A Visit to the Barossa Valley

South Australia’s scenic wine region combines beauty and sophistication By: Eric Rosen
Yalumba //(c) 2010 Eric Rosen
Yalumba //(c) 2010 Eric Rosen

Located in scenic South Australia, just an hour outside of Adelaide, the Barossa Valley is Australia’s best known wine region and has been producing wine for more than 150 years. Today, it is home to nearly 200 wineries, with over 75 cellar doors open to the public. That doesn’t mean it’s overrun with tourists, though. Rather, a trip here feels like traveling back in time to 1970’s Napa or even Bordeaux in the 1950s — combining the best of unspoiled natural beauty with sophisticated international sensibility.

Thanks to a warm climate and a long growing season, Barossa has become world-renowned for its inimitable Shiraz, but it also produces a plethora of other popular varietals including chardonnay, semillon, grenache and cabernet sauvignon, so even the pickiest wine connoisseur will find something quaffable.

Hello, Operator?

A self-drive tour of the Barossa is very plausible, and the towns that comprise the region (most notably Angaston, Nuriootpa and Tanunda) are all within an easy distance of each other, but travelers on a limited schedule should consider booking a private tour.

One of the most qualified guides in the area is Jason Miller, the man behind Rich & Lingering (www.richandlingering.com.au) wine tours. He picks up clients at the airport or from their Adelaide hotels in a spacious luxury van and hand-crafts trips for every taste. He is connected with wineries all over the valley and can change the itinerary on a moment’s notice depending on his clients’ interests. In addition to the scheduled stops, he is also known to sneak his guests into otherwise inaccessible or by-appointment-only wineries for one-on-one tastings with winemakers, making for a truly special experience.

Mary Anne Kennedy of A Taste of South Australia (www.tastesa.com.au) is another premium operator in the Barossa. Like Rich + Lingering, Taste of South Australia constructs individual itineraries for clients, and everything is up for discussion so that plans can change according to whim.

Even with just a day or two to work with, both of these experienced guides will ensure that guests get a thorough introduction to the valley and its wines.

Best Beds in Barossa

Because of its proximity to the city, the Barossa Valley makes for a great day trip of regimented wine-tasting. But for a more leisurely, enjoyable experience, visitors tend to spend a few nights in the region.

Apart from bed and breakfasts, there are three great options for accommodations in the Barossa. The Novotel Barossa Valley Resort (www.novotelbarossa.com) right off the Barossa Valley Highway near Tanunda is a great pick because rooms are affordable, spacious, well appointed and availability usually is not an issue. As part of the Accor family of hotels, guests can also count on certain standards of service and ambiance.

However, the wine country is about true epicurean enjoyment, so why not stay at one of two luxury properties in the area? By far, the most hyped hotel in the Barossa Valley (and in my opinion, deservedly so) is The Louise (www.thelouise.com.au), which is part of the newly formed Luxury Lodges of Australia (www.luxurylodgesofaustralia.com.au) association.

A sumptuous 15-suite property near Tanunda, the Louise is the last word in wine-country elegance. Its buildings are all modern takes on traditional South Australian style with simple concrete constructions and corrugated metal roofs concealing truly stunning interiors. Each suite feels like its own secluded enclave with private front and back patios, a fireplace in the small living room area, a work area and breakfast nook, a huge marble bathroom with indoor and outdoor showers and perfectly solicitous service.

The hotel is also home to what is probably the area’s finest dining experience, Appellation. Chef Mark McNamara’s seasonal menu is an accomplished melange of South Australian cuisine and international influences. Recent menu items included: shaved abalone with confit fennel in a saffron-mandarin tea broth; medallion of beef with bacon crumble and creamed chestnuts in a red wine reduction; and feather-light baked quince pudding with almond cream.

The six-suite Jacob’s Creek Retreat is another new entrant onto the Barossa Valley luxury hotel scene and is located among the vines at historic Moorooroo Park Vineyards. Its restaurant also has fabulous gourmet wine degustation menus available. A stay here is about intimate charm and rural refinement.

