By Nigel Hopkins
With five of Australia’s finest wine regions, four of them within little more than an hour’s drive from Adelaide, South Australia can easily lay claim to being the nation’s wine capital.
Each region has its own special regional character, and most are easily accessible from each other.
That adds up to one of the most enjoyable and rewarding wine experiences anywhere in the world.
And while many of the brands are well known, most of the vineyards and cellar doors are family owned, providing charming surroundings and a warm welcome along with free tastings, with no prior appointment required.
The nation’s best known wine region: the Barossa
As Australia’s best-known wine region, recognised around the world, it’s easy for many to feel they already know the Barossa.
There’s the familiar story of how this 18 mile-long valley was first settled by Silesian refugees in 1842, bringing with them not only their religion but generations of farming and artisan traditions that continue to live on. There were the English “free settlers” who followed a few years later, and the wine industry that started nearly 180 years ago and brought with it names such as Henschke, Schulz, Gramp, Burge, Lehmann and Seppelt.
The actual Barossa wine region also includes the higher Eden Valley, making it one of the only areas in Australia to have neighbouring warm and cool climate growing conditions. Shiraz is Barossa’s star performer but grenache, mourvedre, riesling and semillon all produce exciting wines, while the fortified wines at historic wineries such as Seppeltsfield and Yalumba are world renowned.
All up there are some 750 grape growing families, many sixth generation, supplying grapes to more than 170 wine companies of all shapes and sizes.
With more than 80 cellar doors, some of them massive visitor centres such as Jacob’s Creek, Penfolds and Wolf Blass, others cute and characterful like Rockford, Tscharke and Two Hands, coming to grips with the Barossa’s wine offering can be a daunting task. For tradition and history you can’t go past Yalumba or Seppeltsfield, or head to Henschke winery at Keyneton.
There’s also a dynamic new area emerging in the Barossa, one that’s easy to find but less well known, where a younger generation of winemakers has drawn on six or seven generations of tradition and given it a contemporary face.
The easy way to deal with this is to go to Artisans of the Barossa, where a collective of seven boutique wineries provides tastings of more than 80 wines that demonstrate a range of varieties and styles, all reflecting their particular patch of the Barossa.
Clare Valley – the brightest jewel
The Clare Valley, just an hour’s drive north of the Barossa, is one of the most accessible, hospitable and prettiest of all Australia’s wine regions.
It is, in fact, a series of valleys whose tributaries have names such as Hill River and Polish Valley, or the gorgeous Skillogalee Valley, the loveliest of all, providing a vast range of micro-climates for grape growers.
First settled by Jesuit migrants fleeing religious and political persecution, who established the region’s oldest existing winery, now Sevenhill Cellars in 1851, Clare has continued to evolve with a vast range of accommodation and a steady increase in cafes and restaurants.
Its wines are grown at altitudes ranging from 1150 feet to Jeffrey Grosset’s Gaia vineyard at 2034 feet. With no intervening land mass between it and Spencer Gulf to the west, sea breezes sweep in most afternoons at about 4pm to cool the vines. Far to the north and east lies desert, and at night the cool desert air chills the hamlets of the Clare Valley even further.
These things are significant for they largely account for the paradox that the Clare wine region produces wine that ranges from the most perfumed and elegant dry rieslings to some of its most richly-flavoured, full-bodied shiraz.
Larger wineries such as Jim Barry Wines provide year-round opportunities to taste some of Clare’s best rieslings and great reds, such as The Armagh Shiraz, while Skillogalee Winery is not only one of Australia’s top riesling producers, it also has a very fine country restaurant.
The Riesling Trail says a great deal about the Clare Valley, linking one end of the picturesque valley to the other, binding together its wineries, its history and its diversity.
It provides a softer, gentler, typically country way to enjoy the most ‘country’ of Australia’s wine regions as you sidle past the back doors of its B&Bs, duck into any number of wineries en route and open a bottle with a picnic lunch beside a dam or in the lee of a railway cutting.
As one local winemaker said, Clare may never be the crown, not a Barossa or even a Coonawarra, but it will always be the brightest jewel in the crown.
Head for the Adelaide Hills
In a neat repetition of history, the Adelaide Hills in the Mt Lofty Ranges east of Adelaide has become one of the fastest growing wine regions in Australia.
Between 1840 and 1900 there were more than 200 Anglo-Saxon and German winemakers and grape growers in the Adelaide Hills, until changing tastes and fickle export demand killed off their market.
It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that the region made a comeback when a new generation of winemakers (at the time) recognised the cool climate characteristics of a region just over 20 minutes from Adelaide that still caught the sea breezes from the Gulf St Vincent. Now it’s a region attracting some of Australia’s leading artisan winemakers with more than 200 vineyards and in the Basket Range sub-region something altogether different again.
Bordered by the Barossa to the north and McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek to the south, the Adelaide Hills is also the closest wine region to the Adelaide CBD, making it a favourite cellar door destination.
The history and diversity of Adelaide Hills life that provides much of its charm can be seen at almost every turn of the many winding roads that link the villages and hamlets in what Adelaide founder Colonel Light called “the enchanted hills”.
The region has varying climates, most of it decidedly cool but there are a few warm pockets in the northern areas now noted for cool-climate shiraz. Pinot noir and chardonnay do exceptionally well here, while the Hills has developed a reputation as the benchmark region for Australian sauvignon blanc.
