Kings of the Hills

Winemakers in the Adelaide Hills, an unsung pocket of South Australia, are crafting high-quality, cool-climate wines.



Winemakers in the Adelaide Hills, an unsung pocket of South Australia, are crafting high-quality, cool-climate wines.

12 Top Adelaide Hills Wines
91 Nepenthe 2001 The Fugue Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (Adelaide Hills); $20. Winemaker Peter Leske's 70-30 Cab-Merlot has good spine, with black cherry and red plum fruit at the fore. A classy, fly-under-the-radar-but-impress-the-heck-outta-you wine. Editors' Choice.

90 Longview 2003 Yakka Shiraz-Viognier (Adelaide Hills); $19. Many will appreciate this restrained, pretty Shiraz; it is a food-friendly style and size, showing chalky-smooth tannins and flavors of cola and blackberry.

90 Paracombe 2001 Somerville Shiraz (Adelaide Hills); $80. A Shiraz with a Type A personality: big on the nose, with enthusiastic, forward flavors on the palate. Up front, it smells like marzipan, toast, raspberry and blackberry, and similar notes ring true in the mouth. Finishes pretty long, with a biscuit or cracker-like flavor.

90 Petaluma 2001 Chardonnay (Piccadilly Valley); $28. This is an elegant, harmonious Chardonnay, with white stone fruit at the core, and hazelnuts, vanilla and talc flavors that accent rather than overwhelm the fruit. In the mouth it's round and pillowy; a hint of nut on the long finish is a satisfying close.

90 Shaw and Smith 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Adelaide Hills); $19. This Sauvignon is as crisp and zesty as the Marlborough Sauvignons that are so in vogue right now, minus the lime-green flavors. Fresh-cut grass aromas usher in a bright, lemon-centric palate. As dry as they come; very appealing, and very intense. Just delicious. Edtiors' Choice.

90 The Lane 2002 Gathering Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc (Adelaide Hills); $30. This new brand is the big brother of Starvedog Lane. This 80-20 Sauvignon-Semillon blend is zesty, with bright, interesting herb/grass, lime and white stone fruit flavors that come to a limey-chalky point on the finish. It's quite a fragrant wine as well, wtih pure peach, olive oil and citrus notes.

90 Yacca Paddock 2003 Shiraz-Tannat (Adelaide Hills); $65. This is an excellent red, and further evidence of the Hills' success with unusual grape varieties. Tannat (20%) gives this Shiraz more grip on the midpalate than most other regional Shirazes have. Good acids, plum and blackberry fruit, and black-pepper notes make this classy wine a winner.

89 Henschke 2004 Littlehampton Innes Vineyard Pinot Gris (Adelaide Hills); $30. Smells pretty and feminine—yellow peach, pencil eraser and floral notes. On the palate, it's delicate and elegant, not an intense wine, with yellow peach, honey and straw flavors. Feels dry and stony, yet smooth.

89 Pike & Joyce 2002 Lenswood Pinot Noir (Adelaide Hills); $27. Shows intense aromas of lifted cherry, tree bark and cola, and flavors of earth, tea, plum and cherry. It's quite a ride on the palate—enjoyable and tasty, but meant for near-term drinking.

88 Golding 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Adelaide Hills); $15. Aromas are of fresh green peas, and flavors are of grass and limes. Medium-weight and just tart enough; a textbook, very good Sauvignon.

88 Penfolds 2002 Cellar Reserve Pinot Noir (Adelaide Hills); $35. One of Penfolds' few Adelaide Hills-designated wines and the only one available in the States at the moment. This Pinot is very good, with lifted, tangy cherry and plum fruit at the fore, and admirable intensity and length.

88 Wolf Blass 2004 Gold Label Chardonnay (Adelaide Hills); $21. A buttoned up, classy wine offering peach and fresh corn aromas and flavors. Medium-weight, the palate also has floral hints.

For full reviews on these and other Adelaide Hills wines, see this month's Buying Guide, or click on winemag.com
Last year, the Wine Enthusiast tasting panel discovered through our feature on Australian Chardonnay that a little-known-to-us region, which is flanked by some of South Australia's most famous Geographical Indications (GIs), was making some of the best Chardonnay in the country. We reported on stellar offerings such as Petaluma's Piccadilly Valley bottling, and those of The Lane and Mak. What's so exciting about the Adelaide Hills, though, is that grape varieties that we don't normally associate with Australia (Tannat, Zinfandel and Tempranillo, anyone?) thrive here—and varieties that we've come to associate with the continent (that's you, Shiraz) taste much different than we expect them to.

