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Paul Carmichael's great cake

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South Australian star

Heritage and history are one face of the Barossa Valley. But there’s also a renewed focus, says Max Allen, as one of our oldest wine regions sets a steady course for a bright future.

Behind the thick stone walls of the 162-year-old Seppeltsfield winery in the Barossa there's a barrel of tawny port made in your birth year. And mine. And your mum's. Look, see, here's the date, on the whitewashed head of each barrel. When were you born? 1968? 1948? 1928? No matter: a tawny as old as you are is there. What's more, you can visit and taste this birth-year wine for yourself.

The Seppeltsfield winemakers started laying down barrels of tawny each vintage back in 1878, and every single year since they have continued the tradition. The result - a collection of tawnys, all still in barrel, from every one of the past 135 vintages - is believed to be unique in the wine world.

Until recently, the only way you could experience this extraordinary legacy was to buy a bottle of the famous 100-Year-Old Para Vintage Tawny when it was released annually for the rather eye-watering price tag of $990 a half-bottle. But in 2011, Seppeltsfield introduced tastings of the unique collection of old wines - including the one from your birth year - and heritage tours of the property. The cellar door is currently undergoing a major facelift - the first structural change to the heritage-listed buildings in more than 50 years. Acclaimed architect Max Pritchard, best known for his work on Kangaroo Island's Southern Ocean Lodge, is busy working on the project that will reinstate some of the original 19th-century design elements. When it's finished, hopefully by the end of this year, it will house a Barossa outpost of the McLaren Vale restaurant Fino, a regular one-star awardee in Gourmet Traveller's annual restaurant guide.

"People are drawn here by the history," says winemaker Fiona Donald as we walk past the rows of gnarly ancient grenache vines surrounding the winery. "There's definitely a presence: the ghosts of the winemakers who have worked here in the past. We all feel it during vintage. In a good way."

Seppeltsfield isn't the only one in the Barossa beginning to attach extra value to its heritage. The past two years have seen a number of new, high-end tourism-focused developments appear in the region: start-up businesses such as the lavishly restored Kingsford Homestead and extensions of existing businesses like the impressive new restaurant at Hentley Farm vineyard.

And the trend looks set to continue. In January, high-profile outspoken Torbreck winemaker David Powell announced his purchase of the 500-hectare Lindsay Park racehorse stud (the home of the Hayes family's racing and breeding empire for nearly half a century) and the neighbouring Old Tarrawarra property on the outskirts of Angaston. He plans to turn the property into "an iconic ecotourism destination", comprising a mixed farm, endangered wildlife sanctuary and exclusive accommodation in the renovated historic buildings.

Heritage has long been an integral part of the Barossa story, and a major attraction for the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the South Australian valley each year. Walk through the old wineries such as Yalumba (established 1849) and history hangs as heavy in the air as the smell of fermenting grapes; even some of the newer places, such as Rockford (established 1984), have been built to look as though they've been there forever.

Many of the region's best B&Bs, including the wonderful Seppeltsfield Vineyard Cottage, are housed in sensitively renovated 19th-century buildings. And you simply can't avoid the history of the place as you drive around it: the abundance of glorious sandstone buildings; the Lutheran, Barossadeutsch family names and place names; the ancient vineyards; the tumbledown slab huts. Indeed, over the years, some of this relentless heritage emphasis has perhaps become a little kitsch.

The more recent developments are different. Some are taking heritage upmarket, targeting people who appreciate - and are prepared to pay extra for - an exclusive immersion in Australia's historic food and wine culture. And some are going the other way, moving back beyond the kitsch to pick up more honest and authentic threads and weave a down-to-earth experience reminiscent of how the early Barossans really lived.

Henschke is one of the region's oldest and best-known wineries. The small cellar door has been a magnet for wine-lovers for years. But now, rather than just glimpsing vintage activity as you're walking back to the car park with your purchases, or glancing at the Hill of Grace vines as you drive past, you can book in to a guided tour of the winery, a walk among the revered vines (gaining access to areas previously reserved for winemakers and wine writers) and a tasting of the top wines in an atmospheric private room under the main cellar door.

"When I was a child I remember sorting eggs and churning butter down here," says fifth-generation winemaker Stephen Henschke as we duck our heads under the doorframe and enter the room. Old bottles and family photos line windowsills and walls. You feel that you are walking into history, which heightens the experience of the wine in your glass.

"Since we set this tour and tasting up, it has gone well for us," says Henschke. "We've found that people really want that extra level of wine experience." This echoed something that Seppeltsfield tourism and events manager Nicole Hodgson had told me earlier.

