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It had been a while since I had visited the wineries of Stanthorpe. Over the last ten years, my corporate role had brought me out here many times, but they were definitely all work and no play situations. So, when I was given an opportunity to visit some of the best wineries in Stanthorpe I jumped at the chance.
Not only would this give me a chance to get re-acquainted with some old favourites, but it would also allow me to learn about many of the new varieties that are popping up in this area, known as the Granite Belt. Furthermore, it would allow me to provide some support to an area that has had more than its fair share of difficult times, waging its own very personal war with drought and fire.
The earth was a little scorched in places and yes, it’s clearly been some time since the area has had the good fortune of solid rain, but this is a regional town that is most certainly open for business. It’s an area that I believe should be visited for several days. Take a long weekend, or at least head out for a few days that include an overnight stopover. There’s so much to see and do in Stanthorpe that you will quite easily fill in your time.
If I could sum up my time in Stanthorpe, I would look no further than the words of Rob Fenwick, owner of Heritage Estate Wines who said, “We know from people who have stayed with us that they love the experience of meeting real winemakers, real owners and people with skin in the game”. I couldn’t agree more. The Granite Belt is an area where this is not something you might get on a good day or if the wind is blowing in the right direction. Talking directly with their customers is the heart and soul of this region and of every single winery owner.
Two-day Stanthorpe wine tour
Heritage Estate Wines
Before I got to taste a single drop at Heritage Estate Wines, there was so much to take in first. Owner Rob Fenwick meets us at the door and guides us inside the cellar door. As you enter the building which also serves as a restaurant, there’s a feeling of nostalgia that envelopes you. The dark timber and brick from the converted apple store give it a moody ambience. In the corner, co-owner Therese has scooted over to the pianola, inherited from the original winemaker’s grandmother, and is pounding out a lively piece to welcome us.
Above us, the steel beams were once part of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the table we sat at for lunch is a significant part of Queensland’s history. In 1859, the Queensland government was formed whilst sitting around the rosewood leather-topped table. Outside, an original cottage from 1864 provides guests with an opportunity to stay the night at a vineyard.
Heritage Estate Wines stands out for several reasons. Here at the Cottonvale location, vines are grown at 960 metres above sea level in a terroir that is most suitable for growing white grapes. Further down the road at Ballandean, another cellar door produces their red varieties, growing at around 840 metres altitude and with a slightly different soil structure.
They are also a five-star James Halliday winery and have been so for the past five years. Currently, three of their red wines are rated at 95 points, by James Halliday, a leading Australian wine writer and critic. Their wines are all handpicked and wild fermented using naturally occurring yeasts that are on the grapes, rather than adding it artificially. In association with the altitude assisting with a long grape ripening period, it helps to retain the original flavours of the fruit.
Standing at the bar, we make our way through a solid list of excellent wines, including some of their Strangebirds. It’s a term that’s unfamiliar to me (as it relates to wine) but one I will hear at every winery in Stanthorpe I visit. A simple marketing term that was developed around eight years ago, it’s now become synonymous with the alternative varieties grown in the Granite Belt. To be called a Strangebird there must be less than 1% produced in Australia.
Unlike the Barossa Valley in South Australia, known for its big, hearty Shiraz wines, or the Clare Valley which is known mainly for Riesling, the Granite Belt is a wine region where visitors expect a point of difference. As Rob explains, “Our customers come here because there are 40 cellar doors and 40 different experiences because we have very different wines”.
The Fiano, a wine I had tasted earlier this year in the Scenic Rim was a Strangebird. This ancient Mediterranean white grape is gaining popularity in these parts, especially as it is suited to high altitudes. I’m certainly fast becoming a fan. Wild fermented and aged in French oak, the Marsanne is yet another alternative variety, but for me, it has shades of chardonnay so I move onto the Pinot Gris.
This one, with its light pink blush colouring, was so good it became my glass of choice to go with my lunch of Peking duck with a warm salad, walnuts and winter vegetables. The 2018 Shiraz Viognier, another Strangebird is a James Halliday top scorer and winner of the gold medal at the 2019 Queensland Wine Awards.
Over lunch, we were introduced to more of their wines, each with their own story. “The sauvignon blanc age is coming to an end”, proclaimed Robert, which I tend to agree with, although I’m more reluctant with his view that “chardonnays are on the rise once more”. Even though they are leaving behind the heady, buttery, strong oak flavours of the ’80s, I still can’t bring myself to like this white variety. I’m sure the chardonnay lovers of the world will be absolutely delighted however that I won’t be challenging them for their own favourite tipple.