Swirl, Sip, Spit

Now let’s get to the reason to come to the Barossa Valley in the first place: wine. The Barossa is a historic wine region with a fabled past that dates to the 1840s. After a few identity crises in the 20th century, the region has regained its footing and is now producing many of Australia’s premium wines, including some of its most famous like Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace.

Wine aficionados turn up their noses (in a bad way) at visiting the big boys like Penfolds (www.penfolds.com) and Jacob’s Creek (www.jacobscreek.com), but that would be a mistake. Jacob’s Creek has a gleaming visitors center where guests learn about the history of the region and the wines made by this influential behemoth, as well as demonstration vineyards where they can see the different varietals growing. There’s also a fantastic on-site restaurant, perfect for lingering over a long lunch.

Penfolds is right in the heart of tiny Nuriootpa and is a good place to get a benchmark for the region’s wines. More entertaining, though, they also have a Make Your Own Blend tour where guests can enter the winemaking laboratory and blend their own wine to take home with them. The results are mixed —at best — but everyone has fun.

Yalumba is the oldest family-owned winery in the Barossa, and is known for its fine range of Viogniers (as well as a variety of red wines from all over South Australia) and its own onsite cooperage, where visitors can watch the crew making barrels.

Seppeltsfield Winery  is another historic winery (with a national heritage certification) where clients can tour the old worker’s village and sample the signature dessert wines that they have been making for more than 100 years.

On the other side of the spectrum, Elderton Wines is a small family-owned and operated winery near Nuriootpa. It was started by the Ashmead family in the 1970s. Since then, however, it has won a host of accolades and awards for its Barossa Shiraz’s and cabernets.

Staying on the small side of things, Torbreck Vintners is one of the most exciting wineries in Australia today and a particular favorite of wine critic, Robert Parker, thanks to an amazing range of distinctive Shiraz’s with Scottish names. The tasting room is in a restored settler’s hut that makes for a cozy, intimate experience.

The tasting room at the boutique Hentley Farm is also in a restored building — a sheep-shearing hut that was renovated with magazine-worthy decor — it’s the perfect setting for tasting their line of robust Shiraz’s and Zinfandels.

For ambiance, though, you’d be hard-pressed to beat Rockford Wines, where they make their wines using antique tools, presses and fermentation tanks, and the tasting room is heated by a wood stove, which also bakes bread to enjoy with your tasting.

Where There’s Wine…

Wine is only part of the story in the Barossa Valley, though. The region is an agricultural powerhouse, with some of Australia’s finest products, so visitors are sure to find a good meal, or several, during a stay there.

One of the must-stops on any itinerary is at Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop between Nuriootpa and Tununda. Maggie is kind of like the Martha Stewart of Australia, and is a huge proponent of farm-to-table cuisine. Travelers can visit her country farm shop to browse signature products like blood orange marmalade, apple-rosemary paste, duck sherry pate, as well as attending daily, afternoon cooking demonstrations.

In the hamlet of Angaston, there’s always a good crowd enjoying a hearty lunch of homemade soups, sandwiches and salads at Blond Coffee and Store (www.blondcoffee.com.au). Just up the main street, you’ll also find the Barossa Valley Cheese Company, where you can sample all sorts of dairy delights, then choose some to take on a picnic.

For a casual dinner, locals and visitors alike head to the Vintners Bar & Grill dishes like blue swimmer crab, saffron and fresh pea risotto with fried leek; roasted king quail with pumpkin feta salad and figs in a pomegranate dressing; and the best fries in the Barossa.

With a diverse range of accommodations, historical and boutique cellar doors, varied dining experiences, and low-key natural beauty, the Barossa Valley is a great destination for wine lovers and amateurs alike. Its proximity to Adelaide makes it easily accessible from international gateways, or as part of a larger Australian itinerary.

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