Sauvignon Blanc is the Hills' other white star; it's typically clean and lean here, buttressed by crisp acids and a citrus spine. Shaw and Smith's is excellent (90 points, $19). Pinot Noir is the region's most successful red (Penfolds and Pike and Joyce are among the better offerings available in the U.S.), which isn't surprising, given that much of the region has a climate similar to that of Burgundy. The Adelaide Hills overall is a cool, oftentimes rainy, high-altitude zone, its lowest vineyard at about 400 meters in elevation.

Hills wines in general are crisp, have lively acidity, and are not as dense as those from neighboring Barossa and McLaren Vale. It's not unusual for reds to have lifted, piquant fruit qualities—think cherry and black cherry, rather than fat, ripe plums or blackberries—oftentimes run through with streaks of eucalyptus or earth. The area's white wines taste as though they're infused with the produce of the local orchards. And with fruit that tastes so good to begin with, excessive oaking isn't necessary. In other words, "We are the Aussie wine that you have if you don't like the quintessential Aussie wine," says Nepenthe winemaker Peter Leske.

One of the most curious things about this 45-mile-long area due east of Adelaie, in the southern Mount Lofty Ranges, is that most wine enthusiasts are hard-pressed to name more than a couple wineries in Adelaide Hills, yet it is a favored area from which big-name wineries from other GIs source quality fruit. Both the Chardonnay and Riesling in Wolf Blass' Gold Label series contain Adelaide Hills fruit. Penfolds makes an Adelaide Hills Cellar Reserve Pinot Noir; its flagship Chardonnay, Yattarna, sometimes bears the Hills GI. Clare Valley winemaker Jeff Grosset uses fruit from the Hills' Piccadilly Valley for his Chardonnay. Eden Valley-based Henschke Wines has vineyards in Lenswood, a subregion of Adelaide Hills, where they grow Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot. These wineries all have the pride in Hills fruit to credit the region's GI on the bottle, but sadly, they are exceptions to the norm. Petaluma senior winemaker Con Moshos estimates that about two-thirds of Adelaide Hills fruit goes into bottles that are not labeled "Adelaide Hills," a practice that winemaker Darren Golding thinks hurts the area in the long run.

"Putting 'Adelaide Hills' on the label would build loyalty for that label" and for the region, says Golding, whose family's vineyards are in Lenswood.

Though the history of grapegrowing here dates back to 1839, we can bookmark the modern age of viticulture here at 1976, when Brian Croser founded Petaluma Winery, still the region's most renowned producer. Over the next two decades, wineries like Paracombe, Chain of Ponds, Knappstein, Nepenthe, Starvedog Lane, Longview and Shaw and Smith followed. Folks started figuring out that Shiraz can thrive in the drier areas of the Hills, yielding peppery, Rhône-styled wines—Paracombe's Somerville Shiraz (90 points, $80) is excellent, but an exception to the style. Winemakers and critics alike complain that it is difficult to ripen Cabernet and Merlot here, but they can be successful given a warm vintage and good site selection. A case in point is Nepenthe's 2001 The Fugue Cabernet-Merlot (91 points, $20).

Thanks to Nepenthe, Hills watchers are also growing more accustomed to seeing surprising varieties in local wines; Nepenthe's red Tryst bottling is a blend of Cabernet, Zinfandel and Tempranillo. Leske calls their success with Zin "a totally illogical folly" because the variety demands the ripeness and low yields that successful Cabernet does. McLaren Vale winemaker Ben Riggs, who is making wine for the new Yacca Paddock label, says that it's "ridiculous that we have Tannat in Adelaide Hills" but that the tannic variety complements the Hills' lighter-bodied Shiraz very well. Yacca Paddock's Shiraz-Tannat is excellent, with weight and grip on the palate, thanks to the 20 percent Tannat (90 points, $65). The brand makes a Dolcetto (88 points, $42) as well.

As is every viticultural region's goal, Hills winemakers are aiming for the stars, but they do think that their region needs its champions to help bring it to the world stage. "If people like [Brian] Croser and Michael Hill Smith [of Shaw and Smith] would speak on behalf of the region publically," one winemaker said, "we might do better." Others think the region's success lies in whether consumers can get past the stereotypes that they have formed of Australian wines as big and overripe.

"The more we can do to help people form a picture of hand-crafted wines," says Leske, "made from…patchwork vineyards surrounded by dense stands of eucalyptus, rather than the sun-drenched vastness that I suspect most Americans see when they close their eyes and 'see' Australia, the better off we'll be."
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