"We did some research into why people come here," she said. "And what we found is the number one reason for them visiting was to feel history up close, to experience hands-on learning. With the Centennial Collection, what they want is what we've got."

Tourism research (and general common sense) has also shown that another major priority for visitors to a rural region like the Barossa is tranquillity. And Kingsford Homestead has peace and quiet in abundance.

As soon as you turn off the Sturt Highway and onto the long, meandering driveway leading to the property, the 21st century is left behind. Traffic noise quickly recedes and a single, distant, spindly powerline wiring across the cow-dotted paddocks is the only sign of modernity. You turn a wide bend in the rolling landscape and there it is: a solid Georgian-style 1850s homestead (complete with turreted porch), surrounded by tall gums, landscaped gardens and a scattering of outbuildings in various stages of repair.

The homestead has had many owners, from the pioneering Angas family to the South Australian agriculture department to Channel 9, who used the property as a base for long-running TV show McLeod's Daughters. Local fourth-generation businessman Stef Ahrens bought the property in 2009, initially intending to run it as a corporate getaway for his company's employees and clients. But he and his wife, Leanne, soon became passionate about its potential for unique luxury accommodation, as a place for people looking for the best food and wine the Barossa has to offer. And, after extensive renovations that converted the existing house into seven sumptuous suites, Kingsford opened its doors to the public in July 2012.

Over dinner in the old, slate-lined cellar under the house, Ahrens explains what Kingsford means to him and Leanne. "This place is a part of us," he says. "We grew up here in the Barossa, knowing about all the stories, the history of places like Kingsford. We'd ride our bikes through the property when we were kids and come to 21sts here in the shearing sheds. We're friends with many of the local winemakers. And now we want to share what we feel about our region with other people."

Dinner tonight has been cooked by highly regarded chef Stuart Oldfield, with a strong emphasis on Barossa ingredients: heirloom beetroot paired with local goat's cheese; confit of Waechter duck; daube of beef cheek with swede. It's hearty, comfortingly old-fashioned, satisfying food. "It's a simple philosophy," says chef Oldfield. "In keeping with the setting, I'm asking how people would have cooked 50 or 100 years ago and using those techniques - slow-cooking, curing, pickling - as a starting point."

While Kingsford has a certain grandeur about it - it's perfectly suited to important family get-togethers, the kind where you feel like dressing for dinner - there's also a lively sense of fun. Hosts Pat and Sally Kent are enthusiastic, friendly and happy to cater to guests' needs.

"If people just want privacy, that's great," Pat Kent says. "They can immerse themselves in the property by taking an open-air, riverside bath with a glass of something lovely. Or, if they want to let their hair down and visit some local wineries, then we can tailor bespoke events by just making a couple of calls."

Ahrens pours a glass of lemon-yellow sémillon, made by a good friend of his, David Franz, son of winemaker and Barossa legend Peter Lehmann. "This is what it's about," he says. "Dave's a mad bugger. No cellar door, but he does tastings if we phone and ask.

A bit of wood across a couple of upturned barrels is the tasting counter. Maybe some quail on the barbecue. And if you're lucky, you might turn up and it'll be salami day: lots of laughing, swearing and pig guts. That's the kind of real Barossa experience that's not easy to find, but is exactly what we'll be offering."

Franz is one of a growing number of small producers in the Barossa who are not only recognising the value of old vines and the region's precious wine heritage, but also going back to the basic garden mentality of the Barossa smallholding. Unfortunately for visitors, though, most of these new winemakers do not have cellar doors or the ability to host visitors. Tom Shobbrook, for example, who produces stunning wines under his family's eponymous label and lives very much as the early Barossa settlers would have done - growing, fermenting and bottling his own wine; hunting wild game; making excellent smallgoods (prosciutto and salami hang among the barrels in the gloom of the cellar) - only opens his cellar four times a year.

Wayne Ahrens and Suzi Hilder of Smallfry Wines have a cellar door - which is also their home - in an 1880s former bank building in the main street of Angaston. In 2007, Wayne bought a vineyard in Vine Vale, on the Barossa floor, from an old grower called Ken Schlieb. The vineyard is fantastically old-fashioned: fruit trees interplanted with vines; 120-year-old carignan and cinsault grape varieties are grown along the fence line; wooden fruit-drying racks are still used to dry the prune plums each year; and an old cottage nestles behind a thicket of trees in the middle of the property. Five years ago, Wayne and Suzi converted to biodynamics.

"We like to take people through our wines slowly, sitting around the table in the cellar door," says Wayne. "And if they're interested, we'll take them down to the old Schlieb block, and show them the gnarly ancient vines; maybe even get 'em to do a bit of pruning if it's the right time of year."

