Exploring South Australia's Back Roads

Barossa and McLaren vale get the lion's share of the accolades, but other parts of South Australia are producing world-class wines that are distinctly different.



As my plane skipped down the runway and pulled up outside the terminal at Adelaide Airport, I could see the heat shimmering like waves over the tarmac. It was November, and while back home in New York it was 43˚F, South Australia was already baking under an uncharacteristically early heatwave that sent the mercury soaring as high as 43˚C (nearly 110˚F). In my fall fleece and long pants, I was woefully overdressed—caught ill-prepared for what I discovered.

Wine lovers who’ve limited their Australian wine consumption to large multiregional blends or the big-name regions of Barossa and McLaren Vale are in for a similar shock. South Australia is the engine that drives the Australian wine industry, but it is also home to many of the small and medium-sized wineries that may prove to be the future of Australian wine, a more comfortable, personal approach with stronger ties to land and lifestyle. Outside of McLaren Vale and Barossa, the approach is more low key, the regions are more unique and the wines are more varied. Armchair travelers will see the differences reflected in the wines, while if you are lucky enough to visit, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for the diversity and vinous bounty of South Australia. 

Clare Valley
Located a scant two hours north of Adelaide, the Clare Valley is a wonderfully bucolic setting. Rolling hills define the landscape, with vineyards tucked into selected pockets. Think of it as Sonoma to Barossa’s Napa, rarely getting the praise it deserves on the international level, yet capable of offering a wider range of wine styles than its neighbor.

Clare’s biggest claims to fame are its Rieslings, which rival those of Barossa’s Eden Valley for honors as some of Australia’s best. “Clare Riesling is generous and fine, with a dry finish,” says Jeffrey Grosset, one of the region’s acknowledged leaders. Top examples combine vivid citrus fruit with crushed-stone minerality, aging gracefully to reveal honeyed richness alongside toast and marmalade complexity.

“The reason we can grow Riesling is the cool nights,” explains Kilikanoon winemaker Kevin Mitchell. Yet as the Kilikanoon range illustrates, Clare can do more than just Riesling. Cabernet Sauvignon does well in warm sites, as does Shiraz. Even Grenache can ripen in the warmest spots and when the vintage cooperates.

Taylor’s (sold under the Wakefield name in most overseas markets) was originally established as a Cabernet Sauvignon specialist in the 1960s, although it now produces a broad array of wines, widely available in the United States. The winery’s Saint Andrew Cabernet Sauvignon is only produced in top vintages and remains an excellent example of Australian Cabernet, marrying herbal, tobacco-like notes with dark chocolate and cassis.

Reilly’s is another Clare Valley name United States consumers will often see on the shelves. Its line of Barking Mad wines—made from young vines—offers a reliable introduction to the Clare Valley style at realistic prices, while the Dry Land Shiraz and Old Bushvine Grenache often excel. Visitors to the winery’s cellar door can even stay over at one of the property’s four bed-and-breakfast cottages.

Knappstein’s cellar door features another welcoming feature—its own microbrewery. In addition to the winery’s attractive Riesling, visitors can refresh their palates with samples of Enterprise Reserve Lager, a fitting tribute to both the 1878 brewery building that houses the cellar door and the current ownership (Kirin of Japan, via Lion Nathan). 

Constellation has closed its Leasingham winery in Clare but continues to produce Clare Valley wines under that label, although United States availability has been largely limited to the Rieslings of late. Annie’s Lane, Foster’s Clare Valley brand, is no longer being imported to the United States. With the big corporates out of the picture, American purchasers of Clare Valley wines can be reasonably certain that they are supporting family-run wineries. 

Adelaide Hills
Visitors to Adelaide can easily access the neighboring hills in 30 minutes or so by car from the city center. Spread out over hundreds of square miles, the pockets of vineyards nestled in the Adelaide Hills are far from a monoculture. Orchards and general farming are more the rule than vines, although the Hills are home to some of Australia’s most exciting white wines and a smattering of interesting reds.

At Petaluma, the early emphasis was on sparkling wines, back in 1976 when Brian Croser established it. The Piccadilly Valley is the coolest viticultural region in South Australia, and is the focus of the winery’s Chardonnay production, anchored by the Tiers Vineyard, which Croser planted in 1978. “It’s always been the backbone of the [Petaluma] blend,” says winemaker Andrew Hardy, now in his second stint with the winery. 

