A South Australia Primer: Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale & the Barossa Valley

Posted on Jan 23, 2019

Elderton Wines

Vineyard views at Elderton Wines in the Barossa.

A recent trip took us down to Australia to stay with friends who live in Adelaide and tour the local wine regions. Adelaide is the largest city in the Province of South Australia, a port city on the island’s southern coast and South Australia’s capital. It is within an hour’s drive of three of South Australia’s most important wine regions. This is gorgeous real estate, rolling hills that are dedicated to grazing lands and various crops including vineyards. It is sparsely populated and still has that rural, undiscovered feel to it. And as we found, it is a terrific place to visit and taste. There is a great variety of wines to try: numerous different white and red varieties and a surprising range of microclimates, resulting in wines of many different styles. In addition to tasting some terrific wines, we also discovered an amazing foodie culture when we were there. It is a fabulous wine region to visit and we are already thinking about a return visit.

One feature of the wine regions surrounding Adelaide, which may be unique in the world, is that you have a cool climate wine region, a temperate climate wine region and hot climate wine region, all within an hour’s drive of a major city.

Adelaide Hills

Adelaide Hills

Map of South Australia’s wine regions.

Adelaide Hills is the closest GI or Geographical Indication to the city of Adelaide. A GI is the Australian version of a homogenous wine region, analogous to a French Appellation or American AVA. It can be reached by car within 30 minutes of Adelaide’s CBD (Central Business District). This GI was designated in 1998 and is one of Australia’s largest and most diverse. It runs in a narrow band about 70 km long in the Mount Lofty Ranges east of the city. Two key characteristics of Adelaide Hills are its higher elevation (some vineyards at over 600 metres) and proximity to the ocean. Together these two factors contribute to making this a cool climate region.

Adelaide Hills

The Lane Winery in Adelaide Hills.

There are roughly 14,000 hectares under vine, planted roughly 2/3 to white varieties and 1/3 to red varieties. The dominant varieties grown are typical of a cool climate: 36.5% Sauvignon Blanc, 19.3% Chardonnay, 14% Pinot Noir and 5.8% Pinot Gris. Two sub-regions exist in Adelaide Hills: Lenswood and Piccadilly Valley, so-designated because of their unique soils and micro-climates. Since Australia is generally viewed as a hot wine growing area, it will likely come as a surprise to learn that Piccadilly Valley has similar growing conditions to Champagne. We tasted some excellent sparkling wines at a delicious lunch we had at the Lane Vineyard in Adelaide Hills.

Wineries found in the Adelaide Hills include:

  • Ashton Hills
  • Lenswood
  • The Lane
  • Shaw and Smith
  • Nepenthe

McLaren Vale

Adelaide Hills is South Australia’s cool climate region and McLaren Vale is its temperate or Mediterranean climate region. Visually it is similar to Adelaide Hills with its rolling hills and patchwork quilt of farms and vineyards. The key difference is temperature. An additional 200 Celsius degree days or 15% more than Adelaide Hills means that warm climate varieties can flourish in this region. Consequently 90% of this GI is planted to red varieties. Shiraz dominates in McLaren Vale with just over 50% of the region’s vines planted to this variety. Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Mataro (Mouvedre) are also planted. Smaller amounts of other red Mediterranean varieties have grown well in the region, such as Nero D’Avola, Sangiovese and Tempranillo. Of the white varieties, Chardonnay and Fiano are the most planted.

barossa valley wine

A beautiful old vine.

McLaren Vale sits about a 45 minute drive south of Adelaide. The region is very pretty and rests between rolling hills and the ocean. McLaren Vale has a great sense of history as it is one of the oldest wine producing regions in Australia. The first vines were planted in McLaren Vale in 1838. The phylloxera louse which has destroyed many of the vineyards of Bordeaux and California, has never made it to Australia and consequently some of these original plantings are still producing grapes today. Vines of this age produce very few grapes and those that are grown produce wines that are concentrated and very complex. Another key facet of McLaren Vale is its very diverse soil base. The region has 40 separate geological formations. These different soil bases contribute to the region having many different terroirs. Driving around the region we noticed many re-brown earths. These soils are the famed terra rossa as well as rendzina, sandy loam and dark cracking clay. These are all friable soils that provide good drainage, a key ingredient for making good wine.

