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By Emily Arlidge for Toowoomba Chronicle (cover story)

A TOUGH start to 2011 was enough to break anyone’s spirit, but not Granite Belt winemakers. The Granite Belt produces 60% of the state’s wine and has the potential to release some of the best wines in Australia. Emily Arlidge speaks to some of the region’s best producers on the challenges they face and what keeps them going.

For all of Australia’s winemakers, 2011 is proving to be a tough year, yet on Queensland’s Granite Belt, enthusiasm for the grape is undiminished.

Granite Ridge proprietor Juliane Ferguson, at Ballandean, has diced with flooding rain, the threat of disease and hail, this season, yet she is as cheerful as ever about those magical red and white liquids they produce.

Despite all the season’s difficulties and the extra work entailed, she is optimistic that this vintage could be very good – just a little later than normal due to all the rain.

Juliane believes winemaking is all about the lifestyle. “You have to have a passion,” is how she puts it. However, observing the activity in the small winery, off Sundown Road, it is clearly a business, not just a hobby.

Jeff Harden, of Bungawarra Wines, also at Ballandean, thinks the recent weather may, ironically, prove to be the perfect storm, resulting in an excellent crop, provided that the grapes get enough sunlight from now until harvest.

“At the moment the vineyard is a jungle and we are waiting for it to explode,” Mr Harden says. “We have to be on our guard for rot once the grapes ripen.” However, if he can negotiate this little problem then vineyard life, as always, will be just fine.

For over a century, the Granite Belt has proven to be an excellent location for growing vines, fruit trees and vegetables. Each year brings challenges but, one way or another – usually through hard work – these are overcome.

The Granite Belt produces 60 per cent of the state’s wines. Most producers nurture just a few hectares of vines and fit the definition of boutique wineries.

Their determined optimism about the region’s future is shared by industry luminaries such as the wine writer, James Halliday.

He identifies several “outstanding” wineries and wines. “Anyone who tastes these wines would be in no doubt that they would be considered outstanding wines anywhere,” said Mr Halliday.

He is looking forward to seeing how well businesses cope with what nature has thrown at them this season.

Grant Casley, of Casley Mount Hutton Wines, in the region’s west, believes that the Granite Belt has potential to produce the best wines in Australia.

“Our location and altitude means we have exceedingly high ultraviolet light levels and so our grapes produce particularly good colour and flavour,” Mr Casley says. He is clearly of the view that this gives the region’s wines an advantage.

However, Mr Casley is well aware that many things can go wrong in any season. “It’s a long journey from the vine to the glass,” he comments wryly.

Like many people in the industry, Mr Casley, who was formerly a metallurgist with Mount Isa Mines, adds that he does it for the lifestyle, “It is so exhilarating.”

Seasons shape a pattern for vineyards that leads to cellar doors, where the focus switches from vines to visitors.

Many wineries, such as Harry and Glen Ireland’s Harrington Glen, at Glen Aplin, have wines from previous seasons to sell during this year so, if the weather impacts this crop, it should not cause too many problems.

Mrs Ireland says the floods have affected tourism so there are not so many visitors to the cellar door at present. “We have shifted our focus from expecting customers to babysitting the crop,” she says. “It keeps us young.”

She and others are confident that the tourists will be back.

It is such a lovely area and, being very high up in the mountains, it is much cooler than the coast so tourists never stay away for long.

In recent years, Queensland wine consumers have come to appreciate what the Granite Belt is capable of producing and many winemakers report that, as has happened in southern states, people are now fiercely proud of the local product.

Juliane Ferguson says the change is noticeable. “It is pleasing to see tourists reacting so positively,” she said.

Robert Channon, of Robert Channon Wines, believes the region is well on its way to finding its own signature variety, just as the Barossa is known for Shiraz and the Margaret River is known for Chardonnay.

“These things take time,” Mr Channon said. “The great advantage for our region at the moment is our proximity to the huge population of South-East Queensland.”

Mark Ravenscroft, of Ravenscroft Wines, typifies the new breed of winemakers now working on the Granite Belt. He was trained as a winemaker in South Africa and came to Stanthorpe via Western Australia’s Margaret River.

In his view, it is not necessarily the easiest place to grow vines but the quality of the product is excellent. His own winery, at Spring Creek, has won many gold medals and trophies for its wines.

This year saw him stumping the vineyard, controlling disease with a hand sprayer because the ground was too boggy for the tractor. “You do what you have to do,” he laughs.

To most of us it looks like so much work and so much stress – how do you cope with the random nature of the weather, especially these days? Regardless, the Granite Belt’s winemakers soldier on.

As Grant Casley says, “I wouldn’t be doing anything else.”

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