A sweet whiff of ripe grapes mingles with the aroma of eucalyptus trees, delivered on a hot breeze rippling across acres of vineyards. Needle-spired Lutheran churches puncture an impossibly blue heaven above old-time villages of stone cottages.
The Barossa Valley appears as if nothing has changed since German immigrants settled among these low rolling hills in the early 19th century and planted vines so they would have something to wash down the bratwurst and strudel.
The sun-drenched, heat-stoked wines were as bold as the Germans themselves. By the 1990s, this wine-growing region, an hour’s drive from the genteel, cultured South Australian capital of Adelaide, was the epicenter of the Shiraz Revolution when Australia’s robust and reasonably priced reds hit international wine glasses and put it on the new-world wine map.
My friend Jim Hutchison, who grew up in Adelaide, introduced me to sipping and cycling in the Barossa Valley in the late 1970s. Every time we visited we toured the string of small towns such as Tanunda, Lyndoch, Angaston and Nuriootpa, where in small, old-world shops, homemade charcuterie kept company with beer, potato bread and handcrafted German pretzels.
We cycled across a dry creek through stands of gum trees, where kookaburras chuckled and the occasional kangaroo hopped about, and we prowled dusty back roads for tastings at wineries simple or grand.
It was a delightfully sleepy region with modest food and accommodations. It really came to life in late March and early April during the Barossa Vintage Festival — at 60 years, Australia’s oldest wine festival — when dirndls appeared and lederhosen-clad brass bands oompah-pahed their way through a week of grape stomping and wine tastings.
Jim and I revisited the Barossa Valley during the 2014 harvest, relieved that little had physically changed in Australia’s best-known wine-growing region. The charming shops and atmosphere remained, but a sea change had taken place in the food and wine scene.
There’s now a popular farmers market, luxe accommodations, creative cuisine crafted from local produce and plenty of young winemakers with an entrepreneurial vibe.
The winding path to wineries
These days the 17-mile Jack Bobridge walking and cycling path knits together the towns that dot the 8-mile-long, 9-mile-wide Barossa Valley, winding through wine country.
That makes it easy to pedal to tastings at some of the area’s 75 wineries, including our favorites Peter Lehmann, St. Hallett and Langmeil, whose Freedom vineyard contains the gnarled vines of some of the world’s oldest (1843) Shiraz grapes.
Shiraz is the valley’s signature wine. Former Wine Spectator critic James Suckling declared that the Barossa Shiraz “can be compared to the best Syrahs of France. Some even resemble Burgundy with their delicacy and freshness.”
A host of other grape varieties, blends and styles are being conjured as well, such as tiny Moorooroo Park Vineyards’ Silentium Sparkling Shiraz, purple bubble-topped bliss in a Champagne glass.
One of the best new treats in the wine scene is Artisans of Barossa, a wine-tasting bar in Vine Vale where seven leading winemakers present their distinctive, small-batch creations for tasting under one roof.
Among them are John Duval, chief winemaker at Penfolds, Australia’s best-known winery, for 16 years before creating his own label, John Duval Wines, and the delightfully chipper Greg Hobbs, a former special forces sniper who now crafts knee-weakening Shiraz for Hobbs Vintners.
Artisans is a casual, art-filled space with great valley views. Winemakers often drop in to chat while you sip and nibble on wine-friendly tapas.
There’s something intrinsically Down Under about the simple blackboard menu at Charles Melton in Tanunda, where gourmet Aussie meat pies can be savored on a veranda overlooking the vines, accompanied by a perfectly blended Nine Popes GSM, a blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre.
Classic casks and custom GSM blends
Outside Nuriootpa, down a long country road lined with towering palms, is Seppeltsfield (1851), the grand dame of Australian wineries, with its homestead and gardens that are a state-protected historic village.
Inside its Centennial Cellar, we walked down another long approach, between rows of wooden casks, marked with dates associated with world events such as the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression and World War II.
Just past a cask labeled 1952, the year the polio vaccine was discovered, we reached the cask with my birth date. Sam Hood, our guide, stepped up to siphon a dram of Seppelt Para Liqueur Vintage Tawny Port from the barrel and handed it to me, a rare opportunity to “taste my birth year.”
Then we headed to the 1914 cask, where he drew two glasses. Seppeltsfield is the only winery in the world to release a 100-year-old, single-vintage wine each year, and that’s what we slowly relished, a luscious Port laid down in 1914, the year World War I broke out.
For a look at more contemporary winemaking, we spent an afternoon at Penfolds in Nuriootpa, one of the Barossa Valley’s oldest wineries, founded in 1844 by Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold, who made “hospital-grade” brandy. We donned lab coats and set off to make a new wine. In the winemakers lab we stood before a forest of beakers, graduated cylinders and a bottle each of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre, or GSM.
