South Australia Wine Tour write up – Barossa, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale

Probably our biggest blog post yet – here is a full write-up of the wineries we visited in Australia. Hopefully you’ll see some of these at our wedding!

I’ve always liked Australian wine more than the wine of any other country – particularly Shiraz from Barossa and McLaren Vale. In terms of value for money, it still beats anything else in the world in my opinion. So it was a no-brainer for us to come and spend some time touring these wine regions – in the end we spent a full week here – 3 nights in Barossa, 2 in Clare Valley and 2 in McLaren Vale.

We tasted anything from 3 to 18 wines at each winery, depending on their range and whether one of us had to drive or not! The prices we mention for the wines are cellar door prices – but it’s worth noting that many of the wines are available at US or UK merchants for 30-60% less than the cellar door price – particularly those that were exported 2 or 3 years ago. This is due to both high taxes on alcohol sold in Australia and the shift in exchange rates that’s taken place over the last few years. Here’s a summary of the wineries we visited and our key take-away thoughts and top wine choices:

Barossa Valley

Wolf Blass – yes it’s a big commercial label, but I’ve regularly bought their yellow label Shiraz in the past and been quite satisfied with it, so we had to stop by to find out what their higher end wines are like, which I never had the opportunity to try before. They have a nice visitor center as you would expect for such a big brand.

  • Barossa Gold Label Shiraz 2010 – packed a nice punch – a great example of a Barossa Shiraz and a good warm-up for things to come
  • Adelaide Hills Gold Label Shiraz Viognier 2010 – tempered by 5% Viogner, this was Stef’s favourite

Both these wines were priced at $27.99 at the cellar door, representing great value for money.

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Penfold’s – One of the most famous Australian wine brands, they manage to cover a huge range of the market price-wise – all the way from low-end bottles for under $10 all the way up to $2000+ top end vintages in their Grange label. Whilst only their lower end wines (up to around $70 per bottle) were available for tasting, it was excellent, and the highlight had to be:

  • Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2008 – easily beat Wolf Blass’ Gold Label offering, with more complexity and balance – the extra couple of years would help for sure. But it’s available for just a little more at $37 per bottle at the cellar door

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Torbreck

Torbreck retains a small winery feel with a modest tasting room but very enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff. The tasting is a Shiraz lover’s dream with 10 Shiraz wines across their range.

  • Woodcutters Shiraz 2011 – Torbreck’s entry level Shiraz – very bold as expected but surprisingly easy drinking for such a young wine. Outstanding value at $21.50 cellar door price
  • The Factor Shiraz 2008 – an old vine shiraz with far more complexity – chocolate and jammy notes with a lingering finish. Fantastic – but of course for 6 times the price of the Woodcutters as this is their sub-top level wine – priced at $125.
  • Descendent 2008 – Stef’s favourite – a co-fermented 8% Viognier blend which tempers the Shiraz punch nicely and maintains a long fruity finish. Also priced at $125.

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Two Hands

Our favourite winery visit in the Barossa – a fantastic small old stone building with sofas by the fireplace. They provided a small plate of bread/olive oil/cured meat with the tasting and really looked after us. The wines were stunning to match the environment – 7 pure Shiraz wines and a GSM. With grapes sourced from quite a range of locations, the different Shiraz wines had some great variety and distinctiveness.

  • Sophie’s Garden Shiraz 2006 – from their mid-range series, this Padthaway series packs a distinctive nose of mint, reflected also in the layers of flavour which are well-balanced. We immediately thought this wine would be perfect with Lamb. An outstanding and unique wine (I’ve never tasted a minty Shiraz before) that is good value in that respect for $60.
  • Ares Shiraz 2009 – Fantastic bold Shiraz with great balance – retaining a very long fruity finish without too much tannin or acid – impressive for a wine like this still relatively young. It could be even better in a few years. Priced at $165 it would be a great celebration wine.

