OUTBACK CITY EXPRESS

For lovers of a quality vinous drop, you might get excited about McLaren Vale, Margaret River, the Barossa, Hunter or Yarra Valleys.

Well known regions that have forged an impressive reputation for themselves nationally and internationally. When considering a great wine chances are Queensland is not the first Australian state to come to mind.

This is in a sense odd considering the fierce parochial nature of your typical Queenslander. Footy, beer, women. Most locals would argue that we do it best. Either our wine drinkers are less biased or our wines aren't worth shouting about. There is actually a third option: that our wines are just as good as anywhere in the country (or indeed the world) but we just haven't caught on.

Golden Grove Estate winemaker, Ray Costanzo, makes the interesting point that our state's wines should be referred to by their region, not the generic catch-all of an entire state, an area so large it encompasses many different geographies and climates. A Clare Valley Riesling is not called a South Australian wine; it's a Clare Valley Riesling. Likewise, Costanzo would have his wines referred to as Granite Belt wines.

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Wine drinkers come in many different shapes and sizes. Each of us is at our own unique position in our personal wine journey. When starting out, the vast number of options at the local bottle-o is quite overwhelming with nothing differentiating the wines but the label. Part of the fun of learning is discovering what you like, being able to describe it, then continually developing your taste and appreciating new varieties which you might previously have ignored. Predominant grape varieties are recognised in most wine regions. Margaret River Chardonnay, Coonawarra Cabernet, Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir, McLaren Vale Shiraz.

Perhaps that's also part of the problem for Queensland. One would be hard pressed to pinpoint a particular variety that our state's regions are famous for. While the history of viticulture in Queensland is just as rich as anywhere, the area is continuing to find its feet. If one specific grape doesn't dominate, perhaps it's the locals' passion for exploring alternative varieties that sets Queensland apart.

Granite Belt winemakers recognise this ongoing search for identity and have banded together to create the Strange Bird wine trail. There are currently 23 participating cellar doors, so here is your opportunity to try refreshingly different varietals like Malbec, Saperavi, Barbera, Durif, Verdelho, Chenin Blanc, and Cabernet Franc. And that's barely scratching the surface.

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The industry started way back in the 1860s when European settlers planted the first vines along with their orchards. A burgeoning local and interstate market continued until the southern states took off in the early 1900s and local production all but ceased. A couple of pioneers like Angelo Puglisi at Ballandean Estate and John and Heather Robinson at Robinsons Family Vineyard raised the local flag again in the late 1960s planting vines near Stanthorpe in the Granite Belt which has since flourished to become the premier wine region in Queensland.

Considering our reputation for sun and surf, one could be forgiven for assuming that this is no place to grow grapes. Which is why our best regions are up high where it's cooler. The success of the Granite Belt region has spawned a number of smaller regions in the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast hinterlands, the Scenic Rim, and North and South Burnett. According to the Queensland Wine Industry Association there are currently over 1300 hectares under vine in the Sunshine State.

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John Penglis was the Managing Director of Queensland Regional Television and had a Poll Hereford stud as a hobby in Toowoomba, which he then moved to Brookfield in Brisbane in 1980. In 1986 he bought a disused rhubarb farm on Mt Tamborine for a few of his stud cattle which he subsequently built on and moved into in 1994. He planted many trees and built a lake as penance for his early duck shooting days. "That's why I have an official pardon from Paul Pisasali the Mayor of Ipswich," he remembers.

With an audio visual background he was commissioned to produce a tourism video for the Queensland Govt. He then went on to create three audio and video production companies. Director Bob Anthony produced a one-hour documentary about the laying of the old telegraph line by horseback from Coen to Bamaga called Trek to the Cape which was then sold to Channel Nine and then on-sold to NBC in the US. His interest in the wine business was piqued when a former client needed somewhere to show his potential Queensland clients a corporate video highlighting a winery investment opportunity in the Hunter Valley.

Later on, Penglis was invited to invest $250,000 in the Mount Tamborine Winery. "I wasn't feeling too good about it so I didn't," he recalls. The winery eventually went into receivership and a couple of Penglis's friends suggested he build his own winery which they offered to help run. He agreed and started planting vines at his home site in 1999. "That was fourteen years ago and I'm still waiting for them to turn up," he says cheekily. Today, his Cedar Creek Estate winery on Mt Tamborine is one of the most popular in Queensland and is home to a custom-built glow worm cave and Arthur Hamblin art gallery.

Penglis's sense of humour is also reflected in his labels. Because we can't call Australian tawny's "port" anymore, Cedar Creek Estate offers a fortified called Starboard "Not Port". Another Bloody Wine is a heavy red and the pun-ridden label for their Winegate Whopper Cab Merlot is inspired by the story of Qld MP Liddy Clark who innocently, and perhaps naively, flew a bottle of wine into a dry aboriginal community. "Likely to cause a stir even before it is uncorked. A lively red guaranteed to create Opposition," the label reads.

Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes don't grow well on Mount Tamborine so Penglis tells people they are "experimenting with a new variety of Pinot grape for people with weak bladders called Pinot More."

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If you think it's all about the labels, think again. Despite the humour there is an innovation and quality to Queensland wine that is garnering an ever-increasing number of national and international awards. Naysayers probably haven't heard about the Dark Horse awarded Golden Grove Estate, a James Halliday allocation for the winery's 5-star status with six wines rated 94 points or more. Or the consistently International Gold Medal-winning Robert Channon Verdelhos. Or the simply sublime Ravenscroft Chardonnay - I don't even care if it's won any medals, it is absolutely delicious and easily my favourite Chardonnay.

Chief Judge at the 30th Queensland Wine Awards, Adam Clay from Penfolds in the Barossa Valley, observed that "the quality of wines from Queensland is comparable to any other region in Australia."

Quite apart from the technicalities of wine from the various regions in Queensland, there is also the fun of spending a weekend with friends and enjoying the luxury of a wine tour. A great way of sampling the many different varieties and styles without the argument of who will be designated driver. And it's all within easy reach of Brisbane.

John Penglis concludes: "So when they talk about Queensland wines not winning medals, they wouldn't know what they're bloody well talking about."