Great wine drives: Adelaide Hills
Get set for a jam-packed four-day itinerary that encompasses finely crafted wines, mouth-watering alternative varieties and top-end restaurants championing the best local produce.
There’s a fairy-tale atmosphere to the Adelaide Hills. You could be lost between quaint, close-spaced villages in France, Germany or Italy. Yet here you are, just 20 minutes out of Adelaide. No other wine-escape lands you so quickly, nor leaves you feeling further from the pace of suburbia. Welcome to the most inviting wine drive in the country.
In a land of open spaces and far-flung vineyards, there are plenty of long, straight roads to traverse between and within most wine regions, yet the winding roads of the Adelaide Hills make the journey as wonderfully engaging as the destination. The scenery refreshes constantly as every bend opens into a majestic vista of olive groves, manicured orchards, stately sandstone residences, inviting strawberry farms and dramatically steep vineyards.
Once the fruit bowl of Adelaide and the iceberg lettuce capital of Australia, the Adelaide Hills remains bountiful in its regional produce. There is a veritable tapestry of vegetable gardens, orchards, and paddocks for cattle and sheep, as well as a growing band of cheese wrights, milk companies, jam makers, microbreweries and all manner of gourmet producers.
This diversity feeds a thriving local food culture and an abundance of restaurants. Unique local flavours are showcased within the context of a rich European heritage. Italian and French themes abound, but it is the German tradition of Hahndorf that most famously characterises the Hills. Wafting with smokehouse aromas, this is Australia’s oldest German village, established in 1839. Today its main street is one of the bigger tourist attractions in the state.
The same diversity makes this a dynamic and versatile wine-producing region. With wildly varying elevations, the slope of every hill presents a different aspect, while ancient soils change rapidly from one block to the next, providing conditions to nurture everything from pinot noir to cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc to chardonnay and a raft of new varieties.
At its lowest points, the Adelaide Hills is bounded by a contour of 400-metre elevation, providing a common theme of altitude across the region, linking its wines with a silver thread of natural acidity and cool elegance.
Sauvignon blanc is the region’s most famous offering, and none more than Shaw & Smith, which always sells out by the end of summer. “We have realised after all these years that the personality of the Hills is not herbaceousness,” says co-founder Michael Hill Smith MW. “We seek mid-palate flavour and length, rather than being too focused on aromatics or grassiness.”
On the same morning as I arrived at Shaw & Smith for my most recent visit, a local paper declared: “Farewell sauvignon blanc.” While Shaw & Smith sees no softening in demand, other Adelaide Hills producers have felt the pressure of competition from New Zealand. “In some ways sauvignon blanc’s time as the signature variety of the Adelaide Hills has come to an end,” says president of the Adelaide Hills Wine Region, Darren Golding. “The general punter is looking for something else, like chardonnay, riesling or pinot gris.”
Even though sauvignon blanc continues to outsell every other variety in the Hills, there is a dynamism in the region that is inspiring exploration of new grapes, wine styles and vineyard sites. “The Adelaide Hills delivers sufficient heat during summer to ripen the bolder varieties, and cool nights mean good acid retention, the hallmark of white wines,” Golding points out.
In warmer sites, the Adelaide Hills produces particularly refined shiraz of textural finesse and cracked pepper character, while the cool heights of Lenswood and Piccadilly are home to the most celebrated chardonnay and pinot noir in South Australia.
The region also boasts a diversity of wine varieties thriving with greater clarity of varietal definition than perhaps anywhere else in the state. Beyond the usual suspects, the cool touch of the region is proving to be well suited to nurturing the varietal signature of nebbiolo, temp-ranillo, pinot gris, viognier, gewürztraminer, and of course, sparkling wines. Another name which we will hear more in the coming years is grüner veltliner. At home in the cool heights of Austria, early attempts in the Adelaide Hills have demonstrated considerable promise in drawing out the variety’s characteristic white pepper and lime notes.
The profile of the Adelaide Hills is on the rise. One of the region’s biggest strengths is also its largest weakness: it has no big-brand wineries and very little vineyard ownership among the largest players, although all source from here. Wineries in every surrounding region purchase fruit, with high-profile Adelaide Hills wines made in McLaren Vale, the Barossa, Eden Valley and even the Clare Valley and Langhorne Creek.
All of these developments make the Adelaide Hills a dynamic region that beckons the explorer, with new wines to try and new places to discover. Visitors are responding, with more tourists targeting the region and some cellar doors reporting double the traffic of five years ago. It now boasts a respectable 37 cellar doors, most of which are open on weekends and public holidays.
The cellar doors and restaurants of the Adelaide Hills are increasingly opening during the week, but weekends still offer the best options for visitors. Fly in Friday morning and pick up a copy of the free Adelaide Hills tourism booklet from the information booth opposite arrivals at the airport. The map is useful, though vineyards and cellar doors aren’t named.
