Ballandean Estate’s founder Angelo Puglisi gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse: you must come and celebrate half a century of making shiraz and taste some key vintages. While I probably wasn’t going to wake up with a horse head in my bed if I didn’t accept, it dawned on me that it was about time Ballandean Estate’s story was told in these pages. Puglisi has been making wine for so long, he can remember a time when you weren’t allowed to bring grapevine cuttings into Queensland (more on this later).
“I had a dream of making a wine industry for Queensland,” Puglisi says with conviction. “The locals asked me if I was serious as most people only drank beer at the time. I thought rubbish … the rest of the world drinks wine.
“I knew wine had successfully been made elsewhere in Queensland and I knew what the climate was like in certain parts of Europe. Look at Sicily where it gets to over 40 degrees and they make incredible wine. I was determined to push it.”
This determination is genetic. Puglisi and his wife Mary come from a long history of incredibly hard-working Italian immigrants. In 1911, Puglisi’s grandfather, Salvatore Cardillo, left his wife and children in Sicily, arriving in Australia to set up a better life for the family (Salvatore’s wife Nunzia died in 1960 having never set foot in Australia because of her fear of the wild animals).
After years of working on the railways and as a cane cutter in northern Queensland, in 1930, Salvatore found his way to the Granite Belt, buying a 30ha block of land at Ballandean, where the cellar door is currently situated. He made his first vintage of wine in 1932 and one of the three original German oak barrels he used can still be found today at the winery above the bottling machine.
Salvatore’s daughter, Giussepa, who came to Australia in 1927 as a 12-year-old to convince him to return to Italy, would end up staying to help her father. She went on to marry Alfio Puglisi, who had also arrived from Sicily and was looking for seasonal work in the Granite Belt.
Angelo Puglisi was born in 1943, towards the end of World War II. At the time, Ballandean was used as a farm to grow food for the soldiers and the war effort. Puglisi grew up in a hard-working household and recalls coming home from school each day to toil on the farm until nightfall.
“I’d be helping on the farm, pulling out weeds from under fruit trees, feeding the chickens, chopping wood for the oven and picking grapes and fruit,” he says. “We didn’t have any electricity. You would do your homework with a gasoline lamp.”
People often refer to Puglisi as the father of the Queensland wine industry and digging into his history, you can why the sector would be vastly different without his vision, drive and persistence. During the 1960s, fear of phylloxera stopped vignerons from bringing grapevine cuttings into Queensland from other states.
With Puglisi wanting to convert his farm from growing fruit, vegetables and table grapes to wine grapes like shiraz, this was an immediate challenge for his dream to plant a large-scale vineyard.
“The issue was that the Queensland Government was worried because there had been phylloxera in the Lockyer and Fassifern Valleys which had destroyed some vineyards,” Puglisi says.
“There had been phylloxera in the southern states as well and there was the scare that you couldn’t bring in grapevines cuttings because the pests couldn’t be controlled by heat or monitoring the soil.”
The Queensland Department of Primary Industries (DPI) demanded any cuttings would have to be fumigated and put in quarantine for 40 days.
“By the time they arrived at the winery, they were that dry, they were never going to grow,” he says. “We stuck them in the ground and got a 5% strike rate.
“We worked with the DPI to be allowed to source certified cuttings free of pests from southern growers and bring them in using a greater amount of moisture. We argued for a shorter quarantine period of a few days instead of weeks.”
His persistence paid off. In 1967 Puglisi planted the first Opera Block of shiraz, 5,500 vines on a 1.5ha parcel of decomposed granite soil.
“When we tell people we have 50-year-old vines, they are surprised, but I have seen vines in Europe that are hundreds of years old,” Puglisi says.
“People ask me how often we plant, I say, we don’t, you put them in the ground and hopefully they will go for 150 years.”
By 1975, Puglisi was well on his way, having planted 4ha of grapes, including shiraz, cabernet, semillon and riesling.
“At this time a bloke came up to our rotary club and talked about a Churchill Fellowship for people to study their vocation,” he says.
“I was successful in receiving the fellowship and spent 17 weeks studying in Italy, Germany and France. I came back with a greater understanding of wine, viticulture and growing the proper varieties on the right root stock.
