“It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home,” Tom Jones
BROODY, moody clouds are slung low in the sky, plump and heavy, these ripe cows’ udders daring to burst. There’s potholes of puddles and messy mud where dust once danced with tear drops. A storm bird singing somewhere in the distance. Creeks which gurgle with glee and dams brimming with optimism. I am on a road-to-recovery media tour of Queensland’s Granite Belt Wine Country but outside, it’s more Scotland than Southern Downs on this gorillas-in-the-mist morning where Mount Edwards wears a cloak of fog.
We punch through the clouds, south-west from Brisbane through fields of gold. There’s carrots and sweet corn in one patch of paddock, potatoes and onions buried in the next, this bounty all waiting to be exhumed and sent to markets around Australia.
Granite Highlands Maxi Tours owner and driver Allan Foster scales Cunningham’s Gap, where bushfires licked the bitumen six months earlier. I spy green shoots of hope bursting amid the blackened bush.
“Just a few months ago this country was burnt brown. We’ve had some good rain and it’s certainly greened up,” he says.
“The outer bush has come right back so well. The good old Australian bush is pretty tough.
“It is lovely and green out there right now but we are still in a drought. Our dams are empty. They’re still trucking water in.”
We pause at Sutton’s Juice Factory for fat, juicy pies stuffed with 25 apples and served with sweet apple cider ice-cream.
Manager Deb Gavin plants her feet in the humidity on this 4ha orchard and speaks of hardship. Of two years of drought, bushfires six months ago and even hail.
“The rain we’ve been getting is not enough, we would need 100mm a month for God knows how long,” she says.
Over at The Queensland College of Wine Tourism, CEO Peter O’Reilly says the region is in the middle of a “green drought”.
“In the last two years it’s been pretty ugly out in the vineyard with droughts and that sort of palaver but we are still battling on,” he says.
“It’s been horrific in terms of tourist numbers. January was the worst month in six years. December was horrendous as well.
“Key wineries won’t pick their fruit this year. If it’s not one thing, that gets you, it’s another.”
But there is hope. For ten days from February 28 to March 8, the Granite Belt will celebrate its survival, and the recent rain, with its 54th Stanthorpe Apple and Grape Harvest Festival which is expected to attract 100,000 people.
Want to know how it feels to stomp grapes till they squash through your toes? Or learn how to peel the longest apple peel? Feast on fresh fruit and award-winning wine? This is the event for you.
Strawberries as rosy as a child’s cheeks punctuate fields of emerald at Ashbern Farms where owner Brendan Hoyle discusses the drought on his 10ha property. Oh, and that delicious rain.
“We’ve been struggling with this dry and farming day-by-day. The toll that this droughts takes…you are trying to keep the wheels turning and there is no back up,” he says.
“Once you get the rain you breathe a sigh of relief.”
On this cool, cloudy afternoon we walk through the pretty patch, plucking warm, sweet strawberries straight from the bush, the sweet fruit exploding in our mouths.
We head to Jamworks Gourmet Foods & Larder where 95 per cent of its pretty products are local. There’s more than 100 gourmet jams, relishes, chutneys, sauces and pastes in this cavern of condiments. Next door, Anna’s Candles sells scented candles, intoxicating infusers and sublime soaps. Anna sells hope.
There’s time for a 2018 Blanc de Blanc sparkling chardonnay at Ridgemill Estate, whose elegant cabins are perched overlooking this vineyard, before heading to the Granite Belt Brewery, where I’ll spend the night in a log cabin crouched among Australian bush. Owner Geoff Davenport tells of how he was out fighting the bushfires and expected to come home to find his timber brewery swallowed by flames. Miraculously, the inferno stopped at the fence line.
Geoff’s wife Dee, who co-owns the business, says the 20-cabin property, which is home to koalas, echidnas and wallabies, is resilient.
“A week after the bushfires, a botanist came and he looked at the charred bush and said ‘you just wait, I can see good things are coming’,” Dee says.
Want more good things? Try their $15 Beer & Bratwurst lunch – of which 20 percent of sales is donated to Rural Men’s Health – and sample their eight beers on offer at the moment.
Before I succumb to slumber on this cool evening, I’ll dine on the likes of pork schnitzel at the intimate German/Austrian style Essen Restaurant, which opened last year.
A goat bleats a warm welcome on the next misty morning at Washpool Skin Wellness where former secondary school teacher Melissa Thomas specialises in handmade natural soaps and sensual soap-making classes.
On this soaking Saturday I pause to consider the irony of soap-making in a region that has had more wine than water in recent years. The rebellious child in me yearns to run out into that rare rain and slather myself with the soap we are discussing.
Melissa says her business is almost all online at the moment, while the drought reigns.
“Depression can be a really big issue, not only for people in primary production,” she says.
“The Buy From The Bush campaign was huge. We had hundreds of orders.”
Take a six-hour class with Melissa amid these sublime surrounds and learn the difference between supermarket soap and that made from natural ingredients such as virgin organic coconut, macadamia, oil and avocado oils, and organic shea and cacao butters.
The heavens are howling by the time we arrive at St Jude’s Cellar Door & Bistro, the Granite Belt’s newest café and cellar door experience. We feast on Eukey Road mushrooms, with a Mt Stirling olive tapenade and goat’s cheese, plus local figs and honey, while we digest the devastating drought.
“We’ve been through a pretty tough time on the Granite Belt. There wasn’t a blade of green grass,” owner and chef Robert Davidson says.
“It’s been an absolute nightmare. Most of the locals have been out fighting fires. The area has taken its toll. Until the rain three weeks ago there were so many people hanging their heads.
“It’s given some real hope. We’ve got water going into the dams, we can start planning for 2021.”
There’s time for a cheeky Chopin Chardonnay at our last stop, Paola’s The Winemaker Kitchen at Robert Channon Wines. I sit in the cool, dark barrel room lit by candles and sip the oaky, earthy grapes, contemplating rain and relief. Three months earlier when I’d visited the region in its dusty drought, bushfires on the border painting the sunset red, my eyes were full of tears. This time I leave this rich region, my belly full of flirty food, award-winning wine and bold brews. And a heart full of hope.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Granite Belt Wine Country https://granitebeltwinecountry.com.au and Tourism and Events Queensland https://www.queensland.com
She stayed at the Granite Belt Brewery https://www.granitebeltbrewery.com.au whose charming cabin accommodation starts from $430 for two people for two nights over the weekend (less during the week) and includes a breakfast basket one morning, and a cooked breakfast on Sundays
To find out more about the Stanthorpe Apple and Grape Harvest Festival go to http://www.appleandgrape.org