Balancing Rock

The best kept secret in Australian wine must surely be Queensland’s Granite Belt. Queensland wine? An oxymoron? We’ve all heard the jokes.

The Granite Belt is by far and away the most important region in Queensland, providing almost two thirds of the state’s production. It is home to almost 50 wineries and the reputation of Queensland wine rests firmly on the Granite Belt’s shoulders.

What so many Australians don’t realise is that the Granite Belt is nothing like the rest of Queensland. For a start, it gets cold, very cold (it was -5°C a few days after I left). The altitude is 800 to 1,100 metres and there is a range of soils – it is no shock that granite plays a major role. It sits on the western side of the Great Divide, so the climate is completely different. Beaches, the Great Barrier Reef, rainforests – they are a world away from the Belt. Remember that this is not just a wine region – it is one of the most important fruit bowls in the country.

Surveys suggest visitors don’t come for the wineries. They come for national parks, spectacular scenery and photography, wildlife, brilliant accommodation and food, special events held regularly and to experience a cold winter in Queensland. But not for the wine. The surveys also suggest almost every visitor finds their way into one or more wineries and almost all take home anywhere from a few bottles to a bootload.

Balancing Rock

The wines? A senior winemaker, not a local hopeful but an experienced winemaker who has worked in most Australian regions and many offshore and who has a truckload of medals, trophies and awards, recently insisted that within three years, the Granite Belt will be recognised as one of the great wine regions of this country. Taste the wines and it is hard to argue. The problem is that this is a very small region in terms of production: less than half of 1% of the national output. Without question, the wines are fabulous and getting better every year. The issue is getting to them before the locals. The solution? Visit the region.

What to expect? Endless surprises. Wines of stunning quality. Stellar varieties and wines equal to anything those grapes produce elsewhere in this country. Some extraordinary value and some of the most innovative wines imaginable. Plus a warm welcome from the many cellar doors.

What you will not find is what everyone expects – big, alcoholic, clumsy wines. The region simply doesn’t do them. Why this image? Perhaps Australians assume that everything about Queensland is big and brash (years of Origin, bar an occasional blip, make that understandable). Perhaps regional pioneers thought this was the style they needed to make to compete. If so, it didn’t work. If you really want something big, a few producers are making tannat, but even those don’t match the behemoths this variety can offer.

The Granite Belt offers wines of elegance and finesse – exactly what you would expect from cooler climates. If you want a wine that is the epitome of the Granite Belt style, try 2015 Ballandean Opera Block Shiraz (A$32).

Hidden Creek Winery

This is an exciting region but it wasn’t always so. There was a time when those few cellar doors open to the public would offer plastic thimbles of average wine. There was no united front. In recent years, standards have soared. Expertise, enthusiasm and importantly, the resources and finance needed to succeed, have all flooded into the region. Most cellar doors now serve wines in Riedel glassware or the equivalent. The current generation of winemakers are not hobbyists, they are professionals. They studied winemaking and have worked in the great regions of the world. It has made all the difference. Today, the Granite Belt has taken things to new levels. Many of the wines are of a standard I doubt anyone ever thought possible. The future is very exciting.

For vintage generalisations, 2018 is considered “challenging” as it was a small vintage. The 2017s cop the same tag, for different reasons. Weather left these wines lacking some of the concentration of the best years from the Granite Belt but they are still quality drops. Speaking of the best years, 2016 was a cracker and these wines are widely available.

Muscat vines at Grove Estate

How to Get There

If you are not a Queenslander, fly into Brisbane or the Gold Coast and drive to Stanthorpe via Warwick. It takes a couple of hours but is a pleasant trip through some of the best agricultural land in the country. You’ll find yourself heading over Cunninghams Gap to cross the Great Divide with its extravagant views, although the occasional pea-soup fog can be interesting. The roads are infinitely better than they were in the past, although when in the district and pottering about between wineries, expect plenty of dirt tracks, which can be a bit hairy if there has been rain.

