Elevation…don’t go to my head: A Granite Belt Tasting

Sitting at the bar of a well known establishment in Brisbane with a bowl of rosemary salted chips and a glass of Dönnhoff Riesling, I casually mentioned to a staff member that I was heading to a tasting of Granite Belt wines after lunch. “What wines are on pour? Barambah?” Such a succinct summation of the difficulties confronting Queensland’s premier wine growing region…

The Barambah winery sits in the South Burnett, a decidedly warm region with elevations ranging from 300 to 600 metres. By and large that area produces the sort of fruity, ‘sunshine in a bottle’ wines that many would expect to see the state making. It’s a world away from the Granite Belt, whose average altitude of around 800 metres places it in truly rarefied air. Along with Orange in NSW the region has some of the loftiest vineyards in Australia, equating to cool climate conditions and more than the odd frost derived headache. High quality, medium bodied grace can be pursued here but there are no guarantees. The hard yards still need to be done if the GI is to fulfill its potential as a producer of premium quality wines.

A New Perspective

For as long as I’ve been reading about wine, the Granite Belt has primarily sought endorsement through wine shows, James Halliday and the Winestate magazine. More than one winemaker has publicly bemoaned the inability to translate success through these channels into sales. It was with great interest then that I attended a tasting organised by Granite Belt Wine & Tourism Incorporated for ‘influential people involved in social media’.

The Whites

First cab off the rank was a Ravens Croft Gewürtztraminer 2009, which exhibited pronounced pickled ginger aromas and flavours that overwhelmed the fragile lychee component. This lack of fruit stuffing was to become a feature amongst the white wines on show; a sharp contrast to the perception of all Queensland wine being fruity and sweet. If anything, a bit of residual sugar may have helped the cause here and I think that’s the direction winemaker Mark Ravenscroft will take with the next release. There’s plenty of character to work with, it just requires more balance.

The Robert Channon Chardonnay 2009 threw up another issue that needs to be addressed. The use of American oak in the maturation of Chardonnay is widely considered to be an anaethma yet it is still quite common on the Granite Belt. I thought it brought some undesirable rockmelon sweetness into greater relief, detracting from a relatively spicy and appealing profile. I suspect a little less oak and a little more fruit delineation would work wonders.

An overly warm finish marred the peach, melon and lemon traits of a Lucas Estate Chardonnay from the same vintage. More impressive was the Ravens Croft Chardonnay 2009 which possessed plenty of solids derived funk, ginger and wood spice along with some rounded peach and cashew attributes. If the line of grapefruit acidity could be harnessed then you would have a very good wine. Once again, I don’t think (obvious) American Oak helped the cause.

Golden Grove’s 2011 Vermentino was one of the highlights of the tasting. Pungent and punchy with subtle barrel ferment adding textural interest to Thai lime, lemon and grass. A pithy finish sealed the deal for a wine that should appeal to punter and critic alike.

The Reds

A bracket of red wines began with the Lucas Estate Tempranillo 2010, made in the unoaked ‘joven’ style. Certainly bright and jubey if not terribly varietal. There was no doubting the grape when it came to the Ballandean Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 - sweet Ribena over pine, herbs and leaf. Some requisite tannin but made for early drinking. The 2008 vintage was a very cool one for the Granite Belt and it showed in the green fern and capsicum attack of a mouth puckering Harrington Glen Cabernet.

Shiraz is a variety that I believe has a strong future in the Granite Belt. Indeed, it was the first wine grape planted way back in 1965. The Ridgemill Estate Shiraz 2009 displayed hints of regional earth, white pepper, Chico lollies, aniseed and fresh berry fruit. Just medium bodied and with tastefully applied oak, it showcased the potential of the region. Sadly a Pyramids Road Shiraz from the same year was too hard and mean to warrant the same praise.

A couple of alternative grapes wrapped up proceedings. Whilst the Symphony Hill Petit Verdot 2008 was varietally correct with lifted violets and purple fruit, it was curranty and hot in the mouth. Marking a winery in good form,the Golden Grove Durif 2008 provided the second persuasive offering from that outfit; lighter than the famous Rutherglen examples but still earthen and ferrous with gummy, plump tannin.

Elevation…don’t go to my head

Whilst it’s no doubt important to get the altitude/cool climate message out there, the Granite Belt is still in an embryonic stage of development. I have little doubt that the region is capable of producing excellent wine but there still seems to be a lack of genuine consistency. As a region, it’s never going to be suited to pumping out large volumes of average wine – frost and disease pressure see to that. Of far more worth is the pursuit of excellence. Given the current climate of Australian wine, that’s not a bad thing. For now it’s time to roll up the sleeves and keep working. It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen…

This entry was posted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Durif, Gewürztraminer, Granite Belt, Petit Verdot, Shiraz, Tempranillo, Vermentino, Wine Events, Wine Musings. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Elevation…don’t go to my head: A Granite Belt Tasting

  1. MikeBennie says:

    Good read here. x

  2. Mark Gifford says:

    Great read Jeremy – I can see how you want to see the positives but you’ve got to call it as you see it.