At Hentley Farm, just around the corner from Seppeltsfield and across the creek from Tom Shobbrook, the cellar door is located inside an old cottage.

"It's amazing how many people visit us whose families have lived or worked in this cottage over the years," says winemaker Andrew Quin as we walk through the cellar-door tasting area into a low-ceilinged back room. "It was built in the 1840s and has been used for all sorts of different purposes."

The room we're in, a lounge area for members of Hentley Farm's wine club, has only been gently renovated: original plaster is covered with chalk tally marks from when this was a shearer's shed; an ancient hand-stitched child's boot, rescued from the ceiling, sits on the mantle over the old fireplace; and deep leather armchairs entice the afternoon sipper.

Across the car park outside, Hentley Farm's old, long stables building has been converted into an ambitious restaurant that opened to rave reviews in May 2012. Barossa-born chef Lachlan Colwill moved here from The Manse in Adelaide, and offers two dégustation menus - common in the city but almost unheard of in this region.

I try the "discovery menu" of eight small courses. It includes some absolutely revelatory flavour and texture combinations. The lamb sweetbreads crumbed in crushed rice bubbles and served with Korean barbecue sauce, local Red Delicious apple and Jerusalem artichoke is sweet and umami-rich, fresh and earthy all at once. Creamy broccoli purée in Taiwanese soy sauce and black pepper-laced red cabbage juice sounds, well, a bit weird, but is outstandingly deep-tasting and one of the best vegetarian dishes I've had. And kumara and ginger ice-cream with plump mandarin segments, caramel and carob is the kind of dessert you eat far too quickly and then immediately wish you had more.

True, none of this sounds like it really fits in with the Barossa's gastronomic heritage. But each dish has been matched superbly with Barossa wines: that broccoli and red cabbage dish, for example, is utterly sublime with the spicy, meaty 2010 Hentley Farm Grenache. Andrew Quin and Lachlan Colwill clearly spend a great deal of time on the pairings, making sure they get things just right.

Tempranillo isn't exactly a traditional Barossa grape variety, either. But the red wines produced from this Spanish grape by Wendy Allan and Tony Brooks from their Pindarie vineyard in western Barossa prove it's clearly very much at home in the region.

The setting for the Pindarie vines couldn't be any more traditional Barossa: the two-year-old cellar door is in a converted 1850s grain store surrounded by sweeping hillsides, old olive trees and a huge peppercorn tree. There's even an original old well on the property, 60-metres deep, lined with brickwork that Tony restored.

Pindarie has been in Tony Brooks's family since 1957; he took it over in 1990 and has painstakingly restored it to its former glory himself, bit by bit, all by hand.

As well as running the cellar door daily, every year Tony and Wendy open the old stables next door and set up a rudimentary bar over the original long manger for the Barossa Gourmet Weekend. It's in here, as we walk over the original slate cobblestones, that Tony sums up what's so alluring about the Barossa's heritage.

"I'm just passionate about old things," he says, looking as if for the first time at the fine brickwork of the stable windows. "They built for good back then. There's so much detail and pride. Some call this passion for history 'backward'. But I think people these days want 'backward'."

Franz is one of a growing number of small producers in the Barossa who are not only recognising the value of old vines and the region's precious wine heritage, but also going back to the basic garden mentality of the Barossa smallholding. Unfortunately for visitors, though, most of these new winemakers do not have cellar doors or the ability to host visitors. Tom Shobbrook, for example, who produces stunning wines under his family's eponymous label and lives very much as the early Barossa settlers would have done - growing, fermenting and bottling his own wine; hunting wild game; making excellent smallgoods (prosciutto and salami hang among the barrels in the gloom of the cellar) - only opens his cellar four times a year.

Wayne Ahrens and Suzi Hilder of Smallfry Wines have a cellar door - which is also their home - in an 1880s former bank building in the main street of Angaston. In 2007, Wayne bought a vineyard in Vine Vale, on the Barossa floor, from an old grower called Ken Schlieb. The vineyard is fantastically old-fashioned: fruit trees interplanted with vines; 120-year-old carignan and cinsault grape varieties are grown along the fence line; wooden fruit-drying racks are still used to dry the prune plums each year; and an old cottage nestles behind a thicket of trees in the middle of the property. Five years ago, Wayne and Suzi converted to biodynamics.

"We like to take people through our wines slowly, sitting around the table in the cellar door," says Wayne. "And if they're interested, we'll take them down to the old Schlieb block, and show them the gnarly ancient vines; maybe even get 'em to do a bit of pruning if it's the right time of year."

