It’s not generally known that Australia has some of the oldest grapevines in the world, having escaped the phylloxera epidemic that devastated most of Europe’s vineyards in the late 1800s. More than 200 years after the first vines arrived from Europe, there are now over 60 wine regions producing over 100 different grape varieties. A vast continent with nearly every climate and soil type, it is one of the few countries producing every one of the major wine styles.
Australia is the fifth largest wine exporting country in the world behind Spain, Italy, France and Chile, with over 30 million cases going to America each year. Wine is produced in every state and territory, but the major wine growing regions are in the south east of the country in the states of South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. The most common varieties are chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, but semillon, riesling, sauvignon blanc, merlot, grenache and pinot noir are also popular. In recent years there has been an increase in the production and popularity of varieties such as tempranillo, sangiovese and zinfandel.
Most people have heard of the Barossa Valley in South Australia, famous for its big, bold shiraz and its very old vines from as early as 1847, but it is also part of a chain of wine regions that offer an epiphany in wine appreciation. Many people have been inspired to walk the Camino de Santiago especially after seeing the movie, The Way. But if you’re a food and wine pilgrim there is an uplifting experience waiting for you on South Australia’s Epicurean Way. The good news is that you don’t have to walk.
To travel this Way, you can do a guided tour but better still, take a car and take your time as there are many options for comfortable overnight stays. The South Australian Tourism Commission has produced an Epicurean Way map and itinerary for a four-day road trip.
The route covers four of South Australia’s iconic regions – McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, the Barossa and Clare Valley. It provides plenty of opportunities to sample some of Australia’s best wines and experience the finest local produce prepared by award-winning chefs in settings combining history with modern refinement.
All regions are an easy drive from Adelaide and your pilgrimage can last two days, two weeks or as long as you like – depending on how many cellar doors you want to visit. Exploring the picturesque towns is a bit like travelling from village to village in France, but in fact, I think there’s more to some of these small towns than many French villages. The history of these regions and their viticultural heritage is a remarkable story of migration, settlement, struggle and ultimately, achievement.
Having made the pilgrimage, I can share some of my highlights, but bear in mind that this is only a glimpse of what is on offer and every experience is different. One thing I can say, however, is that much enlightenment can be obtained from red wine – something that monks discovered a long time ago.
The Epicurean Way starts by the sea in McLaren Vale, home to over 70 cellar doors and some fine restaurants. Start at the Visitors Centre, get a map of the wineries and plan your visit from there. If you happen to be there on a Saturday morning, head straight down Main Road to the Willunga Farmers Market and sample the local produce.
Doubtless you won’t be able to visit every cellar door but there are many small wineries in McLaren Vale producing excellent wines, especially chardonnay and shiraz. Battle of Bosworth’s Chardonnay and Puritan Shiraz (with no added preservatives) are fitting testament to what this single vineyard organic winery can produce. When Chicago-born Brad Hickey arrived in the region in 2007, he loved it so much he stayed. His NDV Nero d’Avola, aged in amphora at his Brash Higgins Winery, is a great example of what the region has to offer in the increasingly popular Italian varieties.
McLaren Vale has an annual music festival and picking up that theme, Inkwell Wines includes the Dub Style No 1 Grenache in its range – music to the lips of this grenache lover. Owners Dudley and Irina Brown are also Americans now firmly established in McLaren Vale. So, be careful, if you’re American and visit McLaren Vale, you may in fact go no further.
Angove Family Winemakers are one of the oldest family-owned and operated wineries in Australia. In 1985, Thomas Angove patented the wine cask that is now used around the world, and any visit to McLaren Vale is not complete without visiting Angove’s cellar door. Also worth a visit are Hardy’s Tintara, with its fascinating history; Primo Estate with its award-winning Joseph wines; and Dowie Doole for its wine and cheese matched tastings.
In an hour you can be in the Adelaide Hills, where the cool climate and good rainfall are responsible for some very good pinot and chardonnay. They call this region the land of the long lunch, so, be like the French and plan your day around lunch. There’s no better place to do that than in Hahndorf, the oldest surviving German settlement in Australia dating back to 1837. The town is full of delights, including the Beerenberg Family Farm where you can taste premium home-style jams, condiments, sauces and dressings or, if you’re there at the right time, pick your own strawberries.
