“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
“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