Editor’s note: This story appeared in Fairfax New Zealand newspapers and websites on 20 April 2015. John Corbett travelled to the Barossa Valley courtesy of Tourism Australia, South Australian Tourism Commission, and Virgin Australia.
WHEN YOU GO to the Barossa, take the road less travelled. There is an expressway that will take you efficiently northeast from Adelaide, past industrial parks and agricultural estates, in 70 minutes flat. And then there is the infinitely more romantic Scenic Route, which takes exactly the same time. Starting in the suburb of Tea Tree Gully, highways B10 and B31 wind up and along the Adelaide Hills through a landscape of pure Australiana. Nineteenth-century homesteads doze in the folds of valleys. Hay bales loll around clipped brown fields like giant peppermints. At the summit near the township of Williamstown, where the light dapples down through stands of eucalypts in that peculiarly beautiful Australian way, a gentle 120-metre descent deposits you in the township of Lyndoch and vinous lushness.
There are a number of ways to see the Barossa. A helicopter ride is a good (although expensive) way to get your bearings, except that this is a landscape that demands to be seen from the ground. You can hire a car and follow the excellent food and wine trails, but in wine country a designated driver (the Australian term is “skipper”) is near-essential. And then there are tours, the very best of which is Barossa Daimler Tours, which operates a glossy black 1962 Daimler Majestic Major limousine.
A plaque on the back of the front seat states that the vehicle was specially imported for use by H.R.H. Duke of Edinburgh during the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, and more extensively by H.R.H. Princess Margaret in 1964 on tour. Cue the inevitable Princess Margaret anecdotes, nearly all of which owner/driver John Baldwin has heard. After 20 award-winning years of local touring he’s also a mobile mine of information whose commentaries bring the landscape to vivid life as the Daimler glides along.
“There’s plenty of accommodation in the Barossa,” John observed as we purred past a 140-room Novotel. The offerings include world-class cocoons of luxury like The Louise, a member of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux group of hotels and resorts; grand, five-star country retreats like Kingsford Homestead; numerous apartments and B&Bs, and a slew of self-contained cottages that the locals refer to as “love shacks”:
“Stock ’em up, hand ’em the keys and they surface three days later,” said a wag we met at a cellar door. But getting out and about is essential here and with his intimate knowledge of the Barossa, John Baldwin can whip up an itinerary that suits you perfectly. He will also accompany you if you wish (on a strictly non-drinking basis, of course) into cellar doors where his knowledge of the local wines often proves useful.
PEOPLE TEND NOT to tell you a couple of things about the Barossa, the first of which is that doesn’t resemble a valley – at least in the up-and-down way that New Zealanders are used to. It is an ancient landscape, rounded and worn down, and over geological time the creeks and streams that flow down from the hills to the east have carved out an undulating terrain that offers a wealth of microclimates for grapes. During the Aboriginal Dreamtime, the area was part of the foraging country of the Peramangk people. Today, like most wine regions around the world, it is largely a man-made landscape where almost every piece of suitable land is given over to vines.
The second thing people don’t tell you about the Barossa, nearly as much as they should, is how beautiful it is. In winter, the dormant vines turn rust-coloured and the air carries the scent of wood smoke. In summer, the sky is a bright blue bowl and the vineyards form a carpet of green that glows with lysergic brilliance. As you travel around, the thousands of rose bushes that line the roadsides (and give the region its name) blur past in psychedelic flashes of scarlet and pink.
Quite a bit of the sensory oomph comes from the wines. The forté of the Barossa is Shiraz, an Old-World red wine grape variety that in the region’s hot-climate growing conditions reaches a peak of viticultural perfection. Barossa Shirazes are typically big, full-bodied wines that smell variously of berries or plums and pair beautifully with food. On the palate they may offer hints of spice, mint, chocolate, mocha, black pepper, leather or tobacco.
It’s a seductive combination that has helped the 32 x 15-kilometre valley become recognised as Australia’s premier wine region, and the only one included with Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and the Napa Valley on the very short list of the world’s best. First-time visitors invariably make a beeline for world-famous cellar doors like Penfolds, Jacob’s Creek, Wolf Blass and Yalumba, and follow the food and wine trails. I had seen them all on a previous visit so John Baldwin took me down some roads less travelled.
