Anna Bartsch takes a tour of McLaren Vale, eating and drinking her way around one of South Australia's best-known gourmet regions.
Now, I know that the “progressive dinner” thing sounds very 1980s (ok, it is very 1980s) but, trust me, this concept is awesome – a progressive picnic through the cellar doors of McLaren Vale. Our idea is driven by two features of this bountiful region: one, there are numerous cellar doors doing enticing little share plates rather than full restaurant meals and, two, we wanted an excuse to buy a selection of goodies from the famous Willunga Farmers’ Market!
That’s where we start and, even though we’re lucky enough to be market regulars, the joy of it never wears off. This is South Australia’s first farmers’ market, established in 2001, and it now attracts thousands of people each week from the local area, suburban Adelaide and further afield.
I think one sure sign of a true farmers’ market is when each family or couple in attendance seems to have a border collie in tow, as is the case here. In the outdoor food court, the dogs wait eagerly to see if a scrap might come their way. People sip great coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice as they load up on egg, bacon and pesto rolls, haloumi and zucchini fritters or a full cooked brekky.
We’re determined not to go too hard too early and so select a few choice items for our day ahead. Woodside Cheese Wrights is located in the Adelaide Hills but there’s a close family link with McLaren Vale’s Coriole winery and so both brands share a stall at the market. Woodside’s The Monet is about as beautiful as a dairy product can get – a goats' chevre wrapped in baby nasturtiums and other tiny flowers. We also select the Edith, a highly awarded French style goats’ cheese rolled in ash, as well as a hard cheese delicately wrapped in vine leaves.
From the nearby Little Acre Foods, we can’t resist the duck rillettes, although I’ve also heard tales of people driving halfway across the state for their mushroom paté. Some fresh crusty bread and several lavender infused brownies which I can’t resist (free tastings do work!) and we’re set.
The first stop is Battle of Bosworth just around the corner. In fact, we highly recommend walking along the Shiraz trail if you have time. This property is owned by husband and wife pair Joch and Louise who are well known for their passionate involvement in the industry. Joch opted to plant organic and biodynamic vineyards long before they were popular and now their two labels – Battle of Bosworth and Spring Seeds – prove that ethical farming can produce super premium results.
This is a gorgeous little historic property comprising numerous stone buildings in various states of disrepair. The cellar door is housed in what we presume was the stables, given the cobblestones outside. It’s as cosy as can be, with whitewash over the old walls, open ceiling beams and a well-stocked bookshelf encouraging you to kick back for the whole afternoon.
We taste a few wines and notice the consensus among a few couples in the room – the oaked chardonnay, made with wild yeasts, is a definite favourite. I love one of the comments I overhear: “It got to a point a few years ago that there was that much bloody oak, you’d get splinters! Gee, this is alright though…”
We select a bottle of the Sweet Pea Moscato to start us off for the day and pick a picturesque spot outside. As we tuck into our cheeses, several kookaburras in the towering gumtrees around the lawn begin their raucous chorus. It’s a truly idyllic bush-slash-vineyard-slash-heritage destination.
Next, we venture from Willunga to McLaren Vale. Our destination is one of the newest and most exiting cellar doors in the state. Steve Pannell (SC Pannell wines) has won the ultimate Australian wine trophy – the Jimmy Watson – not once but TWICE however, until Christmas 2014, didn’t have a cellar door. Now he does… and it’s awesome.
The site was formerly owned by Tapestry and sits high on a hill overlooking the vineyards. “Wow, you can just about see the ocean!” I hear someone exclaim. Steve’s wife Fiona is the creative mind behind the new fit-out which includes a huge decking area for outdoor dining, a funky kiosk and an indoor tasting bar which, with its black wall and ceiling, polished concrete floor and feature lighting, feels almost like a nightclub.
Steve’s winemaking philosophy is based on using grapes that grow well in particular climates and soil types, which may sound obvious but can sometimes be at odds with tradition. He has found certain Spanish and Portugese varieties work well in McLaren Vale and, in particular, is fond of Touriga which he uses in several red blends.
I taste the medium-bodied Tempranillo Touriga and it’s pretty clear why this well balanced wine has won so many trophies. The GST may sounds like a goods and services tax but is in fact a Grenache Shiraz Touriga; a cleverly tweaked version of the more common GSM.
