FROM humble beginnings chipping grapes in the vineyard, Stanthorpe winemaker Mike Hayes will soon find himself wandering through vines across Europe after he was awarded a prestigious Churchill Fellowship this week.
"When I started out in the industry in 1979 I wanted to become a winemaker and for this to be happening now... this is definitely a dream come true for me," he said.
"I am absolutely over the moon."
Mr Hayes said he would tour wine regions in Portugal, Spain, Italy and France for five weeks next year looking at autochthonous grape varieties which would handle wet weather well.
"Autochthonous means to spring from the earth or indigenous to the region," he said.
"I am very keen on white tempranillo, which is a white variety grown in coastal regions with high volumes of rain."
The winemaker - who has a masters in alternative wine varieties - said his ultimate goal was to continue in the field of research and help the Australian wine industry, and this was a step in the right direction.
"This is the first time I applied, I thought if I don't get it I'll just keep applying until I do," he said.
Mr Hayes said Ewen Macpherson and all of the staff members at the award winning Symphony Hill Wines - where he is winemaker - had been hugely supportive.
"And I would like to thank my family - (partner) Andrea and (daughter) Jess - because they have been right behind me," he said.
"I wish my mentor - which was my father - was around, sadly he's not but I'm a certain he would have been proud."
While he was on the hunt for more varieties which would suit the Australian climate, Mr Hayes said his favourite grape to grow was pinot noir - and not because the results were always a tasty tipple.
"Pinot noir is called the heartbreak wine, because it is so hard to make and grow," he said.
"You think you have it perfectly balanced in the vineyard and then you make the wine and you stand back and say 'heck what went wrong there?'
"It's a real challenge."
More than 100 people were awarded fellowships this year for a range of topics including fish habitat restoration, the possible creation of a national cheese society, rebuilding local communities through developing local networks of farmers, macadamia nuts, low-input farming systems and developing tourism opportunities for rare-breed pig farmers.
This year's fellowships had a total value of $2.2 million with an average value of more than $20,000 each.
For more information visit churchilltrust.com.au.