“There’s more wine than water on the Granite Belt right now,” Rob Fenwick, Heritage Estate Wines
HANDEL’S Water Music is dancing around the room, ducking under a solid steel beam, which was used to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It weaves around the ancient timber table at which I am perched, before one final twirl and the German composer’s notes strike my wine glass. I am at Heritage Estate Wines on the Granite Belt, seated around the same solid rosewood and leather table at which the Queensland Government was formed in 1859. But I am not here to participate in a political discussion, rather, I am clutching a French-oaked wild fermented chardonnay, chatting about wine and bushfire and drought. It’s an unprecedented situation: how to turn wine into water. And the irony of those watery, wistful musical notes waltzing around the room are not lost on me.
This journey has taken me from Brisbane into Southern Queensland Country, past Aratula before snaking over Cunningham’s Gap, through Warwick and into Stanthorpe. The dams are all but bone dry. The soil is so parched it cackles like a witch underfoot. Recent bushfires have painted patches of country charcoal black. Forget Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar’s sunburnt country, this land is blistering. These ragged, jagged edges are enough to make you weep if you allow it, but save your salty tears. For amid the ashes and the dust which lodges in your throat there is resilience and hope in spades.
Heritage Estate’s Rob and Therese Fenwick are fighting back in the only way they know how. With wine. The creamy Chardonnay I am drinking, which is about a divisive as climate change itself, won Winestate Magazine Wine of the Year in 2009. I sample my first ever Fiano, made from an ancient Mediterranean variety, and part of the Strangebird wine varieties you’ll find all around the Granite Belt. There’s a buttery Marsanne and a crisp Verdelho on the Strangebird list here too, along with a Tempranillo, Shiraz Viognier, and Shiraz Mourvedre Grenache. While not a Strangebird, I pause to admire the name of the Rabbit Fence Red. Every winery has at least one of these Strangebird or alternative varieties and it’s the secret to this region’s ongoing success.
“People love the experience of small wineries with real owners and people who have skin in the game,” Rob says.
“The 2020 vintage will be small but it should be fabulous. When you’ve had less water on the vine you get a better taste of grape.
“People should come back to the Granite Belt because while we have more wine than water right now, the biggest fear is unemployment.”
I sashay down to Savina Lane Wines, the newest cellar door on the Granite Belt, but with vines that were planted 65 years ago by an Italian family after World War Two. Despite the drought, the first bud bursts are blooming at this winery which is so popular, it only opens to the public for 10 weeks a year. For the rest of the year, wine is sold to an exclusive membership of just 600. The names Fiano, Graciano, Montepulciano, Petit Manseng, Tempranillo and Viognier swirl around my tongue. Brad Hutchings, who owns this winery with his wife Cheryl, indicates towards the 30,000 bottle cellar before saying “The most expensive thing here is the water. It’s a 2018 vintage because that’s the last time it rained.”
But despite the drought, Cheryl is excited about next year’s vintage.
“It should be extraordinary. Because the vines have had a very hard year they’ve struggled and will work much harder to produce moisture and nutrition,” she says.
“The old 65-year-old girls are thriving.”
The sun has plunged below the horizon by the time I arrive at Jester Hill Wines owned by Mick and Anne Bourke, a couple of motorcyclists who went for a ride one day and ended up buying a winery.
I sip on a Strangebird Sparkling Roussanne, one of only three in the world, while a bubbly Ann reflects on the drought.
She’s been back working full time as a nurse to simply cover the vineyard’s $2500 a week water bill.
“We’ve just had to look at the drought in every positive way and make it work for us. At the end of the day we are here for the long haul,” she says.
“It’s not even about covering our vintage for next year, it’s about looking after the vines and creating an environment that people want to come for.
“For us, our story is always a positive story. What brings people here are positive experiences.”
And positive they are. Dine here on local produce such as Mallow Organic Lamb, feast on the region’s cheese, eat fruit plucked straight from the orchard, and try the Two Fools Trinculo or the Triboulet.
