I’d planned to leave early in the morning and have the weekend in the Granite Belt, but a night out with friends in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley ended late enough for me to watch the sun rise over the Brisbane River. I made it to the Granite Belt’s main town of Stanthorpe just in time to watch the sun set over the surrounding vineyards, wine from which was probably responsible for my late start.
Queensland’s Granite Belt sits high on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, a mountain chain that you have to cross to reach this fertile region. The lush, green countryside and rolling hills that spread out between the two county towns of Stanthorpe and Ballandean, came as a complete surprise. The whole area seemed to be covered with vineyards and fruit orchards.
I was staying in a lovely wooden house on stilts, with a wood burning stove to ward off the cold nights – much needed at an altitude of over 800m. An agricultural hub, and home to around 6,000 people, Stanthorpe was my first taste of Australian small town life. I headed into the town centre to see if the tourist information office was open, it wasn’t, so I headed to the next best thing, the pub in O’Mara’s Hotel.
I ordered a beer and took a seat at the bar alongside a couple of regulars. We were soon chatting about what I should see and do while there, the general consensus being that I should definitely do wine tasting in Ballandean, and that I shouldn’t miss the Girraween National Park. It turned out to be excellent advice … as was the chalkboard at the end of the bar!
The next morning, I did a beautiful scenic loop to Ballandean. It was such a lovely morning that it was a pleasure to be wandering the countryside. I came across wooden churches in the middle of nowhere, small villages, historic ranches and, of course, vineyards. Twice, I almost ran over large snakes, a reminder that life in these communities can be perilous. Finally, it was time to sample some Granite Belt wines.
Vines have been cultivated here for wine production since the 1870s, thanks to a far sighted, and presumably thirsty, Catholic priest of Italian descent, Father Davadi. There were lots of Italian settlers in the area who had the knowledge and skills to make wine, mainly for their own consumption. Over the last 140 years though, the Granite Belt has learned a thing or two about making good wines.
Despite producing some of the highest altitude wines in Australia, the Granite Belt still has a low profile outside of Australia. The wines made here are growing in popularity though, and are increasingly well-known. The region is most famous for red wines, but I tasted a chardonnay at Tobin Wines in Ballandean that was spectacular. So good, in fact, that I carried two bottles of it back to the Netherlands.
“Passion” is a word often used in the wine business. The owner of Tobin Wines, Adrian, embodies it to an extraordinary degree. Basically, he’s an unapologetic wine fanatic. I wanted to try the tempranillo but, due to his exacting standards, the next batch won’t be available until 2020. Which was how I ended up with the chardonnay, and learning his philosophy that a superb wine is possible only if the grapes are of the highest quality.
He’s a small producer, and some years has chosen not to produce any wine because he felt the fruit wasn’t good enough. Not that that should be a surprise, after he bought the vineyard he spent a decade perfecting the vines before producing a single drop of wine. After a fun hour with Adrian, I headed down the road to the region’s biggest and best known producer, Ballandean Estate Wines, for another tasting.
The Ballandean Estate is the area’s oldest producer, dating back to 1930 when Italian immigrant Salvatore Cardillo and his daughter Guiseppa settled here. Guiseppa married Alfio Puglisi, another Italian migrant, and the Puglisi family still run the business today. They’re famed for their red wines and, if you’re going to find a Granite Belt wine outside of Australia, it’s likely it will be from the Ballandean Estate.