If you are in Adelaide, a day trip to the McLaren Vale is a great thing to do if you are interested in wine history or just wine tasting. On a previous trip to Adelaide I had explored the Barossa Valley wine region, so I was excited to have the opportunity to visit the McLaren Vale on a tour after a recent conference. I knew it was going to be a great day because it was organized by the fabulous Beth who arranged an amazing Gippsland Food Adventures tour for us last year in Melbourne.
The McLaren Vale is located south of Adelaide at the start of the Fleurieu Peninsula. I had passed through the Fleurieu peninsular in the dark last year to and from my visit to Kangaroo Island so it was great to be able to see it in daylight this time. It is a beautiful place: “Nestled between the Mount Lofty Ranges and white sandy beaches, the picturesque region of McLaren Vale is just 40km south of Adelaide and boasts rolling hills, vineyards, a rugged coastline and charming villages. The region is ideal for grape growing and is famous for its intensely flavoured Shiraz as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Grenache. As well as exceptional wine with many family-run boutique wineries, the region is known for its produce, which is on offer at its 110 wineries and 65 cellar doors, five-star retreats, quirky cafés and funky art galleries. McLaren Vale was named after David McLaren, the colonial manager of the South Australian Company who surveyed the area in 1839. In 1845 vineyards were established in the region by Adelaide practitioners, including Dr Rawson Penfold.”
We visited four places on our trip that demonstrated the diversity and innovation of wine making in the region:
McLaren Vale & Fleurieu Visitor Centre
The visitor centre is located on the main road just as you enter the McLaren Vale region and is a great place to stop even if you don’t need further information. The centre has a cafe, art gallery, gardens and shop as well as hosting a different winery each month at its cellar door. We discovered the delights of mead honey wine through a tasting with Maxwell Wines.
Mead is made by fermenting honey and is believed to be the oldest fermented beverage known to humans. The ancient Greeks knew it as ambrosia or nectar of the gods. It is also the origin of the term “honeymoon”: Vikings believed mead to be an aphrodisiac and grooms drank it for a month after their wedding to inspire virility.
I can’t vouch for the virility aspect but I can certainly confirm that Maxwell Wines have perfected the art of making mead. Ken Maxwell started researching mead production in the 1950s and now produces four distinctive (and acclaimed) styles – honey, spiced, liqueur and sparkling.
Having a beehive in my garden and having experimented a bit with making my own wine, I have been contemplating trying to make some mead myself. I have the honey ready to go so it was great to be able to hear about the different spices that are used (and get a few tips how to use them) as well as trying some really good examples of what it is possible to do. I may also have brought a few home with me – for research purposes of course :-).
Hugh Hamilton Winery
The Hamilton family are the oldest wine family in Australia: last year marked 180 years since Hugh’s great, great grandfather came to South Australia in 1837 and planted what were the first vines in the new colony and made the first wine. Hugh is a fifth generation wine maker and his daughter Mary is now CEO of the family winery. Hugh is regarded as the Black Sheep of the Hamilton family, starting from when he was a “naughty boy” and now continuing into his innovative wine styles. This theme is carried through into his wines – with wonderful names such as The Scoundrel, The Mongrel, The Rascal and The Ratbag; and continued into the theming of the cellar door, a circular structure based on a water tank, with large picture windows giving visitors spectacular views of the vineyards while enjoying a wine tasting. I say vineyards plural as they have 3 vineyards: the Cellar Vineyard, the Church Vineyard and the Black Sheep Vineyard. Small quantities of interesting grape varieties are their thing. They think that “just as one doesn’t eat the same meal every day, there is excitement and interest in appreciating the different flavours that other grape varieties offer”. They grow 10 different varieties from the mainstream to the fringe, including Shiraz, Saperavi, Merlot, Tempranillo and Sangiovese. (I also purchased a non-alcoholic Shiraz cordial which sounded fascinating and delicious.)
Wirra Wirra Vineyards
Wirra Wirra vineyards were originally established in 1894 by another “naughty boy”: Robert Strangways Wigley who was known to be quite the prankster. One night, after a session at an Adelaide pub, Robert proceeded to hijack the pie truck – on his horse! The family were rather embarrassed by Robert’s mischievous behaviour and bought him a large parcel of land in McLaren Vale to keep him away from the city. He learned to make wine and planted a few vineyards – and Wirra Wirra winery was born. Robert Wiggly passed away in 1924 but his family had no interest in the winery so it was abandoned and left to fall into disrepair.
In 1969 Greg Trott (another somewhat eccentric chap) bought the old Wirra Wirra ruins. He found a few old sketches and some photographs and and rebuilt the winery from the remains of one ironstone wall. When asked by a local Councillor why he had not seen any application for building approval, Greg said that he thought it would be unnecessary as “this was merely a few repairs and maintenance”.
There is a large slate slab at the entrance to the Wirra Wirra winery inscribed with Greg Trott’s philosophy on life:
Never give misery an even break, nor bad wine a second sip.
You must be serious about quality, dedicated to your task in life,
especially winemaking, but this should all be fun.
And fun he had: there is a boundary fence known as ‘Woodhenge’ made from massive redgum trunks that he built to prove to his father that he was ‘manly’. He erected a giant medieval catapault to bomb neighbouring wineries with bottles of fine wine in the hope they would reciprocate the favour – they didn’t! Now they use the catapault to hurl watermelons across the lawn. On top of the cellars is a ¾ tonne bell called ‘The Angelus’ rescued from a Jesuit church. The bell was traditionally rung to announce the start and finish of each McLaren Vale vintage and for other appropriate celebrations. It was rung 70 times to mark Greg’s passing in 2005. Now they just love ringing the bell as often as possible for any occasion and encourage visitors to do so as well.
We have a tour of the winery and are fortunate in that it was vintage time and they have many vats of freshly picked grapes just starting their first ferment. We get to try freshly crushed grapes, ones that have just started to ferment and more that were on the way to becoming wine – this was a fascinating experience that none of us had tried before. Then we went to the cellars to taste a few of the wines and see and hear some of the history, before having a delicious lunch at their deli cafe.
The d’Arenberg Cube
The d’Arenberg Winery focuses on the “Art of being Different” and this is certainly evidenced by the Cube that just opened in December 2017. “The concept of the Cube was born fourteen years ago and has been developed over last 10 years. Chester Osborn, the son of founder, d’Arry, who turns 91 next week, is the mastermind behind this trippy experience and is known for his eccentric personality, loud shirts and larger than life persona. There’s been comparisons between Chester and his Cube and Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory, and it’s clear to see why.”
Inspired by the complexities and puzzles of winemaking, Chester created the idea of a cube-shaped building. Each of the five levels have been carefully designed to entice and excite the senses, including features such as a wine inhalation room, a virtual fermenter, a 360 degree video room, and many other tactile experiences. Visitors are encouraged to explore the Alternate Realities Museum, located on the ground floor, and view the many art installations on display.
It looks like a giant Rubix cube looming out of the vines and inside it feels like you are exploring Alice in Wonderland! The lift is full of flowers and fruit, the tasting room has giant multi-coloured furniture and the bathrooms are like entering a tropical jungle. The wine tasting experience was lots of fun complete with blind tasting of wines in dark coloured glasses and delicious platters. There are magnificent views all around, a huge kitchen and further wine tasting areas. I’m not sure that this is really my thing, but it was certainly an experience I will never forget.