Early versions of Petaluma’s sparkling wines were Chardonnay-dominant, although the current-release 2007 Croser is 70% Pinot Noir. “The early wines needed more time on lees, also we’re using more Chardonnay for table wines now,” explains Hardy. Unlike most New World sparkling wines, Petaluma’s ferment in barrel and are put through malolactic fermentation, giving them a soft, creamy palate with hints of toasted nuts. 

Similar characters are often found in Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, which is very fine in most years. It can become a little warm and tropical in style from hot-weather vintages, as in the case of Shaw + Smith’s 2008 M3 Chardonnay, but even that year’s wines remain attractive for early drinking. 

Michael Hill Smith, MW, one of the partners in that endeavor, says simply, “We try to make the wine we like and we hope that people buy it.” At Shaw + Smith, the workhorse grape is Sauvignon Blanc, fast becoming a favorite in the Adelaide Hills. “It’s fruitier than Sancerre,” explains Hill Smith, a cousin of Yalumba owner Robert Hill Smith. “We trade herbaceousness for palate length any day,” he says, describing the winery’s signature style of Sauvignon. 

Both Petaluma and Shaw + Smith produce Shiraz with distinctly peppery, savory profiles as well as white wines, and numerous other grape varieties are being trialed in the many¬ microclimates of the Adelaide Hills. American consumers can find Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from various producers, as well as an interesting, naturally low-alcohol Colombard from Primo Estate. Many wineries outside the region source grapes from the Adelaide Hills as well, giving consumers even more choice.

Visitors should take advantage of the region’s vinous diversity and try some of the unique bottlings only available locally, including Petaluma’s Viognier and single-vineyard Riesling and Shaw + Smith’s Pinot Noir. The Shaw + Smith winery and cellar door is a sleek, modern building, while Petaluma’s, housed in the 1860 Bridgewater Mill, is a top dining destination.

Langhorne Creek
A couple of hours to the south lies the unsung wine region that produces the biggest slice of Australia’s red wine pie. It’s not much of a place to overnight: accommodations are limited to a couple of cottages, and single pub. At least it’s a good, welcoming one known as the Bridge Hotel, which serves better-than-expected food in a country setting.

The main reason for visiting Langhorne Creek is the wine. Although some of the big brands have basically mothballed their vineyards and tax-incentivized investment schemes (companies) abandoned others, local farmers, long the foundation of the region, persist. The alluvial soils of the broad, flat floodplains of the Bremer River give the vines all the nutrients they need, while the cooling breezes off Lake Alexandrina help moderate the region’s sunny climate, yielding rich red wines that have been known for their silky tannins for decades.

In fact, grape growing here goes back much further than Wolf Blass’s trophy-winning wines of 1974–1976. The Potts family at Bleasdale planted their first grapevines in the 1860s, making theirs the second-oldest family-run winery in Australia (only Yalumba, in the Barossa, is older). “Until 1990, we were the only winery in the region,” explains Robbie Potts. “Ninety-five percent of the fruit was going elsewhere, and only Wolfie was really giving any credit to the region.”

At the Metala Homestead, Cabernet vines planted in 1891 and Shiraz vines planted in 1894 still produce fruit, destined for the Adams’ family Brothers in Arms brand. “When they originally planted Cab and Shiraz on the property, they hit the nail on the head,” proclaims Guy Adams, now the fifth generation of his family to work the Metala Homestead. “The wines can be quite perfumed and elegant,” he says, adding, “Langhorne Creek has quite approachable wines. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to think about them.”

That warm, cuddly, eager-to-please puppy-dog character, what Liz Adams calls, “the South Eastern Australia middle palate,” marks many of the Cabernets and Shirazes from Langhorne Creek. It’s also apparent in the relaxed, friendly nature of the cellar doors in this relatively tourist-free region. Visitors will find a number of wines not available in the United States, including Temple Bruer’s preservative-free line of organic wines from eccentric retired chemist David Bruer, Bremerton’s BOV (“Best of Vintage”) Shiraz-Cabernet from dynamic sisters Rebecca and Lucy Willson and Lake Breeze’s Grenache from the three Follett brothers.

Padthaway & Wrattonbully
Further along the South Australia coast—not right on the water, but about 30 miles inland—travelers next encounter the grape-growing region of Padthaway. Vineyards line either side of the main road, dotted with machinery sheds, but there are few wineries in evidence, nor many cellar doors. There’s not even a pub, although there is a general store that sells wine. The big Stonehaven winery to the east of the road is shuttered, closed down by Constellation as part of its Australian restructuring.