In Woodside, make a stop at the Woodside Cheese Wrights and sample the award-winning cow, goat and buffalo cheeses. For lunch, try the Bird in Hand Winery and Gallery Restaurant, and make sure you taste their superb Nest Egg Shiraz and wild-fermented chardonnay.
Close to the city of Adelaide is Penfolds Magill Estate Winery, home to the legendary Penfolds Grange, Australia’s most iconic wine. If your budget doesn’t extend to the $600 price tag, Magill Estate is worth a visit for the view alone. Speaking of views, a great place to stay in the Adelaide Hills is Mount Lofty House, set in 18 acres of gardens and bushland with commanding views towards Adelaide and a small vineyard planted by Thomas Hardy when he built the place in 1852.
Arriving in the Barossa, visit the stately surroundings of Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, Yalumba. This is the only winery in the country with its own cooperage and you can witness the skill and age-old tradition of barrel making. The museum at Yalumba contains not only some of their oldest vintages but a collection of rare and exclusive wines from around the world. I recommend the 2012 Signature Cabernet Shiraz. You’ll be surprised to know that there is such a thing as a breakfast wine: their 2013 Virgilius Voignier goes beautifully with smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.
The Barossa is also home to the historic Seppeltsfield Winery, dating from 1851. This estate has been through some difficult times, but the 1888 gravity flow winery has been restored and updated, and production has never been better. If you’re there at harvest time, it’ll be a sight you won’t forget.
In its historic bottling hall is FINO Restaurant, specialising in Barossa produce thoughtfully matched with a selection of excellent wines. Upstairs in the barrel room you can sample a glass of Seppeltsfield Tawny from your birth year. The unique Centennial Collection contains every vintage since 1878; no other winery in the world is able to release a 100-year-old single vintage Tawny every year.
For a superb lunch, visit Hentley Farm where the menu depends on what’s available locally on the day. Matched with their wines, you can either opt for a two-hour lunch or a four-hour lunch – most people go for the four.
There are over 160 wineries in the Barossa and about 13,000 hectares of vineyards, mainly shiraz but also grenache, cabernet sauvignon, mataro, riesling, semillon and many other varieties. You can’t visit them all but do try to call into Henschke and Peter Lehmann. The Jacobs Creek Visitors Centre is also worth a look, or just explore and be surprised.
Travelling north from the Barossa to the Clare Valley, you pass through the historic town of Auburn with its cute craft and gift shops and welcome coffee stops. With over 30 cellar doors in historic and picturesque settings, Clare Valley is riesling country, as well as being home to some good brewers, such as Knappstein and Pikes.
At Sevenhill Cellars, the pilgrim can be uplifted, especially after sampling their St Francis Xavier Riesling. As the first winery in the Clare Valley in 1851, Sevenhill was established by the Jesuits to make sacramental wine, but developed into producing premium table wines. The tour here begins with a talk by winemaker and living legend, Brother John May. Seated in the church he explains the history, construction and development of the winery. His friendly and gentle manner will probably give you even more warmth than the wine does.
The cellar door has an interesting museum and you can learn a lot from the resident winery cat, Maysie. Sevenhill has an extensive range, including some good fortifieds and rieslings. Its flagship is the 2009 Brother John May Reserve Release Shiraz at $95. Get yourself a bottle even if you do nothing else in the Clare Valley.
Skillogalee is one of the oldest cottages in the Clare Valley and now one of the best restaurants, set amongst colourful gardens and grapevines. Nicola Palmer is the chef and daughter of Dave and Diana Palmer, who have faithfully maintained the tradition and history of the place. ‘Skillogalee’ means a thin porridge or gruel – what the early settlers ate – but the fare has come a long way since then.
It’s only a few hours’ drive from the Clare Valley back to Adelaide but there are many reasons to linger. It’s a good place to rest at the end of a pilgrimage that has taken you through four wine regions, offering great food and plenty of serendipity. Forget about the sensible shoes and walking poles; all you need is a good appetite, healthy tastebuds and enough time to explore the many heavenly delights of the Epicurean Way.
If you go
Visit www.southaustralia.com.au for suggested itineraries.