With its gorges and coastlines and wining and dining, McLaren Vale is a fine purveyor of flavours to savour and landscapes to behold.
Bringing our appetites and intrigue along for the ride, a friend and I begin our day of chauffeured touring from exclusive SEQUOIA in the Adelaide Hills: the brand new luxury lodge on Mount Lofty Estate. Leaning invitingly on his shiny Land Rover Discovery is Simon Burley, owner and tour director of Coast&Co. Between hills and coast, this recently launched bespoke tour will lead us to some of the lesser-known McLaren Vale vineyards, restaurants, sight and delights.
Firstly, a taste of the region’s tantalising topography is on the visual menu. A leisurely walk in the woods immerses us into the tranquillity of 700-million-year-old Onkaparinga Gorge: a one-time glacier. Today, its ancient bones of sturt tillite splinter the cliffs, among a studded skin of flaky grey box and smooth-barked pink gums.
Slowing our gait on a panoramic ridge where falcons, hawks and eagles ply high with the Onkaparinga River pooling below, we reach Punchbowl Lookout. Here, on Kuarna land, we pay our respects to the traditional owners who called the area Ngangkiparringa.
“The waters below were a place of refuge for women, who would bathe and swim away from the men,” says Simon, directing our gaze into the belly of the valley. “We are also standing on the dress circle of some of the best vineyards in McLaren Vale,” he says, turning around to a feast of rolling greens, pointing out specks of wineries in the heat-hazed distance.
Established during the 1850s, today’s much-celebrated wine region of McLaren Vale is home to 90 cellar doors, with the bastion of the region being Shiraz. Heading back to the vehicle we set off to meet some of the vignerons and viticulturists in the terroir of the mighty grape.
Underrated McLaren Vale vineyards
Our first stop, sitting peacefully among McLaren Vale’s ordered vines is old Bethany Chapel. British farmer and dairyman, Samson Tall, arrived from Plymouth in 1839. By 1854, he bought the land, and had the community build the church in cob construction (clay, straw and rubble).
Paul Wilson and Heather Budich bought the tiny pug church in 2015. It had also run as a B&B, but is now their beloved cellar door, where they create wine from the fruit of local growers. Gracing the walls are the paintings of Mark Wilson, Paul’s brother.
In the quaint tasting room, complete with pews and a table fashioned from old staves, we taste Samson Tall’s single vineyard wines before viewing the cellars. But what captivates us most is the onsite cemetery. “This is the headstone of Samson Tall,” says Paul. “Notice the shared headstone of his first and second wives!” It’s unknown how the two wives, Elizabeth and Ann, ended up in the same plot (but you can imagine, the conjecture over tastings!).
Book a tasting or find out more about the cellar door at samsontall.com.au
Wirra Wirra Vineyards
Entering via the river red gum-threaded fence known as ‘woodhenge’, and preserving ironstone cellars, an old barrel hall, Angelus bell, and a medieval catapult, Wirra Wirra is quirk central. The grounds hark back to an aristocratic era when former state cricketer, Robert Strangways Wigley, built the winery in 1894. Later, came along fellow cricket-lover, Greg Trott. He purchased the winery in 1969, giving rise to the famous Church Block label in 1972, named after the original Church Block vines (opposite old Bethany Chapel).
We lunch at onsite Harry’s Deli, on gourmet produce from local providores. Think Clappis’ sourdough bread and Dawn Patrol coffee. Later chinking with a Ginscato, the winery’s own gin and Moscato cocktail, we learn that eccentric Greg Trott took off for lunch in McLaren Vale one day, but ended up in London — to watch the cricket at Lords! While there, he eyed a trebuchet, and desired to bring one home. He passed away in 2005, but a catapult was later erected on Wirra Wirra’s lawn to honour him, used before the start of vintage for flinging watermelons into a nearby paddock (as you do!).