At Charles Melton Wines in Krondorf Road near Tanunda you taste Shiraz-making at its apogee. The rich, plush wines grown here from Rhône-style grapes (Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre), include the multi-award-winning Nine Popes Shiraz; a delicious Rosé named for Charles Melton Wines’ co-owner, Virginia Melton, and, in keeping with the family theme, highly drinkable Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre blends such as La Belle-Mère, and The Father-in Law Shiraz.
To visit this winery, and especially to eat at “The Verandah”, its rustically unpretentious café which has become a local “destination” for its gourmet pies, is to experience the Barossa’s full charm. The café is open to the air on three sides, with plastic sheeting walls that roll up to admit the breeze and views of the tranquil countryside. I took a sip of a fantastically good Shiraz named Voices of Angels and let my gaze travel over plantings of roses and vines and cypresses and eucalypts to the tan-coloured hills and blue sky beyond. It was a magic moment.
THE DAIMLER NEXT took me to Torbreck Vintners in the locality of Greenock.
“Do you know why all the Barossa settlements are a certain distance apart?” John Baldwin asked during the 20-minute drive, “That’s how far you could amble by bullock cart or horseback in half a day.”
The first European settlers in the region, in 1837, were German Lutherans from Silesia (Eastern Prussia) who journeyed to South Australia to escape religious persecution. Many were small farmers and artisans for whom grape-growing was part of their agrarian way of life. So too were bread-making, baking and techniques for smoking and curing meat that remain mainstays of Barossa cuisine to this day.
At Lyndoch Valley Fine Foods in Lyndoch high street, chiller cases display an award-winning line-up of traditional German lachsschinken (cold-smoked pork) and other European small goods, many of them smoked on the premises. There are also chillers of Scotch eggs, Cornish pasties and pork pies from Barossa’s other major food tradition. There’s more history too at the Apex Bakery in nearby Tanunda, where a century-old wood-fired oven still turns out continental-style breads, pasties, pretzels and Viennese biscuits every day.
The English colonists who arrived soon after the Lutherans and found the Barossa’s rolling grasslands ideal for grazing and arable crops provided a ready market for wine: the French and German wines they favoured suffered from long ocean voyages and were often (ahem) in short supply. Thus an industry was born, which because of the preferences of the time focused on fortified wines until well into the 20th century.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the potential for table wines was explored, first with plonk (with which a number of now-eminent labels got their start), and things really kicked off when a generation of young and enterprising winemakers (known locally as the “’84s”, from the year in which several famous labels, including Charles Melton, were established) took a serious approach to the Shiraz, Chardonnay, Riesling and other grape varieties that could be grown here. Among their discoveries were old French and Silesian vine stocks dating back to the 1840s. Some of these “grandfather” vines, now fantastically wizened and gnarled like something out of Lord of the Rings, can still be seen in some vineyards and are still helping to produce wines of great finesse.
Torbreck Vintners lives up to the pioneer past by siting its cellar door in a 1850s settler’s cottage where you have to duck your head under the door lintels because people were shorter then. Its Old-World, hands-on wine-making techniques also create opulent wines that please customers up and down the price scale; a flamboyant former owner, David Powell, even managed to score regular orders from several cafés in Paris – no mean feat.
My visit to Torbreck happened just after a bottle of The Laird, the company’s ultrapremium Shiraz, had been opened and remaining glassfuls were being offered around. At A$900 a bottle The Laird is overpriced according to some locals but it is rich, ripe and altogether splendid to drink. I sat under an arbour in the cellar door garden in the warm breeze and enjoyed it. It was another magic moment.
AT 5PM THAT DAY the Daimler deposited me at the start of the unsealed road that leads to Kingsford Homestead. (The open undercarriage of the fiftysomething car doesn’t take kindly to gravel so I transferred to the homestead’s SUV.) Built in 1856 for the pioneering pastoralist, Stephen King, the grand Georgian-style homestead displays the full sweep of Barossa history – past, present and future – and like many things in the region it has had a chequered career, including being “bailed up” in its early days by bushrangers. Later chapters in Kingsford’s history include serving as a government agricultural research facility and notably, between 2001 and 2008, as the central location of the TV series, McLeod’s Daughters. A steady stream of guests from Europe, where the show was hugely popular, still comes to stay.
