Australia: Barossa Valley Uncorked

  • A lunchtime spread at the Lou Miranda estate.

    A lunchtime spread at the Lou Miranda estate.

  • Produce for sale at the Farmers Market.

    Produce for sale at the Farmers Market.

  • The Seppeltsfield winery is one of the oldest in the valley.

    The Seppeltsfield winery is one of the oldest in the valley.

  • King George whiting at Appellation.

    King George whiting at Appellation.

  • A cottage in Tanunda.

    A cottage in Tanunda.

  • Appellation pairs Barossa wines with fresh, regional produce.

    Appellation pairs Barossa wines with fresh, regional produce.

  • Dave Torbreck at his estate.

    Dave Torbreck at his estate.

  • Silesian settlers’ huts dot vineyards across the Barossa.

    Silesian settlers’ huts dot vineyards across the Barossa.

  • Old farm machinery near the Lou Miranda estate.

    Old farm machinery near the Lou Miranda estate.

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Above: Old-vine Shiraz grapes at Torbreck Wines.

With new hotels and restaurants, Australia’s premier grape-growing region offers more than fine wines.

Story and photographs by Natasha Dragun

The tasting menu at Appellation has nine courses paired with nine different glasses of wine. It begins with a tender tartlet of Hutton Vale lamb’s tongue and dill pickles perfectly matched with a 2006 Jacob’s Creek Steingarten Riesling, wonderfully dry, with overtones of lemon and lime. Then there’s a fillet of Coorong Angus beef served with a puree of buttered onions and a 2004 Irvine Wines Grand Merlot. Somewhere along the line I’m delivered a platter of sublime cheeses; the satin-smooth La Petite Princess made from goat’s milk with hints of citrus and hay melts over a crisp piece of pear. I count at least three desserts: a warm apple flan, a golden quince-and-saffron grütze, and a wattle-seed parfait with quinoa praline, washed down with a thimble of syrupy dessert Semillon.

It’s like sampling South Australia on a plate—which is exactly the point, according to head chef Mark McNamara. “You come to a region like this to experience the produce that’s growing here, around you,” he tells me over my third course. “The snapper and prawns in these dumplings are from South Australian waters. This Viognier is a superb 2007 number from Yalumba, just up the way. We have something to be proud of here.”

“Here” being the Barossa Valley, Australia’s largest wine-producing area. Located 60 kilometers northeast of Adelaide, the state capital, it’s a well-trodden trail—every year, more than 350,000 oenophiles descend on the 120-odd wine companies and 60 tasting rooms that dot the valley, a low-lying area with a climate similar to that of Bordeaux. The Barossa’s architecture adds to the European feel: the three main towns—Nuriootpa, Tanunda, Angaston—and surrounding countryside are peppered with handsome stone buildings erected in the mid-1800s by immigrants from Germany and England.

I first came here in 1995 to visit my friend Jon, a vintner who was then learning the tricks of the trade at Penfolds, arguably Australia’s best-known winery. I spent a week savoring dozens of fine wines under his direction, only to be disappointed come mealtime. Despite the region’s rolling fruit orchards and free-range farms, there were only a few restaurants, and none as impressive as Appellation. As for the local accommodation, it consisted of a handful of tired bed-and-breakfasts overseen by surly hosts. Fifteen years down the track, I’m back to visit Jon—today one of Penfolds’ chief vintners—and I’m hoping to be rewarded with more than just a terrific tipple or two.

The words “too early” don’t apply in the Barossa when it comes to drinking. On my way to collect Jon from his cottage at 10 a.m., I notice that many of the wineries are already welcoming visitors. Jon and I are happy to make the most of their hospitality, but first we need to line our stomachs. It’s Saturday, the busiest day in the valley thanks to the famed Farmers Market, where dozens of local producers set up stalls in a series of old tin sheds just outside Angaston. We bypass shopkeepers selling wild olives, native honey, and bush dukkah—a local take on the Egyptian spice rub—and follow our noses to the most popular stall in the place. A long queue snakes around upended wine barrels where hungry shoppers feast on piping-hot bread rolls stuffed with eggs, smoked bacon, and homemade chutney, washed down with a creamy caffé latte. It’s a wake-up call I won’t forget in a hurry.

