From little things good vines grow

Sue and Warren Smith of Pyramids Road Wines at Wyberba on Queensland's Granite Belt. 324368_02

PRECDE

From school teaches to wine-makers, Warren and Sue Smith are more than happy with their tree-change from the Sunshine Coast to the Granite Belt. ERLE LEVEY went to the Pyramids Road Winery to find out more.

BREAKOUT QUOTE

This romantic idea of running a vineyard – when people think all you do is sit on the balcony and drink wine – is far from the truth. It is hard work, but the reward does come from being in the middle of the vines during winter when there’s frost and fogs.’’

Grit, grapes and gratitude. The luscious green vines emerging from the rugged Australian landscape are a spectacular sight.

Little wonder that Warren and Sue Smith are more than happy with their change in life from school teaching to winemakers.

I first met Warren at a Sunshine Coast Wine Symposium held at Maroochydore about eight to 10 years ago … or so I thought.

He was a wine-maker from Wyberba, near Ballandean, on the Granite Belt, in the Southern Downs Region of Queensland.

I was particularly taken by the verdelho and wondered if that was a wine that did well in the Stanthorpe climate. Granite rocks, high altitude, cool climate?

As it turns out, that first meeting was probably closer to 20 years ago.

Warren and Sue Smith had been teachers on the Sunshine Coast but their interest in wine, and some changed circumstances, led them to Wyberba.

Theirs is just one of the many small wineries that are springing up in this rich wine-growing region.

The heritage of the area goes back probably 70 years to when the first of the Italian families set up their winemaking businesses, and the tradition continues today.

Pyramids Road is named because it’s on the road to Girraween National Park and the famous two pyramids – granite outcrops that can be seen for miles around.

Girraween is like no other area in Australia in many ways. It has a variety of walking paths for the novice through to rock climbs for the experienced.

We arrived at the Pyramids Road Winery early afternoon, which was just as well because the impending rain forecast had demanded that the muscat grapes were to be picked immediately.

The pickers had been enjoying lunch with Warren and Sue after working hard all morning to bring in several tons of the harvest.

The welcoming could not have been warmer, and we made our way past fruit-laden olive trees to the winery and cellar door.

This was the original 90-year-old packing shed that had been on the 160-acre property when Warren and Sue bought it in 1999.

Artwork featuring leadlight helped guide the way to the packing shed.

“They were made by friends of ours who came and helped us,’’ Sue said. “They made the leadlight pieces which we were able to put in our garden to spruce it up a bit.

“They make all the timber products that you will see inside the shed.

“Most are retirees so it’s a win-win for all of us.

“It’s interesting to see what people do in their retirement. They live in Brisbane but they attend a timber workshop club, get together and make things out of timber and out of leadlight.

“The packing shed was built in the 1930s and was here when we bought the property.

“It’s seen a lot of life – it was a stone fruit and table-grape farm.

“The shed has been totally revamped and refurbished – it’s the original floor.

“The framework is original and has been cladded, insulated and had lining put in.

“They used to grow pine trees here – cut them to make the packing cases for the fruit.’’

Sue and Warren had just picked a ton of black muscat grapes prior to our arrival.

The vines had been on the property for a long time.

“We had to get them off this morning because of the chance of rain,’’ Sue said.

“They are delicious to eat … really sugary. They were used to make a fortified wine but now we make a rose, which is highly sought after.

“It’s sold out. People ring me all the time about it.’’

Rose has made a big come-back in the wine market, Sue said, after being popular in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

“We started making it in 2018. This is the 24th year we’ve been here.

“Warren‘s dad helped us planting grapes to start with. That was 1999. We leave that photo on the wall to remind us of the early days.’’

Warren went to Charles Sturt University as a mature age student, studying externally as they were living in Buderim.

While he was an Ipswich boy, Sue was from the Redlands – on Brisbane’s southern coastline.

They met at teachers college – at Kelvin Grove College of Advanced Education. Warren had a chemistry background while Sue’s interest was in commerce, which helps with the running of the business today.

They were lucky enough to travel across the world, with Warren doing some general teaching in London and Sue working in Greece for a while.

“I got quite good jobs with my business background, especially shorthand. You were in high demand, that was in the ’80s.

“Our interest in wine happened when we came back to Australia.

“We worked for Expo 88 in Brisbane. It was fantastic.

“I was with an Australian-Canadian company that developed all those buildings there.

“It was exciting times.

“Then we moved to the Sunshine Coast where I started teaching and Warren moved into the building industry.

“The Hyatt Wine Festival at Coolum gave us a great insight. We met some great winemakers there and had so much fun.

“We learnt so much about wine.

“That really cemented our love for it.’

“We used to run a couple of wine clubs – just very small social gatherings with friends.’’

The decision to go into winemaking came after Warren was injured while working as a carpenter.