Moonshine Madness, a fortified wine that smells like coffee but tastes like chocolate ended what had been a delightful experience at Heritage Estate Wines. Moonshine Madness has become an iconic part of the winery. “People donate recipes they have developed and used at home because we have such a cult following”, notes Therese. From a pork rib marinade to cookies, mousse and brownies, they now have a printed recipe sheet for others to join the club!
Cottonvale Winery and Cellar Door: 747 Granite Belt Drive Cottonvale Qld 4375
Thulimbah Old Church Cellar Door and Cafe: New England Highway Thulimbah Qld 4376
Savina Lane Wines
Savina Lanes is probably the most unusual winery I’ve ever been to. Open for only 10 weeks a year, or less if their wine sells out quickly, they have developed a unique business model that delivers on their personal dreams, whilst producing excellent wines and personal customer experience. Owners Brad and Cheryl Hutchings are living out their final project, “their dream”.
Both are no stranger to developing successful businesses, having started Underwater World at Mooloolaba on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Brad, an agronomist, “wanted to get his hands back in the soil”, said Cheryl and so buying a vineyard was perfect. Since then, he has added being a viticulturist to his string of achievements.
Producing only around 10,000 bottles of wine per year, they focus on the emerging varieties like Graciano, Fiano and Tempranillo. Grown at around 800 metres above sea level, combined with low humidity and cool nights provides excellent conditions for growing grapes. Overall there are six different varieties, one of which, the Shiraz, comes from 60-year-old vines that were originally planted by the Savina family.
Here at Savina Lane Wines, they focus on producing premium wines for their 600 strong wine club, an integral part of their winery business. The fruit that comes from seven acres of vineyards is handpicked and stored in an environmentally friendly cellar. Taking 6.5 weeks, they blasted out the granite under their cellar door building to create a storage area that is naturally cooled.
Brad puts his science background to good use at the vineyard. A self-confessed “lover of toys”, he owns an anti-frost fan, which “only needed to save us once to pay for itself and has saved us eight times in eight years”. He also has a soil moisture probe, particularly useful in these times of drought, although he admits that the climate is always a harsh one out here. Brad also has a full scientific weather station that “he lives on”, using it to predict, as much as possible, the future weather conditions, in order to be able to prepare his vineyards for it.
They classify themselves as technical producers, doing everything by hand and reducing waste where possible. They use different techniques to counter the drought, broadcasting fertilisers to send the vine roots out further to look for food, and choosing vines that are known to be more resilient. Despite the lack of water, Brad believes that they will still have a vintage in 2020 and that “it should taste extraordinary because the vines have had to work harder”.
Whilst they do open to the public when they have sufficient wine, the primary focus is on the members of their wine club as Brad explains, “We make wine just for them”. Originally comprised of members in the over 50 age range, they are now finding an increase in the number of young professionals who are discovering their wines. Savina Lane Wines opens up their facility and vineyard on a regular basis as they welcome their members, who they treat as friends, for special dining events or just to hang out in the vineyard with a glass of their wine.
A wood-fired pizza oven helps to draw crowds of members, often coming with their families for a day out. “It’s like having their own vineyard without the pain”, says Cheryl, a former writer with the Sydney Morning Herald.
Savina Lane Wines also have an association with our favourite small champagne producer in Epernay, France. We have visited the house of Denis Frezier each time we’ve been in the Champagne region of France, buying cartons of his champagne each time!
You can read about our experience of visiting a small champagne house here.
61 Savina Lane Severnlea Qld 4380
Note: Due to production levels being impacted by the current drought situation, it is unlikely that Savina Lanes will open to the public for several years. They will continue to service their club members during this time.
Jester Hill Wines
The bottles of wine on display at Jester Hill Wines have a very distinctive label. The Two Fools insignia is a self-deprecating nod to owners Michael and Ann Bourke and the unusual way in which they came to own this winery. Keen motorcycle enthusiasts, they set off one day in 2010 bound for the Granite Belt and some wine tasting. Michael jokes that it was “to get away from their seven kids”.