“It’s up to you to study what you are doing and pick out what varieties best suit your area, and try and make good wine out of it.”
When Puglisi began travelling to the Hunter Valley and Barossa to engage winemakers and undertake research to determine which grapes would best suit the soils and climate of the Granite Belt – one of the highest and coolest wine regions in Australia – everyone told him he was crazy. Couldn’t be done, shouldn’t be done.
“People told me you are joking, you can’t make wine in Queensland, it’s tropical,” he laughs. “Bananas, paw paws, mangoes and coconuts, yes, but not wine.
“In about 1979, SBS came along and made a documentary on the district and the wine industry, and they asked how you can make good wine in a tropical state. I said come and live with me for one week in the middle of July and you will be convinced we have a cool climate here.” (It often snows in Stanthorpe during winter.)
Puglisi’s success is intrinsically linked to his 53-year partnership with wife Mary, who helped him plant the first Opera Block of shiraz around the same time they were married. Mary also pioneered the business and has been recognised widely for her five-decade contribution to Queensland wine. Their two daughters, Leeanne and Robyn, are also significant drivers of the operation, working right across the business from vineyard to cellar door – which celebrates 50 years of operation in 2022.
Part of Angelo and Mary’s foresight was to plant and experiment with alternative varieties, and the winery is included in the Granite Belt’s renowned Strange Bird wine trail. A ‘strange bird’ wine is a rare or alternative wine that must be made from a variety that represent no more than 1% of the total bearing vines in Australia as defined by the Australian Grape and Wine Authority. This is one of the most unique wine trail experiences in the country.
Several Strange Bird varieties can be found across the two vineyards they own. At 800m above sea level, the Ballandean Estate vineyard includes shiraz, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, malbec, semillon, cabernet franc, sylvaner, malvasia, fiano, nebbiolo, white muscat and muscat giallo. The Bellevue vineyard, which overlooks Girraween National Park and sits at 850m above sea level, has shiraz, saperavi, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, semillon, cabernet franc, durif, fiano, black and white muscat.
How the couple have navigated through the challenges of the past 50 years is a testament to their unrelenting grit, determination and focus on all things wine. Puglisi’s seemingly cavalier and light-hearted manner hides an intense character focused on improvement and innovation. Aged 78, he still leads the viticulture team who work closely with head winemaker Dylan Rhymer (a Kiwi who has worked vintages in Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay, Bulgaria, Spain and South Australia) to produce the estate’s seemingly endless variety of wines.
“I am always thinking about and trying new things,” Angelo says. “When I travel around the vineyard, I am always looking at the vines and seeing what they are saying to me. Do they need help, do they need to be pruned back?”
Positive and jovial, Puglisi reflects on a long life in wine and returns full circle as we finish up our conversation.
“I’m grateful for everything that has happened to me, especially my family. And I thank the people of Stanthorpe who have been big supporters for many years and have left their beer-drinking days behind them,” he says with a big laugh.
Wines to try
2018 50th Anniversary Opera Block Shiraz, A$65 Built to last with 15 months ageing in new French oak. Medium bodied, black berries and ink neatly woven around middle eastern spices, pepper and silky tannins. A long length, cellaring will reward patience.
2019 Opera Block Shiraz, A$42 Black plum, liquorice, chalk and spicy bramble. While this wine will continue to age well, it is approachable now.
2018 Saperavi, A$48 A huge wine clocking in at 15.6% alcohol. A whiff reveals dried herbs, lavender, liquorice, fennel and berry jam. It’s concentrated with meat juices and a dry savoury mouthfeel. Further bottle age will bring its personality to the fore.
2017 Durif, A$42 Cool-climate durif at its best. The nose is brooding with dark cherries, strawberry and cassis. Berry compote and plum rolls along the tongue with a touch of pepper and oak. Acid and tannin are playing their rightful part.
2019 Late Harvest Sylvaner, A$42 A rare varietal from Alsace not widely grown in Australia but makes exceptional dessert wine. The bouquet has cut pineapple, white toffee and raisins, apricot and yellow peach. The luscious mouth reveals orange marmalade, lemon sorbet and crisp green apple acidity.