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Wining and Dining Down Under

Kelly J. Hayes

Traveling these days is seldom about happenstance.

Rather, most people take trips with a purpose. Some go to see museums and historical sites, others take trips for adventure travel and some, well, some go on trips to eat.

Recently, my wife and I have made wine the centerpiece of our sojourns and, in the last few years, we have enjoyed the champagnes of France, the sauvignon blancs of New Zealand, the pinot noirs of Oregon and the cabernets of California – all in their home settings.

So, when an opportunity came up to explore the wine country of South Australia, we instantly packed our corkscrew and passports and hit the road.

While most Americans make the cosmopolitan city of Sydney and its surrounding beaches their destination of choice when visiting Australia, those with wine on their minds connect on to the southern coastal city of Adelaide. For it is there that one finds the red earth of the Barossa Valley, along with the equally significant McLaren Vale and Clare Valley.

We began our trip trying to make up for the day we “lost” when we crossed the international dateline, sleeping off the 16-hour plane trip in a contemporary room in the historic Hotel Medina Grand. Located in the heart of Adelaide, the hotel was originally built in the late 1880s to house the Treasury. The white sandstone edifice looks out over Victoria Square and the Central Market. Inside, the former offices have been turned into cosmopolitan hotel suites à la the Ian Schraeger group.

It was the perfect place to unwind from the journey and offered us easy access to our two destinations, the Adelaide Central Market and National Wine Centre of Australia.

Around Adelaide

For “foodies,” the Central Market is an Australian mecca. Adelaide, you see, is a melting pot of people in an agricultural paradise. Kissed by the sun, the surrounding valleys will grow just about anything and everything. Add to that a population with roots in Great Britain and Germany, and newcomers from all around Southeast Asia, and you get a culinary blend that thrives on seasonal vegetables, fresh fish and meats, artisan cheeses, exotic spices and other delights.

For wine aficionados, the National Wine Centre of Australia is a must. We took a pleasant urban walk across Adelaide from our hotel to this modern structure, which was recently opened as a public-private partnership to celebrate the global recognition that Australian wines have enjoyed. Inside, exhibits honor the earth and the vines that are the source of the juice.

One full wall, for example, is composed of bricks that are made from the soils of Australia’s wine-growing regions. Some of the bricks are blood red, others sandstone in color. The idea is to show how diverse soils affect what ends up in the bottle.

Other high-tech exhibits let visitors converse with winemakers, chefs and wine writers who appear in 3-D holographs. Another exhibit allows people to make a series of decisions about how to make a “virtual” wine, and then scores the resulting blend.

Wine and food museums are all the rage, with the new Copia Center for Food, Wine and the Arts in Napa, Calif., garnering so much attention. For an overall wine experience, the National Wine Centre of Australia is top-notch. For anyone interested in wine, it is worth a trip to Adelaide just to visit.

With the pump primed for tasting, we left Adelaide on a 90-minute drive to the Clare Valley, the northernmost outpost of the wine-growing regions surrounding Adelaide. The Clare is a hot, dry valley that runs on its own clock. It is the kind of place where a dog can spend a summer afternoon sleeping in the road and not be bothered.

Wines have been made in the Clare since the 1850s, when Jesuit brothers began the process at what is to this day Seven Hills Cellars. But the buzz these days is about the Clare Valley Riesling.

Leading the charge in the varietal that has historically been dominated by German winemakers is Jeffrey Grosset, who started his winery here in 1981. It is a tradition for Adelaide’s wine cognoscenti to drive to the Clare each September to fill their trunks – or bonnets, as it were – with the latest and greatest Grosset vintages. By November the “Sold Out” sign appears at Grosset Wines.

The Clare is also home to the legendary Jim Barry Wines and his sought-after “The Armagh,” a huge, high-alcohol Shiraz that tastes like the earth and the sun. Barry, who has worked the hills above the Clare since 1950, is a larger-than-life character whose personality is reflected in his wines.

Our hosts in Clare were David Hay and Michael Spears at the Thorn Park Country House. Visitors from all over the world marvel at the refined tastes and unhurried pace that the two provide for their guests.

Originally built in the 1850s from slate and stone quarried on the property, Thorn Park combines the feel of a country home with the cuisine of a four-star restaurant. Dinners are served around a country table with menus written by hand and personalized for each guest.

As good as the dinners are, breakfast is not to be believed. Start with homemade granola roasted in brown sugar and topped with fresh local berries. Next, freshly baked whole-grain breads and preserves, which come straight from the trees on the property. And for the coup de grace, a glass of super-sweet and elegant Cordon Cut late-harvest Riesling. (OK, the Riesling was my wife’s idea, but that’s why we love her.)

