The next stop is wine country. The Barossa region is world-famous, but is there more here than just big-name Shiraz? I was determined to find out.
The Barossa Valley and its surrounds are surprisingly close to Adelaide, South Australia’s capital. A very short drive, by Australian standards at least, will have you leaving the city and arriving at a cellar door in less than an hour. That is how it played out. A quick lunch and a smooth, uneventful car ride saw us arrive in a wine region I, until this moment, had not explored. I wanted to move past the stereotypes and tourist traps of the more recognisable labels to find what makes this region unique.
The Barossa region is home to some of the oldest vines producing fruit in the country. With over 90 cellar-door experiences, more is on offer than its signature wine, Barossa Shiraz. While the Barossa Valley might be known for its robust red wines, the nearby Eden and Clare Valley are the spiritual home for Riesling in Australia. Our first stop was Rieslingfreak.
For a winemaker to focus solely on the expression from a single varietal is an unusual decision in Australia. So many labels take pride in producing a range of varieties with their ‘signature’ approach. To have a winemaker focus and explore a single variety is a perfect way to get acquainted with the region’s terroir. Rieslingfreak was founded in 2009 by John Hughes. Hughes was immersed in Riesling at his parent’s vineyard in the Clare Valley and wanted to explore the world of Riesling. The result? Seventeen expressions of single-vineyard and blended Riesling from Clare and Eden Valley producers. I was concerned I would be a little bored after tasting a few of the Rieslings on offer, but the contrast and nuance from the terroir and light-handed winemaking techniques kept me, and my palette, on my toes. My favourites were No.4, No.11 and No.99. The naming of these wines removes regional information from the front of the label to prevent ‘unconscious bias’ from punters when purchasing wine from a particular region. Our host, Mark, was generous and accommodating and added a few extras to the tasting, including some beautiful aged Rieslings, which I can never find the patience or discipline to cellar at home. I thought I understood Riesling, but after a single visit to Rieslingfreak, I left with more questions than answers. I had a strange craving for a glass of cold, but not freezing, white wine with a focussed, refreshing acidity, subtle floral character and slight mineral finish. I wonder why?
Another highlight from my Barossa region escapades had to be Henschke. The Henschke family has owned and operated the winery since the 1840s. They represent consistency, prestige and heritage. Wine is still a relatively young industry in Australia compared to Europe. So the opportunity to taste wine from vines planted before Australia became a country excited me. Now in the hands of Johann, a sixth-generation winemaker bearing the Henschke name, the quality and consistency of all the wines we tried testified to the passion and commitment to craft the family has come to personify. The annual release of the Hill of Grace wines is a highly anticipated affair. Allocations disappear quickly, very quickly, and for good reason. The effort and attention poured into Henschke’s full expression means that any wine lover to come by a bottle of Hill of Grace is in for a reward.
After exploring a single varietal producer, a long-standing family-owned vineyard, it was time to acquaint ourselves with something left of centre. Small Fry was the next point of call. Founded by Suzi Wilder and Wayne Ahrens, their wine journey started as viticulturists before trying their hand at winemaking. The results are minimal intervention wines in a European style favouring subtlety and balance over the need to create wines fitting the same flavour profile vintage after vintage.
In a lot of ways, the cellar door personified South Australian hospitality. It was relaxed, genuine and honest. Small Fry grows nearly all of their fruit, including some lesser known, not to mention underappreciated varietals. Roussane, Pedro Ximenes and Cinsault are a few examples. Wayne talked about how his approach to winemaking kept the drinker in mind and wanted Small Fry wines to be a ‘food friendly’ companion to whatever is on the table. Wayne made several references to how the Australian diet has diversified over the last 20 years, and it makes sense our wines should too. His approach is paying dividends.
My favourites were Tangerine Dream, a lightly Skinsy number with Semillon, Pedro Ximenez, Reisling and friends. The latter had a beautiful balance between the familiar and curious. A close second was their Electrik Violet. A wonderfully playful and satisfying red blend of Grenache and Cinsault. Pretty and aromatic, but not lacking body. Plush on the palette, but just enough tannin to refresh and invite the next sip. It's just good fun to drink. I felt right at home in the converted dining room by playing the role of part cellar door, part showroom. I could have spent hours listening to Wayne’s perspective, upfront answers, and dry sense of humour.
We did visit other wineries and vineyards, including Torbrek and Alkina. Both producers are doing good things and working hard to provide a great experience. Alkina has a definite European feel. The wines were light, playful and energetic. The wines at Torbrek are a little more ‘traditional’ if there is such a thing in South Australian wine anymore, but all refined, precise and enjoyable. ‘The Factor’ Shiraz is a prime example of old vine Shiraz made with a light-handed and transparent approach to highlight the work in the vineyard rather than the winery. Still dense and lengthy, as you would expect, but a little more elegant for its age compared to some of the more recognisable labels in the same region. Their Viognier was a refreshing change from tasting so many expressions of Semillon throughout the visit. The weight and perfume of Torbrek’s Viognier were intriguing. It was nice to see the varietal allowed to shine instead of just being used to blend with heavy reds to add a little respite and finesse. Both Alkina and Torbrek are worth seeking out. Visitors are in for a reward with some beautiful wines.
So why should you visit South Australia? Why should you bother? It might be a long way from home. Still, its proximity and accessibility to Adelaide as a gateway to world-class dining, wine country, and natural beauty will leave a lasting impression. I’m already finding time in the calendar and irreverently justifying a reason for the next visit. I hope you find a little inspiration to do the same.