Wining in the Adelaide Hills (and the Barossa)
If you're a wine-lover in Australia, there are several Meccas where you should pay your respects. There's the Margaret River in WA; the Adelaide Hills and the Barossa in South Australia; the Yarra Valley in Victoria; the Hunter Valley in New South Wales; and, if you head north up the New England Highway from the Hunter you'll pass through the Granite Belt in Queensland. Some producers from the traditional regions tend to wrinkle their noses at the idea of decent wines being made in semi-tropical Queensland, but there's a few can hold their own.
We ticked the last of these regions off over Easter. We hadn't had any plans until a couple of weeks beforehand: we suddenly got the idea to head for the Hills.
Adelaide is roughly the same flying time from Brisbane as Melbourne, about two hours 20. The skies were gloriously clear over southern Australia, and I would have appreciated some information from our Qantas pilot about the route. Did we fly over Broken Hill or the Flinders Ranges, for example? Fortunately we got talking to the chap next to us, who pointed out the meandering Murray River, and gave us some travel tips for the next few days. He was an Adelaide lad who worked in the coal seam gas industry in Roma (QLD) and was returning home for time off. He told us some worrying things about water, but, hey, this is a nice travel piece, not an environmental rant.
One of the things he recommended was a slight detour off the South Eastern Highway to look down on Adelaide from Mount Lofty, spotted and named by English navigator Matthew Flinders in 1802 but not explored by Europeans for another 35 years. There's a long climb to the east of the plain on which Adelaide stands. At the top, it's about three kilometres to Mount Lofty Summit, where there were many people on this fine day. We could clearly see the square mile of Adelaide's CBD and the green belt surrounding it. The idea of indignant Southern Brown Bandicoots made us laugh. We didn't see any, unfortunately.
Those European explorers were in fact timber-getters lured by giant stringybark gums. What we see today is regrowth, albeit the natural vegetation of the area. Please take me to a region of original vegetation on mainland Australia that hasn't been cleared or messed with.
The Adelaide Hills are about 45 minutes from the city, so, on leaving Mount Lofty, we were soon at our home for the next three days, The Villa, part of Adelaide Hills Country Cottages, near Oakwood, which is near Balhannah. Glorious autumn colours were everywhere, and surrounding our beautiful house. On one side there was a vineyard, and on the other a view across the Hills.
Later we went into Hahndorf, the nearest small town. We'd noticed along the way from Adelaide that most cafes, shops and pubs were closed. It was Good Friday of course, and despite Australia claiming to be a secular society, religions still hold sway. There are churches everywhere, and even though a minority attends regularly, there is a continued observance of rituals that are out of kilter with contemporary life. We are encouraged to travel and visit places at Easter, the last holiday weekend for months, but many basic providers are closed for business. And what's with the in-your-face propaganda by the roadside? It may occasionally be faintly amusing, if you like puns, but usually not. Here's one we passed on our way back from the Barossa. Contrived, or what?
Hahndorf was buzzing, however: everybody was here trying to get a meal. This is Australia's oldest surviving German settlement: Lutheran migrants arrived here at the end of 1838 from what was then Prussia. German influence is still strong and evident along the pretty, if twee, main street, which was a riot of colour.
We had read about the bakery, and bee stings in particular had been recommended. They were hard to come by unless you were early or had pre-ordered, which we had to. 'Slice or slab?' we were asked. Didn't have a clue, but when we collected them on the last day we ended up with three slices each. You have to try bee stings, for which Hahndorf is famous.
The more renowned Barossa wine region is just up the road. Saturday was Barossa day. It was cloudy and we didn't find an open coffee shop until nearly lunchtime. We went via Lenswood, where there were apples galore, and Lobethal, which was grim, then up to Gumeracha, which sounds like an oath. It is the home of a South Australia icon, the world's biggest rocking horse. (I've never really got to grips with Australia's enthusiasm for biggest this and biggest that.) I was able to buy a mini version from The Toy Factory to add to my collection.
Just west of Gumeracha is Chain of Ponds. It used also to be the name of a township further west that unfortunately was drowned by the creation of Millbrook Reservoir. The winery narrowly escaped a serious bush fire in January, and there were whole plantations of burnt trees, but in the midst of devastation the gum trees were sprouting new growth from top to bottom. Chains of Ponds buys in its grapes from local growers otherwise smoke taint would have cost them dear. We tasted several wines and bought a couple of bottles for a box to send home. (I love the name, so please fix the O.)
The landscape was still hilly, and patterned with vines, the distinctive grey-brown earth contrasting nicely with the turning leaves. Finally, in Williamstown, there was a coffee shop open. We were now in the Barossa, and famous names appeared.