He hurt his leg and needed time for the injury to heal.

That’s when he realised he needed to do something, and was very keen to follow his passion.

He enrolled in a winemaking class at Charles Sturt. That was the catalyst.

“It was a four-year degree,’’ Sue said, “and two years into it he said he would really like to make wine.

“I wondered: Where is this going, where is the business case?

“Oh no, there was nothing.

“We had to put a business plan together for the bank, then sold up in Buderim and moved out here.

“After living in town at first, we found a place that we could grow grapes.

“We looked at everything for sale and finally found this 160 acres, which is larger than we expected.’’

The vineyard is about three and a half acres.

It was at this point that Warren felt pressure to put his cold room into action before we proceeded further with the interview.

He had started the fermentation process of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, and needed to check on it.

We were fortunate to be offered an up-close-and-personal look at the process then taste the fermenting wine. It was cloudy at that stage but was good to drink and sweet – quite like ginger beer.

Here, in the winery, Warren explained how it initially came together with a few pieces of necessary machinery. A crusher, basket press, a couple of barrels and stainless tanks.

Over the years, the equipment wish-list has grown and they’ve purchased a new air-bag press to process the whites.

Officially opened in 2003 with only four wines in production, they now produce 10 wines across a number of styles.

The focus has always been on the production of small volumes of hand-crafted wine made on the premises.

Small batch production means most operations are hands-on … from pruning, training, picking in the vineyard to basket pressing, bottling and labelling in the winery.

They started out by hand-planting their red varieties of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

The old patch of black muscat grapes were restored in order to make some wine from them.

In the next two years, they planted mourvedre and quickly decided that there was enough work to keep them busy.

Mouvedre it’s the French name for it but it’s a Spanish grape, and often called mataro.

In the early days, all the wines were made from Warren and Sue’s estate-grown fruit.

Yet in recent years, they have purchased small parcels of locally grown fruit to supplement their production.

The verdelho and petit verdot are grown by Duncan and Dini Ferrier at the Rosemary Hill vineyard, just west of Stanthorpe.

The chardonnay comes from a variety of vineyards in the Ballandean district.

Following our discussions and tastings with Warren in the cold room, it was time to head up to the vineyards.

I was not prepared for the magnificent view of the vineyards holding the plump, delicious-looking grapes in the centre of the Australian bush, surrounded by rugged terrain, brambles, granite boulders and gum trees.

There were stories of kangaroo, deer and pigs, which were held back with varying degrees of success by the relatively new fencing.

The vineyards are about three and a half acres, and production ramped up when the harvest of their own grapes started in 2004.

Production now sits at around 15 tons each year.

“The original patch of black muscat grapes are something like 90 years old so we had to work to get them back to this point,’’ Sue said.

“That needed some heavy pruning, which saw Warren resurrect them with a chain saw, re-trellising and training the canes onto a cordon wire.’’

Their vineyard practices have changed over the years with experience and knowledge of the soil, weather and unique growing conditions.

Some new practices include soil-moisture-monitoring leading to minimal irrigation, compost production from winery waste and minimal herbicide applications.

They quickly learnt the peaks and troughs of farming life by experiencing some very dry years when the vines were young.

Irrigation practices changed to give the vines less water and enable them to grow deep roots to find their own water supply.

On our visit we were able to buy the muscat rose after it was explained how popular it was, and often sold out.

“For the past three years batch has sold-out in nine months,’’ Warren said.

“Since Covid, everyone in Brisbane has found us.

“We had a good reputation up until then but Covid made the difference to the district, not just to us.

“In rural areas it brought people here. As far as food milage went, we were just around the corner.

“The pandemic came on the back of the drought so people were in dire straits out here.’’

Sue explains that when they started, they didn’t have a lot of money … or knowledge.

Warren was halfway through his university degrees so he worked in other vineyards all around the place, balancing that with work on their vineyard.

He did a couple of vintages with a nearby winery, which was known as Preston Peak.

“They were fantastic,’’ he said. “A degree is the technical side of stuff but you learn how to make wine by talking to people.

“There’s been a change since Covid in how collaborative the industry and region are now.

“We learn from each other and are all better off if we are making good wine in the district.’’

The Granite Belt area has a name as a wine-making area for well over 100 years.

Today, there’s a local industry association Granite Belt Wine and Tourism – this is an industry body to take advantage of that collaborative work and marketing.

This includes wine dinners hosted in various venues that have a restaurant, and there are guest speakers.

“We’ve been lucky,’’ Warren said. “We get on very well with the crew from Ballandean Estate and their founder Angelo Pugilis spoke at the opening.

“He started the industry basically single-handedly.

“He said to rule out one year in 10 because you won’t be picking … but we’ve been very lucky to date.

