The Barossa Valley was never my home – not at all… really. But it’s funny – there is a feeling of homesickness being abated whenever I return. It’s hard to figure out why – I’m from Melbourne – the city, in another state, and I’ve never lived in Adelaide, let alone the Barossa, and now I live in Dubai! But there are several other reasons for this feeling of warm nostalgia.Firstly is my schooling. I studied wine marketing through University of Adelaide, a course that came from the best wine college (owned by said university) of Australia at the time – Roseworthy. A poetic name for a school, no? It takes its name from the tiny village in the Barossa Valley that it comes from.Secondly, it’s my career. For some years I worked for Pernod Ricard, who own several vineyards, wineries and brands in the region – Richmond Grove and Jacobs Creek being the big guns. Although I worked in the neighbouring state of Victoria, trips over the border and crawls back again were not uncommon.
Thirdly, it’s the wine itself. As soon as any self-respecting Australian takes a leap from cheap sweet swill to real wine, Barossa Shiraz is the first step to perfection. It’s ripe and fruity, laced with sweet oak, coconut and chocolate flavours, rich, full bodied to the point of unctuous, and is approachable at a young age, yet ages very well. It’s a no-fail stop on the wine trail that will send you in the right direction, and prevent you from ever drinking crap again.So when I step into the gentle folds of the valley floor, and look at the rise of the Eden Valley region beyond, the tank farms gleaming in the sun, the pretty German-inspired villages with their antique facades, when I smell the eucalypts, the iron in the soil, the raw sweetness of red being pumped over, the toasting of new oak barrels, the exhaust fumes from harvest trucks, when I hear the clatter of road trains, the thumping and clanging of tank-work, slurping of winery juice, and when I finally put the bundle of purple fruit that is Barossa Shiraz in my anticipatory mouth, I can’t help but sigh, and think “There’s no place like home”.
The region is nearly all about Shiraz (Same grape as Syrah). Barossa Shiraz is popular the world over, because there’s really nowhere else you can make a wine just like it. It’s riper, sweeter, rounder than all others. Expect sweet dark cherries, blackberry and ripe plum primary fruit flavours, then a good lashing of oak – they love a bit of wood in this region. Both French and American, often new and highly toasted, add sweetness and spice. And then there’s the chocolate. It’s a bi-product of the fruit and the oak and a little time. It’s most predominant in a wine less than 5 years old, and over time will mellow into mocha, coffee and liquorice bullets (another Aussie must). The most famous of all Shiraz from the Barossa is Penfolds Grange (they also make a decent cheapie called the Kalimna). But those who follow the region and are prepared to fork out similar dollars for some lesser known wines will tell you that the ones you should be looking for are Hobbs, Langmeil, Kaesler, Torbreck, Chris Ringland (three rivers), Greenock Creek, Two Hands, Rockford and more. But it’s not just about the big guns. Expect to find plenty of fantastically drinkable $20 – $30 Shiraz around (Look to Teusner, Hently Farm, Elderton, Bethany, the Willows, Charles Cimicky) and even under that (Jacobs Creek reserves, Thorn-Clarke, St Hallet, and many love the syruppy Pepperjack).
But there’s more to find – also look for Grenache, Riesling and fortifieds. Grenache is sweet and raspberry driven, and often very high in alcohol (some over 15%!). Some of the vines in the region are exceptionally old (Cirillo make a Grenache from 1850 vines), and many are grown as bush vines (meaning no trellis), making them a sight to behold, particularly as bare stumps in the winter. Often the varietal is blended with others, and the GSM (Grenache Shiraz Mouvedre) blend, made famous by Chateauneuf-du-Pape (but some would say, quite cheekily, perfected by those in the Barossa). Next, seek Riesling, which can be wonderful from the higher altitude rim of the Eden Valley. It’s fresh and limey, often laced with floral hints, and backed up by some very good minerality. It ages perhaps better than any other Australian Rieslings. Labels to look for would include Mesh, Henscke, Steingarten, Heggies, Eden Springs, Pewsey Vale, Dandelion and Small Fry. Fortifieds are losing steam, but many of the older establishments still have ancient soleras chugging out divine nectar. Port styles everyone knows, but in Australia, you should always seek out Muscat and Tokay. You will NEVER EVER come across a sweet wine so good for the price again (varies from about $10 to $100 depending on the age).
