McLaren Vale is one of South Australia’s most aesthetically gifted wine regions. Vine-clad foothills roll into rocky orange cliff faces, greeting idyllic sandy beaches along the southern Gulf St Vincent. The Mediterranean climate plays an excellent host to Shiraz, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay, and varieties such as Viognier, Rousanne, Barbera, Sangiovese, Marsanne, and Tempranillo. Though the climate is ideal, the conditions vary greatly in soil and topography, which is much celebrated by the Scarce Earth initiative. Local vignerons are motivated to release single block Shiraz vintages to encourage greater knowledge of terroir. Three local winemakers assess each wine to ensure the vineyard is represented accurately and free of overshadowing winemaking influences, with May 1 of each year seeing the release of a new vintage to contribute to the way we understand and cherish our sacred plots. McLaren Vale is the perfect day trip; positioned just 30 minutes out of Adelaide, the region is famed for its long lunches at cellar doors and restaurants, and I’m going to show you how to dine my way.
The Salopian Inn
Corner of Main Road and McMurtrie Road, McLaren Vale
Our first stop is 10 minutes off the highway. The Salopian Inn provides 360 views of vineyards from the cosy comfort of a single storey 1850s homestead. Karena Armstrong and her team have spent the past year cultivating their kitchen garden, featuring fruit, vegetables, and herbs to be plated up for their guests. The menu is comprised only of seasonal, locally sourced produce, and pasture-fed beef and lamb, free-range pork and poultry, as well as Australian-caught seafood.
The superstars on the menu appeared as the steamed Berkshire pork buns with chilli sauce, steamed prawn dumplings with ginger, chilli and shallot dressing, and chilli caramel kangaroo tail with daikon, beetroot, and coriander for a start. The steam buns were delightfully fluffy, filled with sweet, slow-cooked pork, and the prawns represented the big, rich variety swimming in the local waters, but I never thought I would so enjoy kangaroo. Being the animal's main balance apparatus, the tail is a remarkably tough piece of meat, hence it was roasted for hours on end to achieve its flaky texture. Typically gamey meat, the caramel soy braising sauce was so decadent, I had lipstick on my fingernails by the end of it.
The mains on offer are of mixed heritage at The Salopian Inn. Market seafood tom yum broth, saltbush lamb and mushroom ragu with potato gnocchi and green olives, and Chinese five-spice duck. Sticking with the Asian flavours of our entree, we chose the duck - crispy skin and succulent, with a spiced-out orange sauce.
As The Salopian Inn is one of the few restaurants down south that is not attached to a winery, the vino list is an eclectic mix of local and international names. Sparkling hails from Tasmania to Reims; Gruner Vetliner, Gewurztraminer, and Chenin Blanc fill up the many pages, along with the usual suspects of Riesling and Chardonnay.
Guests are invited to take a sojourn to the cellar, where dusty bottles of hidden treasure lie in wait. A 2009 Bodegas Roda Cirsion Rioja is purple with blueberry and boysenberry, flavoured with oak spice with a touch of mocha and cinnamon. Next to it, a Domaine d’Eugenie 2009 Clos de Vouget. Another twist of the cellar and it’s a 2004 Barolo from Vietta Villero Riserva.
These goliath bottles make for an excellent occasion, but if your day is more casual, try the Discovery section of reds by the glass. A McLaren Vale Shiraz by the name of Twelftree ‘White Hut’ gives notes of dark chocolate and ripe black fruits and fine tannins. It has been said McLaren Vale produced a far better 2011 vintage than its Barossa Valley cousin, and today I get to reap the labours of the lot.
d’Arenberg | Osborn Road, McLaren Vale
Further into the sheep-speckled hills is one of the region’s rockstar wineries, d’Arenberg. We perched ourselves on the quaint hilltop restaurant, d’Arry’s Verandah, to watch the rain clouds bestow their bounty on the valley of vines. The special of the day was a giant oyster, brought in from the other side of the gulf, Port Lincoln. These mammoth molluscs are so huge, their shells house a mussel farm. Rich, creamy, and salty, it felt like a crime to have to cut it in half to fit it in my mouth.
Head Chef Peter Reschke’s menu features house smoked rainbow trout with bonito omelette, kim chi, yuzu emulsion, and tempura samphire, alongside seared blue fin tuna with citrus salad, pork scratchings, and candied lime dressing. Showcasing McLaren Vale’s knack for raising delectable sheep, our second course was local lamb brain, lamb bresaola, and a salad of green olive, lentil, parsley, and walnut mayonnaise.
Beautifully-honoured offal is best with d’Arenberg’s 2013 Witches Berry Chardonnay. Green apple is a refreshing nose, combined with peaches and cream, and lemon zest. The nutty nature of this young Chardonnay fairs well with the brains, as the restrained use of oak allows the stone fruits to wash away their creamy texture.