The Balancing Rock nestled among the shiraz vines

Strange Birds

Around two decades ago, someone had the bright idea to start the Strange Bird program. They realised that the world really didn’t need more shiraz and chardonnay. Wouldn’t it be better to have a crack at alternative varieties? So, Strange Birds was born. To be a Strange Bird, a variety must not exceed “1% of the total bearing vines in Australia”. A wine trail was set up with some 26 of these varieties available – a neat marketing idea, but it has taken on a life of its own. Quite a few of these varieties proved ideally suited to the region, the wines matching the best in Australia.

Verdelho, vermentino and especially tempranillo have starred. Others are on the rise. There are plenty of fine examples of traditional varieties available on the Granite Belt, but it is with alternative varieties that both the excitement and the future lies.

Balancing Rock winemaker Mike Hayes giving cellar door guests a mini-masterclass.

Wine Clubs

Perhaps, more than any other region, the Granite Belt relies on wine clubs. Almost every winery has one. Some sell the vast majority of their production via their club. The move from the 12-bottle case to six-packs had the unexpected beneficial effect of boosting these clubs, visitors being much happier to buy the smaller size on a regular basis.

Rainbow over Savina Lane

Visiting Wineries

Spend a moment planning your visit depending on how long you are there. How many wineries per day? The region is not that large. You can comfortably drive down National Highway 15, one end to the other, in around 45 minutes. The Granite Belt is not dissimilar to Burgundy with a road down the centre and wineries either side. If you are keen, you can squeeze in five to six in a day. Three to four will be more comfortable. One or two if you have other priorities. It never hurts to check on opening times. In days of old, ‘opening times’ were at best a vague indication of possibilities. These days, things are better, though not perfect. Fortunately, if you encounter a closed gate, your next stop is only minutes away.

The cabins at Ridgemill Estate.

Where to Stay

When it comes to a place to stay, something for everyone is not simply a cliché. Whether it be camping or five-star luxury, you’ll find it. The short distances between wineries means you can stay anywhere and still traverse the entire district with ease.

One of the most popular B & Bs is the delightful Grovely House in Stanthorpe (grovelyhouse.com.au), a lovely old house with five suites. Host Faith Simon puts on a superb breakfast – the jams proving so popular, they are now sold in local wineries.

There is something enchanting about waking up among the vines. In the early days, it was because you’d thrown a sleeping bag down between rows. Now, for a vineyard stay, Ridgemill Estate (ridgemillestate.com/stay) has a number of finely appointed cabins with hamper breakfasts to send you on your way. Plenty of space for kids.

Glamping? When I mentioned to friends I was spending the night in a tent, I got some odd looks, but they’ve never stayed in tents like these. Four-poster beds, outdoor spas, barbecues, fireplace, aircon, coffee machines, you name it. Alure (alurestanthorpe.com.au) is something special.

Finally, for those wishing to break their journey either way, and keen to treat themselves, Spicers Peak Lodge on the Scenic Rim (spicersretreats.com/retreats/spicers-peak-lodge) is about two hours short of the Granite Belt and in a world of its own. If the family or your partner is not into wine, they can spend the day here while oenophiles visit the wineries. Stunning views, nature walks, degustation meals – this place has it all.

There is a wide range of options for eating on the Granite Belt, which I have listed throughout, though for a region with first-class produce, it is curious that there are not more top-end restaurants. A number of wineries operate restaurants of varying levels and Stanthorpe has a sprinkling. Checking opening times is useful.

I have divided the region into three days – north, central and south – but in reality, it is easy to zip all over.

Pyramids Road Wines’ viticulturist and winemaker Warren Smith.

Day 1

The first wineries you’ll encounter along the National Highway are just to the north of Stanthorpe. The links with WWI are immediately evident, villages named Amiens, Pozieres and Passchendaele, as much of the surrounding country was given to returning soldiers.

Summit Estate (summitestate.com.au) is a minute or so off the Highway. A popular first stop with an expansive range, a large comfortable tasting space and a designated room for more serious events. They no longer do meals, but have picnic areas and inside tables where visitors are encouraged to BYO food. The fiano impresses, the sparkling marsanne is well-liked and there is even an acceptable pinot noir.

Boireann vineyards.

