I have flown over the entirety of South Australia en route to the more ‘cosmopolitan’ cities of Melbourne and Sydney countless times. This time was different. I didn’t have high expectations. I had heard rumours and whispers about restaurants and wine country rivalling the best of the best. Still, I’ve always been reluctant to travel advice offered by casual conversations with people outside the hospitality industry.

Weirdly, personal recommendations from chefs, sommeliers, and restaurant managers guided me to some trip highlights. The friendly nature and passion for their venues, not to mention the fine work of others, summed up what is happening in South Australian hospitality.

There is a committed, skilled and innovative community of artisans doing what they feel is best rather than what they think is trendy. Best for their venue. Best for their patch of land and, in some cases, best for the next generation of professionals to follow in their footsteps.

It all started quite quickly. Whisked away from the airport and destined for McLaren Vale within 45 minutes of landing on a hot and still late summer afternoon. After half a lifetime exploring Western Australia's wine country, the proximity and concentration of wine regions in and around Adelaide were beautiful. Being able to hop from vineyard to vineyard in single-digit timeframes was refreshing compared to the yearly chore of working out itineraries to maximise exploration and minimise backtracking on the West Coast. After a very early morning flight, I was suitably delighted to have an opportunity to quench my thirst with something chilled and Skinsky less than an hour after tumbling through the domestic arrivals terminal.

McLaren Vale is peppered with traditional and new-wave wine producers and has over 80 vineyards to explore. What a perfect way to introduce myself to South Australian hospitality. The infamous d’Arenburg Cube has pride in place in the region and takes inspiration from a Tetris-like winemaking process. It is founded not on a single practice but on taking pieces from experience, art and science to create something more than the sum of its parts. Activities on-site include: blending masterclasses, touring surrealist art collections, and wine tasting.

I wasn’t here to visit the big boys and regional centrefold wineries. My first-day late afternoon visit to Samuel’s Gorge was a trip highlight. I was first introduced to this winery through their secondary label, Piñata People, by award-winning sommelier; Emma Farrelly. The fun and quaffable Gamay matched perfectly with many of the menu items served in the restaurant I managed and was an approachable, energetic and easy wine to enjoy.

The rustically picturesque cellar door left me feeling comfortable and eagerly anticipating the opportunity to work through their range under the verandah of an earthen cottage the crew calls home. The outlook of sun-kissed rolling hills stretching to the horizon brought back very distant memories of travelling through Napa Valley.

McLaren Vale’s history means Alsatian and Rhone varieties like Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Mourvèdre (better known as the easier-to-pronounce Mataro for the Australian drinker) and Grenache have established themselves as staples in many vineyards. As Australia’s curiosity for more complex and lighter-bodied varietals has evolved, these wines are bottled to showcase their unique characteristics that offer more, oh-so-much more, than your average big-bodied red from South Australia. The Grenache was the wine of the day for me. Taught, but not tight, concentrated, and not overbearing. Lively and refined. I was impressed and somewhat relieved knowing that if future expeditions to the Barossa and Eden Valley failed to deliver good wine, I had at least found one wine that gave me goosebumps. Yes, I’m that person.

After a day of transit, several wineries and a little more food than would be considered normal for a hungry human, it was home time. The winding drive back to the Adelaide Hills helped the food and wine settle nicely. I was excited to get to the city and explore Adelaide in the coming days, but that will have to wait.