After breakfast, we wander the market picking up picnic provisions. From the Barossa Decadence stall we buy slices of lemon-meringue fudge slathered in chocolate, and from Ballycroft Artisan Cheese, run by sisters Tracey and Sue Evans, we purchase some of the freshest fromage I’ve tasted in a long time, including a smoky, Gouda-like cheese called Annulet. The region’s Silesian settlers brought with them a enduring tradition of cakes and preserved meats, and on the way out we stop at Steiny’s Smallgoods to ogle delicacies like lachsschinken, a smoked pork fillet, and jagerbraten, a hearty hunter’s loaf of slow-roasted pork belly stuffed with beef and minced veal. It’s time for our first tipple.

Compared to other Australian wine regions, the Barossa is vast —the 32-kilometer-long valley can overwhelm even the most experienced gourmand. Seppeltsfield Road (“Palm Avenue” to the locals) is a good place to start, home to a handful of food producers and farms as well as some of the valley’s most storied wineries. Jon and I make Torbreck Wines our first stop. Its owner, Dave Powell, moved to the Barossa in 1994, nurturing hectares of old vines back to health with his sons Calum and Owen. Today, he tells us, his family sources fruit from across the valley to make their wines, some of which rival Penfolds Grange in price: Dave’s The Celts goes for US$70 a bottle, but it’s worth the outlay. The luscious, earthy Shiraz is made using just six rows of 120- to 160-year-old vines, and only 100 cases are produced each season. We’re lucky to pick up a bottle from the tasting room, which occupies an original settler’s hut.

Many of the Barossa’s wineries have become household names around the world—Jacob’s Creek, Penfolds, and Peter Lehmann, among others—but there are still a good number of boutique estates, like Lou Miranda, just a short drive from Torbreck. “I’ve been making wine for 45 years,” says Lou, the property’s owner and head vintner. “My father came here in 1939. When did you handle your first grape?” he asks Jon, recognizing him as a fellow vintner by his maroon-stained hands.

South Australia is responsible for producing more than half of all Australian wine, and the Barossa 60 percent of that. Lou’s production of just 20,000 cases a year barely registers, and certainly doesn’t compare to the 2.5 million cases he was churning out when he sold his father’s company in 2004. “It was getting too big. I look after the estate with my wife and three daughters. Our wines now are all handmade and very personal,” he tells us as he pulls out a bottle of Shiraz, the varietal that probably put this valley on the map. Wine critics have described Penfolds Grange, produced from old, low-yielding Shiraz vineyards, and Henschke’s Hill of Grace as among the best of their kind in the world. The Shiraz produced by Lou and his family is not half bad either. It’s full bodied and fruity, with hints of plum, blackberry, and spice. The surrounds we enjoy it in are almost as heady. Rolling, eucalyptus-fringed hills hem Lou’s bluestone tasting room, where native gardens are abuzz with dragonflies and bees. We take a seat at a wrought-iron table under a canopy of vines and savor our bottle with warm ciabatta and hunks of mushroom pâté.

I’ve been a fan of Château Tanunda’s single-vineyard Merlot and sparkling Shiraz for a long time, and always considered them among the most drinkable, and affordable, boutique wines in the Barossa. But I wasn’t prepared for the estate itself. When the grand bluestone château was built in 1890 it was the biggest winery in the Southern Hemisphere. Still one of the largest in the Barossa, the ivy-clad building is only outshone by its manicured lawns, replete with a private cricket field and croquet green. After touring the grounds with head vintner and owner John Geber, Jon and I visit the onsite Barossa Small Winemakers Centre, established by John and his family to enable smaller producers who don’t have their own tasting rooms—Hahn, Balthazar, and Linke, among many others—to display their wines. It’s a fine way to sample the valley’s varied offerings.

From one of the Barossa’s oldest establishments we move on to one of the newest. The Jacob’s Creek Visitors Centre has won dozens of design awards since it opened in early 2000, praised for eco-friendly features ranging from bamboo floors and reclaimed-timber furniture to solar energy and natural ventilation systems. Despite its modern look, the vineyard traces its roots to one of the first plantations in the region, founded by German winemaker Johann Gramp in 1847. Still, it wasn’t until 1976 that wines were released under the Jacob’s Creek label, now exported to more than 60 countries. The history is detailed in a sleek glass-and-steel gallery alongside Jacob’s Restaurant, where Jon and I pop the cork on a bottle of sparkling Shiraz and share an antipasto platter of mushrooms stuffed with pancetta and pesto, bacon-wrapped halloumi, and red-pepper dip.

