As a wine region, the Adelaide Hills is young, feisty and feted with awards. It's a region best explored slowly as Max Anderson discovers.
Drive up the South Eastern Freeway and you may be seized by religious fervour.
“My God, this is steep” and “My God, when do we reach the top?” are commonly muttered by those unfamiliar with the fast three-lane highway heading up into the Adelaide Hills.
Be assured, however, that you are getting closer to heaven. Indeed once you’re standing atop Mount Lofty Summit (your hire car panting in the car park) all earthly questions will be answered…
Spread beneath you are the hot plains of Adelaide, the waters of the Gulf and a shimmering green sliver that is Kangaroo Island. It’s dramatic, yes, but important in two ways: the ferocious climb from sea level to 700m has long isolated a people with hamlet sensibilities among picturesque vales, valleys, and forests; and more critically, the elevation has cooled the temperature by around three degrees.
The country extending eastwards from the Mount Lofty Ranges has attributes that the Mediterranean-climate plains simply do not have, like four distinct seasons (including a stunning autumn), deep soils and healthy water catchments. So while Adelaide may be spread before you, the real spread is over your shoulder – a tableland groaning with artisan foods and cool climate wines.
As a wine region the Adelaide Hills is young, feisty and feted with awards. It has just 50 cellar doors – double what it had 10 years ago, but still a third the number of older neighbouring districts like Barossa. It’s also across-the-board boutique, with even its largest producers (Nepenthe, Shaw+Smith and Petaluma), offering a distinctly intimate experience.
This is a region best explored slowly. Once you’re off the Freeway, you’re into lanes threading through valleys of ancient eucalypts and small towns, and they readily repay those who follow their nose rather than an itinerary.
The gateway towns
If you’re short on time, there are four towns strung along the freeway. They’re all within 30 minutes of the Adelaide CBD and yet all offer the Hills’ signature ‘miles-away’ vibe.
After scrambling around the Summit and the lush environs of Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens, you could easily repair at the town of Crafers and the new must-do Crafers Hotel. This handsome stone pub has been richly reinvented, and now serves interesting beers, dishes where ‘front bar meets French bistro’ and a wine cellar where $1000 bottles are opened and made available by the glass.
Next you’ll come to Stirling, a ‘nob hill’ postcode for over 150 years with its country mansions nestled among the oaks and camellia gardens. It’s also unusually well-stocked with eateries. Take a summer table outside Ruby’s, Tranquilo or Miss Perez for light plates, or linger longer at The Locavore for ingredients sourced within 100 miles.
The Stirling Hotel is now a mini empire but the property is hot: the Bistro, woodfired pizza nook and posh nosh Grill Restaurant all come recommended.
To keep it rustic, try the Organic Café, well-known for its healthy bites and cakes made with a loving hand.
Swisher surrounds and equally good lunch fare can be had at Stirling Cellars and Patisserie.
For something different try young chocolatier supremo Marcus Booth-Remmers, who has people coming to the Hills for his Friday night dessert bar creations at Red Cacao. And if you fancy extending your own culinary skills, check into the Sticky Rice Cooking School, where guests are taught to master tricky Asian dishes in a delightful setting.
Your efforts are served back to you with matched wines…
The neighbouring village of Aldgate offers jolly lunchtime atmospheres at the family-friendly Patch Kitchen; not far away is The Aldgate Providore, serving brilliant brekkies and fine Mexican fare in funky surrounds.
Beautiful Bridgewater Mill (complete with creek setting and waterwheel) is a few kilometers up the road and still a restaurant of note, serving entrees such as ‘rabbit terrine, carrot, nasturtium, quail egg and capers’.
Head to Verdun for a smashing little pub called The Stanley Bridge Tavern . It has an excellent restaurant at the back (the menu strictly local), and a heavenly little lounging room at the side.
The pub’s goat is friendly and Benji the Jack Russell lives up the road; he never misses an afternoon in the atmospheric front bar.
Verdun is home to Maximillian’s restaurant and Sidewood cellar door, both overlooking vines and the lake where a floating golf green offers you the chance to win a $2000 prize for a hole-in-one.
