The Granite Belt’s reputation for the grape is growing with more than 50 wineries, many of them award-winning. Add some of Australia’s most dramatic scenery in two national parks, and friendly locals offering country hospitality, and there are plenty of reasons to visit.
A smidge over two hours’ drive south-west of Brisbane, the Granite Belt is in the Darling Downs region. From Queensland’s capital, the scenic journey climbs up and over the Great Dividing Range into the town of Warwick. Another 50 kilometres south along the single-lane New England Highway brings you to Stanthorpe, the hub of the Granite Belt. A vivid memory travelling this way with my kids was to be the first to spy the Big Apple. The over-sized icon sits atop a green pole in Thulimbah, just to the north.
Hurtling towards Stanthorpe on a gals’ weekend getaway, I ask my two friends, “Who can see the big apple?” Habits are hard to break.
Encountering some strange birds
The combination of the region’s granite rich soil and the elevated geographical location – a plateau 1000 metres above sea level – provides ideal climatic conditions for growing grapes. A handful of innovative winemakers are producing alternative variety wines that are winning many national and international awards.
And then there’s the Strange Birds. Wines with a production of less than one per cent of the total bearing vines in Australia receive that name. The Granite Belt’s Strange Bird Trail has 26 cellar doors with alternative-variety wines you may not have tasted… or even heard of: exotic whites like viognier, roussane and fiano, and reds such as tempranillo, sangiovese, pinotage, malbec and saperavi.
“There is water in the weir and our dams are filling,” says Sue Smith as she pours a splash of their latest vintage into my glass. I’m standing at the rustic bar in the cellar door of Pyramids Road Wines, nestled into the foothills of Girraween National Park. Winemaker Warren and wife Sue hand-planted their vines in 1999. The long drought that finally broke in late February this year was one of the toughest they’ve endured.
At harvest time friends come to help, picking the grapes then rolling up their trousers the next day for grape stomp. As you’d suspect, this entails crushing the grapes underfoot, a process Sue says gives a different result and unique names like Foot Stomped Rosé.
More drops to drink on the Granite Belt
Heritage Estate Wines offers award-winning drops (some rated five stars by Australian critic James Halliday). At their Cottonvale Cellar Door, the tasting room is full with antiquities. Co-owner Therese Fenwick plays a classic Elvis Presley tune on an old pianola as we enter. Choose a food and wine pairing with their Nips and Nosh package or stay overnight in a three-roomed cottage on the estate grounds.
Ballandean Estate is owned by the Puglisi family, pioneers of winemaking in the region. It’s now managed by fourth-generation Puglisi daughters, Leeanne Gangemi and Robyn Henderson, and these sisters love to talk about their award-winning wines. They offer behind-the-scenes winery tours including a two-course lunch in their Barrel Room Restaurant.
Over at Ridgemill Estate, owner Martin Cooper and winemaker Peter McGlashan have created a variety of popular wines. On-site luxury cabins are available for overnight stays.
Twisted Gum Wines’ three-hectare vineyard is one of the smaller wineries of the region. Owners Tim and Michelle Coelli incorporate sustainable agricultural techniques.
For those who prefer beer over wine, the Granite Belt Brewery crafts hand-made ales and lagers in their 1000-litre microbrewery. Set on 12 hectares of bushland, they have 20 cosy cedar cabins for overnight guests and an on-site restaurant. The Brass Monkey Brew House in Severnlea also has a selection of hand-crafted boutique beers on tap.
Stanthorpe Street Art is a collection of vibrant, eye-catching artworks on display in alleyways, the facades of old brick buildings and public toilet blocks.
Inside Washpool Farm Soaperie the air is filled with a heavenly mix of fragrances. This gift store is chock full of goodies including many hand-made products by owner Melissa Thomas. Her 100 per cent natural products are scented and coloured, using cold-pressed oils and minerals and clays.
Granite Belt treats
Wisteria Heavenly Chocolates has a selection of mouth-watering hand-made chocolates. Behind the chocolate shop are three self-contained cottages. Book one and enjoy the serenity of the Wyberba Valley and the country hospitality of hosts Glenys (chief chocolate maker) and Anthony. Our gals’ weekend hideaway in the Lavender Cottage was perfect.
Jamworks sells a selection of jams, preserves and chutneys made from fresh produce sourced largely from Granite Belt growers.
Sutton’s Juice Factory is famous for its fruit-packed apple pies and a side of cider-laced ice-cream. Dessert and cider apples grow in abundance in the on-site orchard.
Dairy farm shop Stanthorpe Cheese has tasty artisan offerings made from a single herd of pure-bred Jersey cows.
I will never enjoy an ‘average’ strawberry again after my paddock-to-mouth experience at Ashbern Strawberry Farm. From October through to May you can pick your own sweet juicy fruits straight from their runners. I also recommend their home-made strawberry parfait.
After sampling so many fabulous wining and dining options, you might wish to take a break. Explore some of the walking trails inside the 11,000 hectares of eucalyptus forests in Girraween National Park, filled with 200-million-year-old Triassic granite boulders. Marked trails include the 1.6 kilometre return Granite Arch trail, a flat walk suitable for all ages. The Pyramid walk (3.6 kilometre return) is a more exhilarating hike to the top of a massive granite dome where you can take the obligatory Instagram photo pretending to support the 10-tonne balancing rock. Don’t forget to enjoy views of the other features in the national park: Castle Rock, The Sphinx, Mt Norman and Bald Rock.
Sundown National Park in the Severn Valley is a wilderness park with ridges rising to 1000 metres and steep-sided gorges. It’s popular with birdwatchers because of the peregrine falcons and elusive lyrebirds.
When to visit the Granite Belt
The Granite Belt’s high elevation creates a cool, dry climate in summer with minimal humidity (December to March.) During winter, night-time temperatures can drop to -15 °C (snow fell in July 2015!). Springtime is an ideal time to visit, with warm sunny days blending into cooler nights. The orchards blossom, berries are ready to pick and the grapevines begin to bud.