Kingsford’s latest incarnation is as a five-star country retreat that offers guests an elegant blend of 19th-century luxury and 21st-century amenities. The latter include five-and seven-course degustation dinners; the one I attended featured wines exclusively from the Eden Valley, a cool-climate appendage of the Barossa long known for its elegant Rieslings but now offering other varieties that match anything produced on the main valley floor.
The rise of Eden Valley is one of the signs of a generational shift that is taking place in the Barossa, in which a new cohort of wine-makers, sommeliers and hospitality professionals is driving the region’s food and wine in new directions. These include the increased use of organic and biodynamic techniques, a greater focus on single-vineyard wines, the planting of new varieties and rethinkings of classic styles like Chardonnay.
To see the younger generation hitting its straps, John Baldwin took me next day to nearby Hentley Farm Wines, the Daimler driving sedately down the grass verge of the winery’s access road to avoid the stones. The company’s cellar door is housed in an old shearing cottage made from timber, wattle and earth, but any jokes about the Three Little Pigs evaporate at the sheer quality of the wines which have engaging names like Stray Mongrel, The Beauty, and The Beast.
Under the direction of 34-year-old chief winemaker, Andrew Quin, Hentley Farm has gathered a stellar collection of awards, including being named 2015 Winery of the Year by the leading Australian wine critic, James Halliday. Equally worth visiting for glimpses of the future are the Eden Valley Regional Wine Room in Angaston, and Artisans of Barossa near Tanunda. The latter is a tasting bar, café and hub for artisan food producers and emerging wine-growers and many of the wines are impressive new roads to travel.
I STILL WANTED more history. Six minutes from Hentley Farm is Seppeltsfield, a collection of Victorian-era buildings and warehouses that is a living memorial to Joseph Seppelt, the Silesian immigrant regarded as the “father” of Barossa wine-making. In recent times Seppeltsfield fell victim to corporate neglect but new owners are now steadily bringing it back to life. In the last year or two it has gained a resident artisan knife-maker, a branch of the Adelaide-based JamFactory glass, ceramics and furniture studio, and there are plans for a jewellery-making cooperative. A smart new offshoot of Fino, the renowned McLaren Vale regional foods restaurant, opened in November 2014. Seppeltsfield’s celebrated Tawny and Liqueur Ports are, as always, on sale.
One of the enduring glories of Seppeltsfield is the port store cellar where the air is scented with the gentle exhalations of 140 years of fortified wine. On a tour you are offered a taste – barely more than a drop – of port from a barrel bearing the year of your birth; the one that really moved me though was marked 1914: in that year, hundreds of young men left the Barossa and South Australia to fight in the Great War, and a great many few came back.
On the last night of my visit I dined at Appellation, the much-awarded fine-dining restaurant at The Louise, whose talented young Executive Chef, Ryan Edwards, gracefully blends the region’s Silesian heritage with a future that is still unfolding: Pacojet machines are used as readily as wooden spoons, and classic terrines feature on the menu alongside foams and gels.
Before dinner I sat on the restaurant’s hilltop terrace with a glass of Champagne and watched the summer evening fade, Impressionist-style, into darkness. For a minute or two I fancied I could hear the hardworking wine region breathing out, as if setting down its tools at the end of the day. It turned out to be just the sound of a distant ute, but it was another magic moment. #RestaurantAustralia
Air New Zealand/Virgin Australia fly from Auckland to Adelaide four times a week. Qantas offers services from Australian main centres.
Barossa Daimler Tours offers local touring with pick-up available from Adelaide.
Appellation at The Louise
Artisans of Barossa
Charles Melton Wines
Hentley Farm Wines
Artisans of Barossa
Charles Melton Wines
Lyndoch Valley Fine Food
38 Barossa Highway, Lyndoch
+61 8 8524 4078
Taste Eden Valley Regional Wine Room
Photos: John Corbett; Kingsford Homestead; The Louise.