At Tanunda we collected information from the visitor centre and made a Journey in Human Landscape at the Barossa Regional Gallery. And we learned about the Scarecrow Trail, part of the 2015 Barossa Vintage Festival. First we drove to Maggie Beer's Farm Shop for provisions for supper that night. It was a well-designed, lovely place but completely rammed. We grabbed some food and got out of there, having first looked at the turtles in the lake.
While we were trying to find Whistler Wines, the recommendation of a big Sauvignon Blanc fan and friend of mine who lived in Adelaide for a few years, we came across and stopped to consider visiting an old favourite (rosé) of ours, Turkey Flat (great label). I found a container of leaflets by the roadside: we had found our vocation for the afternoon – the Seppeltsfield Road.
Whistler was first up: I think they like corrugations even more than I do. The names of their wines were almost as good as the contents of the bottles, such as Get in My Belly Grenache and Hung out to Dry Cabernet Sauvignon.
By far and away the best names, however, were in our next port of call, Tscharke's (pronounced Sharkey's). How about Girl Talk, Matching Socks, Bed Hair and Shiraz Shiraz Shiraz? Their whole presentation is whackier than your average winery, from the cellar door to the grape varieties, which include Europeans such as Tempranillo and Montepulciano.
I had read about 'one of Australia's most spectacularly distinctive five-minute wine drives, as lines of ancient date palms stand like sentinels to direct you through four right-angle turns'. This, too, was on the Seppeltsfield Road, and spectacular is the word.
Finally, there was Two Hands, a Shiraz specialist that was difficult to miss. I am not a big Shiraz fan: I preferred Bella's Garden, but my friend splashed out on Coach House Block. He was too frightened to put it in our box, and carried it in his backpack on the plane home.
We were running out of time, and perhaps energy for more tasting. We headed southeast to Menglers Hill Road Scenic Drive for a lookout over the whole of the Barossa Valley.
Driving down into Angaston for tea proved to be a vain hope. We'd wanted to fit in Penfolds before 5, when most wineries close, but that wasn't to be either. So we drove home to The Villa via Eden Valley, Birdwood and Woodside through pleasant country and backlit vines. We had Maggie Beer goodies and a selection of wines for supper by the fire. Did I tell you our house had a wonderful log fire? Special treat for Queenslanders.
Our mate on the plane had mentioned that the Murray River was only about an hour further down the South Eastern Highway. Having seen the Darling on last year's Outback trip, the opportunity to meet its partner was too much of a temptation. Unfortunately, on Sunday the weather was grey and the landscape between Mt Barker and Murray Bridge rather bleak. The town was a sprawl that had little to commend it, and the Bridge was shortly to be closed for repairs. The only bird of interest we spotted was a young Darter, but after the Darling there had been a high expectation of pellies. We didn't stay long: there was nowhere to get a coffee. It was hard in the light to take decent photographs.
Explorer Charles Sturt gave the river its name, and passed by here in 1830. Construction of the Bridge was finished in 1879: it was the first bridge to cross the Murray and Australia's largest steel structure at the time. The railway bridge opened in 1925.
That night we dined at Maximilian's Vineyard Restaurant in Verdun, and enjoyed a delicious slow-roasted lamb shoulder with chickpeas, accompanied by Sidewood wines.
Monday was rainy and the wind was starting to spoil autumn's colour show. We packed up and went into Hahndorf to collect our bee stings from Otto's and sample them with coffee. A bee sting consists of almond-slivers-topped sponge with cream in the middle, but not tasteless, pappy cream like you get with a Devonshire tea here. Fortunately, the cake is not overly sweet and therefore more delicious than I'd imagined. This was all that was left by the time I remembered to photograph it.
There were two more vineyards on the agenda, both between Hahndorf and Balhannah. First up was Shaw and Smith, which was modern and in beautiful surroundings. They had the best tasting system by far. Instead of standing at a bar, we sat at tables with a row of glasses in front of us on a sheet of tasting notes. We were offered cheeses matched with the wines. We were comfortable and could take as long as we liked. Perfect. The Sauvignon Blanc and the Riesling were big hits with me.
Just across the road was Nepenthe. We tasted four wines and ate leftovers for lunch: you can take your own food and top up from their fridge, although we couldn't picnic outside because of rain showers, which was a shame because the outlook is wonderful. What some wineries in this region do, Nepenthe included, is ship a box home for you. As long as you include some of their wine, the box can include other bottles you've collected on your travels round the region. We handed over ours together with a few of theirs: here's hoping they arrive soon.
There were just a few more photos I had to nab before we headed back to Adelaide for the 6 o'clock flight to Brisbane.
We were running slightly ahead of schedule so popped into the Botanic Garden on Mount Lofty. We went for a walk in 6 degrees, but were soon forced back to the car by a bitterly cold wind, or so it felt to us. The contrast with Queensland's ongoing humid heat recently had been welcome, but there is a limit! There was an autumn leaf stuck to the windscreen: it was my last picture of the trip, and I love it.
What a great taste we'd had of South Australia's gem of a wine region.