Vintage Aussie

More than just home to the Outback, South Australia is a haven for food and wine connoisseurs as well.

By: David Swanson

Go into almost any restaurant today and the wine list probably includes a number of choices from Australia. Savvy diners know that these wines often mean good quality and decent value (relative to Californian or European selections). Increasingly, connoisseurs head Down Under to visit the better wineries in person, bringing home an assortment of vintages that would be hard to find in the United States.

The wine industry was a major lure for me when I visited South Australia last December. The state produces more than 50 percent of Australia’s wine, and although South Australia is also famed for its Outback and the wildlife of Kangaroo Island, I found a lot for visitors interested in the viticulture experience.

A tour of wine country logically begins in Adelaide, South Australia’s capital and home to two-thirds of the state's 1.5-million population. A charming city with an English air, Adelaide was colonized in the 1830s by the British. "They arrived and they wanted their library, their rose gardens, their culture," said Sandy Pugsley, the cheery owner/guide of Tourabout Adelaide, who showed me around town for a day.

The National Wine Centre of Australia opened in 2001 in Adelaide, a beautifully designed facility that gamely attempts to bridge the gulf that separates the novice from the connoisseurs of fine wine. Interactive exhibits allow visitors to "question" winemakers, wine critics and chefs, while another exhibit challenges guests to make a virtual wine visitors choose the production techniques, the grapes and other elements, and then the "wine" is graded on its probable quality.

The centre’s excellent restaurant, de Castella’s, takes a novel approach to menu ordering: It’s organized by wines, followed by a recommended dish crafted to accompany that glass. Open for lunch only, the restaurant overlooks the lovely Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

I spent the evening exploring Rundle Street, where several blocks are lined with cafes and bistros, most of which spill onto the sidewalk. Greek, Italian, French, Spanish and more were represented. It was easy to see why Adelaide claims to have more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in Australia.

To get a feel for wine country, I spent the day with Mary Anne Kennedy, who runs a touring business called A Taste of South Australia. Kennedy’s tours focus on not only the wines of South Australia, but the food and lifestyle as well. Her full-day private or shared excursions are $175 per person (minimum two passengers), hourly rates are $43 and a 10 percent commission is provided to travel agents.

As we drove out of Adelaide, Kennedy described the 13 wine regions of South Australia, most of which are within 100 miles of the city.

Our first stop was Adelaide Hills, just seven miles out of the city, and an area well regarded for Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay especially the one created by Petaluma Wines, a winery situated in an old water-powered flour mill. The Chardonnay was stylish and complex, but lacked the heavy oak flavor common in California wines.

Adelaide Hills is also known for its Devonshire tea, which is a light meal with freshly baked scones served with jam and fresh cream; and for the Lyndoch Bakery, an authentic German shop. At Kennedy’s suggestion I tried the bienenstick “bee sting” a delicious custard pie topped with almonds.

The German bakery was a good way to segue into the Barossa Valley, Australia’s most famous wine region.

Today, the Barossa has dozens of medium and small producers, but the marquee name is Penfolds, which crafts the Grange Hermitage, one of the world’s most prestigious red wines. Yalumba was another Barossa estate with stateside recognition and a roster of fine sparkling wines. Shiraz is the primary grape planted in Australia, and it’s the Barossa’s specialty the wines have a reputation for a long shelf life.

Heading north we soon entered Clare Valley, which Kennedy suggested is more like “the real Australia”: eucalyptus trees splayed majestically along the hillsides, and rural landscapes with paddocks checkered by vineyards and bed-and-breakfasts.

We passed by the cellar door for the boutique label Grosset, only to find a “sold out” sign (as Kennedy predicted). Fortunately, Jeffrey Grosset’s specialty wine, Riesling, is also made by his wife Stephanie Toole at her winery, Mount Horrocks. Her Cordon Cut Riesling had a bountiful bouquet and was a good buy at $20 a bottle.

Not far away was Thorn Park Country House, a stone homestead built in the 1850s. Doubles at Thorn Park are $211 including a roaring breakfast feast.

Though decidedly pastoral in setting, I found Thorn Park’s reputation for fine dinners at a private or family table to be more than justified. My meal was shared with a family from Brisbane, and we dined happily on prawn and papaya salad, grain-fed beef and wine from Seven Hills Cellars, sharing great conversation throughout the meal.

Good food, good company and great wine. It was a fitting end to the day in South Australia.