Wineries of note to be found in McLaren Vale include:

  • d’Arenberg
  • Alpha Box & Dice
  • S.C. Pannell
  • Angoves
  • Chateau Reynella
  • Mitolo 

The Barossa

The third wine producing region surrounding Adelaide is probably the best known of the three: the Barossa. The Barossa GI contains two subregions: The Barossa Valley and The Eden Valley. The Barossa Valley is the much larger of the two with some 11,525 hectares under vine while the Eden Valley has just 2,347 hectares under vine. About an hours drive from Adelaide, The Barossa posses a continental climate and enjoys the hottest and driest climate of the three regions surrounding Adelaide. The Eden Valley is the cooler of its two sub regions and has demonstrated the ability to make good Chardonnay, Fiano and Riesling. In the hotter Barossa Valley red grapes are grown with plantings of Shiraz, Grenache, Mataro and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Grenache grapes.

Shiraz is the signature grape of the region. The hot, dry climate tends to produce a bigger, darker style of wine as the region can get the fruit very ripe. In the 1990s and early 2000s the region started to develop a reputation for very ripe and extracted wines that saw considerable oak influence. The trend for these big, alcoholic and almost port-like wines went too far in our opinion and in the opinion of many wine drinkers. While the top winemakers always sought to make balanced wines, the region as a whole suffered from this reputation of producing over-done wines. During our tastings in the Barossa, none of these overdone wines were to be found. Those who had pushed the style too far have since change their ways and are now picking earlier, seeking less extraction and reducing the time in new barrels. The Barossa will always be a hot region riper, fuller wines will always be its trademark. But balance has been re-introduced to the wines of the region and the excesses of the past were nowhere to be found in our tastings.

Barossa is home to many of the top wineries in Australia, including:

  • Penfolds
  • Torbreck
  • Yalumba
  • Grant Burge
  • Peter Lehman
  • Langmeil
  • Powell and Son
McLaren Vale wine

The spectacular Cube restaurant at d’Arenberg.

One final note on the foodie scene in South Australia. Top wine growing regions have long attracted top chefs and South Australia is no exception. During our time there we enjoyed some amazing meals. Farm to table is very much the theme and the local produce allows the Chefs of the region to work with fantastic ingredients. Innovation was also on display with many of the chefs making unique combinations and pushing boundaries with their techniques. Two winery restaurants that offered extraordinary dining experiences were The Cube at d’Arenberg (McLaren Vale) and The Restaurant at the Lane Vineyard in Adelaide Hills.






    • Good to know…we didn’t come across that variety but now very curious!

      Post a Reply
  1. caseyewers@hotmail.com'

    It looks and sounds like you guys had an amazing time down under! I hope you’ll make it back to explore more of the Aussie wine scene!

    Post a Reply
    • We will definitely be back and hopefully can get close enough to share a bottle or AdVINEture with you!

      Post a Reply
  2. rick@strongcoffeetoredwine.com'

    Thanks for taking me down memory lane. I had the good fortune to drink my way up the Barossa Valley some years ago. This was during a time that I really did not concern myself with the intricacies of terrior. Thanks for sharing this information and bringing back the fun memories of that trip.

    Post a Reply
    • It was our first time there and we fell in love with it. Some fantastic wine (and food) in all three regions and we can’t wait to return!

      Post a Reply
  3. nickqueale@gmail.com'

    Great read! What a stunning part of the world.

    Post a Reply
    • We couldn’t agree more and hope to explore more with you guys! Thanks for sharing 🙂

      Post a Reply
    • Might be easier to just join us for an AdVINEture 😉 ?!

      Post a Reply
    • Happy we could help ;). It really is a terrific part of the world, we can’t wait to get back!

      Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share This