At Hentley Farm, just around the corner from Seppeltsfield and across the creek from Tom Shobbrook, the cellar door is located inside an old cottage.

"It's amazing how many people visit us whose families have lived or worked in this cottage over the years," says winemaker Andrew Quin as we walk through the cellar-door tasting area into a low-ceilinged back room. "It was built in the 1840s and has been used for all sorts of different purposes."

The room we're in, a lounge area for members of Hentley Farm's wine club, has only been gently renovated: original plaster is covered with chalk tally marks from when this was a shearer's shed; an ancient hand-stitched child's boot, rescued from the ceiling, sits on the mantle over the old fireplace; and deep leather armchairs entice the afternoon sipper.

Across the car park outside, Hentley Farm's old, long stables building has been converted into an ambitious restaurant that opened to rave reviews in May 2012. Barossa-born chef Lachlan Colwill moved here from The Manse in Adelaide, and offers two dégustation menus - common in the city but almost unheard of in this region.

I try the "discovery menu" of eight small courses. It includes some absolutely revelatory flavour and texture combinations. The lamb sweetbreads crumbed in crushed rice bubbles and served with Korean barbecue sauce, local Red Delicious apple and Jerusalem artichoke is sweet and umami-rich, fresh and earthy all at once. Creamy broccoli purée in Taiwanese soy sauce and black pepper-laced red cabbage juice sounds, well, a bit weird, but is outstandingly deep-tasting and one of the best vegetarian dishes I've had. And kumara and ginger ice-cream with plump mandarin segments, caramel and carob is the kind of dessert you eat far too quickly and then immediately wish you had more.

True, none of this sounds like it really fits in with the Barossa's gastronomic heritage. But each dish has been matched superbly with Barossa wines: that broccoli and red cabbage dish, for example, is utterly sublime with the spicy, meaty 2010 Hentley Farm Grenache. Andrew Quin and Lachlan Colwill clearly spend a great deal of time on the pairings, making sure they get things just right.

Tempranillo isn't exactly a traditional Barossa grape variety, either. But the red wines produced from this Spanish grape by Wendy Allan and Tony Brooks from their Pindarie vineyard in western Barossa prove it's clearly very much at home in the region.

The setting for the Pindarie vines couldn't be any more traditional Barossa: the two-year-old cellar door is in a converted 1850s grain store surrounded by sweeping hillsides, old olive trees and a huge peppercorn tree. There's even an original old well on the property, 60-metres deep, lined with brickwork that Tony restored.

Pindarie has been in Tony Brooks's family since 1957; he took it over in 1990 and has painstakingly restored it to its former glory himself, bit by bit, all by hand.

As well as running the cellar door daily, every year Tony and Wendy open the old stables next door and set up a rudimentary bar over the original long manger for the Barossa Gourmet Weekend. It's in here, as we walk over the original slate cobblestones, that Tony sums up what's so alluring about the Barossa's heritage.

"I'm just passionate about old things," he says, looking as if for the first time at the fine brickwork of the stable windows. "They built for good back then. There's so much detail and pride. Some call this passion for history 'backward'. But I think people these days want 'backward'."


THE FINE PRINT

GETTING THERE
The Barossa is a good one-hour drive north from the centre of Adelaide. Adelaide airport is serviced by all major domestic airlines and car-hire companies. There are also umpteen tour operators - such as the affable, knowledgeable Werner Gattermayr from Barossa Experience Tours - who will pick you up in Adelaide and drive you around the Barossa region.

TASTE & DRINK
David Franz
This winery is not normally open to the public, but it's worth phoning to see if you can make an appointment. You never know your luck: it might be salami-making day. Lot 43, Stelzer Rd, Tanunda, (08) 88563 0705

Henschke
The VIP Tour and Tasting ($220; two hours): 10am and 2pm Thursdays and Fridays; and 10am on Saturdays and public holidays. Henschke Rd, Keyneton, (08) 8564 8223

Seppeltsfield
The Daily Heritage Tour ($15; 45 minutes) is at 11.30am and 3.30pm. The Centenary Tour ($85; one hour; bookings required) includes sips of your birth-year and 100-year-old Para tawnys as well as the outstanding range of Paramount fortified wines. Seppeltsfield Rd, Seppeltsfield, (08) 8568 6217

Shobbrook Wines
Tom Shobbrook is open for four seasonal tasting days a year. The tasting days are free but limited to 12 guests, so call or email to make a booking. Jenke Rd, Seppeltsfield, (08) 0438 369 654

Smallfry Wines
Wayne Ahrens and Suzi Hilder usually open their cellar door on Saturday afternoons - after the famous farmers' market in Angaston, just down the road - and at other times by appointment. Make a booking through their website. 13 Murray St, Angaston, (08) 8564 2182

