Nathan Gogoll spent a couple days in the Granite Belt late last year. He found a vibrant wine industry, lots of interesting projects and plenty of characters. The rest of the Australian grape and wine community should take note.
THERE ARE SOME MISCONCEPTIONS about the Granite Belt that need to be addressed. They don’t grow pineapples and bananas at the end of the vine rows. Far from it. In fact, the region is well known for its apple, vegetable and stone fruit crops.
It’s probably a hot and humid region. Actually, the Granite Belt is the coldest region in Queensland, and the locals refer to winter as ‘brass monkey’ season*. It doesn’t get to wear an official ‘cool climate’ tag as the MJT is 21.5°C (Mean January Temperature) which is on par with the Barossa and the heat degree days number is about the same as McLaren Vale. However, there are some vineyards planted at more than 1000m elevation.
People who don’t know much about the region assume it produces poor-quality, sweet wines. This is way off the mark. A quick glance at the number of capital city wine show medals awarded to Granite Belt wines reinforces the quality coming out of the region.
Well, the wines are probably cheap. Not necessarily. Thanks to a very strong percentage of wine sold direct to consumers, there’s not a lot of downward pressure on the prices. It’s not hard to find wines in the $10-$20 range; but there are also gold medal and trophy winning wines available from $30 up to $130.
There wouldn’t be any good winemaking facilities up there. Apart from the host of small producers that have everything from new flotation options for clarification; through to their own bottling lines, capable of handling Methode Traditionelle sparkling. The Queensland College of Wine Tourism is also based in the region. And there an accredited laboratory on hand offering enzymatic test kits, export certification and wine microbiological testing services.
We’re still waiting to see if anything good will develop up there. Hang on, there are 50-year-old vineyards, families with three generations in the game and the history of viticulture in the region dates back to 1870s and the influence of a Catholic Priest, Father Jerome Davadi – who seems most likely to have been the region’s first vigneron and winemaker.
So let’s leave those misconceptions behind us and meet some of the key people and projects of the Granite Belt.
Ray Costanzo, Golden Grove Estate winemaker:
The family vineyard and, as a result, the winery is focused on alternative varieties: Tempranillo, Durif, Mataro, Malbec, Vermentino etc.
“The alternatives have just worked really well for us,” Ray said.
Tempranillo is something Ray believes suits the region – and can help show the diversity on offer.
“Everyone does it differently and everyone does it well,” Ray said. “We’ve got a 15-year-old block that produces bloody good fruit. I just wish we had more.”
The Golden Grove winemaker admits he has changed his winemaking style in recent years. Some of this has been a result of increasing popularity and needing to release new vintage wines earlier than planned.
“I always wanted to make a bigger style, I wasn’t chasing the Joven version,” Ray said.
“But I guess that’s been a victim of our own success. We have been releasing wines a bit earlier than I really wanted to… which has resulted in a different style – more fruit driven.
“So I’ve had to relax my winemaking.”
Ray admits he has found his “happy place” making delicious dinner wines.
“I have done a complete 360 on what I used to be like as a winemaker,” he said.
And he’s happy to give credit to a number of “positive influences” he’s had along the journey, including Steve Webber and Peter Fraser.
Ray’s father, Sam, has a really simple explanation for how the family property came to be involved with the alternative varieties.
“We are not afraid to do things,” Sam said.
So when Sam met Richard Smart and he found out about the Sicilian origins of the Costanzo family, he didn’t hesitate to suggest Nero d’Avola and Vermentino.
“I asked Richard to write the names down for me – and I rang Bruce Chalmers the next day,” Sam said. “I asked if I could get some Nero bud wood, because I’ve always been able to propagate, my father taught me. And then we ordered grafted Vermentino.”
However, it’s not all alternative at Golden Grove Estate. There is also a 70-year-old block of Black Muscat and some Shiraz that will turn 50 in a couple vintages. The health of these blocks is encouraging, but viticulture isn’t always easy in this part of Queensland.
One of the headaches of the Granite Belt region is the treat of hail damage in summer – apple orchards in the region are often protected by expensive, overhead net protection.
Unfortunately, Golden Grove Estate was hit hard on Christmas Eve 2014. Most of the 2015 crop was wiped out. But true to the family’s willingness to try something different, Ray bought fruit from interstate and there was still plenty of vintage action in the winery.