Whilst they were here, they fell in love with the area so much that they decided to buy a winery, an impulse buy that turned a normal weekend ride into a million dollar exercise. Roll on a few years and they now produce around 50,000 tonnes per annum from many vines that were planted over 25 years ago. Michael is an accomplished winemaker, doing everything himself. He’s noted as providing his guests with a true “grape to glass” experience, having grown, harvested, bottled and even labelled the bottles himself.
The Strangebird wines are part of our tasting here as well, starting off with the sparkling Roussanne, a glass of bubbles that I could get quite used to. Verdelho, Petit Verdot and another wine I love, Sangiovese are good alternative examples also. Down in the cellar, we tasted wine fresh out of the tanks.
At the Jester Hill Wines cellar door, there is also a cafe, headed up by one of their children. Where possible, they use local produce, supporting other local business owners and showcasing what the region has on offer. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner here, where the tasting of wine continued.
Like everyone else we have already spoken to, this couple have faced tough times. This is no more evident than when we hear Ann mention that she had to return to work as a nurse to pay for much-needed water for the vineyard. However, they are resilient and have a positive attitude. They are active members of both their local community and the wine community, trying to raise the profile of an area that is perfect for visitors to spend time in. They encourage visitors through the creation of special events.
292 Mount Stirling Rd Glen Aplin QLD 4381
Pyramids Road Wines
It was at Pyramids Road Wines that the underpinning reason as to why people should visit the Granite Belt was really reinforced. As I sat listening firstly to Sue, and later Warren Smith, I realised how truly special the connection with the owners and winemakers was. How often, I thought, do we really get to speak so directly with a business owner? How often are we afforded such an honest and genuine conversation that reaches deep into the soul of each business, where owners discuss their dreams but also their challenges?
At the cellar door, surrounded by Sue and Warren’s cellar pooches (another thing I love about the Granite Belt!) I can tangibly feel their connection to the area, to their business and to their own dreams. I turn my phone on to record as I don’t want to miss a word she says. Like many of the winery owners here, they have their own unique story.
Hailing from the Sunshine Coast, Warren worked in the carpentry industry and Sue was a schoolteacher. Following a workplace accident, Warren decided he couldn’t just sit around the house so decided to study winemaking.
This decision ultimately lead them to the Granite Belt. Keen campers and visitors to nearby Girraween National Park, they moved out here and lived in a tent whilst they found a winery to buy. A huge risk that has turned into a great success, although hard-won, 20 years later. As Sue explained, “we had a plan but that went out the window pretty quickly, but we were in it for the long haul. We never thought we’d get to 20 years but here we are”.
Their philosophy that washes across everything they do is about integrity in their products, always striving for quality and don’t ever compromise. They sell what they are proud of and they are connected to everything they do. As such, this comes across consistently in their wines. “Grapes will grow”, says Sue, “but good grapes need work”. Every day there is something for us to do, and save for some friends and volunteers that help out at harvest time, they do everything themselves.
Getting in on the harvest action is something that sounds like a lot of fun. They pick, they crush and at night they all kick back for some food, fun and to drink some wines that the volunteers helped to pick in previous years. It’s got all the underpinning of a great community event.
Of course, there are plenty of Strangebird varieties here including Verdelho, Petit Verdot and Mourvedre. Warren loves Chardonnay and he couldn’t resist taking us down into his cellar to give us some samples straight from the oak barrels.
25 Wyberba Lane off Pyramids Road, Wyberba QLD 4382
Ballandean Estate Wines
For anyone who knows even a little about Stanthorpe and the Granite Belt, Ballandean Estate Wines is one of the big guns. Angelo Puglisi, owner of Ballandean Estate Wines, is known as the person who pioneered the wine industry in Queensland. A fruit and vegetable grower in his ’20s, Angelo, along with his wife Mary, made a slight diversion, by switching to growing wine grapes. Today, it is Queensland’s oldest family-owned and operated winery, with many generations involved in the day to day operations of the business.
What Client Relations Manager Leeanne Puglisi-Gangemi doesn’t know about winemaking in the Granite Belt region probably isn’t worth knowing. With all the flair of an Italian who loves to chat, Leeanne shares with us her passion for her family business and the broader wine community. Another producer of Strangebird wines, she provides a little more insight into why the Granite Belt has become a place for alternative wines. “A long time ago, no-one cared what the winemakers in the Granite Belt did”, says Leeanne. “So we all did what we wanted to and kept on doing it”.