I’m staying at The Louise, a collection of 15 smart suites opened in 2006 adjoining Appellation restaurant. Set atop a gentle hill with sweeping vistas across the valley and surrounding vineyards, it’s a world away from the bed-and-breakfasts I endured 15 years ago. My room is decorated with cashmere throws and local art and comes with its own courtyard, which proves ideal for enjoying the sunset and a well-chilled bottle of Grenache Rosé from Château Tanunda. The Louise’s owners, Jim and Helen Carreker, offer a range of private wine tastings and tour experiences. One sees you visit the historic Hutton Vale farm, where you sample a handful of back-vintage wines made by sixth-generation owners John and Jan Angas, accompanied by a gourmet lunch featuring an entirely homegrown spread, from the free-range lamb chops to the fruit chutney and organic salad. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to partake—Jon and I have a dinner date at Appellation with chef Mark McNamara and his son Matthew, the restaurant’s sommelier.

There’s nothing fancy about the decor at Appellation—in fact, it’s a touch stodgy. Yet the setting and the food are sublime. Plus, there’s a pretty patio overlooking the property’s vineyard, lined with old wine barrels that Mark now uses to grow rosemary, basil, and other herbs and spices.

“I like simplicity and using what we have here,” the chef tells us as Matthew uncorks a 2008 Seize The Day Rosé from Milhinch Wines—one of the producers available at Château Tanuda’s Small Winemakers Centre. “There are no fancy ingredients on my menu, no truffles, foie gras, or porcini. Most of my supplies come directly from the Farmers Market,” he says. It’s this attention to quality that has seen the place rated among the top 50 restaurants in Australia by Gourmet Traveller for the last three years.

The wine list is equally impressive. Despite being just 23 years old, Matthew knows his Mourvèdre from his Merlot, and has crafted a menu that features both big-name Barossa wineries as well as more obscure artisanal producers. More than 400 wines are listed, including a good selection of local fortified wines, which Matthew describes as “liquid sunshine.” I fast learn that the valley produces some exceptional ports, muscats, tokays, and sweet wines. “There are some spectacular drops here, no doubt,” says Mark. “We want to show that it’s not just a good wine spot, but that there’s also great food.”

Before I drive back to Adelaide, Jon insists that I have one final meal at Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop, a restaurant-cum-grocer around the corner from Torbreck. A familiar face on the Australian food scene, Maggie Beer is the author of several cookbooks and has appeared on numerous TV shows. She opened her first restaurant in the Barossa in 1978, and it fast became famous for its pheasant pâté. Following a stint in Adelaide, Maggie moved back to the Barossa to open the Farm Shop.

The café’s setting is so quintessentially Australian it could appear on a postcard: blinding red soil, gum and bottlebrush trees, a muddy dam, blue sky. Jon and I sit on a patio overlooking the water enjoying Maggie’s fabulously creamy pheasant-and-porcini terrine, paired with wild kalamata olives, cheeses, wood-fired bread, and a tangy quince paste. Dessert? A big scoop of burnt-fig, caramel, and honeycomb ice cream. At 10:30 a.m., it’s an early lunch. Still, I can’t help but wish that I had another bottle of The Celts to accompany it. The girl who serves us our meal doesn’t blink when I ask her for a wine list. “It’s after ten, why not?”

THE DETAILS:
Barossa Valley

Getting There

Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) and Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) fly daily to Adelaide from Singapore and Hong Kong, respectively. From there, it’s a one-hour drive to the Barossa.

Where to Stay

Smart boutique hotel The Louise (Seppeltsfield Rd.; 61-8/8562-2722; thelouise.com.au; doubles from US$368) has 15 suites with spa tubs and patios. Set in a renovated church, The Kirche (Krondorf Rd.; 61-8/8563-3606; charlesmeltonwines.com.au; doubles from US$344) offers just two guest rooms with vine views. The 140 rooms at the Novotel Barossa Valley Resort (Golf Links Rd.; 61-8/8524-0000; novotelbarossa.com; doubles from US$243) come with equally nice vistas.

Where to Eat & Drink

Originally appeared in the February/March 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine ( “Barossa Uncorked”)

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