There is pleasure in visiting famous wine regions of the world such as Napa Valley, Bordeaux, or (in Australia) the Barossa Valley. But the Granite Belt wine region in Queensland, Australia, host of this year’s pre-Wine Media Conference excursion, was just as enticing while much less well known.
Queensland is known for its sunny beaches, not its wine. However, at an altitude that makes it the highest wine region in Australia, the Granite Belt is considered a cool climate grape growing region and has a ton to offer visitors. As well as quite a few challenges.
On our pre-conference tour we tasted amazing wines, met some intriguing individuals, and experienced the region beyond just the wine.
We visited a number of wineries that are excelling in wine production.
- Heritage Estate Wines is one of two James Halliday five-star wineries in the Granite Belt region and the wine critic awarded the winery three 95 point ratings for wines this year.
- Savina Lane is so popular with its wine club members they only opened their cellar door for two months this past summer (December – January in Australia) season.
- Ballandean Estate Wines has been owned and operated by one family with Italian roots, the Puglisi family, since 1929.
- Golden Grove Estate earned a trifecta in 2019 being named as the Queensland Winery of the Year while also earning Winemaker of the Year and Viticulturist of the Year.
Fascinatingly, the Granite Belt region has decided not to pursue one “featured” grape in hopes it will put them on the wine map. Instead, for the past 14 years the region has coalesced around the coined term Strangebird wines – wines with a production of less than one percent of the national total.
Wineries in the Granite Belt are still producing the popular Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot, which dominate the Australian market. But every winery we visited was focused on the less usual Strangebird varietals, some of which (Tempranillo) are quite well known to American consumers but others of which (Saperavi from the country of Georgia) are truly unusual.
This focus on Strangebirds is paying off. Fourth-generation family owner of Ballandean, Leanne Puglisi-Gangemi, told our group it was “hugely important” to the success of the region and explained the concept gives great freedom to winemakers who are not forced by consumers to grow popular grapes. In fact, owner Andy Williams from Hidden Creek winery (the 2018 Queensland Winery of the Year) told us consumers are now skipping over popular grape varietals such as Merlot in their tasting room and only choosing the Strangebird varietals. Our group, overall, was quite impressed with the quality of the wines.
The Granite Belt region is more than just its wineries. We did an outstanding hike up a volcanic cone of granite called The Pyramid in Girraween National Park. We visited the Queensland College of Wine Tourism, which offers a cooking school and outstanding student-run restaurant in addition to researching grape varietals and teaching about wine making. The town of Stanthorpe, population 5,000, has a cute main street with plenty of hotels and restaurants to serve visitors. I ran each morning on a path along Quart Pot Creek which dissects town. Overall, Stanthorpe and the Granite Belt are working towards becoming one of those small wine regions (think Walla Walla in Washington and Penticton in British Columbia) that are outside the main grape growing regions but offer a pleasant, laid back experience for visitors looking for something new.
The People and the Story
Our group was as fascinated with the people and the story as we were with the wines. This is a region that is facing challenges. They are over two years into a vicious drought that is threatening this year’s grape crop. Resulting wildfires have threatened buildings and increased concerns of smoke taint. Consumers in Australia have hardly heard of the region and restaurants in the state capital of Brisbane don’t stock their wines. The Granite Belt is not an easy region to create a business in the wine industry.
Yet it is exactly that reason the region and people are so fascinating. Everyone we talked to was very open about the threat of the drought and other challenges the region faces. Yet each person was equally committed to – and in love with – the Granite Belt region.
As with many small wine regions, the local winery owners are sold on working together rather than competing. They realize that if they succeed while their neighbors fail, the region itself is going to lose in the end. I think we saw this group of winery owners as a small band of warriors, fighting to stave off the challenges of nature while attempting to break into the Australian wine story, already quite full of success stories.
Overall, I came away with a sense that the Granite Belt region has some incredible assets – especially the wines, the people, and their story. Australians and international visitors looking for a unique and real wine country experience will be pleased if they choose this region for their next wine country visit.