As you drive west of Byron Bay the landscapes change dramatically they are still spectacular as are the colours, but very different. There is a unique tranquility about the area defined as “The granite belt” it is a slower paced much more relaxed lifestyle to ours, I literally feel relaxed the minute I drive through the avenue of English oaks that line the streets in Tenterfield as I know I am not far from my destination. .
As a photographer on a road trip it is very hard to drive and not stop every 10 mins to take a photograph. Photo after photo after photo is captured in my memory on this drive. Amazing trees, landscapes, the odd man made Pyramid in the middle of a paddock, massive granite boulders balancing on top of each other a bright red tractor as a mail box. Photo’s everywhere you look. This time I was on a mission. Running 30 mins late on a Friday afternoon isn’t a good look. I was on my way to meet Peter McGlashan – viticulturist and winemaker at Ridgemill Estate – also known as “the vine whisperer”.
Ridgemill Estate is located just south of Stanthorpe at Severnlea, as I pulled into this magnificent looking property I was greeted with a big smile by Jill “cellar door senorita” Merritt the bar was full of people that were staying in the cabins located on the property for the weekend “tasting” and the laughter was loud and relaxed. I was introduced Peter who was employed by Martin Cooper the owner of Ridgemill Estate when he bought the property back in 2004.
Whilst Peter was telling me his story he showed me through this lovely little boutique winery that produces 900 cases of wine a year. On the property they grow many different varieties of grapes including Cabernet, Grenache, Shiraz, Tempranillo (my favourite), Jacquez, Vehdelho, Chardonnay and Saperavi to name a few. In terms of wines styles they make Tempranillo, Shiraz, Chardonnay, a stunning Rosé, a Bordeaux blend, a Rhone blend, Vehdehlo and Saperavi this year amongst others.
Peter and Jim Barnes from Hidden Creek winery at Ballandean quite regularly talked by phone on a Sunday when they were both sitting in the cellar door – “are you busy? No… what can we do?” And so this went on as they tried to make their alternative varieties more promising to the market. Over dinner and a few beers one night they came up with an idea for an alternative varieties wine trail. Once they had mulled it over in their minds and developed the concept, they then involved the other wineries in the region that are now a part of the Strange Bird – The Granite Belt alternative wine trail. Strange Bird was the name given to the granite belts alternative grape varieties. Following the Strange Bird trail will give you a chance to dip into a bottle of Viognier or Mourverde and learn to pronounce some of the other varieties such as Gewürztraminer.
The Granite Belt is a premium boutique wine region. Wine has been produced in the region for generations with the first vines planted by a Catholic priest over 100 years ago. To be considered alternative a variety must not represent more than 1% of the total bearing vines in Australia. On the Strange Bird wine trail you will not be short of choice there are over 20 vineyards and Cellar doors on the trail.
I asked Peter a couple of questions about what gets him out of bed each day and his passion…winemaking.
So why do you do it?
Peter -Because…..…..I don’t know if you have ever had the experience Kirra, that at school you couldn’t really see the relevance of anything? I went through the mechanics, carpentry, and that sort of thing that I thought I should do… then I fell into working in hotels, so I worked in pubs, clubs, nightclubs and all that sort of stuff for 10 years. So I guess alcohol and the alcohol trade have always been a big part of my life….(laughs) And so just through work, my wife and I moved to Stanthorpe. One day I thought I have had enough of this, so on my days off I would go and work with some friends that had a vineyard and winery. I worked for nothing to learn some new skills and then that sort of snowballed so I started working in vineyards and wineries and really enjoyed that. When Martin bought this pace they bought it through a friend who has the real estate in town, and they were looking for someone to work here. I wasn’t working in the industry then I was just pruning apples, and I thought I would go and have a look. Now 8 years later I am in University! 2 years into doing my wine making degree! Its just something natural and it feels right. I think sometimes you just find that you have this natural touch and pull towards something, for me this is it. And it takes up a lot of my thoughts! 24 hours a day!
What is your favourite part of the job?
Peter – “all of it” I enjoy all of it because it never ceases to amaze me that I’m actually good at something. That may sound strange but, you know, being a fat red headed kid at school you know is not the most enjoyable thing in life. It doesn’t fill you with confidence that’s for sure.Peter then climbed up and grabbed me a bottle of Tempranillo and handed it to me with pride, it was magnificent and thoroughly enjoyed later that evening with friends thank you Peter.
Peter told me the growing season is September through to the end of January, and the first grapes come in depending on the season in February. March is the peak of the season when most of the grapes are harvested. On the northern end of the granite belt, because its higher and colder out the vintage can continue on into May. Right at the moment it’s early spring and the first little buds are starting to show on the vines.
At that point we were interrupted by bleating goats – one Peter affectionately referred to as Steve McQueen because he thinks he is starring in the Great escape trying to get over the fence.
Peter and his wife used to live on site but now have bought 10 acres 5 mins down the highway. He told me that they came to the area about 16 years ago with no plans to stay because they are not originally from here and they are still there and haven’t even thought about leaving.
The accommodation at Ridgemill Estate is 5 star quality, modern, immaculate, air conditioned and with fireplaces and fully equipped with a kitchenette and is perfect they have everything you need for a few days, I loved my stay and will definitely head back again. Mavis makes sure there is juice, bread, cereal, yoghurt, bacon and eggs ready for you to cook your own breakfast.
Stanthorpe is 2 hours and 45 mins by car North West of Byron Bay and worth every minute of the drive through Casino, over the Great Dividing Range through Tenterfield and onto Stanthorpe. Severnlea is just a few minutes south of Stanthorpe.