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Peter Lehmann

Another winemaker for whom I’ve been a customer for a number of years – again this was a good opportunity to sample some of their higher end wines than the usual standard Barossa Shiraz which can be purchased in most UK supermarkets. After having visited Two Hands, that tasted really rather bland and cheap unfortunately! But we found some satisfaction in the following:

  • Futures Shiraz 2008 – was a nice step up from the standard Shiraz for just a little more money – great value at $26, but probably wouldn’t fight off the Wolf Blass Gold Label at the same price point
  • VSV 1885 Shiraz 2009 – great upper range Shiraz packing quite a punch – only available at cellar door though, for a hefty $60 – and at that price point I’d probably rather go for something in Two Hands Garden series which were much more distinctive
  • Stonewell Shiraz 2008 - superb and powerful Shiraz – looks expensive at $100, but some excellent vintages such as the 06 are available in the UK for as little as 25-30 GBP per bottle – so actually superb value for money

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Langmeil

This winery stands on one of the oldest sites in the Barossa, with some of the oldest vineyards. The first acre of vines here was planted in 1843 – and those vines are still producing fruit today – used in The Freedom 1843 Shiraz. The vineyard is believed to be one of the oldest surviving Shiraz vineyards in the world – so it was great to visit an important part of Barossa history. Whilst the Freedom wasn’t available for tasting, the following were our highlights from the rest of the bunch:

  • Valley Floor Shiraz 2009 – a classic Barossa valley shiraz with a nice long and minerally finish. Great value at $29.50 per bottle.
  • Resurrection Mataro 2010 – I’d not had a straight up Mataro before and this was really surprisingly good! Huge blackcurrent hits up front followed by plenty of pepper and spice. $40.
  • Orphan Bank Shiraz 2009 - Ten rows of original vigneron Christian Auricht’s pre-1860 Shiraz vines were saved from the bulldozer, and replanted alongside Auricht’s original vineyards next to Langmeil’s cellars. Also notable with a great long finish. $50.

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Jacob’s Creek

We stopped by Jacob’s Creek as it’s an iconic brand in Britain, and I’m interested in their business and how they managed to build such a strong brand that they dominate the supermarket-wine part of the market. I’ve always enjoyed their Shiraz – it was practically the only red wine I bought through university – and I still associate the TV series Friends with Jacobs Creek wine as they sponsored the show for so many years.

Of course they have an impressive and very commercialised visitor center, and it was interesting to find out about how Gramp’s became Orlando’s which eventually became known just as Jacob’s Creek.

The quality of the wine certainly made it obvious what a different league many of the other wineries are in. We did enjoy the Sparkling Shiraz and a dessert wine:

  • Gramp’s Botrytis Semillon 2008 – rich caramel, apricot and marmelade. Not branded Jacob’s Creek at all, this is much better stuff!

And yes, I found the actual Jacob’s Creek!:

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St Hallett

Very nice people, they even gave us a half bottle of the blackwell shiraz as a present. They had a great range of 5 or 6 different Shiraz and I enjoyed all of them, the best being:

  • Blackwell Shiraz 2010 – classic Barossa Shiraz done very well, and great value at $38.
  • Old Block Shiraz 2009 – 100 year old vines create a really special wine. Berries, chocolate and a long, long finish with spicy oak from 24 months in the barrel. $100.

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Sevenhill

We headed north to the Clare Valley and our first stop was Sevenhill, the oldest winery in the region – founded by the Jesuits in 1851. There is a nice church there and in the winery they have a great old cellar, but to be honest we weren’t very impressed with their wines. In fact during our whole time in the Clare Valley, we never really learned to enjoy the Riesling for which it is reknowned. The only thing Sevenhill seemed to do well were the desserts/fortifieds:

  • Liquer Tokay NV - Malt and lingering flavour of fruit cake. This is much darker and stronger than the Hungarian Tokaj style wine which it attempts to replicate – using Muscadelle grapes instead of Furmint. Despite being fortified it retains some subtlety of flavour and is really enjoyable. $25.

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Kilikanoon

Here we found some pretty good Shiraz (which we didn’t expect coming to Clare from Barossa), but the best of the lot surprisingly was a cane-cut sweet Riesling:

  • Mort’s Cut Cane Cut Riesling 2009 – Intense citrus flavours balanced by appropriate acid – not too sweet. A really clean desert wine – fantastic! $26.