Jump in a hire car (Budget Rent a Car, Adelaide Airport, 08 8234 4111) and follow the signs to the city. Glen Osmond Road will take you directly to the foot of the Hills and within minutes the South Eastern Freeway will rocket you anywhere from Crafers to Mount Barker. As soon as you’re over the hill of the Mount Lofty Ranges you’ll feel like you’re a world away.
Take the exit to Stirling, where the charm of the Adelaide Hills begins at The Locavore (49 Mount Barker Rd, Stirling, 08 8339 4416). This bustling, contemporary bar and diner on the main street is frequently packed for weekend breakfasts. Call in for lunch, or stop for a meal at any time of the day or night. The produce here is local (and so are many of the patrons – this is a hub of the region and a favourite haunt for winemakers) and the menu is built around the 100-mile diet, with virtually everything sourced within a 160-kilometre radius. Manager Erica Davis has a history managing two farmers’ markets, and utilises her vast network of primary producers to put together a list of 10 regularly rotating specials. Don’t miss the Wagyu Loca-burger, regional platters and an enticing breakfast menu. The drinks list is likewise local and reasonably priced, with a generous by-the-glass selection. This is one of the best places to discover many of the hard-to-find Adelaide Hills labels without their own cellar doors – look for Geoff Weaver, Fox Gordon, Arrivo, Riposte, La Línea and SC Pannell.
Head back to the freeway, exit at Hahndorf and turn left into Balhannah Road, then left on Jones Road to Shaw & Smith (136 Jones Rd, Balhannah, 08 8398 0500). Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith have poured two lifetimes of genius into refining a tight range comprising just sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and shiraz. While they’ve built their reputation on hand-harvested sauvignon, it’s recently been eclipsed by the brilliance of the other three. A cellar door-only range of declassified fruit under stylish Incognito labels is an exciting discovery here. Order a tasting flight of four wines with a local cheese-sample platter and absorb the spectacular vista through floor to ceiling glass, over the vineyards and lake, with a stunning backdrop of hills all the way to Mount Lofty. You might even spot cows and sheep in the vineyard – the natural solution to weeding between the vines.
From Jones Road, a right turn into Pain Road will take you to Hahndorf Hill (38 Pains Rd, Hahndorf, 08 8388 7512). All the traditional Adelaide Hills varieties are here, but the true highlights are the less familiar names. An old slate quarry at the top of the hill is testimony to the mineral soils of the vineyard, well suited to the Austrian varieties of zweigelt (believed to be the first in Australia), blaufränkisch (from 20-year-old vines) and, most importantly, grüner veltliner, the first of what promises to be a signature wine for the Hills.
Hahndorf is only a few minutes away, and dinner is at The White House Provincial Kitchen & Lounge (90 Mount Barker Rd, Hahndorf, 08 8388 7669). This 1858 heritage-listed cottage has been recently transformed into an intimate restaurant, with a young and enthusiastic crew led by Sophie Zervas. Proof that Hahndorf can do more than just German, the menu is classically French provincial. A concise wine list focuses on the smaller estates of the region, and a chalkboard by-the-glass list is written each day according to what’s open at the time.
If you’re ravenous and don’t eat breakfast at your accommodation, try The Haus @ Hahndorf (38a Main St, Hahndorf, 08 8388 7555). Breakfast at The Haus is hearty and extensive, taking full advantage of Balhannah double-smoked bacon, local free-range eggs, German sausages, Hahndorf smoked salmon, Beerenberg preserves and local fruits and vegetables.
The freeway is the fastest path through the Hills, but if you’re not in a hurry, the back roads offer a magical journey. Follow Greenhill Road to Summertown, then Tregarthen Road to Ashton Hills (Tregarthen Rd, Ashton, 08 8390 1243). Winemaker Stephen George is remarkable not only for crafting a long list of benchmark Adelaide Hills wines but in the sheer diversity that these encompass. He coaxes beguiling pinot noir, delicate chardonnay and refined sweet riesling from his old vines high in the hills just below Mount Lofty. And his pinot gris, gewürztraminer and rosé are more than respectable, too. These are hand-crafted wines – George does everything himself, the old fashioned way, and clearly loves it. Be sure to make an appointment in advance as George is one of the living legends of the Hills.
