View from the Louise, the first true luxury property in Barossa. (Courtesy: The Louise)
If you love wine, Napa Valley may be the first place you think of for full-bodied reds. You can fly halfway around the world, though, and find a still largely undiscovered wine region. Just get ready to trade Cabernet Sauvignon for Shiraz.
Barossa Valley, home to Australia’s oldest surviving wineries and vineyards, is emerging as an international wine destination. A record-breaking 509,000 Americans visited Australia last year, spending $2.7 billion, and the country’s wine capital, South Australia, saw the biggest increase in international visitors. Barossa is just an hour’s drive north of Adelaide and has enough to tantalize the taste buds that you could spend a solid week exploring the nature, food, wine, and down-to-earth hospitality.
Several wine regions surround Adelaide, including Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, and McLaren Vale, but Barossa is the star. John Baldwin, of Barossa Daimler Tours, who has been giving bespoke independent tours of all four regions for more than 20 years, says that 80 percent of his guests are flocking to Barossa’s 150-plus wineries and 80 cellar doors. The region gets approximately 220,000 overnight visitors a year, a small fraction compared with Napa Valley’s 3 million for an area roughly the same size, but it’s the intimacy and connection with winemakers that makes Barossa special. “We would lose our charm if we got a million people a year,” Baldwin says.
In the last decade, Barossa has developed noteworthy culinary and lodging options to accompany its wine, and new generations of grape-growing families are starting their own boutique labels. It’s no longer just the iconic Penfolds Grange or Seppeltsfield tawny that international visitors seek out. A vanguard of food artisans, chefs, and winemakers are cementing Barossa’s status as Australia’s premier gastronomic tourism destination.
Private terrace view at the Louise. (Photo: Courtesy the Louise)
The Louise was the first true luxury property in Barossa, established in 2005 by California transplant and former telecommunications CEO Jim Carreker. He began a second career as a hotelier with his wife, Helen, inspired by Auberge du Soleil, their favorite property in Napa Valley. “I told our California friends that a simple version of our business plan was to run a property like Auberge du Soleil in another great wine region,” Carreker says. After scouting Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, and Australia, the duo chose Barossa Valley, where they saw the potential in a still largely undiscovered region with friendly people and great wine. The Louise and its award-winning restaurant, Appellation, raised the region’s culinary profile and attracted new international travelers.
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If you stay at the 15-suite Relais & Chateaux property, do not miss having a breakfast picnic with kangaroos in Kaiserstuhl Conservation Park. Even if you opt for another of the nearby romantic love shacks (Baldwin recommends Kingsford Homestead, Lawley Farm, and Barossa Pavilions), you can venture to Kaiserstuhl on your own to see these playful marsupials up close in their natural habitat.
Seppeltsfield winery in Barossa. (Photo: Amber Gibson)
Australia’s most distinctive wine is undoubtedly Shiraz, made from the same grape varietal as European Syrah. Shiraz tends to be bolder than its softer, earthier, and more complex Old World counterpart. Compared with Napa’s famous Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz is more fruit-forward and generally less tannic. Although Shiraz is Barossa’s bread and butter, Semillon, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are all grown here, too.
In Barossa, unlike Napa, where tastings always come with a price tag, even tastings of award-winning vintages are nearly always free. Torbreck is an exception, but the nominal $5 AUD fee gets you tastes of $200 AUD worth of wine. Plus, Torbreck cellar door manager Michael Sawyer admits that the fee is more of a guideline and frequently waived for customers. Torbreck is one of the valley’s newer wineries, founded in 1995, but its wines have already received perfect scores from Robert Parker, and they exemplify the future of Barossa winemaking.
Of the large wineries, Seppeltsfield has the richest history, and it offers visitors the unique experience of tasting their birth-year vintage tawny alongside a super-premium 100 Year Old Para Vintage Tawny in the estate’s trophy cellar. Next to the tasting room is JamFactory, a contemporary craft and design studio where you can interact with and even take lessons from an in-residence cutler, leather worker, or milliner.
If you’ve never heard of sparkling red wine, do try a sparkling Shiraz while you’re here. St Hallett’s version is particularly tasty, made from its single-estate Shiraz grapes. The flavor is unexpected and intriguing, the wine’s subtle sweetness balanced by spice and a smoky oak flavor.
Tomato dish at Appellation at the Louise. (Photo: Courtesy the Louise)
Spend a few hours cooking with the Food Luddite’s Mark McNamara, who was the executive chef at award-winning Appellation at the Louise for seven years. McNamara is a champion of the slow food movement and loves showcasing the Barossa’s native flavors to cooking enthusiasts through private cooking classes, where you’ll prepare a full lunch and then dine together in McNamara’s garden.
“We were ahead of the curve at Appellation,” he says. “We took this little country restaurant and made it something nobody thought we could. I remember people told me we were mad. They didn’t think there was room for a proper fine-dining restaurant here, but that was Jim [Carreker]’s model — a restaurant with rooms.”
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If you’d rather sit back and enjoy Australian cuisine at its finest without lifting a finger, Appellation and Hentley Farm are the top fine-dining options, with newcomers such as Fino and fermentAsian adding diversity to the culinary scene.
Dessert you can find in Barossa: figs, honey ice cream, and lime chia seed syrup. (Photo: Amber Gibson.jpg)
The lovely sommelier at Appellation, Cassaly Fitzgerald, will gently guide you through the wine list, which features more than 600 selections, the majority of which come from Barossa. It’s a great opportunity to try a wine you might not otherwise come across, from one of the smaller producers that are not open for public tastings.
“I love that Barossa wines reflect our sense of place,” Fitzgerald says. “Obviously we have some of the best Shiraz in the world and some of the oldest and most revered vineyards planted, but what I love is that we have the talent, the terroir, and the freedom to create unique and wonderful wines. You just have to be open to see what else is out there past the Shiraz and the Riesling.”
Chicago-based food, wine, and travel writer Amber Gibson will never turn down a glass of champagne. Now, she’s hooked on sparkling Shiraz too. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.