Nearby, via dirt road, is the fabled Boireann (boireannwinery.com.au). Founder Peter Stark recently sold to a new owner. New management is as enthusiastic as any on the Granite Belt. For such a tiny winery, it has a wide range of reds. Their 2016s, on offer now, show why it has cult status.

Head down the Highway, or puddle about on the back roads, to another tiny winery, Ravens Croft (ravenscroftwines.com.au), awaits. South African winemaker, Mark Ravenscroft, oversees the doll’s house-sized cellar door with great humour. Naturally, there is a pinotage. There is fine quality across the range and cheese platters can be pre-ordered. Ravenscroft is also dabbling with cider and perry.

Lovers of mature wines should head west for a few kilometres. Casley Mount Hutton (casleywines.com) offers recent vintages and a considerable collection of older wines. Even small verticals. 2002, ‘05, ‘06, ‘08 and 2010 Shiraz, for example. 2002 was revered on the Granite Belt and if there is a mature wine this good currently available for under A$40 anywhere else in this country, please let me know. Great value wines, made to age.

Ridgemill Estate.

The final stop is Ridgemill Estate (ridgemillestate.com), which is perfect as it has superb cabins, ideal for a winery sleepover. If situated in a more lauded region, it would be a name on everyone’s lips. It offers dinners and vertical tastings. Best known for elegant chardonnay, there is also an exciting saperavi and impressive shiraz grenache. The efforts with amphora wines are interesting.

Ridgemill is close to Stanthorpe, so for another dinner option head to the curiously named Mcgregor Terrace Food Project (mcgregorterracefoodproject.com.au). For lunch on any day of your visit, try Jersey Girls Cafe (stanthorpecheese.com.au/jersey-girls-cafe.html). Or spend a pleasant afternoon at the Hidden Creek Café (hiddencreek.com.au/hidden-creek-cafe) situated right next to their dam.

Ballandean Estate.

Day 2

The bulk of the region’s cellar doors are to be found just south of Stanthorpe with a few evenfurther south. Because they open earlier than anyone, kick off at Ballandean Estate (ballandeanestate.com), the winery which pioneered the Granite Belt. Angelo Puglisi, the Godfather of the region, is still active among his beloved vines. Winemaker Dylan Rhymer has set new standards; daughters, Leeanne and Robyn, work tirelessly for the winery and the region; while son-in-law, Ian Henderson, is behind the biggest name in Aussie vinegar, Lirah. Later this year, Puglisi’s first shiraz vines celebrate their 50th birthday.

The cellar door at Ballandean Estate has not changed much over the years. Amble up to the long counter and one of the family will take you through the range. They have warmly embraced the Strange Bird concept so sample the viognier and fiano among the white offerings; nebbiolo, saperavi and (non-Strange) shiraz from the reds. The sylvaner is not made every year but don’t miss it if it is available. There are also some of the State’s oldest fortifieds lurking about.

Kominos Wines (kominoswines.com) has had much of its success in Asian markets, so visitors aren’t always aware of its range. Turn off the main highway and owners Tony and Mary Comino will be waiting to take you through their wines at the cellar door. The tasting experience has been refined to a relaxed, sit-down affair and the 2016 Shiraz is certainly one not to miss. Their annual Kefi celebration of all things Greek turns 30 this year and Greek varieties are under consideration with winemaker Tony Comino impressed with what Jim Barry has achieved with assyrtiko. And how can you not love a winery that plays Springsteen to its barrels?

Nearby are relative newcomers, Savina Lane (savinalanewines.com.au), who took no time to impress. It has the largest wine club in the region and arguably the oldest shiraz vines in the district at 60 years of age, but most of the wines are alternative varieties – petit manseng, tempranillo, montepulciano. Cheese platters are available and a pizza oven is going in. Do not miss visiting this one.

Michael Bourke of Jester Hill.

On the other side of the highway is Jester Hill (jesterhillwines.com.au). A delightfully presented cellar door with entertainments for the kids and a popular café now open four days a week. There are some impressive wines to try here. They make sparkling roussanne, summer rosé and a superb shiraz.

Ray Costanzo of Golden Grove Estate.

