This compact wine region in South Australia punches well above its weight when it comes to quality wines - and the food and scenery are rather fine too
A taste of things to come
When the first sauvignon of the day tasted of toothpaste it occurred to me that maybe 10.20 am was a bit early for wine tasting. However, time was short with much to fit in. There are over 70 cellar doors in the McLaren Vale and Australia has a great policy of not charging for wine tastings. Admittedly, after the first rush of enthusiasm, one learns to concentrate on what one likes best: in my case red wines which are fortunately a feature of this region, particularly shiraz.
The McLaren Vale is 40 km south of Adelaide, in a scenic valley which is part of the Fleurie Peninsula. The first grapes were planted in 1838 and the different soils, combined with the maritime climate and sunshine, soon proved to be a winning combination. It is what makes it such a great destination today: not only can one enjoy the local gastronomy, but this pretty peninsula also has great walks, wildlife and beaches.
Here are my favourite vineyards and restaurants which represent, I believe, the best of the region. It will certainly give you somewhere to start: the rest is up to you!
Fox Creek: Their award-winning reserve shiraz and cabernets ($70) are powerful wines that cellar well but also try their sparkling shiraz: ‘The Vixen’, in a chic black bottle ($22). (Malpas Road, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8556 2403; www.foxcreekwines.com)
Pirramimma: Dating back to 1892 and still within the same family. An old whitewashed barn houses the tasting room. They have some excellent reds under their Katunga and White Label range: an iconic petit verdot ($25) being my favourite. (Johnston Road, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8323 8205; www.pirramimma.com.au)
Pertaringa: A sparklingly modern tasting room and chatty informative staff make this a great cellar door. Their reds are not as big bodied and demanding as some, but are still packed with flavour, well rounded and perfect to drink now. Try the Two Gentlemen’s Grenache 2008 ($26), the Rifle and Hunt cabernet 2007 ($35) and the Over the Top shiraz 2008 ($39). (Cnr Hunt & Rifle Range Roads, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8323 8125; www.pertaringa.com.au).
Samuel’s Gorge: You might be bowled over by the huge labradoodle here but the delicious big wines will have a similar effect. In a lovely old barn with an ancient olive press in the middle, it has great views over Onkaparinga Gorge: you could take a walk here en route. (Cnr Chapel Hill & Chaffeys Roads, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8323 8651; www.gorge.com.au).
Hugh Hamilton: Hugh is the ‘black sheep’ of the family so there are sheep involved. The fabulous circular tasting room with wraparound glass walls sits on a mound above the vines. They do a pleasant unoaked chardonnay ($18.50) and some tasty reds: try The Rascal shiraz ($24.50) and The Villain cabernet ($24.50). (McMurtrie Road, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8323 8689; www.hughhamiltonwines.com.au)
Coriole: This vineyard has fabulous gardens and a friendly tasting area in an old building. They produce some interesting wines made from Italian grape varieties that are relatively rare in Australia: a crisp white Fiano ($28), a great sangiovese ($25) and a hearty Brunello in good years. Their olive oil and seasonal platters are excellent. (Chaffeys Road, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8323 8305; www.coriole.com)
D’Arenberg: If you like going through the entire tasting menu, then you had better allow a bit of time for this one: they have some 38 wines. There are everyday drinking wines but also the superb Dead Arm shiraz and Coppermine Road cabernet ($60), both available for tasting. (Osborn Road, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8329 4822; www.darenberg.com.au).
Wirra Wirra (McMurtrie Road, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8323 8414; www.wirrawirra.com.au) has perfectly good wines, but I like their ‘big fence’. Drive past: you will see what I mean!
The Salopian Inn (Cnr McMurtrie & Main Roads, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8323 8769; www.salopianinn.com) is a simple 1851 sandstone building with slate flagged floors, white walls, an open fire and delicious food: I had a good garfish soufflé (starters $18). The pink duck breast with roasted quince was tasty (mains $32).
D’Arry’s Verandah (d’Arenberg vineyard, Osborn Road, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8329 4848 www.darrysverandah.com.au) is justly recognized as one of the best local restaurants with great views: the sophisticated menu has starters for $18-24, mains for $30-36 and a squidgy chocolate pudding for $16.
The Victory Hotel (Main South Road, Sellicks Beach; +61 8 8556 3083; www.victoryhotel.com.au) serves Coopers beer, has a great wine cellar for a pub and turns out the ubiquitous fish & chips and local Coorong steaks at a cut above the average in a fabulous coastal location.
The Alma Hotel (11 Hill Street, Willunga; +61 8 8556 2027; www.almahotel.com.au) is a good old unpretentious Aussie local but it produces great value meals in an informal setting. Fish and chips were fresh and crunchy and included a salad bar in the $12.90 price.
If you are in Willunga at the weekend, Russell’s (13 High Street, Willunga; +61 8 8556 2571) is famous for its wood fired thin crust pizza served in a pleasantly chaotic rustic setting.
Blessed Cheese (150 Main Street, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8323 7958; www.blessedcheese.com.au)
is a pleasant spot for coffee and cake, though you can have lunch too.
Market 190 (190 Main Road, McLaren Vale; +61 8 8323 8558; www.market190.com.au) is a long-time local favourite with nice terrace and garden. It has one of the best breakfasts in the Vale - eggs Benedict $15 - and good lunches: try the salt and pepper squid for $19.50.
Minko wines and providore (13 High Street,Willunga; +61 8 8556 4987; www.minkowines.com) This pretty shop is a great source of local gourmet produce and Andy’s freshly made local bread if you hit the right day early enough.
Willunga’s Farmer’s market (www.willungafarmersmarket.com) on Saturday mornings in the town square sells local produce from breads, jams and chutneys to venison and vegetables; get your breakfast pastries here.
Where to stay
Willunga House (1 Peter’s Terrace, Willunga, SA 5172) is a beautiful heritage house with a big veranda, slate floors and simple but comfortable rooms from $210-230/double B & B; ask for the ones to the front of the house for more space and ensuite bathrooms. There is a nice drawing room and good breakfasts.
Black Rabbit Cottage (Elliott Road, McLaren Flat, SA 5171). A good alternative for the longer stay as you have the self catering option: this is a lovely old 1860’s restored cottage of warm stone with three comfortably furnished bedrooms. There are big fires, a spacious kitchen and excellent deals for couples from $170 midweek - $200 at the weekend. It has a nice location in the McLaren foothills with vineyards all around.
Memories in a glass
This had been my 3rd visit to the McLaren Vale and many of the above are old favourites that have stood the test of time. I am happy to know that all bar Samuel’s Gorge have suppliers in England: there is nothing nicer than being able to drink wine at home whose cellar door you have visited and whose wines you have discovered for yourself. Of course, the restaurants are not so easily transposed - a return visit is the only answer.