EAT (&DRINK)
Hentley Farm
The restaurant is open for lunch from Thursday to Sunday and for dinner on Saturday. The eight-course discovery menu is $155 ($210 with paired wines); the four-course menu du jour is $80 ($115 with paired wines). The cellar door is open every day from 11am to 5pm. Cnr Gerald Roberts & Jenke rds, Seppeltsfield, (08) 8562 8427

Pindarie
Hearty Barossa food is offered - $22 chunky pies; $16 pizzas; $35 grazing platters. Weekend lunch bookings are recommended, as it's a popular spot. Open 11am-4pm on weekdays; 11am-5pm on weekends and public holidays. 946 Rosedale Rd, Gomersal, (08) 8524 9019

STAY
Kingsford Homestead
The seven suites at Kingsford are each named after ex-owners, such as the John Angas Suite and Kerry Packer Suite. Suites from $660 per night; entire house $6000 per night (sleeps 14). Kingsford Rd, Kingsford, (08) 8524 8120

Seppeltsfield Vineyard Cottage
Sharyn Rogers and Peter Milhinch have done a magnificent job of renovating this 19th-century cottage, combining original features with discreet touches of modernity. The cottage sleeps two. Cottage from $490 per night. 27 Gerald Roberts Rd, Seppeltsfield, (08) 8563 4059

FURTHER INFORMATION
There are three very useful websites that give you lots of information on the region: barossa.com; barossadirt.com; barossahq.com.

THE FINE PRINT

GETTING THERE
The Barossa is a good one-hour drive north from the centre of Adelaide. Adelaide airport is serviced by all major domestic airlines and car-hire companies. There are also umpteen tour operators - such as the affable, knowledgeable Werner Gattermayr from Barossa Experience Tours - who will pick you up in Adelaide and drive you around the Barossa region.

TASTE & DRINK
David Franz
This winery is not normally open to the public, but it's worth phoning to see if you can make an appointment. You never know your luck: it might be salami-making day. Lot 43, Stelzer Rd, Tanunda, (08) 88563 0705

Henschke
The VIP Tour and Tasting ($220; two hours): 10am and 2pm Thursdays and Fridays; and 10am on Saturdays and public holidays. Henschke Rd, Keyneton, (08) 8564 8223

Seppeltsfield
The Daily Heritage Tour ($15; 45 minutes) is at 11.30am and 3.30pm. The Centenary Tour ($85; one hour; bookings required) includes sips of your birth-year and 100-year-old Para tawnys as well as the outstanding range of Paramount fortified wines. Seppeltsfield Rd, Seppeltsfield, (08) 8568 6217

Shobbrook Wines
Tom Shobbrook is open for four seasonal tasting days a year. The tasting days are free but limited to 12 guests, so call or email to make a booking. Jenke Rd, Seppeltsfield, (08) 0438 369 654

Smallfry Wines
Wayne Ahrens and Suzi Hilder usually open their cellar door on Saturday afternoons - after the famous farmers' market in Angaston, just down the road - and at other times by appointment. Make a booking through their website. 13 Murray St, Angaston, (08) 8564 2182

EAT (&DRINK)
Hentley Farm
The restaurant is open for lunch from Thursday to Sunday and for dinner on Saturday. The eight-course discovery menu is $155 ($210 with paired wines); the four-course menu du jour is $80 ($115 with paired wines). The cellar door is open every day from 11am to 5pm. Cnr Gerald Roberts & Jenke rds, Seppeltsfield, (08) 8562 8427

Pindarie
Hearty Barossa food is offered - $22 chunky pies; $16 pizzas; $35 grazing platters. Weekend lunch bookings are recommended, as it's a popular spot. Open 11am-4pm on weekdays; 11am-5pm on weekends and public holidays. 946 Rosedale Rd, Gomersal, (08) 8524 9019

STAY
Kingsford Homestead
The seven suites at Kingsford are each named after ex-owners, such as the John Angas Suite and Kerry Packer Suite. Suites from $660 per night; entire house $6000 per night (sleeps 14). Kingsford Rd, Kingsford, (08) 8524 8120

Seppeltsfield Vineyard Cottage
Sharyn Rogers and Peter Milhinch have done a magnificent job of renovating this 19th-century cottage, combining original features with discreet touches of modernity. The cottage sleeps two. Cottage from $490 per night. 27 Gerald Roberts Rd, Seppeltsfield, (08) 8563 4059

FURTHER INFORMATION
There are three very useful websites that give you lots of information on the region: barossa.com; barossadirt.com; barossahq.com.

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