Wine lovers find no worries in Barossa Valley
LYNDOCH, Australia — Hungry, in a hurry, and hugging what felt like the wrong side of the road, we swerved into the gravel driveway at Peter Lehmann Wines in the Barossa Valley. After parking the car, we rushed over to the winery’s cellar door, concerned that we were too late for lunch.
“No worries,’’ said the women behind the wooden bar. “Want to taste some wine first?’’ We nodded. After all, my husband and I were in the land of shiraz.
Australia, one of the top 10 wine producers in the world, until recently focused on quantity over quality, flooding the market with cut-rate commercial wines. Since the United States imports more wine from Australia than any other country except France and Italy, our stores bulged with these wallet-friendly offerings. As a result many Americans never learned to take Australian wines seriously.
Our host set out several glasses and began to pour a Mudflat Shiraz, unavailable in America. Garnet-black and spicy on the nose, it had an earthy richness with flavors of soil, plum, and allspice. The wine paired beautifully with a lunch platter of cheeses, almonds, olives, and stone fruits grown in the area, vegetable pates, seeded crackers, and bread from a local bakery. We could have been in Tuscany, Bordeaux, or even Napa, given this locavore moment. But instead, we were on the other side of the world, tasting wines that were the flip side of cheap in a gorgeous valley rife with artisanal food makers and, to our surprise, few tourists.
When planning our vacation we knew we wanted to spend several days in a wine region. Having flown into Sydney, an obvious choice would have been to explore the nearby Hunter Valley, home to the country’s first commercial vineyards. But when we discovered the valley was one of the top tourist destinations in New South Wales, we decided to take the road less traveled and spend three days in the Barossa.
To get to the Barossa, a region that includes Barossa and Eden valleys, you have to travel far. After the 22-hour flight from Boston to Sydney, you fly two hours to Adelaide and then drive 1 1/2 hours.
“We are a wine region but we’re still at heart an agricultural region,’’ said Julian Maul, who with his wife, Jane, owns the Abbotsford Country House in Lyndoch, where we stayed.
“We have beautiful land and the soil is fantastic for growing grains and grapes,’’ Jane said. “We have suckling pigs, smoked ducks, beautiful chickens, and beef to die for. There is a tremendous focus on heritage and the realization that, as easy as it is to go to the supermarket, we should put our money in the pockets of locals.’’
A handful of British families first settled the Barossa in the early 1840s. Within two years they were joined by whole communities of Prussians and German-speaking people from Silesia (now part of Poland) fleeing religious persecution. These settlers brought their culinary traditions — baking, pickling, smoking, sausage and cheese-making — all of which are very much alive in the region’s shops, bakeries, cafes, and restaurants. They also brought grapevines and methods of winemaking.
While the overall climate of the Barossa has been likened to that of the Mediterranean (dry summers and cool, wet winters), tremendous microclimates exist. That, along with soil differences, enable winemakers to grow a wide range of grapes, including shiraz, grenache, cabernet sauvignon, mourvedre, merlot, semillon, and viognier, along with riesling and chardonnay from cooler, more elevated vineyards. Today, the Barossa has 755 grape-growing families and more than 150 wineries. And, although only 73 wineries are open to the public, most of the mom-and-pop cellars happily welcome visitors by appointment.
A helpful source to discover the area’s riches is the Barossa Butcher, Baker, Winemaker Trail map. This meandering, 12-mile route runs from the Gawler visitor information center (where you can pick up the map) to Barossa Olives (set in a 19th century restored miner’s cottage) in Truro. The route pinpoints more than a dozen wineries to visit, along with numerous food purveyors, picnic spots, and lookout points. Most of the food purveyors listed belong to Food Barossa, which helps support and promote culinary artisans.
Since tasting wine on an empty stomach is never a good idea, we began each day with an Abbotsford Country House brunch: a buffet of homemade muesli, thick yogurt, poached dried fruit, smoked salmon, bacon, chicken sausage, and Scottish-born Jane Maul’s homemade haggis and crispy, spicy black pudding served with eggs, sautéed mushrooms, and tomatoes. Then, we would head off, twisting our way through storybook villages sprinkled with historic stone churches and “pug’’ cottages made of mud and straw, past miles of vineyards clinging to lush, rolling hills, and meadowlands filled with sheep, cows, and wild kangaroos.
In addition to numerous hamlets, the Barossa contains four main communities: Lyndoch, Nuriootpa, Tanunda, and Angaston, where we sampled java at Blond Coffee, considered the best cafe in the Barossa, and tried soft goat and cow’s cheeses at the Barossa Valley Cheese Co. Because we didn’t have time to drive to the Eden Valley, we crossed the street to Taste Eden Valley, an intimate wine shop/tasting room, where we sampled rieslings from 10 artisanal winemakers and several cold-climate shirazes (slightly softer and less chewy than those from the Barossa). That evening, we returned to Angaston to dine at Vintners Bar & Grill, where in front of a crackling fire we savored superb farm-fresh fare and a Tin Shed red made by the restaurant’s chef.
In Nuriootpa we visited Maggie’s Farm Shop, founded by Maggie Beer, the Alice Waters of the Barossa, and brimming with picnic items, produce, and condiments to sample. In Lyndoch, two choice spots were Lyndoch Lavender Farm and Lyndoch Bakery, a replica of a Bavarian cafe and famous for its European breads and pastries. Tanunda was one of the prettiest towns. Dubbed the “Heritage Heart of the Barossa,’’ it houses four Lutheran churches, dark limestone cottages, several country stores selling quilts, crafts, and jams, and the seasonally driven 1918 Bistro & Grill, where we feasted on succulent lamb, quail, and garden vegetables.
Through all of this, of course, we visited wineries. Instead of stopping by the large establishments, such as Jacob’s Creek, Yalumba, and Penfolds, whose wines we know well from home, we sought out tiny, boutique cellars that required appointments. At Dutschke Wines, Wayne Dutschke, 2010’s Barossa Valley Winemaker of the Year, greeted us, purple lips and all. Dutschke spent two hours on a rainy, cold afternoon sharing nearly a dozen of his small-batch reds, mainly shiraz, grown on the 72 acres his grandfather bought in 1853. Lovingly crafted, these wines had immense fruit flavors and extraordinary depth and soul.
This region may not be for everyone, especially those expecting a wide choice of fancy restaurants, modern spas, luxury hotels, and high-end shopping. That’s more Hunter Valley. But for visitors seeking a quieter, more rustic Australian wine experience, where passion, a sense of place, and respect for the past come together in the glass, the Barossa will not disappoint.
Victoria Abbott Riccardi can be reached at email@example.com.