A version of this article first appeared in Harpers Wine and Spirit, 2005.
As Australia tries to create a message different from its ‘sunshine in a bottle’ that has done so well for it in recent years, one of the challenges for the Queensland wine industry is how to get past its ‘Sunshine State’ moniker and subtropical climate image.
The state’s capital city, Brisbane, is known as ‘Australia’s only sub tropical capital’, so at first glance this is quite a challenge for the wine industry, but Maryanne Pidcock, President of the Queensland Wine Industry Association puts this to one side, saying: “The perception of Queensland as a sub-tropical climate is only true for the coast and further north, which is how many [people] perceive Queensland, due to the marketing efforts of tourism bodies over many years. In fact only two of the state’s wine regions would fall into this category, with the rest being on or west of the Great Dividing Range.” And the position of vineyard areas in relation to the Great Dividing Range is important, with greater humidity and cloud on the eastern side, reminiscent of New South Wales’ Hunter Valley. The cooler temperature offered by increasing altitude is significantly beneficial.
Tourism is Queensland’s second largest export industry (after mining), and the key wine regions are just two to three hours drive from Brisbane. Wineries are able to plug into the tourism road map, by siting a cellar door retail outlet, often with restaurant attached, at some distance remote from the winery, notably on those main tourist avenues in closer proximity to Brisbane, frequently on the route to the Gold Coast.
To fight its cause, the Queensland government has created the role of Minister for Wine Industry Development and wine enthusiast Margaret Keech MP will go down in history as the first incumbent. The state is the first in Australia to create such a minister for wine. A wine industry development strategy was finalised in December 2004, after nine months of consultation with the industry. It is likely that the success of the Queensland wine industry over the coming years will be judged directly according to the investment afforded by the government.
Queenslander Peter Scudamore-Smith MW, wine judge and oenology consultant with over 30 years experience believes the production structure is a key issue, saying ” the main challenges are the ability to build brands locally, domestically and internationally, and the ability to contain costs in a very condensed marketplace so that businesses are profitable. Scale of economy is the ultimate challenge, grow larger, streamline production and supply and distribution infrastructure.” He says a handful of key Queensland brands have to grow significantly and consistently for Queensland to make a success of its industry. At the moment there are just four producers who crush over 200 tonnes (~15,000 cases): Ballandean, Clovely, Jimbour and Sirromet. Otherwised 85% of the industry is made up of small holders, each making between 500 and 3,500 cases annually.
Queensland had a flourishing wine industry from the 1860s but it fell into decline until the late 1960s, when Ballandean Estate in the Granite Belt started a programme of replanting. The vast majority of latter growth has been in the last 6 to 7 years, and much more is yet to come.
With 1,500 ha of bearing vines, Queensland accounts for about 1.5% of total Australian vineyard plantings. Tasmania has about two-thirds of the vineyard size, but crushes half as much again as Queensland. The crush for 2005 is expected to finalise at about 5000 tonnes (just 350,000 cases for the whole state). A further 20% increase is forecast for 2006. In 1999, a total of just 600 tonnes were crushed. This is rapid growth indeed, but the entire Queensland industry produces, for example, just over one fifth of the production of South Australian company Yalumba.
The main grape varieties are, almost predictably, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot. Semillon is next, much of which is ‘exported’ to near neighbour Sydney. Verdelho makes some interesting wines, especially in the fresh, aromatic, unoaked styles, and it would easily be an alternative in the UK to the ubiquitous sauvignon blanc. A few hectares each of a plethora of other grape varieties are also grown with some interesting early results on viognier and petit verdot. Indeed Scudamore-Smith suggests “Verdelho is poised to the be the State’s drink…some of the best international ones come from the Granite Belt”, adding “petit verdot is exceptionally promising, though better blended than a single wine.”
The vineyards are concentrated in two principal districts, South Burnett and the Granite Belt, both awarded Geographical Indications. A third region, Darling Downs, shows potential and in all there are some nine named wine regions in Queensland. Scudamore-Smith said of wine character “the Burnett and Darling Downs parallel the Riverina, Barossa and Clare Valleys with similar climate classifications – warm to hot with an early vintage in February-March. The Granite Belt is cool continental – similar wine personalities are found at Orange, Tumburumba and Northern New South Wales.”
South Burnett was the first district to be awarded GI status, in 2000. Grapes were first planted in 1993 and many producers have planted only since 1999. The altitude varies from 300 to 500m ASL and the rainfall pattern is a summer one.
Pidcock, who is also a producer in South Burnett, at Captain’s Paddock Vineyard, said: “The warm climate results in fast phenological ripening for all fruit, giving rich, ripe fruit characters, with wines often opulent, with plenty of tannin.”
Gerald Keatinge, the general manager of Clovely Estate, an 175 hectare South Burnett property, all of which vineyards were planted in the late 1990s, said: “the best suited variety is verdelho which we pick early in January, at about 13.5 Baume, with more flavour. Semillon and chardonnay also work well… We have shiraz, and petit verdot, which is a hardy variety, retaining acidity and having deep colour.”
The warm climate can result in quite a short time on the vine, and both Keatinge and Pidcock are proponents of double pruning, which can lengthen the time ripening grapes spend on the vine. The normal growing season is from October to January, but a December to May season extends the growing season from about 100 days to 130.
