, to the point where they have each won best of their category trophies at recent wine shows. And perhaps more importantly, show a consistent and strong freshness, and a definitive style regardless of vintage, fresh and elegant, that screams of our deep sandy site.”