Each day around the world, 30 million glasses of Australian wine are sipped. Not bad for a country without any native grapes. Its Chardonnay, Semillon and Shiraz receive international acclaim, with many other varieties growing in popularity. And while lush vineyards aren’t usually considered the most iconic of Aussie images, a trip to the heart of Australia’s wine country is a must on any vacation itinerary.
A couple of hours drive north of Sydney, along a scenic, partly coastal highway, lies the Hunter Valley. Its 120-plus vineyards and easy-to-reach location make it an attractive destination both for Sydneysiders on a weekend away and overseas tourists. Day tours to some of its most popular wineries run from Sydney, with pickup from central hotels.
A world away from the hustle and bustle, the Hunter retains some of city life’s conveniences, and the larger wineries offer much more than tasting at the cellar door. The large terrace at Tempus Two winery looks out over its beautiful vines and across to the fields of the neighboring Hope Estate, a popular out-of-town concert venue that has hosted the likes of Elton John. The cellar door itself is one of many units in a modern grey glass-fronted building, which also houses a cheese shop, a Japanese restaurant and a high-end cocktail bar and eatery, Goldfish, which opens until late. There’s almost a theme-park-for-adults vibe to the venture, and while that might not be so disagreeable on vacation, it can feel a touch commercial.
The staff at the nearby Peterson House cellar door are well used to tour group tastings. Their enthusiasm about their sparkling range is infectious, and they sell bachelorette-party-pink umbrellas and ponchos to combat the Hunter’s wetter weather. Next door is a chocolate shop offering a range of premium chocolate and slabs of indulgent flavored fudge. A short drive away is an olive oil tasting shop, offering bags of dipping bread that will keep you full until lunch. And if they don’t, there are the tempting treats of the Sabor in the Hunter Dessert Bar. It’s not hard to see why the Hunter is a playground for weary workers who pour onto the highway on a Friday night.
For those willing to make the trip, the Barossa Valley, near Adelaide (a 90-minute plane ride from Sydney), is worth the effort. Originally settled by German Lutherans fleeing religious persecution, it retains a European air. Thatched cottages can be glimpsed hiding behind stone houses, and small churches are scattered throughout the wide valley. The village of Hahndorf, to the east of the Barossa, has proudly clung to this heritage, with its Main Street stepping straight out of Bavaria.
In a couple of generations, the settlers turned their altar wine vines into an industry. Many of its present-day wineries are family run, with intimate cellar doors. The Barossa also boasts some of the world’s oldest vines, having remained untouched by a great blight outbreak that devastated European vineyards in the mid-1800s. These rich older grapes are blended with younger to create full-bodied reds.
Unless one of your party is selfless enough to volunteer as designated driver, or you are highly committed to making use of the spittoon, a tour is the only way to make the most of what the Barossa has to offer. For a more personalized experience, Barossa Unique Tours offers a private driver and a choice of ride – a 4WD, a classic Mustang, or, for those not fazed by a cool breeze or helmet hair, a motorized trike. Owner Tony grew up in the Barossa and spent several years working in Californian vineyards. He takes great pride in his home turf and enthusiastically shares his knowledge of its history and of winemaking. No question is too stupid, and no request is too tricky.
The Willows Vineyard is one of those historic cellar doors. Run by the Scholz family, the site was the Barossa’s first hospital thanks to the bone-setting skills of their ancestor Johann Gottfried. After learning his skills at war, he moved to Australia for a more peaceful life. His expertise earned him favor among wealthy landowners and he was given cash to set up a 30-bed facility. The family moved into winemaking and still live in the building itself. Their wines pay homage to the past, with a festive sparkling red called ‘The Doctor’ and a ‘Bonesetter’ Shiraz. Although the Barossa is traditionally known for its reds, their 2011 Semillon is delightfully delicate.
Henschke is one of Australia’s most highly reputed wineries, with its small cellar door getting pretty cozy at peak times. Visitors can catch a glimpse of the fermentation vats and try a large range of whites and reds. While Adelaide airport does allow for two bottles to be carried through in hand luggage, such is the importance of wine tourism to the sleepy city, Henschke wines can be certainly found much further afield.
Some other big names aren’t afraid to offer a more commercial experience. Jacob’s Creek, served at Sunday barbecues around the world, has its visitor center at, well, Jacob’s Creek. As well as sampling the produce, visitors can sit out on a beanbag chair and enjoy a picnic, all while taking in some of the most well-branded vines in the world.
Penfolds is another international operation, but next door is an interesting upstart. Home of the Brave is a tapas and winetasting bar where you can sample bottles from First Drop Wines. With knowing cartoon labels and sometimes risqué names, they attract a younger and potentially “thirstier” crowd. This means they do charge for tasting, but the modest A$5 fee is knocked-off any purchases. And the quirkiness of the decor, a sort of church of wine, isn’t a substitute for the quality in their produce.
Barossa locals are friendly and welcoming. After talking about your day so far, they will ask after their friends and neighbors you’ve met at other cellar doors. It’s a tight-knit community that has fought off attempts to open major supermarket chains and other outside influence. And importantly, their passion for wine means they will happily explain the perfect time to prune, weather patterns, and what to expect from this year’s vintage.
Naturally, all this tasting and learning is hungry work. A good lunch tip from locals is 1918 Bistro and Grill in Tanunda. Set in a sandstone homestead, it serves modern Australian cuisine. From crunchy-topped succulent pork belly, to fresh tortellini, the food showcases the best of seasonal produce.
Back on the road, amid the palm trees, is Izway Wines. Another warm welcome awaits, and the young winemaker is happy to show the bubbling fermentation process up close. And with labels like “Bruce” and “Shane,” you won’t forget where their excellent Shiraz came from.
After a few tastings, the day can fly by, so it’s a good idea to stay overnight. Accommodations range from boutique to more the budget-friendly. The Novotel Resort, close to Jacob’s Creek, is kinder on the pocket, with self-catering facilities, but offers stunning views from its balconies. And, if you’ve space for another glass or two, its restaurant, Cellar Door, naturally has an excellent wine list.