Girraween National Park Ranger Sue Smith, who owns Pyramids Road Wine with her husband Warren, leans like a laconic Queenslander, her heavy walking boots firmly planted on the original timber floor of her cellar door, and talks about the “emotional connection” she has with her winery.
“We are striving for quality. Nothing goes into that bottle unless we believe it is going to sell. Grapes will grow themselves but good grapes, you need to look after,” she says.
“This year is going to be very challenging. We are hoping all the work we’ve done in the vineyard is going to help them survive. We’ve also done a lot of composting and mulching.
“We need tourism badly. The small amount of water you are going to use here is nothing.”
Old-style chardonnay lovers with adore the 2018 Barrel Ferment Chardonnay here.
At Ballandean Estate Wines, the region’s oldest and most renowned wineries, Leanne Puglisi is straight-shooting about the year they’ve endured.
“We started in 1928 and this is probably the toughest year we’ve experienced as a family. It is quite scary the decisions we are having to make with the drought,” she says.
“Our region can do lots of things well. For so long the Granite Belt was left to do what it wanted to do and we love to do what we want to do.
“The general public just assumes that Queensland is all beaches, but we have the highest wine altitude in Australia.”
A heavenly highlight of a visit here, apart from the award-winning wine (try the “Messing About” Fiano) is dining on traditional Italian fare in the Barrel Room Restaurant among 150-year-old port barrels.
Across the road, Golden Grove Estate’s Raymond Costanzo, who is also 2019 Queensland Winemaker of the Year, says their story is all about alternative varieties such as the Tempranillo, Nero d’Avola, Malbec and Durif.
“The last five years has been about having fun, breaking out and playing around with tastes and food,” he says.
It’s a similar story of ingenuity at Twisted Gum Wines where Tim and Michelle Coelli produce single-vineyard, non-irrigated wines.
“I feel that we are in a slightly better position than vines that have been irrigated a lot,” Michelle says.
“Our vines have a deep root system. They are very in tune with seasonality. They are very resilient and opportunistic.”
Sit in this tin and timber Queenslander and sip on the likes of Verdelho/Semillon and Shiraz Rose.
At the adjacent Hidden Creek Winery and Café, ducks are paddling in the remnants of the dam but the 2018 Queensland Winery of the Year powers on, diversifying from old-style wines into more hardy grapes such as Tempranillo and Viognier. This huge-hearted winery also donates $2 from every glass of wine and $5 from every bottle they sell to the Rural Fire Brigade.
Hot winds are fanning another bushfire south of the border at Tenterfield by the time I arrive at the Queensland College of Wine Tourism (QCWT). But amid the acrid smoke in the air, there’s optimism galore. Nearby, a kookaburra laughs outrageously, as if he knows everything is going to be OK.
QCWT CEO Peter O’Reilly says there is already so much growth out of the fire scar in the area.
“Once we see a couple of storms go through, this place will leap out of the ground,” he says.
“There are a lot of really great pictures and encouraging signs in that regard.”
So passionate is QCWT about Queensland as a wine producing region, it is home to the “vineyard of the future” in which 70 different varieties of grapes are being trialled to determine which will perform better in extreme climate conditions.
It’s a sentiment being echoed back in Brisbane at Sirromet Wines, whose 105ha of vines are grown out at Ballandean, and which is poised to plant 15 new varieties to meet climate change challenges.
“I have a strong belief that Queensland wine will dominate not only in Australia but across the world,” says wine maker Mike Hayes.
“We are acting on the Granite Belt crusade. The good thing about the Granite Belt is that it is relatively new.
“Queensland has got the ability to showcase the varieties to the world. We are not tied up in tradition. We’ve shown the world it can be done.”
The Global Goddess stayed at Grovely House Bed and Breakfast https://grovelyhouse.com.au
And travelled as a guest of the Queensland Wine Industry Association https://queenslandwine.com.au
and Granite Belt Wine and Tourism https://granitebeltwinecountry.com.au
This post was created in partnership with Southern Queensland Country https://www.southernqueenslandcountry.com.au