Ashton Hills’ neighbouring vineyard is Barratt (Cornish Rd, Summertown, 08 8390 1788) but to get here you’ll need to double back through Summertown, turn left into Collins Road, then left on Cornish Road. Lindsay Barratt lives here in a century-old stone cottage and oversees everything from pruning to bottling himself, admitting that he’s mildly obsessive. “I haven’t got anyone to blame if anything goes wrong,” he quips. Tastings are in the quaint and wonderfully kept Japanese garden. This is the perfect setting to discover a range of beautifully pure and expressive wines, delicate whites and fragrant reds. At this altitude, it’s no surprise that pinot noir and chardonnay are the stars. This is the property from which Jeffrey Grosset has purchased his pinot noir for 20 years, having identified it as showing some of the best balance in the Hills.
Follow Greenhill Road to Balhannah and Junction Road, then Jones Road to Ravenswood Lane, home of The Lane Vineyard & Bistro (Ravenswood Ln, Hahndorf, 08 8388 1250). This well-established vineyard farmed sustainably on ancient gravelly soils for two generations is run with the exacting precision of Marty Edwards, a former mine clearance diving officer with the Royal Australian Navy. This fidelity is accurately articulated in every wine, expressing the mineral character of this remarkable site with clarity and fine-tuned detail. If you can’t possibly taste them all, don’t miss RG Chardonnay, Gathering SBS and Reunion Shiraz.
Relax for the afternoon, immersing yourself in the view through floor-to-ceiling glass, overlooking the family vineyards and framing a panorama from Mount Torrens to Mount Lofty. Rising above the vineyard, the cellar door is the ultimate in sophistication. This is home to one of South Australia’s most celebrated regional restaurants. Take your time over lunch, but be sure to book six weeks in advance during summer. Wine is king here and every dish is designed to emphasise the structure of the wines. A mantra to seek local ingredients has broadened as the restaurant has matured and the style of cuisine has expanded, into a philosophy to source the very best ingredients from everywhere. Every wine from The Lane is available, including many back vintages from the past decade, supplemented with a concise and masterfully selected range from the great estates of France.
The freeway will have you back in Stirling in no time, but take the scenic route via Mount Barker Road. Grill Restaurant at the Stirling Hotel (52 Mount Barker Rd, Stirling, 08 8339 2345) showcases the best presented, most comprehensive and expertly assembled wine list in the Hills, plundering the finest that the region has to offer as well as highlights from across Australia, New Zealand and Europe, all reasonably priced. Take the chance to discover Arrivo, Riposte and Mike Press Wines here. Young and dynamic sommelier and restaurant manager Andrew Marshall knows the Adelaide Hills and its wines intimately and enjoys good relationships with its key winemakers. His restaurant is the place for a cosy dinner, in its dimly lit, cavernous space with an air of magnificence.
Follow Jones Road back to Shaw & Smith, then pull into the next driveway on the right to discover Nepenthe (Jones Rd, Balhannah, 08 8398 8899). A long and grand driveway beckons you toward a modern cellar door with breathtaking views over the vines. Along with Shaw & Smith and Petaluma, Nepenthe is one of the biggest players based in the Hills, sourcing fruit from Hahndorf, Charleston, Lenswood and its cellar-door vineyard. The range encompasses a value-for-money selection of all of the Adelaide Hills specialties. A cellar door-only Winemaker’s Selection is a highlight, but the flagship Pinnacle range of Petraea Sauvignon Blanc, The Good Doctor Pinot Noir and Gate Block Shiraz are the most character-laden wines – and priced no higher than mid-tier offerings of many other estates.
The 20-minute drive to Longview (Pound Rd, Macclesfield, 08 8388 9694) is an idyllic journey. Head back through Hahndorf, then south along Echunga Road. Take Strathalbyn Road out of Echunga, through Flaxley and on to Macclesfield, then right on Pound Road. On the outer rim of the Adelaide Hills, just one gully from the boundary of the Fleurieu Peninsula, this substantial and well-kept vineyard has expansive views all the way to Lake Alexandrina and the Coorong. Peter and Mark Saturno are the young and dynamic duo behind this progressive estate, and one or the other is always around, so be sure to say hello. Thirteen different varieties thrive here, taking full advantage of the warmth of the site and its gently (and at times dramatically) sloping hills. You can taste them in a rustic and characterful cellar door in a 1923 homestead. There’s value among the entry-level wines, and The Queenie Adelaide Hills Pinot Grigio is a particularly textural highlight, while the Reserve Nebbiolo is one of the standouts of the variety in the Hills.
Plan your visit on a Sunday because the Saturnos always turn on a popular tapas lunch featuring a four-course menu based around local ingredients. The original hay shed has been tastefully extended to accommodate up to 150, in a lovely vista surrounded by vineyards overlooking the lake.
If you’re here on another day of the week, pop back to Hahndorf for lunch at The Mustard Seed (17 Mount Barker Rd, Hahndorf, 08 8388 1877). With tables arranged throughout the rooms of a historic sandstone home, a stylishly minimalist refurbishment provides a dignified atmosphere. Indian and Asian cuisine is the theme, the chef is from Goa in India, and the Goan Fish Kalia (butter fish) is a highlight, as is the Mustard Seed Curry of free-range, slow-cooked goat. The wine list is keenly priced and spans a little of everything from everywhere.