The signature dish at d’Arry’s is a local lobster medallion atop a blue swimmer crab and prawn raviolo, floating in an intoxicating lobster bisque. I certainly took my time devouring this delicacy while contemplating other main morsels - chocolate and chilli braised kangaroo tail, seared saddle with mint labne, date, preserved lemon and parsley mougrabieh, as well as slow roasted pork belly and cha sui bao with green bean, water chestnuts and Asian olive paste.
Moving to the sweeter side, we finished our day with the signature dessert, passionfruit soufflé with pouring cream, paired with The Noble Wrinkled Riesling 2011. Marmalade, honeysuckle, and raisin make the soufflé sing with passionfruit pride, with an exciting burst of sherbet to keep you engaged.
D’Arenberg is home to exquisite wines from their own vineyards and international suggestions, and if you cannot choose, I suggest taking a Wine Flight. Choose from white, red, icons, and Amazing Sites Single Vineyard Shiraz, and receive three 60ml glasses of each current vintage. For educational experiences, take a history lesson with a structured tasting, exploring current and past vintages, and if you fancy your hand at blending, play winemaker and take home your 750ml bottle to name in the quintessentially quirky d’Arenberg style.
If scenic is your style, you may take a 4WD tour of hard to reach spots with Off Piste 4WD Tours, or explore the skies with Adelaide Biplanes before your gastronomic adventure begins at d’Arry’s Verandah.
The Kitchen Door
Penny’s Hill Vineyard | 281 Main Road, McLaren Vale
Continuing down the main road of McLaren Vale, you will see an old farmhouse on the right side of the road. Enveloped by fields of grazing Suffolk sheep and ancient gum trees sits Penny’s Hill winery, where wine tourists can graze on cellar door platters, gaze out to the abundance of sunshine-laced hills in the restaurant, or laze about the barn with a party of guests around an open fire. Tony Parkinson acquired the winery 26 years ago, and is quickly making this venue the centre of the great south with the help of Facility Manager Max Mason’s palpable charm.
The latest menu on offer by Penny’s Hill’s multi award-winning restaurant The Kitchen Door is the model example of contemporary Australian cuisine – fresh, locally-sourced and a fearless use of delicately prepared offal. Small plates consist of haggis croquettes, black pudding with sweetbread and truffle mousse, best served with their 2013 Crackling Black Shiraz, and liquorice and nutmeg stuffed baby squid in a fragrant broth.
To the larger plates, the chargrilled beef fillet with a chorizo potato rosti will bring a tear to the eye of any steak-lover, served with a side salad of winter greens topped with crushed bacon. The eye fillet was so tender, it could be cut with a butter knife, and the red wine jus fed my wanderlust for the local soils. The 2012 Penny’s Hill Skeleton Key Shiraz is a dazzling drop swirling in my hand.
The game is as big as the local reds at The Kitchen Door. Pan-seared elk with cauliflower puree is listed with hay-roasted pork shoulder, and a genius mutton and eucalyptus pie floater. Vegetarians can dine on the blue congo and sweet potato gnocchi, and on a sweeter note, the desserts know how to deliver. Pumpkin pie ice cream with maple mallow, cinnamon whisky ice cream with pistachio sponge, and flexible ganache with blueberry and liquorice are just a few of the intriguing options.
Penny’s Hill is ready to relaunch in the United States this year, and if Sauvignon Blanc is your Sunday saviour, you will lick your lips at Penny’s Hill The Agreement 2014. The grapes are grown at local real estate tycoon Anthony Toop’s Adelaide Hills vineyard. The agreement boasts a bouquet of kiwi fruit, zesty lime and lemon notes, and a touch of grapefruit, fulfilling the palate expectations of crisp minerality, flint and juicy citrus longevity.
For Grenache fans, The Experiment 2013 was designed to push boundaries. Old vine stocks were planted to a modern trellis configuration. The deep purple colouring and vibrant red rim exemplify the shallow soil growth conditions, yielding highly concentrated fruit. A floral bouquet of dark cherry, red berries, herbs and earthy notes lend themselves to be enjoyed now, or left for five years or more. The palate is sweet with fruit, with a hint of liquorice, supple tannins for length, and savoury notes.
The star pupil of Penny’s Hill is the 2012 Footprint Shiraz, grown in McLaren Vale, and a true testament to the benefits of clayey sands and silica-cemented conglomerate in yielding small fruit batches of two tonnes per acre. Only the most remarkable rows of hand-tendered Shiraz make the cut for this Scarce Earth bottle. Receiving 96 points from James Halliday’s Wine Companion, you will smell notes of dark plum, black and blue berries, anise, spices, dark chocolate and smoked oak, with a full-bodied, rich and pure palate. You will taste layers of chocolate, leather and earth, structured with silken tannins that will cellar up to 12 sumptuous years.
These southern vales carry secrets of cuisine as though they were syphoned from the roots of the leviathan eucalyptus trees that bind the soil. Though there is something worth visiting every week, the region is closer to being united by exuberant events like the annual Sea & Vines Festival, showcasing the best produce from every point of the varied landscape. From the rugged coast and azure waters to cottages on pristine meadows, your soul will find whatever it is seeking in this great southern land.