The region’s most famous winery, in foothills on the city’s edge, is Penfolds Magill Estate – home of the world-renowned Penfolds Grange and one of the world’s rare city vineyards. The recently redeveloped cellar door and tasting rooms are architecturally stunning – as is the adjoining Magill Estate restaurant.
Must-visit wineries deeper into the Hills include Shaw and Smith, famous for one of Australia’s best known sauvignon blancs whose vines surround the starkly contemporary cellar door. They’ve also built a great reputation for chardonnay, pinot noir and cool climate shiraz.
Nowhere does the sense of region come into play more than at The Lane Vineyard and restaurant, where founder John Edward’s belief in the terroir was rewarded with wines of exceptional quality. He points to the region’s high altitude, ancient soils and amazingly cool nights.
At Hahndorf Hill, winemaker Larry Jacobs again emphasises the region’s unique terroir and the huge variety of soils and slopes that showcase regional variations.
Although Hahndorf Hill produces the more usual Hills varieties – sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, chardonnay and cool-climate shiraz – its warm days and cold nights has allowed exploration of new alternative varieties such as gruner veltliner and blaufrankisch.
Delve deeper into the Adelaide Hills and you’ll find some of the most interesting winemakers in Australia, with micro-wineries and pocket-handkerchief vineyards buried deep in the valleys. Winemakers such as James Erskine at Jauma Wines, Anton van Klopper of Lucy Margaux Wines and Taras Ochota at Ochota Barrels are at the forefront of Australia’s natural wine scene.
The Mighty McLaren Vale
McLaren Vale is the place for bold, inky-black shiraz, rich but elegant cabernet sauvignon and grenache that holds its own in any company. Red wine country. But then, it also has some of the best chardonnay in Australia.
The town itself, only minutes from traffic congestion and the southern limits of Adelaide’s urban sprawl, is surrounded by rolling, flattish vineyards; far away to the south you can see the Willunga escarpment that marks the southern boundary of the region, and just a flick of your eyes to the west are the beaches fronting Gulf St Vincent.
There are different communities here: the winemakers, the grape growers, almond orchardists, refugees from the city, artists and craft workers, grown-up hippies – and they all interact and know one another.
The region is underpinned by long-established wineries such as d’Arenberg, McLaren Vale’s most iconic winery, where construction of an exciting five-storey, $15 million ‘Rubik’s cube’ cellar door, restaurant and art space is under way.
Or Mark Lloyd’s Coriole winery, which has pioneered Italian varietals as well as producing some of the most acclaimed wines of the region.
Primo Estate provides a touch of Tuscany with its impressive modern winery and olive oil complex, offering a luxurious wine tasting experience and a dash of Italian architectural flair.
McLaren Vale also has its share of contemporary, innovative winemakers, such as Samuel’s Gorge winemaker and proprietor Justin McNamee, who focuses on three varietals he believes excel in McLaren Vale – grenache, shiraz and tempranillo – and whose converted barn winery overlooks the Onkaparinga National Park.
At another edgy, new generation winery, Alpha Box & Dice, grapes are bought from 19 blocks owned by 13 growers, each of them catalogued by a letter of the alphabet (hence “alpha”), box and dice (“a bit of everything”) and are turned into wines with names like Golden Mullet Fury and Dead Winemakers Society.
Coonawarra – Australia’s most famous red earth
Coonawarra’s paprika-red strip of crumbly terra rossa soil, just 18 miles long and barely one and a quarter miles wide, is Australia’s most famous piece of dirt, renowned for its affinity with cabernet sauvignon wines.
Located in the south-eastern corner of South Australia, almost midway between Adelaide and Melbourne, the region was first planted in the 1880s but struggled to survive from 1890 to 1945, when most of its wine was distilled into brandy.
A resurgence of interest took place in the 1950s and now Coonawarra is considered to be Australia’s greatest cabernet sauvignon region.
While Coonawarra itself has 17 wineries and 22 cellar doors, the Limestone Coast sub regions – Mount Benson, Padthaway, Robe & Mount Gambier, and Wrattonbully – are close by too.
Breezes from the coast 37 miles away away cool the vineyards, creating a classic maritime environment, while warm summer temperatures ensure proper ripening to create medium to full-bodied cabernet with cassis, blackberry, plum and dark cherry flavours – wines that can age gracefully for decades.
Must visit wineries – all of them in a row along the Riddoch Highway – include Wynns Coonawarra Estate, the region’s oldest, along with another pioneer winery Redman Wines, both renowned for their signature cabernet sauvignon, but also for their highly-acclaimed shiraz.
Zema Estate, Bowen Estate, Hollick, Penley Estate … call in to any of them and you can’t go wrong.
Adelaide has also provided a brilliant way to taste South Australia’s finest wines without leaving the city – at the National Wine Centre, which provides Australia’s largest tasting room experience with visitors able to pour and taste 120 different wines.
There’s also an on-site vineyard, mostly planted with shiraz, but also with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, semillon and riesling.
Failing that, drop in to any bar, pub, tasting room, or restaurant in the city and you’ll be guaranteed to find some choice South Australian drops.
International carriers fly direct into Adelaide, including Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian Airlines. Qatar Airways will begin daily flights into Adelaide from May 2016. Virgin Australia and Qantas fly to Adelaide from all major Australian cities (flights from Sydney and Melbourne are under two hours).
Major hire car companies are at Adelaide Airport.