Sam has been trying to push the flowering period for his Nero d’Avola back a few days because he’s worried about fruit set when the flowering is impacted by cold weather.
“I’ve done some trials with late pruning, only taking the spur back after the first burst,” Sam said. “This has delayed budburst by between 10 days and two weeks, which then delays flowering.”
It is clear there’s a real passion for the industry shared across the father-and-son combination.
“Raymond is dedicated – we’re all dedicated,” Sam said.
Dylan Rhymer, Ballandean Estate winemaker:
Ballandean Estate, owned and operated by the Puglisi family, is literally just across the road from Golden Grove. The winery crushes between 200 and 250 tonnes, on average, each vintage. The fruit is sourced from two blocks, one on the winery estate property and another just down the road, near the Ballandean township.
There are more stories here about the challenging climate, again, not due to heat and humidity but frost and hail. The estate block Nebbiolo crop was damaged by frost in the lead-up to the 2014 vintage and was hit by hail before vintage 2015.
Rhymer said the cool weather that sets in toward the end of vintage also impacts inside the winery.
“It’s another challenge; it’s cold by the end of vintage. A lot of our reds go through malo in tanks with tank warmers,” he said.
Granite Belt vintages can be quite drawn out – it’s not unheard of for grapes to be picked late in January and in some seasons to wait until early in May.
“Usually the last for us is the Nebbiolo or the Cabernet around Anzac Day,” Rhymer said.
The Ballandean Estate winemaker said there are a lot of very adaptable winemakers and wine businesses in the region.
“We do a lot of experimentation, especially with the weight and structure of our wines,” he said.
“A few years ago the talk around Stanthorpe and the Granite Belt was all about having an identity as a region and the talk was Verdelho. There was a bit of a push, but there were also a few of us who didn’t really want to be restricted to any one variety or style.
“I think our winemaking is quality focused, but there’s a lot of room for experimenting.”
The Ballandean Estate cellar door is one of the most visited in the region and the winemaker said between 90 and 95 per cent of the winery’s production is sold direct through the tasting room and the mailing list.
There’s a similar high percentage of direct sales across most of the region’s wineries.
“The region has a really high cellar door to winery ratio,” Rhymer said.
“At Ballandean we have a focus on hand-selling and introducing people to things they haven’t seen before with a bit of global perspective as well.”
Rhymer said a customer base that arrives in the region with few preconceptions is a benefit to the region. The region is no more than three-hours’ drive from Brisbane and the Gold Coast and the peak season for visiting is actually winter, when the cold weather is the big drawcard. People actually enjoy having to rug up in big jackets, gloves and scarves and book accommodation where they can light a fire.
Brad Hutchings Savina Lane:
There a brand new cellar door overlooking some old vineyards at Savina Lane, owned by Brad and Cheryl Hutchings. The wines are made from the estate-grown fruit and the owners are very keen for the wines to express the terroir.
“We want to capture the essence of what the varieties do in this patch,” Brad said.
“The Granite Belt is never really going to have the real gutsy reds, but we find people really love the style of our red wines. We’ve even have people come in here saying ‘we don’t usually drink reds’ and they leave with a coupe bottles of ours.”
The signature varieties on the property are Fiano and Graciano and the new cellar door has been built in an elevated position looking across the rows.
“It’s a pretty nice view,” Brad said. “And essentially, it has become part of the marketing for us.”
The tasting room has been built above a wine cellar that will house barrels stacked three high; two pallets of finished wine on top of each other (with a capacity for 60,000 bottles); and leave room for special events with key customers.
It wasn’t the simplest of projects, with six weeks of blasting required to make a big enough impression into the rock (and given the name of the region you don’t have to guess which type of rock it was).
The whole set up has set a new benchmark in the Granite Belt and apparently other wineries are now making plans for improvements for their own tasting room facilities.
Direct sales are vital to the Savina Lane business model, the ‘inner circle’ club was launched at the Brisbane Good Food & Wine Show in 2014 and was on track to reach its maximum of 500 members at this year’s show. The members get a six pack delivered every six months and, combined with other direct orders, this usually results in the ‘sold out’ sign hanging on the front fence and the cellar door being closed for a few months of the year.