    Interesting that the alternatives in PV and Durif are late pickers, where they are having troubles with ripeness (note most Bordeaux grapes need sunlight as much as heat load – with the granite belt being that much closer to the equator it actually has less hours of sunshine to drive those nasty mercaptans out). If I was having a go at alternatives I’d look at the heat loving varieties of southern france and italy. Plenty to choose from and Nero d’Avola could be a good choice for a serious red and montepulciano for an easy drinking alternative. As they are obviously seeking some sort of feed back, try hooking them into these areas – they could provide Australia with an alternate King Valley if it works.

    As always keep up the good work – and yes I owe you an email ;-)


  3. Some good perspective on the tasting here Jeremy.

    Given it was Mark’s 2nd vintage with the Gewurz I think it shows great promise. He seemed to me to be skilled, patient and ready to try techniques to find what will work best, which seems the right approach. I had very low expectations on seeing a Granite Belt gewurz in the mix and was happy to have those expectations exceeded.

    Agree they would do well to concentrate on Shiraz but don’t agree with the idea that was floated on the day that perhaps they should brand it is Syrah, which I think at this stage would only serve to further confuse consumers about an already confusing wine region.

    Positioning and marketing of these wines needs something more inventive than ‘yes we’re from Qld, but our wines are OK too. Oh and by the way, its cooler here than you think’. The consensus from robust discussion at the winemaker dinner I was at after the Granite Belt event was that the region had: demonstrated potential to make great wine; a lack of consistency; some hideous and dated labels and branding and a low to non existent level of consumer awareness about what varieties it did ‘well’. Although there were a number of industry types present at this dinner and consumers with a high level of knowledge about Australian wine, no one could name a single winemaker from the region, except Robert Channon – perhaps more owing to his legal stoush with Moet et Chandon. Since I can’t recommend litigation as a way to become more well known, I would very much like to see the GB wine marketing make more of the people involved, bringing the winemakers bought to the fore. I sense there is a few interesting stories that the consumer would buy into to give a greater connection to the place. If only ‘Granite Belt’ didn’t sound like a cold and uncomfortable type of chastity garment….

    Given the branding and identity issues and the wines themselves, I wonder how much thought has been given to who the ‘audience’ for these wines should be. Endorsement from Halliday, Winestate and gongs from obscure shows might appeal to a subset of wine buyers but I’m not convinced they’re type of mavens who can help these wines reach a wider market.

  4. Mn says:

    Keira, you’ve added an exclamation to your point, Robert cannon isn’t a winemaker, mark ravens croft made his wines up to 2010. Nicely written Jeremy, though I think there are plenty of great wines that maybe warrant a look.

  5. Mn says:

    Make that Robert Chandon, though I think cannon has a certain charm.

  6. Mn says:

    Damn it, channon. And now I can rest

  7. Mn – an exclamation indeed. Mark Ravenscroft has a hand in many wines from the region, though seems a quiet and humble character. Illustrates my point perfectly. My understanding is that Channon has a viti degree to go with the legal one, so some input other than $.

    You mention that there are many wines from the region worth a look – now would be a fine time to share.

  8. MN says:

    The point I was making was that
    “no one could name a single winemaker from the region, except Robert Channon – perhaps more owing to his legal stoush with Moet et Chandon. ”
    the only winemaker they can name, well, isn’t a winemaker at all.
    Viticultural degree, law degree he may have … But a winemaker he is not.

    Wasn’t a criticism, just agreeing with your point that the general knowledge of the region is pretty low. Couldn’t agree more that the labelling, with some bordering on the absurd.

  9. Thanks all.

    Keira – Agree on the Gewurz. Lots of promise and I look forward to seeing future vintages. The Syrah/Shiraz question is a tough one anyway but I think you’re probably right when it comes to the GB…no need to further complicate matters.

    MN – I’m sure there are many deserving wines that weren’t covered here. Boireann and Summit Estate come to mind. I’ve had positive experiences with both of those producers. I’ve been saying that the GB needs to lead with its best examples for quite a while now. It’s unfortunate that neither of those wineries played a part in the tasting.

  10. PeterP says:

    Hi Jeremy …yep the pursuit of consistency has always been the prob for GB wines and their makers … well consistent high quality that is, I guess it’s a challenging place but while the vineyards can sell decent amounts to the Brisbane weekend tourists and others then where’s the motivation? Ballandean estate told me 2 years ago that they sell 80% of their wines via CD … if this is a consistent pattern for them the contingencies for change must be kinda small. Hell if I was running a business in which I sold 80% of my product straight over the front counter and did that consistently over the years then I’d probably consider that I was successful. Only if something caused a change and there was a dramatic drop in this pattern would I find real and urgent motivation. Still for those of us who would really like to consistently see excellent wines coming out of our local region, this is a problem, but it’s not really a problem we have the power to do anything about, especially while “others” keep buying the wines we lament. Frustrating, isn’t it … and I do hear your hopes, desires and your frustrations in your post … and similarly in some of the responses here. I don’t have any answers, the free market will determine what ultimately transpires and I just have to accept it … although it does, on occasion, emerge from a still unresolved place somewhere inside me and causes a little twitch every now and then.

