Courier Mail, The (Brisbane), 18/02/2006, pg. 43

HERBAL wines have been brewed since 1000BC in China and since the 1500s in Europe.

Now a pocket-sized winery 26km west of Toowoomba, Wedgetail Ridge, has become the first producer to make commercial quantities of herbal table wines in Australia.

Set in a gently undulating landscape 3km north of Kingsthorpe, Wedgetail Ridge Winery has created a series of herbal wine products which are capturing a dedicated repeat customer base for its founder Suzanne Nation.

The diversion into herbal wines was a business decision taken in the late 1990s when the wine grape glut was predicted to hit the wine industry in 2003 and national grape production would race ahead of export wine sales.

Ms Nation saw the potential to buy cheap grapes from young vines in the forecast glut market and use the opportunity to establish an export market for herb-infused wines.

Although the home property will have the capacity to produce 50 tonnes of grapes a year, the winery will be equipped to process another 100 tonnes from other growers. Developing the new wines was the biggest challenge — to find a herbalist willing to work with wines and a winemaker willing to work with a herbalist to create wines in which the herbs would complement each wine rather than overpowering it or being overpowered by it.

In addition the pair had to match the action of the herbs with the style of the wine.

“It was no use having a combination of herbs for giving energy with a fortified wine for drinking before going to sleep,” Ms Nation says.

After a couple of years of experimenting with different wine and herb combinations, Ms Nation turned to veteran winemaker Ross Whiteford who chose the final blends and released the first herbal wines in October 2004.

Measuring success is difficult for the fledgling winery because there are no sections in regular wine shows for herb-infused wines so there are no bronze, silver or gold medals to capture.

Mr Whiteford is therefore forced to measure his success by commercial means — sales and repeat sales through the cellar door.

By this measure the wines are proving a winner with the herbal-infused wines already making up just over 50 per cent of the winery’s sales.

Most customers are within 500km of the winery although orders are sent by the carton to every state in Australia.

Second vintage sales are up 250 per cent on the first year and already, more than 85 per cent of sales are repeat customers, creating an enviably loyal customer base.

Beyond the cellar door, there is no domestic marketing or distribution planned.

Instead, marketing will focus on export sales, especially the US and Asia and Austrade has already taken samples on a market development trip and contracts are currently being negotiated.

Copyright 2006 / Courier Mail