Vineyard for the Future:
One of the more recent projects, and more nationally significant, has been the start of the ‘vineyard for the future’ project at the Stanthorpe campus of the University of Southern Queensland. The ambition is to establish a broad selection of varieties (four of each for more, eight of each for varieties that will be in high demand for cuttings) that have been virus tested, clonal selected and own-rooted.
Peter O’Reilly, Queensland College of Wine Tourism chief executive officer, said there is a precision viticulture focus in the vineyard – which makes it a great education tool – and there are lots of good reasons to have this sort of “reservoir of vineyard material set aside”.
There’s also a big focus on alternative varieties.
“Alternative varieties are so important to Queensland, it’s not just another game for us – it’s the main game,” O’Reilly said.
“We’ve thrown in everything we could get our hands on. And we’ve started planting to get ahead of the curve.”
One of the region’s best know winemakers, Mike Hayes from Symphony Hill, is a huge supporter of the college and its vineyard project.
“This college, singularly, is the best thing to happen to the Queensland industry,” Hayes said. “We need to nurture it, be a part of it and develop with it. The scope here is incredible and up here in Queensland we don’t have all of the tradition to prevent us from thinking outside the square – we’re not restricted.
“There’s a big focus on the education here and everyone in the region is on board and wants to see it work.”
The Symphony Hill winemaker said the trials of alternative varieties never seen in Queensland before is exciting and he sees plenty of options to explore, pointing to Georgia, Croatia and Slovenia as more potential sources of varieties that may offer potential in Australia.
The ‘vineyard for the future’ already has 46 varieties planted – and is supported by Wine Australia – and everybody involved at the winery on the campus is looking forward to making micro batches of wine from them.
Adam Chapman, Sirromet Wines winemaker:
This is a ‘Granite Belt producer’ with a twist – the winery is set on the fringes of outer suburban Brisbane, in Mt Cotton (almost the same distance from Stanthorpe as the Brisbane Airport – about 240km). However, Sirromet is a big player in the region – with 100 hectares under vine it represents nearly one-fifth of the total plantings.
Although the winery is removed from the region it’s cellar door is still one of the best marketing propositions the region has. The Mt Cotton location is 30 minutes from the Brisbane CBD and less than one hour’s drive from Caville Avenue, in the heart of Surfers Paradise.
(Editor’s note: When you consider how close most of the 2.5 million tourists visiting Queensland each year will be to the winery at some stage during their visit, it’s not hard to understand why the place was jumping when I visited on a Wednesday morning.)
Tourism is big business at Sirromet. There are tours available in Mandarin and Japanese, as well as masterclasses offered with a Mandarin-speaking, WSET-qualified host.
While there are vineyards and wineries within a manageable drive, winemaker Adam Chapman doesn’t have the luxury of a concentrated industry base close at hand.
“We are isolated. I can’t just pop into the winery next door for a chat – and I can’t call another winemaker from just up the road to come in and taste some wines with me,” Chapman said.
But the team at Sirromet has looked at this situation with a ‘glass half full’ view – and has become an approved program presenter of Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Through his own involvement in the training, Chapman said his “world wine knowledge” has improved dramatically. Chapman is now one of the educators in the Level 1 and 2 courses held at the winery and Bree Boskov has recently been appointed to help run the Level 3.
Chapman said many people involved in the industry would not be aware that many Granite Belt vineyards are planted at elevations twice as high as you find in the Macedon Ranges and Eden Valley.
“The high elevation doesn’t necessarily make it better, but it does make us different,” he said.
He has been doing some interesting work on soil profiles and mapping that helps him to plot vineyard performance and understand the potential influences. He’s had some very clever people help overlay data onto three-dimensional maps that can have different characteristics turned on or off and be viewed from all angles.
He hopes it is the beginning of a user-friendly system that could be adopted by others across the region.
Tony Hassall, Just Red Wines:
The Just Red Wines story started when the Hassall family relocated from New Zealand 20 years ago; first planted vines in 1999; saw both the first vintage and a terrible family tragedy in 2003; and survived as a side project while the winemaker spent several years as a Wine Industry Development Officer with the Department of Primary Industries.
Tony Hassall used to call Whakatani, Bay of Plenty, home and even owned a commercial vineyard and winery in New Zealand. But after completing a viticulture/oenology diploma through Lincoln University he started thinking about having his own vineyard and winemaking operation.
“We started looking around and the Granite Belt really appealed to us as having great potential,” Hassall said.