The goal was to blend our own GSM, first tasting Penfolds’ take, Bin 138 from 2011, on the popular combination. Our guide talked us through a tasting of each of the varietals, and we noted their characteristics. Then we played lab scientists, mixing various percentages of each, tasting and adjusting, creating three blends. We chose our favorite, proudly bottled it and slapped on a label.
My traveling companion Jim and I took our signature GSMs to a picnic table in the shade of red flowering gum trees and laid out a spread from that morning’s farmers market: local mettwurst, cheese and German smoked ham, potato salad and crusty bread.
We watched grapes being harvested in the distance while we sipped and sighed, happy that change has come to the Barossa Valley, but not too, too much.
A bumper crop of culinary talent
One of the great leaps forward in the Barossa Valley in the last decade or so has been the Saturday farmers market that brings crowds to Angaston’s old Vintners Sheds.
You might run into well-known local chefs such as Maggie Beer, an antipodean Alice Waters whose popular Farm Shop products are available worldwide.
Against a backdrop of giant wine barrels, we perused all things local, organic and free-range — olives, eggs, cheeses and crusty breads — and stopped at a coffee roaster who brewed an accompaniment to our legendary lunchtime Market Burger, made with locally made buns, free-range eggs and bacon dressed up with chutneys and pickles made by market stall-holders.
“No gels and siphon guns here,” Mark McNamara told me as I sautéed just-picked baby zucchini. “The flavor is in the food, and we just leave it alone.”
McNamara was executive chef at the nearby Louise resort’s Appellation for seven years, turning it into one of Australia’s leading regional restaurants. In 2013, he stepped out to create Food Luddite, a hands-on Slow Food-ish cooking class in a tiny stone cottage outfitted with a modern teaching kitchen. He also dreams up the Artisans of Barossa menus and holds one-off culinary events at farms, gardens and wineries.
The local produce is finding its way into international cuisine. At fermentAsian, Vietnamese chef and owner Tuoi Do does a fine take on contemporary Southeast Asian cuisine, serving much of the food grown in her family garden in Tanunda. It’s an award winner not only for the Australian scallops, local Wagyu beef and Barossa Berkshire pork belly that find their way onto the menu, but also for its 65-page wine list.
In Angaston, Fiona and Matteo Carboni began offering fresh pasta-making classes in their cozy enoteca, Casa Carboni, a wine and food shop, cafe and restaurant they opened in 2013.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA
From LAX, Air New Zealand, Qantas, United, Virgin Australia and Cathay Pacific offer connecting service (change of planes) to Adelaide. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,653, including all taxes and fees. Barossa Valley is a 1- to 11/2-hour drive from Adelaide, about 40 miles.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 61 (the country code for Australia), 8 (the city code for Adelaide) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY
Novotel Barossa Valley Resort, Golf Links Road, Rowland Flat; 8524-0000, www.novotelbarossa.com. Modern hotel with spa, golf. Doubles from $140 a night.
Abbotsford Country House, Lot 80, Yaldara Drive, Lyndoch; 8524-4662, www.abbotsfordhouse.com. Classic Aussie country house B&B with a view. Doubles from $225, breakfast included.
The Louise, 375 Seppeltsfield Road, Marananga; 8562- 2722, www.thelouise.com.au. Deluxe lodge getaway surrounded by vines. Doubles from $475 per night.
WHERE TO EAT
Appellation, www.thelouise.com.au/dine. Fine dining at the Louise. Entrees from $34.
FermentAsian, 90 Murray St., Tanunda; 8563-0765, fermentasian.com.au. Contemporary Southeast Asian cuisine and hefty wine list. Entrees from $14.
Artisans of Barossa, Light Pass and Magnolia roads, Vine Vale; 8563-3935, artisansofbarossa.com. Wine-friendly dishes from $17.
Charles Melton Wines, Krondorf Road, Tanunda; 8563-3606, www.charlesmeltonwines.com.au. Locally sourced lunches on a terrace overlooking the vines. Meals from $22.
WHAT TO DO
Barossa Farmers Market, Stockwell and Nuriootpa roads, Angaston; 402-026-882, barossafarmersmarket.com.au. Open 7:30-11:30 a.m. Saturdays.
Food Luddite, 21 Murray St., Greenock; 0400-660-445, foodluddite.com. Cooking classes with chef Mark McNamara from $40 a person.
Seppeltsfield Wines, Seppeltsfield Road, Seppeltsfield; 8568-6217, www.seppeltsfield.com.au. Birth Year tasting, $50 per person; Centenary Tour and Tasting, $95 per person.
Penfolds Winery, Barossa Valley Way, Nuriootpa, 8568-8408, www.penfolds.com.au. Make your own blend, $65 per person.
TO LEARN MORE
Barossa Valley tourism, www.barossa.com
South Australia tourism, us.southaustralia.com