Awarded global winner at the 2021 Great Wine Capitals Best of Wine Tourism Awards, the sustainable winery overlooks Scrubby Rise. Via a timber boardwalk straddling the (dry) creek, we view Wirra Wirra’s impressive biodynamic vines.
Find out more at wirrawirra.com
La dolce vita resides at Primo Estate, accessed via rose-bordered vines and a piazza of classic Italian design. Here, at The home of JOSEPH, we taste-test the Italian-style JOSEPH flight comprising: Nebbiolo (100% Nebbiolo), Moda (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot), Fronti (NV Frontenac, Muscat and Tokay) and d’Elena (100% Pinot Grigio), the latter of which was recently rated by The Real Review as South Australia’s No.1 pinot gris. The excellent tasting paddle alone makes it one of the must-visit McLaren Vale vineyards!
“Fermentation takes place in open concrete,” informs third-generation, Matteo. “And we pump over, but do not press down on our grapes.”
Primo Grilli, Matteo’s grandfather, arrived from Italy in 1953 as a ripe 18-year-old. Twenty years later, he built his dream winery, with his son, Joseph, taking over the business as a Dux of the Roseworthy Wine graduate. His radical, experimental techniques blended original Italian winemaking skills with modern Australian, giving this cutting-edge winery its multicultural characteristics and reputation. Daniel, Joseph’s eldest son (now also Duxed), continues the family dynasty as the only duxed father and son in Australia.
After sipping and sampling a cheese-tasting platter in the sophisticated contemporary space, I take home a bottle of JOSEPH extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil, impatient to gorge further in its nutty, fruity notes.
Plan your visit at primoestate.com.au
Greeting us at this swish yet unassuming establishment (with its sign boldly printing the first ‘k’ in Bekkers, flipped backwards) are viticulturist, Toby Bekkers, and his French wife, Emmanuelle, an accomplished winemaker.
“We spent many years travelling between Australia and Europe, gaining specialised knowledge to produce our Grenache and Syrah varieties,” says Toby, proudly. It paid off. The Syrah (their first wine released with their own label), with its fruity, spicy, chocolaty notes, scored 99 points from James Halliday in 2018, and fetches $120 per bottle. With their high-release prices and glass-encased, vineyard-absorbing tasting room, Bekkers is where you sip while inviting the terroir in.
Want to book a tasting or learn more about the Bekkers wine makers? Visit bekkerswine.com
More McLaren Vale attractions
It’s not what you might expect, walking into a Sellicks Hill pub. Yet visionary Doug Govan, publican of the 1854-established Victory Hotel, planted his Rudderless vines 18 years ago, in six varieties across five acres surrounding the venue.
Doug leads us down to view his magnums. James Bond comes to mind — they reside behind a concealed wall of wines. “Welcome to my 30-year-old temperature controlled cellar, he says.” It’s an impressive collection of Wendouree wines, as well Moss Wood, Cullen, and Chateau Leoville Barton. The Old Faithful Shiraz fetches a fine $300 per bottle. The Felton Road pinot noir asks for $350. And bottles of Ceretto snatch a mint of $650. It’s something, to stand among 8,000 bottles in Doug’s discerning cellars.
Farewelling our wineries for the day, we head to Silver Sands, a sweeping stretch of west-facing beach by sparkling Gulf St Vincent. Driving directly onto the sand, we 4WD with the windows down as a classic South Australian sunset announces its upcoming performance. Here, we say ‘cheers’ to one perfect day in SA.
Hardy’s Verandah Restaurant
Enjoy dinner at Hardy’s Verandah Restaurant within Mount Lofty House. Their degustation menu includes succulent crab, marinated Mayura wagyu rump and the freshest King George whiting. Do order the Disaster: a theatrical dessert that actually explodes on your plate. Yes really!
Looking for more winery inspiration? Check out 6 incredible day trips from Adelaide for wineries and wildlife.
Travel to McLaren Vale
Rex flies to Adelaide. Book your flights here and check out the route map below.