The no-rules comment is multi-faceted. As mentioned earlier, in the Barossa Valley, for example, they need to keep making big reds as that is what their customers expect. Other regions that are known for a particular variety of wine face the same situation. In addition, there are no appellation rules here that apply to dictate what or how the vines must be grown and how the wines are to be made.
75% of their wine is sold through the cellar door, with the remainder going to members of their wine club and export. Ballandean Estate Wines cannot be bought anywhere else. They are also one of only five producers of Moscato Giallo in Australia.
Following a wine tasting in the private member’s room, a wonderful Italian inspired lunch is provided in the Barrel Room. Once upon a time, Leeanne’s Mum did all the cooking until she finally acquiesced and opened a restaurant.
354 Sundown Rd Ballandean QLD 4382
Golden Grove Estate
If the Queensland Wine Awards are anything to go by, then Golden Grove Estate is a clear winner. Winemaker Raymond Costanzo was named as Queensland’s Winemaker of the Year, whilst his father, Sam picked up the top honour for Viticulturalist of the Year.
A farm since 1942, this 5-star rated James Halliday winery has seen a natural change over the years. Once a mainstay of table grapes, and later the usual suspects of shiraz, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, for third-generation winemaker, Ray, it’s all about the varieties, including Tempranillo, Nero d’Avola, Vermentino, Durif and Mourvedre.
Grown at around 820 metres, the conditions here are perfect for the slow ripening of the fruit. The sparkling Vermentino gets my vote of approval here.
337 Sundown Rd Ballandean QLD 4382
Twisted Gum Wines
The cellar door of Twisted Gum Wines is perfect, with the colonial Queenslander house, relocated and repurposed, sitting in the middle of the vineyard. Twisted Gum Wines owners Tim and Michelle Coelli are heavily invested in growing their vines and producing wine using sustainable techniques.
On one of the smallest wineries in the Granite Belt, they only use their own fruit. Here, the grapes are harvested by hand and they do not irrigate. This might sound like a good plan given the drought conditions, but growing vines without any artificial irrigation is not a straight forward process. They have no water infrastructure, so even in drought, they can’t water.
Michelle has a degree in Rural Science and Tim has also been on farms. Special mulching techniques assist with water retention and the vines are assisted with pest prevention with the variety of animals and insects that live in the surrounding bushland. Adding to their sustainable practices is the use of solar energy, generating enough here to put electricity back into the grid that is over and above their needs. Even the bottles used for their wine are more eco-friendly.
Wine production here is small but Michelle believes that their vines are in a slightly better position as their vines “have deeper roots in tune with seasonality that access nutrients from further afield”. “They bunker down in tough times and power on when the opportunity comes”, she said. They develop their own blends here too, picking the likes of Verdelho and Semillon together and then fermenting together also.
They have also diversified the business selling from their farm gate, hosting guests overnight in their cabins and are about to hold some special events throughout the year.
2253 Eukey Rd Ballandean QLD 4382
Hidden Creek Wines
We’re met at the cellar door to Hidden Creek Wines by yet another cellar dog, Pepper. Meeting her approval, we head inside to find business managers Andy and Leanne Williams, who are keen to share their wine story with us. Andy, complete with a Science degree, majoring in Wine Science is the winemaker here. He’s clearly doing something right with the winery winning the Queensland Winery of the Year award in 2018.
Back when the vineyard was first established, the vineyard covered 10 acres, including the area now owned by Twisted Gum Wines. In 2007, the vineyard was sold and the titles split, creating the two neighbouring and independently owned wineries.
Around a wine barrel, we taste his wines, many of which are Strangebirds, whilst nibbling on a wonderful charcuterie plate. Previously the winery was known for the staples of Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot. Andy saw the future in developing alternative wine varieties, and having made Tempranillo from other vineyard’s grapes, decided he could grow them here. The Merlot plot was taken over by their own Tempranillo and Viognier.
There’s also a cafe attached with outdoor seating overlooking the dam for those who need a little more sustenance. With around 1-15 tonne of fruit produced each year, this is another example of the type of boutique wineries that operate in the Granite Belt, where “small quantities are produced but to a very high standard”, according to Andy.
My pick here was the Rose. Hidden Creek Wines are also preparing for the future with the installation of electric car charging stations!
2271 Eukey Rd Ballandean QLD 4382
Queensland College of Wine Tourism
The Queensland College of Wine Tourism is a joint venture between the Queensland State Government and the University of Southern Queensland. Managed by CEO Peter O’Reilly, its primary aim is to train local people in a commercial facility. The concept grew from a desire to funnel local students into the winery and tourism business.
