Drought breaks for winemaker
DROUGHT all but destroyed 70 years of hard labour in 2019 then, as 2020 dawned, hail came and nearly finished off what was left.
Out at the Granite Belt the Costanzo family can legitimately claim to have weathered one of the worst years ever experienced on a family farm established more than seven decades ago by a Sicillian ancestor called Mario who came to Australia after World War II with dreams of a new life in the new world.
That man's grandson, Queensland's 2019 Winemaker of the Year, Ray Costanzo, has emerged from 2019 battered and bruised after a drought that kept the property in its grip for around three years.
Relief provided by January rains proved equally destructive because of the accompanying hail.
But Ray is more than willing to meet the challenges of the future in an industry which, despite the hardships of life on the land, still provides limitless opportunities.
The Costanzos, who have owned the property now known as the Golden Grove Estate outside Stanthorpe for 70 years, are part of a small band of viticulturist who have performed something of a miracle over the past quarter of a century, creating the Granite Belt wine brand now recognised internationally.
But by late last year, as those ripe mulberry coloured storm clouds that once reliably gathered in south east Queensland skies every spring failed to materialise, three generations of hard work was under threat.
The drought had been impacting the property for around three years and had dried up the dam which had provided the farm with water for half a century.
The family were spending hundreds of dollars a week trucking in water to keep alive prized Shiraz vines which were several decades old.
Even the farm's water allocation from nearby Accommodation Creek was useless as the creek had also dried up, not even providing for the larger consumers upstream who needed the water for their horticultural crops.
The Costanzos were not alone. Around 30 wineries across the Granite Belt were growing deeply anxious about an industry which could, in theory at least, claim a lineage back to the 1870s.
It was Captain Arthur Phillip and his band of European settlers who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788 who first planted vines in Australia.
But it was farmers in Queensland's Granite Belt who were Australia's "early adopters'' when it came to wine.
Catholic Priest Father Jerome Davadih, born in Montecarotto in the Le Marche region of Italy on April 26 1845, arrived in Stanthorpe around 1875 as the district's first parish priest.
Making an accurate assessment of the growing potential of the cool climate and thin, decomposed granite soils, Father Davadih encouraged local fruit and vegetable farmers to grow some vines so he could make altar wine.
Around 75 years later Ray's grandfather Mario, who had been cutting sugar cane up north after coming out from Sicily, arrived in Stanthorpe on his way down south to Sydney.
On that brief stop over Mario fell in love with a local woman Nita and stayed, creating not only a farm but a family which included three sons including Ray's father, Sam, who also happens to be last year Viticulturist of the Year.
"It was really my grandfather who, like a lot of local Italians, began growing Muscat grapes for market and, any of those grapes not quite suitable for market, were made into wine,'' Ray says.
"It happened right across the district, they would even send that wine back up north to Italian communities who wanted it.''
By the time Ray was born in 1978 his parents Sam and Grace were taking control of the farm and had planted some Shiraz vines alongside the old Muscats.
While still concentrating on growing fruit and vegetables, they were tentatively making their way into the wine industry in a venture which was to become their highly regarded, James Halliday Red Star rated vineyard, winery and cellar door.
Ray was taking an interest.
He went off to Charles Sturt University at Wagga Wagga in 1996 to study wine science and, while he was not academically inclined, the theory of wine production has stuck with him.
"It gets me out of the occasional pickle I might find myself in,' he says.
As the old century began to close Ray's "wandering years'' took off, finding him at Washington State in 1999 working with the acclaimed Hogue Cellars, founded by Mike and Gary Hogue in 1982 in the heart of the state's wine country in Yakima Valley.
"You can learn quite a bit off a good wine maker including how they grow fruit and handle fruit,'' Ray says.
From there it was to Adelaide and a stint with Norman Wines before returning to the family property around late 2002 which was "another drought year,'' he recalls.
There, with his parents having built up a serious wine business with an emphasis on tourism, he created his first vintage in 2003 which was the same year he picked up his first award.
Now the Golden Grove property occupies around 15ha of land outside Stanthorpe and sales are made locally through the on-farm cellar door and into the Brisbane market.
Golden Grove crushes around 50 tonnes of fruit each year and the property is capable of producing 30,000 litres of wine a year.
But for Ray, wine making comes back to one simple truth - taste.
"If it does not work in the mouth, it simply does not work at all," he says.
But in the last decade there is a growing respect for the branding aspect which is enhanced by storytelling - letting customers know the providence of the product.
"People do want to know the story of the wine, they want to know about the vineyard, they want to feel a connection to the wine they are drinking.''
Ray says the future is bright for the Queensland wine industry.
At Mount Cotton, Sirromet Winery has placed big bets on China. Exports of its Australian vintage now make up 30 per cent of its total sales, double what it was five years ago.
Such is its popularity that Sirromet is now visited regularly by tourists from mainland China, necessitating the need for dedicated Mandarin speaking guides.
"The Chinese really buy into the quality of the product and the fact it's natural and grown in a clean environment," says Sirromet general manager Rod Hill.
Southern Downs Mayor Tracy Dobie has consistently been a strong public voice for Granite Belt wines, especially during the drought, constantly reinforcing their role as a key driver of tourism in the Stanthorpe district.
"The calibre of food, wine and experience in the Granite Belt in exceptional,'' she says.
Ray says Golden Grove may get leaner, concentrating on the boutique side of the operation and tailoring the scale of the operation to the impacts of climate change and the increasing value, and scarcity of, water.
"We have to evolve and change with the times but to some extent we have already learned to do that, and we know the future is bright.''