From Longview, follow Macclesfield Road to Meadows, then Mawson Road and Brookman Road south to Kuitpo, turning right on Tynan Road to K1 by Geoff Hardy (Tynan Rd, Kuitpo, 08 8388 3700). A magnificent driveway plummets toward the lake, capturing reflections of the cellar door and function centre. Geoff Hardy is a sixth-generation descendent of Thomas Hardy, who established the famous Hardys estate in McLaren Vale in 1870. You’re just a 13-minute drive from McLaren Vale here, but at 300 metres above sea level the property produces textural wines of fine-boned structure and vibrant acidity. Planted 25 years ago, immaculately manicured vines have supplied chardonnay to Penfolds Yattarna, semillon to Penfolds trial bins and sauvignon blanc to Shaw & Smith. Today, pinot noir is a star and eleven new varieties are under trial, with grüner veltliner from young vines already showing considerable promise.
Take your time winding your way back to Stirling (about half an hour), then cross the freeway to Crafers and follow Mount Lofty Summit Road to Mount Lofty House (74 Mount Lofty Summit Rd, Crafers, 08 8339 6777) for dinner. There are two restaurants here, Hardys in intimate, historic surrounds upstairs and the larger Piccadilly taking full advantage of the dazzling vista across the valley. Both offer the same seasonal menu, focusing on produce direct from local farmers and a newly established organic kitchen garden on the property. Hahndorf venison, Harris smokehouse meats, Beerenberg berries, Woodside cheese and local mushrooms are all showcased with a philosophy of light handling in the kitchen. A small wine list showcases some heroes and smaller bout-iques of the Adelaide Hills, alongside a few highlights from around Australia, France and Italy.
You’ll need a map to get to Deviation Road (214 Scott Rd, Longwood, 08 8339 2633) as your GPS will likely lead you to the wrong end of this (long and windy) road. Take Avenue Road and Longview Road out of Stirling, then turn right onto Scott Creek Road and you won’t miss it. This fast ascending little estate is privileged first for its 29-year-old Lenswood vineyard and second for the delicate touch of Hamish and Kate Laurie. Learning her winemaking skills in Champagne equipped Kate to craft sparkling wines of restraint and texture. While still young, they promise to find a place among the most distinguished sparkling wines in the Hills. White wines are likewise elegant and pristine and you can taste them all any day of the week at the recently opened contemporary cellar door overlooking a young vineyard at Longwood.
Double back to Stirling and follow Mount Barker Road to Bridgwater. Petaluma Bridgewater Mill (Mount Barker Rd, Bridgewater, 08 8339 9200) is the most famous restaurant in the region, housed in one of the most characterful buildings in the Hills, and home to some of its most revered wines. The waters of change are flowing through the waterwheel of this grand 1860 flour mill as winemaker Andrew Hardy champions a lighter touch in the winery, pursuing fruit purity and the definition and focus of place ahead of the stamp of oak and winemaking artefact. The result is the best sparkling wines in the Hills, a late disgorged that ranks among the finest in the state and some of the region’s top chardonnay, shiraz and viognier. Talented young chef Zac Ronayne is following a similar direction in the kitchen, with a focus on the delicate flavours of local ingredients, including some from his own cottage garden, instead of rich reductions. Long regarded as one of South Australia’s top regional restaurants, Bridgewater Mill’s newly refined focus cements its reputation. Don’t miss plump, caramelised scallops, flavoursome roasted quail and prosciutto sausages, textural gnocchi and stunningly succulent, crispy skinned duck, matched to a list of Petaluma wines including a good selection of back vintages and a few Euro stars.
After the sophistication of lunch, a more relaxed dinner is in order at The Haus @ Hahndorf. This large and popular bar and restaurant confidently walks the line between fine dining and casual family-style bistro. An extensive menu spans modern Australian, Asian fusion, Italian, a showpiece selection of steaks, German specialties, and pizzas famous throughout the hills, made from fresh, often local ingredients. If you can possibly fit it in, the soufflé is the must-have dessert. David LeMire MW has a hand in the wine list, and his expertise shows in a range of well-priced local wines, supplemented with interesting offerings from everywhere. Look for the wines of Mike Press, Fox Gordon, La Línea, Riposte, SC Pannell and Geoff Weaver.
After experiencing the warm hospitality of the Adelaide Hills it’s impossible not to notice that this sometimes forgotten destination has truly come of age. You’ll be back in no time.
WORDS TYSON STELZER PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF K1 BY GEOFF HARDY
This article is from the October/November 2012 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.