The Barossa region actually includes both the Barossa Valley and Eden Valleys. The major towns are Lyndoch, Tanunda, Rowland Flat, Nuriootpa, Angaston, Kyneton and Eden Valley – basically key one of those into your GPS and then look for the signs to individual cellar doors. (Or take my pick of the wineries below)
What to do
- Cycle – its a good way to work off all that wine and cheese, and takes the risk out of drink-driving. Although I have a friend who has been arrested for drink-riding. I suppose it’s all a matter of degree.
- check out the barossa museum or Train-spot along the Angaston line (much of it disused) or check out the Lutheran churches for some olde worlde charm
- visit the Kaiser Stuhl conservation park or maybe the Lyndoch Lavender farm or the Barossa Chateau Rose Garden if you want to see a bit of greenery.
- Cheese tasting is of vital importance (to line the stomach).
- Festivals – You’ve just missed the Barossa Vintage Festival (don’t worry, there’s one every year), but there’s plenty more to come. The Barossa Gourmet Weekend is in August, and you can keep abreast of smaller happenings on the events page here.
- Farmers Markets at Gawler, Mt Pleasant and Angaston.
- Ballooning is also very popular in the area – despite the name, the area is remarkably flat, and it’s quite a sight from above – clear Australian skies and patchwork fields reaching the horizon.
- But basically you’re there to drink. If you don’t want to do it by yourself, then try Barossa Taste Sensations, Barossa Tours. or Barossa Trike Tours as they have a very good track record – there are plenty in the region, so you may find something a little more tailored to your style just with a little research.
If you know how to use a spittoon, or are fortunate enough to have a designated driver, then you will be able to pick and choose from the multitude of winery options. My pick for a good cross-range would be:
- Jacobs Creek – besides my obvious bias derived from working for them and the ‘wine allowance’ they used to provide, it’s a superb contemporary building (they also have a heritage centre complete with producing cork trees at another site), and they have a small vineyard of all their varietals that allow you to check out the differences, and in season, taste grapes fresh from the vine. There’s so much more to this place than the cheap Chardonnay you’ve been drinking at barbecues for the last 20 years. They also have some cellar-door only wines, so you can surprise all your wine-snob friends with a limited release JC Fiano or the like.
- Bethany Wines is a much smaller outfit, but they still make a large range of wine styles. Their Shiraz is gorgeously plump and ripe whilst not being overtly expensive and is usually worth the detour. The cellar door is charming – It’s one of the oldest established wineries in the region, and has quaint stone buildings. At present there is a small art exhibition also onsite.
- Seppeltsfield is about as big as Barossa wineries get, and also one of the oldest. They have extensive cellars and grounds, a string of heritage buildings, cooperage onsite, and a restaurant. It’s also possible to grab a patch of grass under one of the 2000 palms and have a picnic or barbecue. There are some table wines available, but the focus here is on fortified wines – tawnies (ports that are not port because they are not made in Portugal) and some luscious Muscat and Tokay.
- Langmeil have a lovely selection of powerful reds, and a gorgeous sparkling Shiraz. Their family-run cellar door will enamor you. Another historic homestead, but not just that. Despite the enormous price of their reds, this group are very laid back and friendly to thirsty travelers.
- Kalleske have just recieved a crown for their 2011 GSM, which has been awarded the biodynamic wine of the year at the International Wine Challenge in London. Here, the novelty is in the vineyard. Organic/biodynamic production, and a unique presentation of the vines with cover crops makes for a nice set of photos. There is of course some smashing red here. You can read their blog to keep up with the process until you get there.
- Rockford has to be visited. It’s beautiful, but also their winemaking produces Shiraz with such a chocolatey flavour, it has to be tasted to be believed.
- Henschke are one of the only Eden Valley wineries it’s possible to visit without an appointment (much of the fruit from the rest of the region goes down to the Barossa floor for production). Lovely Riesling as well as Shiraz (of course).
- Mountadam is the other big Eden Valley producer, with one of the only consistently great Chardonnays to come out of the area (it’s usually a big buttery one). It’s the highest vineyard in the area too, so expect some lovely views.