“We’ve had a good year so far – there’s been plenty of rain but it doesn’t flood here, it’s too mountainous.’’

It’s been a steep learning curve but there have been huge rewards along the way in terms of friendships and achievements.

“We’ve extended the winery and have now run out of space,’’ Warren said. “We need a new shed.

“Our production has increased slowly to meet demand. In the beginning we produced only four wines; however, our production has now grown to 10 wines in total.

“The machinery continues to expand and we grow older.’’

Suzanne had to keep working at the start because they had no money coming in.

That meant three jobs – teaching computer at TAFE in Warwick, then running her own bookkeeping business and now there are a couple of days at the national park as a ranger.

“My background as a carpenter has been very handy,’’ Warren said. “The shed needed renovating but it took four years to get the place up to scratch.

“It’s only the picking we need help with. The rest we do ourselves.

“They are friends and customers who help us. They put their name down to say they would love to come for the picking.

“The season goes for two months. We start around February and finish about midday each day.

“There was rain coming this weekend so we had to grab some friends in the district to get the fruit off.

“The people have to have a passion. We are just lucky there are people with the necessary skill base who have been coming for 20 years.

“Picking is one of the lovely jobs because it’s near the end of the season, and the harvest is finally coming in.

“Once it’s in the shed – it’s safe.

“The pickers just know what to do

“I think anyone connected with the wine industry fits in pretty well. There is a convivial sort of nature in this industry.

“Things can go wrong very quickly so it’s very helpful to have others there if the press breaks down, for example.

“Otherwise, if it’s hail or something like that, it’s a matter of knowing what to do.

“We do net the vines, to stop the birds eating the fruit mainly.

“A 100kg pig was in here one night and we’ve had deer … that just cuts up the nets. We put a boundary fence up in 2019, to try and keep them out.’’

The vineyard looks stunning as the sun starts to set behind the ranges and, being on a slope, we look down the valley.

The soil is decomposed granite and while grape vines will grow practically anywhere they don’t like wet feet.

“We’ve been doing mulch and compost for 20 years to build up the soil,’’ Warren said, “trying to minimise any herbicide and producing an organic product.

“Now it’s fairly easy to manage with an organic bacteria that is sprayed on – it doesn’t affect anything except the caterpillars. There is no withholding residue.

“Late frosts can be a problem … it’s when the vine is forming it’s berries.

“The fact we are on a slope means all the cold air runs down the valley to the lowest point.’’

There was a wonderful start to the 2023 growing season with good rain in winter followed by more rain in spring. This has meant it’s been one of the wettest since Warren and Sue moved to the region in 1999.

“The bush was invigorated with fresh young growth on the eucalypts and native flora blossoming all year round,’’ Sue said. “For the first time, I spied native orchids growing in our driveway.’’ 

Warren said the water table had been replenished by the rain and the vines have grown exceedingly well.

“We mulched and composted the whole vineyard last spring so the vines have shown no signs of stress in the dry spells.

“Both the cabernet and the merlot have had quite a lot of fruit this year.

“The vintage will be late this year due to the cooler days in spring and summer.

“We’ve only had a handful of days over 30 degrees. We need good sunshine days to ripen the skins and increase the sugar content prior to picking.

“This vintage is shaping up to be a beauty.’’

The most important thing Covid did for this region was people discovered the Granite Belt, not just as a tourist destination but as a place to live.

A lot of our customers have bought houses here and moved.

We’re not talking just about retirees but working people.

There was a day when Warren was plunging the cabernet grapes in the open vat, where the skins all float to the top and form a cap.

The customers sometimes help, as part of the process is to keep the skins wet.

“We do open ferment,’’ Warren said, “and they would keep pushing the skins down with their hands.

“A customer pulled up with his family but I said I had work to finish: ’You should come and have a look’.’’

Covid in many ways verified the decision to come here and live in a small community.

“There was another customer,’’ Warren said, “and his commute was an hour and a quarter each way, each day.

“He wanted to know what mine was like.

“I told him the commute to work’s pretty good. It isn’t far from the house to the shed.’’

This romantic idea of running a vineyard – when people think all you do is sit on the balcony and drink wine – is far from the truth.

“It is hard work,’’ Sue said, “but the reward does come from being in the middle of the vines during winter when there’s frost and fogs.’’

As for Warren, the rewards come in many ways.

It can simply be here in the winery, testing the fermentation process.

“It’s a husband and wife team only, with no staff,’’ Sue concluded, “but we love it.’’

Having become winemakers their future is in their own hands rather than depending on a salary.

“By saying that, you’re very much at the mercy of the weather and the market,’’ Warren said. “You’re up against that all the time – not everything has a time pressure.’’

That might be the case but Warren and Sue seem extremely happy in their vineyard, protected by the ancient granite boulders of Girraween.

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