Foodie road trip in Australia's McLaren Vale wine region
Drive just 45 minutes south from Adelaide to discover South Australia’s best-kept secret – a laid-back land of eccentric winemakers, abundant farmers’ markets, wild beaches and gourmet boutique hotels
Want to tour Mclaren Vale wineries? Hop on one of Mclaren Vale's wine tours and visit Australia's wine region south of Adelaide...
Until now the Fleurieu peninsula has been South Australia’s best-kept secret. In Adelaide, the state capital, locals tend to innocently point tourists towards the Barossa and Clare Valleys, or to tourist hot spot Kangaroo Island, which dangles off the peninsula’s southern tip. Yet with Fleurieu (pronounced floo-ree-oh) just a 45-minute drive away – virtually Adelaide’s backyard – they’re starting to get wise.
The Fleurieu has a Mediterranean climate, laid-back vibe, wild, windswept beaches (you might recognise the glorious sweep of Maslin Beach from Russell Crowe’s film The Water Diviner), swathes of silvery olive groves, a clutch of field-to-fork eateries and farmers’ markets along with more than 70 boutique wineries.
Within the peninsula, McLaren Vale is the birthplace of the South Australian wine industry and home to some of the world’s oldest grapevines. This is shiraz country, the vineyards rolling right down to the beach. The cooling winds flowing from the Mount Lofty Ranges to the coast also create the perfect climate for cabernet sauvignon and grenache.
Mclaren Vale Wineries
What is McLaren Vale's USP? Most of the cellar doors are family owned, not commercial. Whether they’re the old brigade or the new vanguard, they’re all one-offs.
Wine-making is full of complexities. McLaren Vale’s larger-than-life winemaker, Chester Osborn, pondered how to showcase this strange alchemy. His response was the d’Arenberg Cube, a dazzling glass and steel structure that has been dubbed ‘Willy Wonka’s wine factory’. A wonderfully bonkers box of a building, it materialises, Tardis-like, out of the vines like a half-finished Rubik’s Cube. As you approach, eyes entranced by an optical illusion at the entrance, soft music (activated by weather stations among the vines) lures you in.
Inside the five-storey attraction, restaurant and tasting rooms, visitors take a surreal Alice in Wonderland trip through a sensory aroma room padded with blowsy rose heads and strung with bottles of fragrant fruit and flowers, past a psychedelic art installation and a virtual fermenter, emerging into a light, bright rooftop tasting area.
There you can sample wines with names as intoxicating as the vintages: The Anthropocene Epoch is the company’s first biodynamic wine, all ballsy beetroot and berries. The Athazagoraphobic Cat (a blend of sagrantino and cinsault grapes) is squeaky new leather and herbs laced with mouth-puckering tannins, while The Old Bloke & the Three Young Blondes’ gnarly wood and spice-steeped shiraz is tempered with three flirty floral, fruit-frilled whites (roussanne, viognier and marsanne). Love it or loathe it, the d’Arenberg Cube has put the Fleurieu Peninsula on the map since launching at the end of last year.
Stop at the pared-back, sleekly styled tasting room at Bekkers vineyard. Australian/French couple Toby and Emmanuelle Bekkers produce just three wines: a grenache, syrah grenache and a syrah. The 2016 grenache has a hint of aniseed. The 2015 had more clove on the palate, Emmanuelle tells us. The syrah grenache is silkier: adding syrah to the mix changes the texture, she explains. The syrah is intense, dense but still silky.
Hugh Hamilton: The fifth generation to oversee one of the region’s most picturesque wineries (hughhamiltonwines.com.au).
Wirra Wirra: Biodynamic Wirra Wirra dates back to 1894 and its winemakers like to hurl watermelons from a medieval siege machine – it’s their thing (wirrawirra.com).
Samuel’s Gorge: A rustic cellar up a dirt track in an old olive mill overlooking the Onkaparinga Gorge (gorge.com.au).
Alpha Box & Dice: One of the new kids on the block, this young team produces small-batch vintages, the cellar a ramshackle old stable strewn with vintage armchairs, a piano, pinball machine and stuffed armadillo (alphaboxdice.com).
McLaren Vale wine tours
A handful of specialist companies offer wine-tasting tours if you don’t want to worry about drinking and driving...
Off Piste Tours: Jump into Ben Neville’s 4x4 and head off the beaten track, exploring the lesser-known side of the Fleurieu. Bump along dusty dirt tracks in the Onkaparinga River National Park, stopping safari-style on a hillside to sip a glass of local viognier as kangaroos hop among the trees, before careering down a dirt track lined with rustling red gum eucalyptus for a riverside picnic.
Wine Diva Tours: Clamber into Greg Linton's car to visit some of the region's unique wineries. More info here: winedivatours.com.au
The Shiraz Trail: If you’d rather go under your own steam you can cycle The Shiraz Trail, a four-mile route along an old railway line between McLaren Vale and Willunga.