That leaves Padthaway as very much a grape-growing area. In the United States, Padthaway’s name recognition originally came from its appearance on Lindemans’ upmarket Chardonnay, positioned above the immensely successful Bin 65 (it’s now known as Lindemans Reserve Chardonnay, but still retains a Padthaway GI). Currently, the winery making the biggest waves in the States with Padthaway fruit is Henry’s Drive Vignerons. 

The wine is made up in McLaren Vale, but the vineyards and cellar door nestle on a gentle slope up from the highway. Proprietor Kim Longbottom’s deceased husband, Mark, was from a local family; she now carries on the farming of approximately 200 acres of Padthaway vines. The entry-level Pillar Box Red and Pillar Box White represent consistently good value: “One year, Foster’s didn’t want the grapes, and Casella [Yellow Tail] didn’t want to pay enough,” explains Longbottom of the Pillar Box line, which has since grown to 125,000 cases.

Padthaway represents a midpoint on the spectrum between the warmth of Langhorne Creek and the cool southerly reaches of Coonawarra, and the wines reflect that, blending generous fruit with savory spice. Longbottom characterizes her wines thusly: “There’s a bit of pepper, star anise as well, licorice…probably my favorite is the Parson’s Flat [a blend of Shiraz and Cabernet].”

Just a bit further south and inland is Wrattonbully, a relatively recent addition to the South Australia wine scene, where Croser sources Cabernet, Merlot and Shiraz for his tripartite TapaNappa project with Champagne Bollinger and Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages. Yalumba has vineyards in the area as well, and Senior Red Winemaker Peter Gambetta confides, “We’re pretty excited about Merlot in Wrattonbully.” 

The region shares similar soils to Padthaway to the north and Coonawarra to the south: areas of terra rossa and dark sandy loams over limestone bedrock. The underlying limestone aquifers provide the water needed for frost protection and irrigation in these three regions, which are collectively referred to as the Limestone Coast.

Coonawarra
In Coonawarra, the true terra rossa soils that made the region famous occur in a narrow strip, explains Greg Foster, winemaker for Penley Estate, as we tour the vineyards. “Compared to the rest of South Australia, it’s quite cool here,” he continues, which is why Coonawarra has become virtually synonymous with Cabernet.

The connection between Cabernet Sauvignon and Coonawarra goes back to the 1950s, when Wynns Coonawarra Estate released its acclaimed 1954 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon. Wynns founder John Riddoch planted his first vines in 1891, and the original winery building dates from 1896. Now under the ownership of Fosters, Wynns is sadly no longer being distributed in the United States, so American consumers are missing out on winemaker Sue Hodder’s wines, true benchmarks for the region.

Visitors should be sure to stop by the cellar door, located in the historic winery, and try the wines, particularly the iconic Michael Shiraz and John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon, both among the region’s best. Somewhat surprisingly, there’s even a pretty credible Riesling. Almost exactly across the road from the winery entrance is Fodder, a fine spot for lunch or a casual dinner.

Folks stuck in the States can still get some mighty fine Coonawarra wines. Gambetta, who crafts Yalumba’s The Menzies label from the company’s Coonawarra vineyards, points out that Yalumba’s first vintage of Octavius in 1986 was made from Coonawarra Cabernet. “Coonawarra is the most varietally distinct,” he suggests. “Mostly due to the soil. If you get off the terra rossa it tastes totally different.”

Prototypical Coonawarra Cab has a finely delineated structure and trademark tobacco and cedar shadings; there’s often some mint or eucalyptus character evident as well, and plenty of French oak is the norm. Still, there is an array of styles, ranging from the ripe, lush textures of Katnook Estate and Penley Estate to the more firmly tannic, structured wines of Balnaves and Parker Coonawarra Estate.

“The style of wine we’re making, we’re trying to get strong tannins,” explains Peter Bissell, the winemaker for both of those properties and winemaker at Wynns from 1989–1995. “We’re trying to make a style different from everybody else.” Influenced by his experience in Bordeaux, Bissell is searching for equivalent ageworthiness in his wines married to the bold fruit he gets from the Coonawarra vineyards.

Despite the strong connection between Coonawarra and Cabernet, it only accounts for approximately 60% of the area’s vines. Shiraz is the next most widely planted variety, at 20%. “Shiraz does best on the sandier soils,” contends Penley Estate’s Foster. At Majella, a fair amount of Shiraz is made in a sparkling style, which the voluble, chatty Brian “Prof” Lynn describes as “the ultimate breakfast wine.” It’s richly fruity, lushly textured and long on the finish, a top example of the style.

I’m not sure I would drink it with breakfast myself, but it is the kind of authentic, unique wine expression that explorers of South Australia’s back roads—whether literally or vinously—will be amply rewarded by.

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