Be it the flat surface of the liquid that stretches across the fluid in your glass, the rolling waves that stretch beyond the borders of your sight or the land that stretches seemingly forever under your feet; each frontier promises adventure. I recently pushed past these boundaries for altruistic and financial motives and the following is an account of what I found.
I’m not sure if it was the three hour drive, the picture-perfect winter weather or the fresh air, but Stanthorpe feels unlike any other part of Queensland, not just physically due to the cool climate largely absent in the rest of the state but also for a sense of gratification you feel at being surrounded by so many felicities at once. A resident of the area told me that you feel connected to the land in a place that feels each of the four seasons (maybe I will argue this point for the capital at a later date), but the attribute that really stands out for me is the quality and diversity of the products they produce. The Stanthorpe and Tenterfield communities (and many others nearby) occupy a special climactic zone, due to a slight elevation above sea level, which is particularly favourable to vineyards, orchards and bineyards. The people I encountered here are hands on and community minded, and in a world where small-scale, sustainable and locally manufactured consumables are in demand the future is bright for the area.
We started our journey by visiting the Stanthorpe Cheese Factory on the North side of town to check out their menu. They bring tait (aka tête) to a camembert and brie saturated marketplace and I would definitely recommend trying their pepper cheese if you are ever in the neighbourhood. We then found our way to Pyramids Road Wines en route to the very beautiful Girraween National Park. The winery is run by Warren and Sue Smith who are part of the Magnificent 7, where the people you meet at the cellar door are the people running the vineyard. This group in this area captures the essence of craft beer, craft wine, craft spirits (any handmade fluid really). The only regret of meeting small scale producers like Warren and Sue is that not everyone will be able to try their wine due to their limited output and the secondary disappointment is the realisation that you have to leave at some point.
Small batch wine production mirrors that of other craft and handmade beer and spirit manufacture insofar as the choices and obstacles that are confronted during the design and making phases can conspire to dictate some of the characteristics of the juice that ultimately ends up in the bottle. While winemakers frequently grow the majority of their own ingredients themselves, like brewers, they still make operational decisions about how adventurous they want to be with varieties, balance, blends and the idiosyncrasies of the style and also the commercial viability of volume for effort and return. By that I mean they must determine if they are content to produce what they can ferment themselves in their own vats, or whether they will impress their specifications on a contract brewer and leave their fruit in the hands of an outsider. It’s typical that vineyards running cellar doors in the Granite Belt are growing and harvesting their own product, then either crushing and fermenting themselves, whereas most of the major craft breweries are designing and either self-brewing or contract brewing their own recipes with varying degrees of control. I hope it is in our destiny to see some more beer and cider makers producing their beverages through every stage from paddock to glass.
While we were in the area we also took time out to visit Ernie at Brass Monkey Brewhouse where the former homebrew champion has fitted out his tank-fed brewery with a taphouse (we’ll definitely be back when the kitchen is ready next year), Ridgemill Estate (which also offers accommodation) and the newly renovated Commercial Boutique Hotel just down the road in Tenterfield which has a range of craft beer and a genuinely faithful and cool art deco theme. For me the most impressive feature of the Commercial Hotel was the average age of the locals on Saturday and Sunday which seemed to be well north of 40. If good beer can win hearts and minds in regional Australia then it augers well for the mainstream markets in the bigger cities in the future.
As we bookended our trip with more than one Guiness and an old school steak and veg at O’Mara’s Hotel Stanthorpe, I was left pondering that in the middle of a good beer gold rush, how cider can be so neglected in an apple production hotbed. To the best of my knowledge and information, there are no commercial quantities of cider specific apple varieties grown locally and only one producer making any cider at all.
Without a doubt, the Granite Belt is a food bowl overflowing with artisan producers worthy of ordinary consumer support and respect at every opportunity. A chance to look inwards at something that is close to home and part of all of us. We can’t get back soon enough to indulge in everything that we ran out of time for this time around. I’ve always been fond of the area since I was a child and each time I go I find more reasons than I expect to keep drawing me back. Indeed we only scratched the surface of wine production on this trip and I will be back in November to finish the education I started with the Magnificent 7 and to seek out a few more Strange Bird varieties along the way.