It’s an iconic part of the Sunshine Coast landscape, with its short history already as rich as the velvety cabernet merlot it produces. Tayla Arthur ventures to The Big Barrel and chats to Ryan MacLeod to find out what really happens on the grapevine.
Wandering through the rows of curling vines overlooking the majestic Glasshouse Mountains and the valley below, Ryan MacLeod picks a plump grape and holds it up to show me.
Perfectly round and deep purple in colour, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a blueberry – that is until he peels back the skin to reveal the clear, green-tinged flesh of the fruit, trickling the sweet juice used to craft this winery’s most popular drop, the Maleny Rosé.
The chambourcin grapes grown in this scenic vineyard are very different to the variety we see in the supermarket, but they are the cornerstone for the wine that Ryan creates.
“We only grow one type of grape on site and the rest we have to buy from vineyards around Queensland, so each year we have to decide, depending on the season, what we’re going to do with the grapes and what grapes we need to buy,” explains Ryan.
“What we’re looking for is something that won’t yield and that’s not too sweet – you don’t want something that has too much sugar content because you’ll get a lot of excess alcohol. Then we see how it goes when we make up the batch; if we get a good result with it we’ll continue, or we might blend it with other grapes to try and balance it out if it’s too sweet or too sharp.”
Established in 1999, Ryan is the third owner of the Maleny Mountain Wines vineyard and winery, which includes The Big Barrel, the Sunshine Coast’s most iconic cellar door and a popular attraction among tourists. Built upon the Hinterland’s volcanic soil, ideal for growing chambourcin grapes and rich in minerals that influence the grapes’ flavour, the original owners Sebastian and Maria Pagano had already been a part of Australia’s wine industry for 40 years prior to creating the unique winery, and chose the location for its similarity to Mount Etna in Sicily, where their family had been making wine for over a century.
I always had in my mind that I was going to start my own business – a brewery or a distillery, something alcohol-related, because making something that people enjoy is more fun than trying to sell something that people don’t want. Then I found this place.”
But while it may have been the Pagano family who initially chartered the winery’s course with its Italian-style wine and memorable façade, Ryan is pouring his time and effort into sharing his passion with others by creating unique products.
“Much like chillies, the grapes’ flavour depends on how you nurture them – if you can keep your water levels right, you can be more controlling, but you only have so much control over the elements,” says Ryan.
Having worked in a whiskey distillery in Tasmania prior to taking over the winery in March last year, Ryan says the swap wasn’t that big of a leap; although there are nuances in the process, the concept of taking sugars and starches and converting them into alcohol is much the same. But it was a dream to brew and sell his own craft beer that brought the Scottish-born father-of-two to this point.
“In the previous work I was doing, I was doing a lot of travel and I just didn’t see myself doing that for the next 40-50 years. So I quit my high paying job and took up a job as a barman just to try and get my foot in the door, and then I progressed through the business,” says Ryan.
“I always had in my mind that I was going to start my own business – a brewery or a distillery, something alcohol-related, because making something that people enjoy is more fun than trying to sell something that people don’t want. Then I found this place.”
It’s a dream he’s now bringing to reality; at the time of this interview Ryan was in the process of creating trial batches and had spent 12 hours the day before perfecting his first beer, an imperial Scottish ale.
“Winemaking in Queensland is tough and there’s a window for winemaking and harvest season, whereas I can make beer year-round and it’s a four-week turnaround from production to bottling. It just gives us a bit more diversity so if there are tough times from a bad year with grapes, we can balance it out with the beer, and it allows us to be a bit more critical with our products.”
Despite the glamour many often associate with winemaking, Ryan says it takes a lot of effort, manual labour and restraint to produce a great drop.
“This is a serious business, it’s not just sitting around and drinking. In fact, I’ve had to scale back my drinking because when you’re making wine or beer, you’ve got to be able to pick up any problems or faults, as well as the different flavours.”
It’s not all bad news though.
“The best time for tasting and testing is actually the first thing in the morning because your senses are more alive after you’ve have a rest,” says Ryan, joking that on those days he has to make sure he doesn’t need to drive anywhere.
Now I’ll drink to that.