As well as various training facilities including a commercial kitchen, the QCWT is home to a training restaurant, open to the public, It’s also where you’ll find the Vineyard of the Future, where 70 varieties of vines have been planted, to ensure the ongoing viability of the wine industry in Queensland.
22 Caves Road Stanthorpe QLD 4380
It might seem unusual to finish a two-day tour of wineries in Stanthorpe with a visit to Sirromet Wines in Brisbane, but the connection is very clear. Not only is award-winning winemaker Mike Hayes from the Granite Belt region, but he was also the architect of the Vineyard of the Future at the Queensland College of Wine Tourism.
He’s also the chief winemaker here at Sirromet, with a Masters in Emerging Varieties, making him the perfect conduit to the Granite Belt. With over 39 years in the professional wine industry as well as growing up in amongst the vineyards, there’s not much he doesn’t know about wine.
The majority of the Sirromet wines are also made from Granite Belt grapes, with the business holding around 260 acres of vines in Stanthorpe.
850-938 Mount Cotton Rd Mount Cotton QLD 4165
How to get to Stanthorpe
Stanthorpe is a regional Queensland town, located 2.5 hours south-west of Brisbane. The area enjoys cold winters, sometimes even snow, due to its elevation. It’s part of an area known as the Granite Belt, due to the heavy presence of granite rocks.
The main street of town has many historical buildings, including the beautiful post office and clock tower dating back to the early 1900s. The Granite Belt is also well known for fresh produce and artisanal, locally made products sourced from this produce.
The easiest and most popular way of getting to Stanthorpe is by car. It is 230km from Brisbane and 140km from Toowoomba. Being on the Qld/NSW border, there is also easy access from NSW.
Crisps Coaches offer a bus service from Brisbane (3.5 hours) and Toowoomba (3.25 hours).
By tour bus
Stanthorpe and the Granite Belt is popular for day trips and for wine and food tours. If you don’t want to drive yourself, there are some great tour bus options. They operate from within Stanthorpe itself, but some also operate from other nearby cities.
For full details of tour companies in Stanthorpe, click here.
Note: The nearest international airport is Brisbane International. Wellcamp Airport in Toowoomba also services Sydney, Melbourne, Townsville and western Qld.
Where to eat in Stanthorpe
There are many great places to eat in Stanthorpe. Those connected to the wineries are usually very good.
During my stay here I ate at the Barrel Room (Ballandean Estate Wines), Heritage Estate Wiens restaurant, Jester Cafe (Jester Hill Wines) and at Varias (Queensland College of Wine Tourism). My other long-time favourite place to eat in Stanthorpe is Anna’s. Established in 1981 by Anna Pompetti, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Anna’s is an absolute institution in this town. Serving Italian cuisine from an old Queenslander home, it’s a must for anyone visiting the area.
Where to stay in Stanthorpe
Stanthorpe accommodation is plentiful. I have previously stayed in the Apple and Grape Motel and the Vines Motel. Both are good motels that are central to Stanthorpe. One of the best things about Stanthorpe and the Granite Belt, however, is the abundance of amazing cottages and bed and breakfasts.
I absolutely loved staying at Grovely House B&B with delightful owner Faith. Here I took some much-needed respite from busy days tasting wine! Faith is the perfect host, providing a warm welcome and even an unexpected afternoon tea in the garden. She spends just enough time with you to make you feel at home, chatting as much (or as little) as you like.
The bed and breakfast has five bedrooms, three of which are on the upper floor. Octavia, the premier room, is located upstairs and has two rooms, a king-size bed and a balcony. All other rooms have queen-size beds.
Downstairs, a very comfortable library area awaits the bookworms. On the other side of the double fireplace, a lounge room provides the perfect space for watching tv or gazing out through glass over the gardens. The dining room is also here. Each morning Faith provides a sumptuous breakfast to keep your strength up for the day ahead.
There are coffee and tea making facilities available all day. Faith is also the creator of Quackers Pantry, where homemade jams, preserves and granola are available for purchase.
1a Torrisi Terrace Stanthorpe Qld 4380
For all STanthopre accommodation, check out TripAdvisor for prices, availability and reviews.
You might also like to check out these other great areas that are day trips from Brisbane.
Beer and Croissants was a guest of Granite Belt Wine Country. As always, all editorial, opinions, content and images are my own.