Where to eat in the McLaren Vale
Bocca di Lupo at Minimalist Mitolo
For lunch in the McLaren Vale swing by this starkly modern winery. Minimalist Mitolo looks as though it’s been constructed out of shipping containers and has an industrial vibe. The on-site restaurant, Bocca di Lupo, combines contemporary Australian and Italian cuisine in innovative dishes such as baby beetroots, liquorice sponge, walnut and chocolate, and charcoal maltagliati with asparagus, lemon and truffle parmesan.
Star of Greece
Pull up outside legendary seafood restaurant, Star of Greece, a rickety beach shack teetering on the clifftop at Port Willunga. The Fleurieu is also famous for its fish, the King George whiting in particular. Tuck into fish and chips Fleurieu style, along with Kangaroo Island salt and pepper squid, citrus aïoli and lime, watching surfers in the waves far below.
The Salopian Inn
At The Salopian Inn chef-owner Karena Armstrong serves contemporary Australian dishes such as soy-braised kangaroo tail with chilli caramel and szechuan salt.
Try gourmet wood-fired pizzas such as fontina, salami and homemade chilli chutney, or homemade pork and fennel sausages with wood-smoked mozzarella, fior di latte and freshly sliced fennel.
Willunga Farmer's Market
Graze your way round Willunga Farmers’ Market. The first in South Australia, established in 2002, it hosts around 80 artisan producers, and holds special night markets with live music. Willunga is a picture-postcard heritage town with just a whiff of the Wild West. Mooch around stalls of organic fruit and vegetables, local honey, charcuterie and cheeses and buy bags of juicy peaches and tiny, crunchy Paradise pears. Little Acre Foods stand has long queues but it is worth the wait for moreish mushroom panini oozing deep, dark mushrooms smeared with melted raclette and gruyère.
Port Elliot and around
After a few days in McLaren Vale venture south to the tip of the peninsula, jutting into the Southern Ocean. Here you’ll find the old Victorian seaside resort of Victor Harbor, 19th-century town Goolwa (renowned for its cockles and the mouth of the Murray River) and the Coorong National Park.
Port Elliot Bakery
Driving through quaint Port Elliot with its low-slung old buildings, cool beach boutiques, old-fashioned grocery stores and heritage trail, clock the queue snaking out the door of the legendary Port Elliot Bakery, famous for its meat pies.
This seafood restaurant on the gentle curve of sand at Horseshoe Bay specialises in the likes of scallops with wasabi and ginger, Streaky Bay King George Whiting (battered, grilled or herb-crumbed), and lemon peppered squid.
The Beach Huts
The Beach Huts in Middleton, just two blocks from a fabulously wild stretch of sand, are little clapboard cottages, candy coloured and cute. Noosa hut is retro-chic with soaring white ceilings and a mid-century vibe. In the fridge you'll find breakfast provisions – along with a complimentary bottle of bubbly from Langhorne Creek.
McLaren Vale accommodation
Along with gourmet boutique hotel The Australasian (australasian1858.com) and rustic restaurant, art gallery, cellar door and b&b Red Poles (redpoles.com.au), a handful of new winery sleepovers are opening up, including Hotel California Road, a micro-hotel at Inkwell Wines (inkwellwines.com).
The Vineyard Retreat
The Vineyard Retreat is a cluster of four luxury cottages on a 15-acre working vineyard. These have a New England vibe – think wraparound verandas, wood-burning stoves, a smattering of antlers, tongue and groove, taupe and cream colour palettes, soaring ceilings and sweeping views over regimented rows of shiraz and old grenache vines. In August, owners Anthea and Stu Cross added a luxury ‘cadole’ glamping pod to the mix with another one to follow later in the year (cadoles were small vineyard huts used for centuries in France).
The couple bought the property five years ago because they fell in love with the views – some of the best are from the hilltop hot tub. The cottages’ well-stocked kitchens include welcome packs of local produce including smoked bacon from Ellis Butchers (ellisbutchers.com), free-range eggs and a bottle of chilled viognier from nearby Yangarra Estate Vineyard in the fridge (yangarra.com). You can also order local tasting platters from Lisa Robertson at Waywood Wines – on my second night I devour goat’s curd, crusty bread, duck, pork and fig terrine, a beetroot dip, fig chutney, traditional saucisson, camembert and quince paste (waywoodwines.com).
How to get to McLaren Vale Australia's Fleurieu Peninsula
Return flights from London Heathrow to Melbourne via Abu Dhabi start at £696 (etihad.com). Return flights from Melbourne to Adelaide start from £120 (virginaustralia.com). For more info see southaustralia.com. Follow Lucy on Instagram and Twitter @lucygillmore