Ray Costanzo is the epitome of the next-gen winemakers lifting the region. A finalist in the annual Young Guns Awards, he has established Golden Grove Estate (goldengroveestate.com.au) as one of the best on the Belt. Costanzo is a very talented winemaker with his vermentino, rosé and tempranillo the must-trys here. Cleanse your palate with the cider.

Two others to see today: Tobin’s (see breakout advice) and Bent Road Winery (by appointment only; 0418 190 104) – one of the most innovative operations in Australia, also producing wine under the label La Petite Mort (lapetitemort.wine).

For dinner, go to Anna’s Restaurant (annas.com.au) in Stanthorpe, or Beverley Vineyard Restaurant at Whiskey Gully Wines (whiskeygullywines.com.au).

Lori and David Broadbent, owners of Balancing Rock.

Day 3

A trio of wineries nestled next to Girraween National Park in the south of the region, make for an ideal start to the final day. Pyramids Road Wines (pyramidsroad.com.au) host dinners, concerts and wine options evenings and sell good value-for-money wines. Girraween Estate (girraweenestate.com.au), formerly Bald Mountain, offers a range of vintages. The reds are the stars here, don’t miss the reserve bottlings. Finally, the region’s newest, Balancing Rock (balancingrockwines.com.au), on the site of the old Preston Peak vineyard. There is an obvious determination to make this place a must-visit. Tastings are serious and it offers one of the best sagrantinos on the Granite Belt.

Andy and Leanne Williams of Hidden Creek Winery.

To the north is Hidden Creek Winery (hiddencreek.com.au). Winemaker Jim Barnes has recently handed over to the experienced Andy Williams. An ideal place for lunch, before a taste.

The final winery is the much-awarded Symphony Hill (symphonyhill.com.au). Until recently Mike Hayes was the winemaker here and his replacement is yet to be announced. He contracts to numerous wineries, local and beyond – 15 in all, 120 different wines from 39 different varieties. Hayes has been a driving force for the Granite Belt for years and has recently taken things to a level I doubt even he thought possible at Symphony Hill. There are numerous fascinating wines here, many of them Strange Birds, and the cellar door has an array of ideal ‘wine’ souvenirs. Hayes recently took up the position of director of vineyard and winery operations with Sirromet Winery, but will still be based in the Granite Belt. He will join forces with their current chief winemaker Adam Chapman and focus on vineyard management strategies. Sirromet currently does not have a cellar door presence on the Granite Belt, but hopefully this move will encourage them to reconsider.

Girraween Estate’s Steve Messiter.

For dinner, try The Barrelroom at Ballandean Estate (ballandeanestate.com), which focuses on local produce.

Go to winecraft.com for more Granite Belt cellar doors.

Adrian Tobin of Tobin Wines.

The Must-visit Cellar Door

Tobin Wines (tobinwines.com)

The normally perennially cheerful Adrian Tobin frowns at me as I walk in. “I’ve had enough of screwcaps,” he says. “I’m going back to cork.” He hands me a glass of his current semillon, the 2010. “Look at this.”

The wine is pristine, fresh, balanced, elegant and oh-so-young. A baby. I must be missing something. I tell him it looks terrific, “So young.”

“Precisely,” he states. “At this rate, I won’t be around when my wines are finally mature.”

A visit to Tobin Wines is a must. Tobin will take you through the story of his winery and his wines. You’ll taste the full range, a fresh Riedel for each. Some think this is overkill but, if you’re not doing the washing-up, why not? Attention to detail pervades every aspect of these wines.

Tobin chose this vineyard, purchased in 2000, as it had shiraz and semillon planted in the 1960s. He was extremely successful in his other careers, which provided the resources for him to do things his way. For the first decade nothing was released commercially as the team worked in the vineyard and ensured the winery operated to their standards. The results speak for themselves. A brilliant chardonnay, wonderful tempranillo and more – a collection of superb wines. Spend an hour or two. You won’t regret it.

2017 Symphony Hill Gewürztraminer

Bottles for the Boot

Top Dozen

2017 Golden Grove Vermentino (A$26)
Serious wine. Ray Costanzo pushes the envelope in many ways here. Beautifully balanced, fine length. Why would anyone drink savvy when this is available?