    I think you were, just my personal opinion of course, a tinge tough on Warrens 2009 Pyramids Road shiraz. It’s way to young and is kinda all arms and legs at the moment with Oak and acid and tannin running all ova the place, however there is lovely fruit and I believe it needs at least 2 years to find it’s feet and then will be a damn nice wine. I’ve kinda lost faith a bit in Boireann … that shiraz (often from Harrington Glen) is still a nice wine but the others aren’t doing lots for me … opened a 2008 Lurnea the other night and eucalypt from the CabSav really turned me off .. of course some like this characteristic. Ray at Golden Grove has certainly raised the bar since taking over the mantle, although some of his reds are a bit odd e.g. the 2010 Tempranillo … it’s a good wine no doubt but rather sweet tasting for a Temp.

    Easily the best red wine in the GB at the moment is Pyramids Road 2010 Mourvedre, I sent one into Mike Bennie (after getting the OK from Warren Smith). I don’t think Mike did it justice however. I have sent it to some blind tasting groups around the country and it has been very well received and is generally preferred to the 2010 Teusner The Dog Strangler. It’s Warrens best effort yet with this variety and I have noticed that he is getting better each year with his mouvedre offerings. Try one of these, it’s still young and needs time to breathe to gain weight etc, but very nice at the moment and should develop to be a great example of GB mourvedre in a few years.

    But back to the problem of consistent excellence and the GB … well that one’s a boomerang for the rest of you. For myself I personally try to encourage good efforts whenever I encounter them (well that’s if the winemaker will genuinely listen to my babbling), that appears to be working with Warrens mourvedre. Oh yeah … no comments about whites cause I really enjoy a good riesling but my wife did buy some of the Vermentino from GG.

  11. Peter – thanks for filling out the picture. The idea that the Granite Belt as “tourist destination” can work against the Granite Belt as “premium wine producer” is quite a conundrum.

  12. Rob Muller says:

    Interesting read, yes agreed MN & PeterP, GB needs to find it’s own niche and lead with it’s few top producers like Ray Costanzo, Warren Smith, Peter Stark, Paola Rhymer & Mark Ravenscroft who are finding more consistency each vintage. I also think GB needs to somehow market itself towards the cool climate styles of syrah & chardonnay and the alternative varieties like mouvedre & tempranillo (varieties which enjoy the big diurnal shift climate – warm days, cold nights) and offer australians an alternative to King Valley & SA.
    PS – the Pyramid Rd 2008 shiraz was very similar & a bit hard edged on release to the 2009, but now very much in the groove a year later, with lots of peppery notes reminescent of a ’99 or ’02 Langi Ghiran shiraz from western Victoria. If you like these cool peppery styles of shiraz look to cool vintages like 2008, with the warmer vintages making a more earthy hunter/clare valley esque characteristic, vintage variation is alive & well in the GB, so getting to know your producer/winemaker is very important if you want to find some consistency… :)

  13. Paola Andrea Cabezas Rhymer says:

    Great read. I find this today. At the time I had a one year old baby, no time for reading. It is true that we focus ourself in tourist sales but our volume is low , this hand made wines are expensive to produce, the wines even if fare price (maybe not) there are no cheap and our reputation is just ok . Very difficult to get into the Brisbane market the premium wines are sold totally in our cellar door. If I make a very good wine, last less than a year and the same costumer are the ones that buy it. Any Ideas how to change this? (I am Argentinian and my English is very poor. sorry)

  14. Paola – my expertise lies far from marketing and sales but I believe the Granite Belt can get there with persistence and a focus on excellence. It may take a bit of time and some very good wines may get overlooked in the process but essentially I believe in the notions of hard work and merit. There are producers in the region who seem to concentrate on the same concepts. It’s (as I’m sure you know) a relatively young region and the future is unwritten. There is promise, that much is clear. The one thing I would suggest is getting your wines out there – to sommeliers, to wine writers, to the public and to other wine makers. Seek opinions but be firm about your core beliefs. Exposure is very important when it comes to widening an audience.

    • Paola Andrea Cabezas Rhymer says:

      I hope meet you soon I going to Spain next week to bottle a wine I make for Summit Estate in Jumilla that will be here in March I would send you a bottle
      And I know that one the soon we will be in the other side of the line.

  15. That would be my pleasure. I’m somewhat familiar with Summit Estate although it’s been a couple of years since I last tasted a Summit Estate wine. I’d love the opportunity to rectify that.

    • Paola Andrea Cabezas Rhymer says:

      I would send you the wines when I comeback, and every one is always welcome at Summit, especially at vintage time. I always welcome an extra pare of hands to move the fermenting grapes in the tanks

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