Granite Belt Wine Country

A trip to Queensland’s Granite Belt is one of our favourite car journeys. While it’s not possible to visit every one of the 50 or so wineries in a long weekend, following the Vine and Shine Trail we plot out three days of indulgence visiting vineyards and artisan food producers stretched across the region.

To those who think of Queensland as a tropical destination, the Granite Belt is a surprise package. The largest of Queensland’s two recognized wine regions, its growing conditions are comparable to both the Clare Valley and northern Rhône.

The Granite Belt is also one of Australia’s highest wine-producing regions, ranging from over 650 to 1000 metres, its high-altitude cool climate and well-drained decomposed granite soils conducive to the production of excellent wine.

On the eastern spine of the Great Dividing Range, the region is Queensland’s most popular winter escape, a land where coastal dwellers can encounter frost and snow, curling up in front of a fire with a glass of red. The only area of Queensland to experience four true seasons, when we visit during late summer, we find the weather to be moderate and dry, the evenings chilling to a cool 15°C as the sun descends.

Named after the boulder-strewn landscape and the elongated shape of the region, grapes have a long history in the Granite Belt dating back a century to when Italian immigrants cleared the land with winches and dynamite, planting stone fruit, apples and berries on their farms, as well as the first grapevines.

“My grandfather made wine from table grapes in the 1930s, not only for the family’s consumption, but also to send by barrel to Innisfail where his friends were cutting cane,” says Angelo Puglisi, veteran winemaker and owner of Ballandean Estate, the oldest and one of the most established wineries that we visit.

Wine was an essential part of European culture and an integral part of any meal. However, this was not true of Australian culture at the time. Having read a lot and seen the German wine traditions in the Barossa, Puglisi planted his shiraz and cabernet vines in 1968 despite stiff criticism, these two varieties remaining staples of Ballandean Estate’s range today, having won many awards.

Although mainstream varieties make up 60% of the region’s wine production, more than fifty emerging varieties are grown here, the foresight of adventurous pioneers, such as Puglisi, who thought outside the square, being forerunners to the famous Strangebird Alternative Wine Trail. The trail features Granite Belt wine made from lesser-known varietals comprising less than 1% of the total bearing vines in Australia; wines such as Verdelho, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Barbera and Saperavi.

Early on, Angelo Puglisi had branched out into lesser-known European varietals, the first in the region to plant Saperavi, the ancient grape originating in the Georgian/Black Sea region, where it is fermented in clay barrels (qvevri) buried in the ground.

You can taste Ballandean Estate’s wines, from old vine shiraz to ‘strangebird’ blends, in their large tasting room or enjoy them with a delightful Italian lunch or dinner in The Barrelroom Restaurant. Try their Shiraz Viognier or the Sinatlis (a smooth, delicious Saperavi Durif blend); wines you will not find anywhere else.

Travelling the length of the Granite Belt, it’s possible to see some variation in the microclimates. It’s interesting, too, to note the difference in viticulture techniques and the variation in vintage times across the region.

Just three hours by car from Brisbane and the Gold Coast, the northern part of the region is well known for its apples and stone fruit. It’s also home to great wineries, including 5-star Boireann Winery and Summit Estate and the Queensland College of Wine Tourism, which has its own vineyard and restaurant.

At an altitude of 930m, Heritage Estate, rated a 5-star winery by James Halliday for the past 5 years (their Fiano, Grenache Shiraz Mouvedre, and Viognier all scoring 95 points in 2020), experiences cooler nights than the lower areas of the region, frosts in winter and a longer ripening period, leading to a later vintage.

Heritage Estate has taken wine tasting to the next level with their Nips & Nosh food and wine pairing by presenting a luxe 5-course lunch degustation from Friday to Sunday in their classically themed restaurant. Dining at Queensland’s original parliamentary table, your meal will be accompanied by five wines, one of them being Heritage’s Rabbit Fence Red which references the rabbit-proof fence adjoining the vineyard, part of the fence constructed in the 1890s along Queensland’s southern and western borders for a length of 2700 kilometres.

The winery also holds themed nights, black tie degustation dinners and events, outlined on their website.

Be sure to stop at Sutton’s Farm for morning or afternoon tea. Their rustic Shed Café serves a most delightful apple pie with cider ice cream and cream, accompanied by a glass of apple juice or cider, which you can consume outside under the apple trees.

Situated in an apple orchard area, the multi award winning Robert Channon Wines was the first Queensland winery awarded 5 stars by James Halliday, also holding the distinction of having their wine served to Queen Elizabeth II. Planted in a frost-free area at 950m, the vines are under cover of permanent bird nets which not only protect them from hail but also slow the ripening of the grapes, leading to better flavour development. Expect to see vintage variation in Robert Channon wines because, unlike some other winemakers, he sources grapes solely from his own vineyards. Be sure to try Robert’s Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Shiraz, as well as his Reserve Shiraz, the 2016 vintage winning a Gold Medal in the 2018 Queensland Wine Awards.