With the site secured, Hassall set about acquiring more qualifications (a Master of Science degree in agriculture – his thesis compared organic with conventional viticulture). He landed a job as an accountant for the local council, based in Warwick, and still found time for his vines on the weekend.
“But I eventually gave up my ‘day job’,” Hassall said.
“We’ve seen the industry really take off here since we arrived. When we first got here there might have been 20 cellar doors, but that has jumped to 50.
“Most of us sell nearly all our wines direct to our consumers through our cellar doors and through various events and shows we attend.”
The Just Red vineyard are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Viognier (into a Shiraz Viognier, so still technically ‘just red’) and Tannat.
Hassall see’s great potential for the Shiraz Viognier blend as well as his Tannat – which he came across in his days with the DPI near the Sunshine Coast.
“I’d been looking around and thought Tannat might be a good variety to try, then I came across it at Eumundi – which would have to be one of the most humid, wet places possible to grow grapes, but it was coping.”
The variety has relatively open bunches and thick skins, a good combination for mildew resistance.
“Tannat really holds its acid as well, I’ve never had to do any acid addition with ours,” Hassall said. “It’s got quite a good blending potential and in France you generally see it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It adds a lot of tannin and colour to a blend.
“We got a local group together to do a Tannat tasting and it included wines from France and Uruguay as well as a couple Granite Belt examples,” he said. “Ours stood up really well; in fact we thought it did better than the international benchmarks.
Hassall has also been involved in an ongoing Shiraz clonal trial, which the Granite Belt Wine and Tourism Association managed to secure Queensland Wine Industry Association funding for.
The project involves several sites planted with different clones side-by-side (Just Red has 1654 and PT23). Hopefully the insights from the trials might make it into these pages in the future.
Peter McGlashan, Ridgemill Estate winemaker:
Although he has about 20 years’ experience working around the Granite Belt – and 12 with Ridgemill – Peter McGlashan is still a rising star in the region.
A hospitality background was as strange introduction to work in the vineyard, but when McGlashan met Martin Cooper (who, at the time, had just bought the Ridgemill property) he was looking for an all-rounder.
Cooper is originally from Melbourne and only made it to the Granite Belt for the first time in 2004. He admits he was “blown away” by what he found – and within a few days had purchased what was the Emerald Hill property.
“Martin hired me and asked if I could run the cellar door the answer was ‘yep, I can do that’. But when he asked about the winemaking it was more like ‘I can probably do that’,” McGlashan said.
Ridgemill Estate has six acres of estate vineyard and the winery is building towards a 25-tonne production; the property is completed by the cellar door and accommodation facilities.
It turns out that winter is peak season for visitors, when the main attraction for some people is the opportunity to put on their winter gloves and scarves or head indoors and light a roaring fire.
The cellar door tasters get to sample a traditional Aussie variety (Chardonnay) as well as a couple of alternatives (Saperavi, Tempranillo and Verdelho).
The Chardonnay has attracted strong wine show results though McGlashan’s ambition to work with the cleanest and most-balanced fruit he can access.
“Pete’s prepared to have a go – and that’s really good to have as the owner,” Cooper said.
One of the areas McGlashan ‘had a go’ is having a big impact across the region. Together with Jim Barnes he created the idea for an ‘alternative variety wine trail’ which has evolved into the ‘Strange Bird’ touring map.
“On quiet days or Sunday afternoons Jim and I would exchange phone calls and emails, brainstorming how we could find something to help us sell these wines to people who we were struggling to sell to,” McGlashan said.
The current incarnation of the project is built around an easy-to-follow map and information about 10 alternative white and 15 alternative red varieties. There are 30 wineries involved and the information provided on each variety includes a phonetic guide to pronunciation; information on the origin; typical wine characteristics; as well as food matching suggestions.
McGlashan said the work on the Strange Bird project has been a positive community builder.
It is recognised as a valuable tool for the region.
“Strange Bird is just such smart marketing and it helps plant the seed,” said Peter O’Reilly. “Alternative varieties are going to be important for Australia, but hugely important for Queensland and the Granite Belt.”
* A ‘brass monkey’ was a plate used by artillerymen to stack cannonballs onto. In especially cold weather the plate would shrink and the cannonballs would roll off. Which is the real reason behind the saying ‘it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’.
This article first appeared in the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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