You can also drop into a deep dark valley behind Stirling/Longwood for Kate Laurie’s award-winning sparkling at Deviation Road. And bubble doyen Brian Croser serves his 94/95-point Tapanappa Chardonnays and Pinots not far from Mount Lofty in the stunning Piccadilly Valley.
Hahndorf and surrounds
Historic Hahndorf has more layers of history than the Flinders Ranges. This agricultural hamlet was built by religious refugees from Prussia (now Poland/east Germany) in 1839 and still has over 100 heritage-listed buildings in the Main Street alone. However, when the new Freeway left it bypassed in the 1970s, cunning locals dressed some wenches in corsets and reinvented it as a ‘German village’ complete with Bavarian-style pubs.
While not entirely shorn of oompah kitsch, today the old Dorf is becoming a hub of comestible excellence, home to artisan producers, outlets and a knot of eclectic wine producers. Together with some of the most prized (and scenic) wine-growing lands around, it’s unquestionably a rewarding place to hole up and indulge.
When you cruise the Main Street, you’ll have your head spun by the distractions, many of them serving food from all corners of the world.
For Hills-inspired menus, try The Haus with its relaxed setting, the cute and cosy cafe Kitchen 2C and the Seasonal Garden Cafe making vegetarians happy with its plates of locally-grown goodness.
But don’t be afraid to try The Mustard Seed (Asian/Indian), or the long-staying Gourmet House (Chinese); unlikely newcomer Sikko’s Pannekoeken Huis (‘French Dutch Asian’ anyone?) has also won friends. If you really need that Bavarian thing, there are rather fun sausage-fests on offer at the three local pubs.
For artisan supplies, there are hand-made chocolates from Chocolate @ No. 5, fresh smoked salmon at Harris Smokehouse and the honey-flavoured treat that is Bienstich (reliably mispronounced as ‘bees-dick’ by locals) at Otto’s Bakery.
The guy who really knows his meats is at Max Noske’s Butchers; Udder Delights Cheese also knows its stuff and makes the ‘King Saul’ raw blue, costing $150 for 500g. The Beerenberg farmshop is stashed with its famous preserves just out of town. And the Farmgate Providore is hands-down the cutest cake store in the world.
Wines can be tasted in small personable cellar doors owned by Somerled, Rockbare, Hand Crafted by Geoff Hardy, Sam Scott (don’t pass on his Fiano) and The MOJO Barn (madly acting up on weekends).
If however you want to get among the vines, a short drive gets you into the finely tailored estates and cellar doors of Nepenthe and Shaw+Smith. Nearby Hahndorf Hill Winery offers the perfect deck for kicking back with a platter and much-championed bottle of Gruner Veltliner.
The Lane Vineyard is still unequalled for the three-hour lunch experience thanks to first-class food, sensational views back towards the Ranges and a cellar door that is happy to splash around its premium wines. Confit duck with sour cherries comes highly recommended.
Finally, one of the most heartening drinking experiences is to be had in the old Leathersmith & Bush Gallery: a lumpy, historic shop of equal parts joy and lunacy, it’s where shoppers are greeted with a welcome tot of port. Unmissable and very Hahndorf.
Deeper into the pockets
For further-flung food and wine experiences, try these two excursions.
Find Onkaparinga Valley Road and head north. You’ll go through Balhannah (cute roadside apple stalls, gourmet chocolates at Cocolat), and Oakbank (the Johnston Oakbank Cellar Door in historic brewery buildings) before turning ahead of Woodside (Providore Café, Melba’s Chocolates and Woodside Cheese Wrights where you can get awesomely priced gourmet cheeses).
Take the River View road and keep straight onto Pfeiffer for a trinity of cellar doors: beautiful Bird in Hand, complete with magnificent barrel room and well-regarded restaurant; ArtWine for its light-filled space and sublime views; and newly opened Petaluma cellar door which offers civilised tastings and a deck to die for.
If you’re feeling brave, you could strike out for Lenswood, comprising valleys so deep they feel positively primeval.
Lenswood is the fruit-growing capital of the Hills and home to three cellar doors enjoying the same spectacular ridge top but with distinctly different ambiances.