High enough up on the western slopes to garnish winter mists, drizzle and snow, at the charming Ravens Croft cellar door you’ll be met by owner Mark Ravenscroft, whose hands have brought the wine from vine to glass. Boutique, with just three acres under vine, the master winemaker uses minimal intervention techniques to make award-winning preservative-free and vegan-friendly wine. He supplements his yield of Verdelho, Pinotage (a favoured grape from his South African homeland) and Pinot Gris by buying in high quality grapes including Sagrantino, Nero D’Avolo, Petit Verdot and Albarino from local and interstate growers, as well as making wine for neighbouring vineyards.

Sit and relax on Mark’s shaded deck looking out across the vineyard and chat to him about wine and his fascinating winemaking journey.

Nearby, the Stanthorpe Cheese & Jersey Girls Café offers cheese tastings as well as meals. Their cheeses, their rich golden colour attesting to their creaminess, are made from local Jersey milk. Pick up a couple to enjoy as part of a grazing platter as the sun descends.

Further south in Glen Aplin, Ridgemill Estate is drier, cooler, prone to late spring frosts, and with different soils to some other parts of the Granite Belt. Their winemaker, Pete McGlashan, produces wine across a range of styles, from barrel-fermented Chardonnay to less common European ‘strangebird’ varietals such as Tempranillo.

Quirkily named after dogs and family members, many of Ridgemill’s wines are vegan friendly. A number of studio cabins on the property makes this an excellent place to stay and enjoy time in the vineyards, with breakfast included.

Travelling south, you’ll find Jamworks Gourmet Foods. A café and deli, this is the place to pick up local jams, chutneys, pickles, sauces and pantry items, wine from the cellar doors you have missed, or quince paste and marinated figs to complete your sundowner platter.

Further south, Ballandean could be divided into two areas differentiated by varying altitude. To the east of the highway, wineries sit along a towering ridge which overlooks the valley below. With a distinct spring, you’ll see Spanish and Rhône varietals, such as Tempranillo, Viognier, Marsanne and a Syrah-like Shiraz flourishing. The high-altitude wineries of Hidden Creek, Twisted Gum, Symphony Hill and Just Red along the Eukey Road ridge produce high quality cool climate wines.

Hidden Creek, awarded Queensland’s Winery of the Year in the 2018 Qld Wine Awards, has a cellar door with outdoor seating, a great place to settle in the afternoon in shade overlooking the lake and lower vineyards as you enjoy a tasting flight of their award-winning wines. Hidden Creek’s top vineyard is perched high up on the ridge close to a granite outcrop that overlooks the Ballandean Valley a hundred metres below. Its decomposed granite soils are well-drained, its altitude and position usually bringing adequate rainfall and few frosts, terroir similar to Southern Rhône or the Iberian Peninsula.  Well known for their award-winning Tempranillo, also look out for Hidden Creek’s Vermentino, Viognier, gold medal winning Chardonnay (2019 Qld Wine Awards), Shiraz and fortified wines.

The pristine Symphony Hill, at close to 1000m, is one of the highest vineyards in the region. Their wines fly high as well, the 2016 Reserve Shiraz and 2017 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon both gaining 5 stars from Halliday, the 2016 Shiraz served on Qantas International business class flights.

On the western side of the highway lie some of the Granite Belt’s oldest and most established wineries, including Golden Grove, Ballandean Estate and Tobin Wines. In winter, the Ballandean Valley is prone to frost, sometimes around 50 per year. It’s the home of many Italian varietals, planted by Italian pioneer families who settled the area up to a century ago, who have since branched out into many other varieties.

Golden Grove is a family-owned and operated winery, with Raymond Costanzo being a third-generation winemaker on land that his grandfather settled. Operating for decades as a fruit farm, the family also made simple table wine, pre-purchased by the barrel by Italian families in Brisbane and North Queensland. Some of Golden Grove’s vines date from its origins, the Muscat planted by Raymond’s grandfather in 1946, the Shiraz 50 years ago.

1997 was a pivotal year for the farm, owner Grace tell us, a huge hailstorm wiping out most of their fruit crop. It provided impetus for the family to move entirely into wine production, diversifying their hospitality service with a flourishing café/restaurant. They planted 40 acres of vines, including well-recognised varietals such as Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz, Semillon and Chardonnay as well as lesser-known Italian, French and Spanish varietals Barbera, Malbec, Mouvedre, Durif and Tempranillo long before many other growers were interested in them. Vermentino and Nero D’Abolo were planted 12 years ago, Vermentino becoming one of their flagship wines.

Golden Grove’s award-winning wines include The Little White Box, a Rhône GSM blend (awarded 95 points by James Halliday), made in tribute to owner Sam Costanzo by his son, named after the grafting box Sam used as a teenager.

“One of the benefits of Covid has been that more Queenslanders have visited the Granite Belt than previously, with tourist numbers rising by 30 – 40% over previous years,” Grace Costanzo tells us.

“Every bottle tells a story of people, place and passion,” Angelo Puglisi says, and there are many stories to be told. These stories provide context for the wine discoveries you bring home from your trip to enjoy in the weeks ahead. So, come join us on the road.

NOTE: It’s worth planning your Vine and Shine Trail journey, ringing ahead to make bookings for tastings. This way you can plan to meet some of the winemakers, relaxing with a bite to eat along the way.