It's a big call, but McLaren Vale has become this traveller's favourite Australian wine-tourism destination.
The sun-bleached grass, quivering silver-sage leaves of the red river gums and cream-hued calcareous cliffs are an unfamiliar landscape to me, but the whisper of a salt-tinged breeze is a reminder that while this may be country South Australia, the beach is just over those hills.
This is my first (but certainly not last) visit to McLaren Vale, 40 kilometres south of Adelaide. The region plays second (or even third or fourth) fiddle to other South Australian wine regions, but the wine and food, history, architecture and art, along with the otherworldly beauty of the local beaches, make McLaren Vale everything an oenophile, gourmand, romance-seeker or nature lover could hope for in a dream getaway.
Where the wine is
The first order of the day is to designate (or hire) a driver. Second - relinquish any plan of getting to all of the wineries. There are more than 80 cellar doors across McLaren Vale, so for the health of your liver and wallet, save some for a return visit.
My first stop is the famous (or "infamous") "Cube" at D'Arenberg. Despite its modernistic Rubik's cube angles, there's something noble and castle-like about this piece of architecture. Of course, this is a winery and there are tastings on offer, but the Cube is much more than a cellar door - the ground floor is the Alternate Realities Museum, an eccentric collection of sensory art.
Not only one of the world's most geographically diverse wine regions, McLaren Vale is the most environmentally sustainable wine grape region in Australia. At Gemtree Wines, we take a take a tour of the biodynamically-managed vineyards with third-generation owner Melissa Brown, who started trialling biodynamics in 2005. "Back then we copped a bit of ribbing about spraying moon juice and dancing naked around a fire at full moon," she says. "People were also sceptical that it would work on a property our size."
Today, as well as classic varietals such as grenache, shiraz, and cabernet sauvignon, they produce small-batch runs of biodynamic alberino and fiano, with guided wine flights and native produce platters on offer at their cellar door. It's also very much an intergenerational business at Oliver's Taranga, where we tour the leafy vines by golf buggy, a glass of wine in hand. McLaren Vale may be best known for its grenache and you will see it everywhere, but many, such as Oliver's Taranga's sixth-generation winemaker Corrina Wright, are also experimenting with alternate varieties and at the Taranga cellar door, we taste vermentino, tempranillo, sagrantino, mencia and fiano.
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There are three different tasting experiences on offer at Wirra Wirra Vineyards, in a building whose bones date from the late 1800s. It's here each year that vintage is announced, in a tradition that goes back five decades, when the year's crowned Bushing King and Queen ring the bell in the tower at a lunch attended by winemakers from all over McLaren Vale - a last hurrah before the hard work of picking starts.
And: Your final winery will pack all of your purchases and send them on for you.
The art of food
Where there's good wine, inevitably, there's good food and Maxwell Wines delivers some of the most visually arresting and accomplished food I've had for a long while, at a table laid with crisp napkins and buffed cutlery overlooking the vines and Fleurieu hills. It's worth booking lunch as part of the winery heritage tour, which includes a tasting and a peek inside the winery's cave.
The Currant Shed is another worthy well-loved local, a restaurant on a property that's also home to Shotesbrooke Estate. Housed in an early 1900s currant drying shed, in spite of the contemporary menu and location, it gives relaxed "long lunch in Tuscany" vibes. For dinner, we spread the love with visits to the historic Salopian Inn and the iconic The Star of Greece. The former occupies an atmospheric building, an old homestead dating from 1851, where we venture down into the old cellar to pick a bottle to go with our meal. At the latter - not, as the name might suggest, an Hellenic restaurant, but named after a ship that sunk near here in 1888 - we dine on the freshest South Australian seafood; King George whiting from Kangaroo Island and local squid, while watching people still swimming at 8pm. The sunset viewing is spectacular.
And: Newest venue in the Vale is Frankie Italo Dining and Disco Lounge at Mitolo Wines, with an Italian-style share plate menu.
More than wine
Winsome is trying to eat her own basket, while Agatha has come to a halt and is snacking on some particular juicy grass. No designated driver is required for this particular tour. A relatively new offering, the Walking Donkey Wine Tour is the brainchild of winemaker Jodie Armstrong of Journey Home Wines. She's imported the straw saddle baskets from Greece and packs them on the girls with wine and a picnic, for an on-foot tour that offers an alternate vista, insider wine knowledge and lots of donkey cuddles. You'll probably want to factor in some beach time on a McLaren Vale break. As we're reminded on numerous occasions, it's only around 10 kilometres to the beach. At Sellick's and Silver Sands, locals actually drive on the beach, not in four-wheel drives but ordinary cars, bringing out chairs, tables and umbrellas and setting up for the day. With cliffs often dropping dramatically into the sea and vivid aquamarine water, the beaches look like a cross between Dover and a Greek island. Other stunning beaches you can visit sans car include Port Willunga, Maslin and Carrackalinga.
On Saturday morning, we skip breakfast and head to the Willunga Farmers Market, where we start with a coffee and pain au chocolat, before taste-testing our way around the stalls of artisan producers of everything from gourmet sausages to cheese, condiments, cakes and bread.
Getting there: McLaren Vale is less than an hour's drive south from Adelaide airport.
Staying there: Beresford Estate has new luxury villas, some with private spas, from $670 for two nights. Karawatha Cottages has self-contained cottages for around $300 per cottage per night for two nights. beresfordestate.com.au; karawathacottages.com.au
For the diary: Celebrating McLaren Vale's produce, arts, nature and indigenous heritage, SummerVines Festival, inaugurated in 2023, will be held January 18-29, 2024. summervines.com.au
Explore more: mclarenvale.info
The writer was a guest of McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association.