A new wine in the portfolio is The Field St which Steve has made with fruit from the recently acquired property. Then of course there’s the 2014 Jimmy Watson winner; a Shiraz sourced from the cooler Adelaide Hills region.
To complement the wine styles, Chef Dustin Rogers offers a tantalising menu of Spanish tapas. Today he presents us with his own selection of popular items (thank goodness, otherwise I probably would have ordered one of everything).
Being a haloumi freak, I pounce on the plate the when it arrives, smearing the golden cheese with mint and pistachio pesto. The roast capsicum and eggplant bruschetta is delicious, as are the flavoursome mussels dressed with chorizo and tomato. The rest of the table votes the pork belly the star, loving its spicy fennel and paprika marinade.
The next stop is another relatively new venture owned by a couple of my favourite people in the region – the dynamic and passionate Andrew Wood and Lisa Robertson. Together they are WayWood Wines and Luscious Red food and catering.
The property Andrew and Lisa occupy sits right on the high ridge of northern McLaren and is also a commercial lavender farm, so it boasts a lovely garden. It’s a very personal venture for the couple. In fact, their house directly adjoins the cellar door and you end up feeling more like an invited friend than a passing customer. In a former life, UK native Andrew was a sommelier in London. He was educated on the world’s top wines and travelled extensively through Europe and the US before settling on the style of wine he wanted to make himself.
Although WayWood offers the bold Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon you’d expect in McLaren Vale, the brand’s real focus is alternative varieties (meaning varieties that we don’t see a lot of in Australia). Premium examples of Montepulciano, Tempranillo and Nebbiolo are exciting to discover. There’s also the Quattro series: a white, rosé and red, each a balanced and interesting blend of four different varieties.
Food-wise, Lisa offers small plates of delicious morsels, mainly European in origin. The couple share their travel experiences with guests by offering different food and wine flights each week: Lisa will focus on Spanish dishes and Andy will open several vintages of Tempranillo one weekend; the next it might be Montepulciano and Italian foods.
Today we’re treated to one of Lisa’s specialties – a salt cod brandade served with caperberries, local olives and excellent crusty bread. A baked chunk of fetta is very popular and a new concept to some at the table, while the mixed mushroom arancini with homemade tomato sauce disappear quickly.
There’s something special about sitting and chatting with the people who’ve actually made the food and wine with their own hands – this is one of the benefits of discovering a new small business before everyone else does!
Our last stop today is one McLaren Vale’s most iconic spots. Samuel’s Gorge is a small, premium wine producer operating out of an old barn which was built in the 1850s on the edge of the dramatic Onkaparinga Gorge.
The place is a beautiful blend of history and creativity, with an outlook over the gorge that encourages every visitor to leave with a selfie (at the very least). The business is named after the original owner of the property, Samuel Way, who was South Australia’s Chief Justice in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He lived in the now State Heritage-listed homestead, while the original barn went on to house an olive press and then flocks of angora goats before being restored and converted into the winery in 2004. Many artefacts and old pieces of machinery remain in the cellar door, acting as interesting decorations.
We’re enthusiastically greeted by winemaker Justin McNamee who is something of a local legend for his philosophy, vocabulary, Jamaican afro and, of course, passion for winemaking. He’s also quite happy to see us setting up a plate of lavender brownies on an outdoor table: “Oh, are they for me? You shouldn’t have!”
It’s a sunny afternoon and the garden is full of people including some who look like they’ve brought picnics and set themselves up here for the day. I can’t blame them! We’re surrounded by apple and olive trees, lavender, rosemary and pomegranate trees, in fact, it almost feels like a mini Garden of Eden.
Justin pours us tastes of some recently released wines – the Kaleidoscope Horizons Grenache Tempranillo and the softer Mosaic of Dreams, which is a Southern Rhone style Grenache Mouvedre Shiraz. We also sample a rather savoury Tempranillo, a Graciano and – certainly one of McLaren Vale’s more renowned varieties – a Grenache.
The afternoon is dimming and we make some purchases, realising then that we’ve tasted from the very last bottles of a couple of sold out wines. There’s clearly not much time for deliberation with a little boutique producer as popular as this.
And so ends our progressive picnic for today. On reflection, we’ve manages to fit a lot into what’s felt like a very leisurely day. It is now seriously time to take our contented bellies off for a nap – all this eating, drinking and being merry for hours on end is tiring stuff!