Fortunately for visitors to Thorn Park, the 27-mile-long Riesling Trail runs right past the foot of the property. Get on a bike, or simply stroll in either direction, and you will find vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. It is the perfect transition into another day of wine touring.

South Australia’s Napa

Following our Riesling romp, we headed down the back roads into the Barossa. The hour-long drive took us over dry hills that afforded magnificent views into the heart of Australia’s most famous winemaking region.

If the Clare is analogous to the Alexander Valley of California – large open expanses, few people, small wineries – then the Barossa is South Australia’s Napa. It bustles with the activity of grape-growing. Nearly everyone in the Barossa is involved in the wine business in some way. Even the high schools have their own vineyards and students make wines.

Settled in the early 1800s by English expatriates, the towns of Tanuda, Nuriootpa and Angaston, the population centers of the valley, have the feel of European farm towns.

The Brits took on the role of the landed gentry of the Barossa, but much of the work of building the vineyards and wineries was completed by immigrants from Silesia, which is now part of Poland. The Silesians, who for most of the century were thought of as Germanic, have helped to create the unique ethnic quilt that is 21st-century Barossa.

The Barossa is home to Penfolds, Australia’s most prolific producer of wines. Famed for their big Shiraz known as “Grange,” Penfolds’ huge facility in Nuriootpa is the epitome of a modern high-tech winery.

The Barossa is populated by many of the big boys in the Australian wine industry (Wolf Blass, Yalumba, Seppelts, etc.), but a number of talented and passionate local winemakers are squeezing out limited quantities of top-quality juice. The passion in the valley for unique and interesting varietals is palpable when you walk into the cellar doors of winemakers like Charles Cimkey, Grant Burge and Charles Melton.

That passion, along with the lay of the land, inspired Hans Haan to settle in the valley a few years ago and begin his quest to produce the best estate wines that he could.

A former Cathay Pacific 747 pilot, Haan traveled the world looking for the perfect place to settle and make wine. When he finished his travels, he deemed the Barossa Valley the perfect place to fulfill his dream. Today, the Dutchman’s dreams are realized in the barrels and bottles at his winery, where he works with longtime Barossa winemaker James Irvine to produce fine merlot, Shiraz and Rhone-style blends from the estate’s vineyards.

Our stay in the Barossa ended too soon, but on the morning of our departure, a stroll through the Kaiser Stuhl conservation area yielded our first look at the most famous Aussie icon – kangaroos. Just a few short kilometers from the bustling vineyards, the hills above Barossa are home to all manner of indigenous wildlife. It serves to remind visitors of just how vast and wild Australia really is.

Provence down under

Our next stop felt more like Provence than the rugged South Australian wine country as we checked into a French-inspired inn in the Adelaide Hills called the Orangerie – a true gem in the upscale suburb of Stirling. We immediately decided that this would be the perfect place to set up shop for a two- or three-week visit to all of the South Australia wine regions.

The Orangerie is a villa with high ceilings, crisp white linens, French country antiques and a perfect, blue-bottomed, saltwater swimming pool. It is situated about a half-hour from the center of Adelaide and is no more than an hour-and-a-half drive from the beaches on the Gulf of Saint Vincent or the vineyards of the Barossa.

The Adelaide Hills are fast becoming a destination of choice for wine and culinary tourists. The new Shaw and Smith Winery is stunning in its modern design, perched high on a hill overlooking a lake. It also produces some interesting wines, including a steely, un-oaked chardonnay.

Nearby is the Bridgewater Mill restaurant, owned by the Petaluma winery. Here one can sample the wines of Petaluma, made by another Australian icon, Brian Croser, while sitting on a patio beside a huge restored water wheel known as “Big Rumbler.”

The setting is surpassed by the eclectic lunch and dinner menus, featuring produce from local purveyors and meats and seafoods from the region. One could sit for hours sipping wine from fine stemware and watching the water flow.

There is so much more to wine-touring in South Australia than just the vineyards and wineries themselves. While a trip to Burgundy, or Tuscany, can provide travelers with a priceless Old World experience, Australia wears the mantle of “New World” quite well.

As we move into the 21st century, keep an eye on the Aussies and what they are producing. And if you have the time, go down under to look – and taste – for yourself.

Aspenite Kelly J. Hayes is a freelance food, wine and travel writer who is perhaps more widely known as “Malibu Kelly Hayes,” a spotter for the Monday Night Football crew.


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