2017 Symphony Hill Gewürztraminer (A$45)
If Aussie gewürz gets better than this, let me know. Turkish delight, lavender, bone dry and far more length than this variety usually offers.

2016 Ridgemill Estate Chardonnay (A$35)
A Granite Belt icon and this is another superb vintage. Lime, stone fruit and floral.

2017 Tobin Lily Barrel Fermented Chardonnay (A$65)
This deserves to be to seen in a blind line-up with Yattarna, Leeuwin and other great Aussies. It is that good.

2014 Summit Estate Malbec (A$40)
Fine example of the variety, lovely black fruits. Perfect winter barbecue red.

2016 La Petite Mort The Monte Montepulciano (A$35)
Yet another grape destined to excel on the Granite Belt. In the future they will have their work cut out to match this one. Complex, full of flavour, balanced.

2016 Jester Hill Touchstone Shiraz (A$48)
Exuberant, red fruits, liquorice. This winery makes a feature of roussanne, but this is surely their crowning glory.

2015 Ballandean Messing About Saperavi (A$42)
Aniseed, leather, chocolate. A very fine example of this rare Georgian grape.

2016 Balancing Rock Reserve Sagrantino (A$59)
Lovely tribute to this Italian variety. Blueberry pie notes. Good intensity, balanced.

2016 Boireann Shiraz Viognier (A$65)
Seamless, elegant, intense, this is another in a long line of stellar vintages of this Granite Belt classic. Stunning.

2015 Ravens Croft The Waagee (A$50)
Only made in dry years when the cabernet sauvignon shines, this Bordeaux blend is destined for a long future.

2002 Casley Mount Hutton Shiraz (A$38)
A mature, gentle shiraz, which must be a strong candidate for the best value aged wine anywhere.

Tempranillo six-pack

2018 Ravens Croft (A$28)
Fresh and youthful, made in the Joven style.  

2014 Savina Lane Reserva (A$65)
Red fruits, wonderful complexity and richness, yet finely balanced. This would turn Spanish heads.

2017 Golden Grove Joven (A$26)
Lovely bright cherry notes. Cracking wine.

2015 Ridgemill Estate The Spaniard (A$28)
Dark fruits, plums, a hint of a leafy note. Fine acidity and appealingly soft finish.

2012 Hidden Creek (A$30)
Lovely plush style with hints of roast meats and spices. The extra maturity assists.

2014 Tobin Reserva (A$125 – not yet released)
Coffee beans, black cherries, cloves. Seamless, with a stellar future.

value dozen

2006 Casley Mount Hutton Semillon (A$26)
Great value sem, mature but still vibrant. Lovely fruit.

2016 Symphony Hill Petit Manseng (A$30)
Hints of tropical notes, lemon butter, melon. Richly flavoured.

2018 Pyramids Road Verdelho (A$25)
Fresh, youthful and delicious.

2017 Robert Channon Verdelho (A$28)
An iconic Granite Belt wine. Stone fruit, a hint of grapefruit. Lovely texture.

2017 Ridgemill Estate Viognier (A$24)
A moderate style, gentle apricot, notes of ginger. Vibrant and delicious.

2018 Golden Grove Rosé Brose (A$18)
The best value rosé in the land. Bar none. Fragrant, balanced, delicious.

2017 La Petite Mort Pinot Rosé (A$28)
A rosé with real character, richness and complexity. Has a drop of sangiovese.

2016 Just Red Tannat (A$25)
The focus on reds here reaches its crescendo with this choc-cherry flavoured star.

2016 Girraween Estate Shiraz Cabernet (A$28)
Elegant Winner of the Small Winemakers Champion Queensland Red Wine Trophy.

2015 Ballandean Estate Opera Block Shiraz (A$32)
Elegance, mid-weight, balance and dark fruits, spices, chocolate and florals.

2016 Kominos Shiraz (A$30)
A very fine shiraz, reflecting the lovely softness which the 2016 vintage offers.

2016 Twisted Gum Shiraz (A$35)
Redcurrants, spices and florals. Balanced and with length. Appealing style.