Hugh Hamilton

Bent Road is not your average winery. Who on earth would think of a label with a photo of a decaying skeleton on a table for a line of wines? If there is a boundary to be pushed or a wine rule to be broken, chances are these guys have already done it. Amphora wines? Done. Maturing in oak cubes? Anyone else doing that? Seriously extensive skin contact? A church for a tasting room? They even have one of them!

Grapes at Bent Road.
Grapes at Bent Road.

Bent Road Winery is a team effort between Glen Robert, Robert Richter and Andrew Scott. It came about some years back when Glen and Robert were doing a little property development in Brisbane and decided it might be fun to try something in the country. After a few years searching for an ideal spot, in 2000 they found it – on the western edge of the Granite Belt, near Ballandean. Robert then had the bright idea that Glen should study winemaking. Why Glen? As a biochemist and medical researcher, it seemed to fit. Robert, a former professional photographer, now looks after the viticulture. Andrew Scott, former sommelier, who has experience in Chablis, also works as associate winemaker.

Horticulturist Andrew Price and owner/winemaker Glen Robert.
Horticulturist Andrew Price and owner/winemaker Glen Robert.

So it was off to Charles Sturt University for Glen, while vines were planted. After graduating, Glen spent time at a number of local wineries and also in Napa Valley at Cakebread Cellars. Their first vintage was 2005 and they have not stopped since. You won’t find them in most guides, word of mouth is working well enough, but you will find them in some of Australia’s best restaurants as the somms slowly discover what a gem Bent Road is. The top establishments in Sydney and Brisbane have been especially supportive, something that not every local Queensland winery can claim.

The property, on an exquisitely beautiful stretch of the Severn River – I’m assured that there are yellowbelly and even the occasional large Murray cod available for the catching – is 40 hectares, at an altitude of 770 metres. Nearly 3 hectares are devoted to vines. This is cool climate viticulture and it helps the wines gain the elegance that is the hallmark of the region. It is not going too far to suggest that the Granite Belt is making wines, if you will excuse the generalisation, more European in style than almost anywhere else in this country. Glen refers to them as “Edith Piaf wines”.

The La Petite Mort range of wines.
The La Petite Mort range of wines.

The tasting room is an old church. For those of us rarely seen in such an establishment, make an exception. But the church, originally constructed in 1901, wasn’t on the property. It was relocated, in its entirety, from the town of Thanes Creek, which is more than 100 kilometres away from the winery. It needed very little refurbishment on arrival, though I’m told that they were within a whisker of losing the entire building over a nearby hill, during the move.

Varieties grown on the estate include marsanne, merlot, shiraz, semillon, tempranillo and verdelho, with nebbiolo to come. They also source montepulciano, pinot noir and sangiovese from nearby, and some saperavi from South Burnett. Organics is the plan, though they are not fanatical and should a season demand it, they would think of appropriate spraying.

Harvest in the Bent Road vineyard.
Harvest in the Bent Road vineyard.

Not every wine receives the weird and wonderful treatment, but plenty do. The team is trialling 500-litre oak cubes from Spain. One of their great advantages is that they can be transported from Spain as flatpacks, meaning you can fit about 20 in the same space as two new barrels. They offer the same oak/wine contact as a 300-litre standard hogshead and can be stacked ten high. So far, so good, though the humidity might be causing a tiny amount of leakage. The boys are working on that and will have it solved before they are used in commercial operation. The cubes are also much easier to recycle when that day comes. Some are American oak; some French.

The guys are also delighted with their latest addition. A 1,000-gallon barrel, three or four decades old, from a nearby winery, where it spent its entire life full of water. The results promise to be interesting.

Amphorae have been in use here for five years, 14 of them, and are proving very successful. Buried to the neck, they look a bit like a garden from Alice in Wonderland. Glen describes their appearance, pre-burial, as resembling “big sweet potatoes”. From Georgia, the qvevri, as they are called, are 450 to 600 litres each. In 2013, UNESCO included this form of Georgian winemaking on its Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

The clay used does influence the minerality of the final wine. Some are closed with cling wrap, others a lid. The time the wine spends in these vessels will vary, depending on the fruit and the vintage, but in general, whites will usually enjoy around two months skin contact in the qvevri. Reds, “until we are ready”, and this can be very extensive. The 2017 Saperavi spent a whopping 193 days on skins.

Glen Robert and Andrew Scott.
Glen Robert and Andrew Scott.

It can be a worrying experience as in the early days of contact, Glen describes the wines as going through a “funny adolescence, pimply ugly” and often appearing to be “over-extracted”. In time, they mature and emerge from this stage. From these vessels, the wines are then pressed to tank, settled and bottled. They are not fanatical about the wines being pristinely clean, which may be off-putting for some, but it is flavour, character and quality that rule here.

As well as their Bent Road range, they have La Petite Mort (with the skeleton labels), for more experimental wines. Visits are by appointment, but the team will be delighted to welcome those interested. Of course, all of this would be of little more than academic interest if the wines were not so good.

Among the stars, the 2017 La Petite Mort Amphora VMR (A$35, now sold out and on to the 2018), a blend of viognier, marsanne and roussanne, spent 67 days on skins in the qvevri. Unfiltered and unfined, it is very much a funky style. Stone fruit and florals, it is a wine that screams out to be matched with food. A gorgeous texture. The 2017 La Petite Mort Chardonnay (A$35) sees 30% new French oak. It offers bright acidity and delightful flavours of grapefruit, lemon crystals and spice. Lovely length.

Among the reds, two really stand out. The 2017 La Petite Mort Amphora S.V. (A$35), has shiraz co-fermented with approximately 2% viognier and spent 135 days on skins in the qvevri. Exuberant, with a chocolate/blueberry note, this is wonderfully supple and delicious.

A vineyard at  Bent Road.
A vineyard at Bent Road.

The 2016 La Petite Mort The Monte (A$35, now on the 2017) is montepulciano which sees a little new French oak and comes from a small vineyard planted across the River. Plush and with aromas reminiscent of an Italian kitchen, this is finely textured and perfectly balanced. Loved it. The 2018 is already in oak cubes.

The future? Anything is possible with these guys though they will admit to the possibility of a Jura style wine. And the skeleton label? It is based on a photo by well-known Australian photographer Ray Cook. Bent Road is simply one of the most interesting, innovative and must-try producers operating anywhere in this country.