Luke Fitzpatrick, winemaker at both Clovely and Captain’s Paddock explained: “you cut back to two bud spurs in December and the vines grow again. This results in bunches being on the vine longer – we don’t harvest till June. We do it on one acre of a four acre shiraz plot, and rotate.” As well as lengthening the growing season, Keatinge added “it brings yields down to about 2 tonne/acre [~40hl/ha] from 4 tonnes and we aim to get more intense flavours. But the process creates something like jet lag for the vine and we need to leave it for a couple of years to recover a normal growth pattern. We may try it on cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot just to see what happens.”
It is the Granite Belt, a 40km north-south strip of land, with GI status since 2001, that is the jewel of the Queensland wine industry, both qualitatively and quantitatively. The region is close to the border with NSW. Large granite boulders rock the landscape, and soils are composed of decomposed granite, nominally akin to those of the northern Rhône. Most vineyards are between Stanthorpe in the north of the region and Ballandean in the south. Altitude varies from 700 to 1000m ASL, and the resulting 7-10°C cooler temperature than at the coast definitely takes this region a long way from the subtropical. Whilst summer days are still hot, autumn evenings can be cool and snow has been known to fall in winter. As if to emphasise the continental climate, Mark Ravenscroft, President of the Granite Belt Wine Industry Association calls winter the “brass monkeys season where temperatures can get to -8°C, but is usually around freezing, with day temperatures of 14-15°C”. Within Australia, Brisbanite Andrew Corrigan MW, consultant and radio presenter, said the statistics show the area to be similar to the Young-Hilltops area of southen NSW near Canberra.
Dating from 1930, Ballandean Estate is one of Queensland’s oldest wineries, and it is third generation, ‘godfather’ Angelo, and Mary Puglisi who are noted with revitalising the modern Queensland industry by beginning to replant vines in the 1970s. In addition to be a leading producer in the region, and one of only a handful available in the UK, the estate is noted for hosting an annual charity event ‘Opera in the vineyard’ which more than 2000 people attend each year.
This adds another element to the vital tourism angle and other producers offer live performances alongside dining and tasting opportunities. Robert Channon Wines, which opened for business only in 2001, from vines planted about eight years ago, is primarily is gaining a reputation as a leading producer of Granite Belt verdelho, but their 2005 ‘season’ offers pop, jazz, opera and classics.
This cellar door experience has to date been one of the greatest successes of the Queensland wine industry. Over 90% of Queensland wineries have cellar door operations and the experience at many fits perfectly with the whole tourism experience. Ballandean Estate for example, has 85,000 cellar door visitors a year. Many producers make several different styles of wine for the home market, and there is something in this akin to the Germany model of offering a range of styles to be the ‘one stop shop’ for passing trade.
Sirromet, started from scratch in 1999, has built its premise and premises on the tourism route. Mt Cotton, a 230 hectare estate, is situated just over an hour south of Brisbane on the main tourism drag. The property has just a few hectares of atmospheric vines at Mount Cotton, plus 100 ha of working vines in the Granite Belt. Mt Cotton has a modern processing facility with high profile environmental assests such as a waste water treatment plant and an extensive worm farm to recycle solid waste. A 220-cover restaurant and large cellar door outlet are designed to create ‘a great day out’. Managing Director Adam Chapman said: “”It’s packed at the weekend, we might have a jazz band, people can get a bottle of wine and bucket of prawns, go sit on the lawn and relax, read the paper…” There’s even an grass amphitheatre below the main building where the owners hope to hold concerts and live performances. And it makes wines too.
A growing industry needs to find a market and it is export that holds the key. The domestic market is pretty static and the vineyard area is due to double, so export is already a survival tool for the industry despite its small size. Exports for 2003-2004 campaign reached just 14,000 cases. Expect to see increasing focus on the wines of Queensland.
Pidcock said: “in relation to export, Queensland has an advantage in many Asian and emerging markets, as the styles we produce well [some lighter and some with residual sweetness] are well placed to meet demand. The consumers in these markets already have a positive image of, or relationship with, Queensland through tourism and its clean, green, sunshine image.” As the UK embraces Asian cuisine perhaps there’s an opportunity for an additional link to be made here.
Queensland wine is certainly receiving an injection of focus and funds, witness the fact that more than half the operators in Queensland have entered the market in the last decade. But consider that just a decade and a half ago, Western Australia had about 1,700 hectares and produced 7,500 tonnes of fruit. There’s plenty of work to be done, but perhaps the sights of the Queensland wine industry are not set so high after all.
FACTBOX (correct in 2005)
The Granite Belt – 790 ha
The South Burnett – 420 ha
Darling Downs – around Toowoomba – 120 ha
Western Downs – Maranoa Region – Roma, St George and Surat – 20 ha
North Burnett and Central Queensland – 40 ha
Sunshine Coast and Hinterland – 20 ha
Gold Coast Hinterland, Brisbane, Brisbane Valleys and the Scenic Rim – 50 ha
Somerset Valleys and D’Aguilar Ranges – 20 ha
Inglewood District – 30 ha
Total = 1,500 hectares
Source: Department of Wine Industry Development