- The little guy in the Eden is Small Fry wines, who taste at the Barossa Farmers market in Angaston, and then (usually) open up at the winery that afternoon. Otherwise appointment only. Nice Riesling.
- The Taste Eden Valley Regional Wine Room will allow you the opportunity to taste many wines from the region, many of which have no public cellar door to visit. Torzi-Matthews, Poonawatta, Radford, Eden Hall, Dandelion Vineyards, Henschke and more.
- Artisans of the Barossa have a similar setup, and have some superb boutique product for tasting. John Duval, Hobbs, Spinifex (a favourite of mine), Massena, Schwartz, Sons of Eden and Teusner. There’s some great little tasting plates available. Tastings are paid however, so be prepared to shell out. It’s worth it – you’ll get the cream of the crop here.
- There are others if you get through these – Torbreck, Penfolds, Grant Burge, Schild and more – Barossa.com have a great site that will help send you in the right direction.
Where to Stay
- Budget options include Barossa Backpackers in Tanunda, with beds starting just over $20, and single rooms from around $70. It’s pretty basic, but has a lively atmosphere, bikes to hire, and a fairly good reputation. Second would be the Tanunda Hotel – a true country pub with clean neat accommodation and a classic dining room. $70 up to about $200 depending on season and room. Vine in Barossa is a good option if you like a round of golf as their price often includes one thrown in. Clean, well presented rooms, but nothing super flash from about $100 up
- Middle of the road is mainly B & Bs, but if you prefer chains and the reliability they offer, there is always the Novotel Barossa, which is beautifully positioned to provide sunset views over vines and the tanks at Rowland flat. Rooms are reasonable for the price, which starts at about $200. Whistler Farm has only two rooms, but they are possibly the most respected in the area. Nicely furnished, beautiful gardens, lambs and roos on the property, a library, family run. Sweet suites from $195. Barossa House is also small, with quaint finishing and a family touch. They also have a chauffer-driven car onsite if you want to organise tours through them. From $175.
- Larger wallets will send you to Abbotsford Country House, multi-award winning, views, views, views, lucious breakfasts, silky linen, fancy toiletries and a coffee plunger rather than a sachet of Nescafe (yes, I appreciate the smaller things). Prices around $300 and up. Otherwise if you want to totally blow it, try the Jacobs Creek Retreat, which has a gorgeous pool, Original 1837 homestead, italianate topiary gardens and the Moorooroo Park Cellar Door onsite if you need a wee tipple after a hard day on the road. Starts at about $700. And finally, The Louise, where a room will set you back around $500 to $1000 a night for a more contemporary experience. All the luxuries you would expect at this price, but the added bonus of one of the best restaurants in the Barossa at your doorstep – Appellation (more below)
Where to eat
- You can’t go to the Barossa without seeing Maggie Beer – she’s like mother to the region and to all of us who like good home-cooked food. Local, seasonal produce, many of which can be purchased in a jar to take home. Cooking demonstrations most days at 2pm.
- Die Barossa Wurst Haus Bakery is fairly casual – bread of course, as you’d expect, but also a swathe of traditional German dishes, particularly wurst and sauerkraut (the region has a strong German heritage)
- More cafe atmosphere, and the best cuppa in the Barossa and a classic breakfast (cleverly served all the way through lunch) can be found at Blond coffee
- Winemakers favourite is Ferment. Modern South East Asian Cuisine (Vietnamese owner) with a fantastic wine list and a possibility of BYO (as long as your wine is as good as theirs!)
- 1918 is a Bistro in the old Wallent home on Murray St (Tanunda’s main drag). They have a garden where it’s possible to dine, but most of the food is served in the rooms of the near-100-year-old house. Food is full flavoured local produce with fresh salad flavours alongside.
- Appellation, as mentioned above prides itself on serving 85% of its menu within 30km of the point of harvest. Dishes are carefully put together to hit all senses well, with a concentration on texture and contrast of flavours. Modern Australian – interesting without being molecular or nouvelle.
- Hently Farm is the big one. This is where you go with all your hard-earned cash and spend $210 on a “discovery” wine and food degustation menu from the Barossa. It’s amazing. You can opt for the cheaper ‘de jour’ option at $115, but… you only live once. There’s also a cellar door for wine tasting.