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Kirrihill

A random stop for us as we were hiking down the Riesling Trail the next day. The whites didn’t do much for us, surprisingly our favourite here was a cab:

  • Clare Valley Regional Range Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 – ripe strawberries and earthy notes – oak in good balance. Interestingly we preferred this to the more expensive Single Vineyard cab. Bargain at $15.

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Tim Adams

Our second random winery on the Riesling Trail, and as neither of us were driving today we were having a tasting each instead of our usual strategy of sharing one, and we weren’t holding back on trying the full range either! The best of the bunch here were:

  • Aberfeldy Shiraz 2009 – Cherry, plum, chocolate – not as powerful a hit as a Barossa Shiraz but it makes up for it in subtle complexity. Persistant plummy oaky finish. Really well balanced. I noted in a scribble “love it, must buy it”. $44.
  • Botrytis Riesling 2010 – very sweet with delicious botrytis character on top of citrus and floral. $25.

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Knappstein

A winery and a brewery in one! Excellent stuff!

  • Single Vineyard Sparkling Shiraz 1998 – the best sparkling Shiraz we’ve tried so far – really powerful. $45.
  • Fortified Shiraz 2010 – really smooth and fruity. $22.

The reserve Lager was also very nice so we had to get a few bottles.

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Shaw and Smith

On our way from Clare Valley down to McLaren Vale we stopped at Shaw & Smith in Adelaide Hills. I’d bought their Shiraz before and really liked it, so we went there especially. Overally I was quite disappointed – none of their other wines lived up to the same standard (I was hoping to find more wines as amazing as that – or better) – and it was kind of strange the way they did the tasting. They do a sit-down tasting for which they charge $15 per person and it’s served with a plate of cheese tasters alongside. I felt like the presence of the cheese was just to justify the fee, when all the other wineries we visited don’t charge anything for tastings. To make matters worse, in my opinion the cheeses were really badly matched to the wines and actually distracted and degraded the appreciated of the wine. In particular the first cheese matched to the Sauvignon Blanc was an ash-rolled goats cheese which had such a strong and persistent flavour that it remained with me for the whole of the rest of the tasting – and some time afterwards. And then a rather mild and plain cheddar was served with the reds – including that super-powerful Shiraz. Bizarre.

But I think the worst thing was that as it was a sit-down tasting it was very impersonal – there is less opportunity to chat with the staff and learn about the wines and the winemaking – so no real relationship to the place or the people is formed. Yes, the presentation is very nice and very controlled and consistent, but I really feel like it was wasted – you don’t go to a cellar door to have a sit-down restaurant experience.

  • Shiraz 2009 – remains the king, wins hands down over the other wines offered. $40.

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D’Arenberg

D’Arenberg was top of my list in the whole of Australia – their Laughing Magpie Shiraz-Viognier has long been one of my favourite wines. So we took our time and tasted nearly 20 wines in here! Big contrast to Shaw & Smith visit – both wineries of which I had big expectations – this time D’Arenberg met and exceed them!

  • Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier 2009 – up against some of the other reds in the range, this wine reminded me why I like it so much – the punch of the Shiraz is tempered by the Viognier and the fruit boosted longer into the finish by it. Such good value at $29 per bottle – and I normally buy this for under 10 GBP in the UK.
  • Dead Arm Shiraz 2008 – surprisingly well balanced, the punch of this wine doesn’t hit too hard too quickly. Huge long finish. $60.
  • Eight Iron Single Vineyard Shiraz 2009 – we tasted 3 of the “Scarce Earth Project” Shiraz wines and it was really interesting to contrast the flavours offered by the different locations. The Eight Iron is another extremely well balanced Shiraz with fruit and spice lingering all the way to the end of an epic long finish, underlayed by a mineral base which is very pleasant. $99.
  • The Noble Botryiotinia Fuckeliana Sauvignon Blanc 2011 – sweet, light, crisp and fruity desert wine. $20.
  • The Vintage Fortified Shiraz 2006 – Straightforward plum/fruit shiraz flavours in a fortified.. not sweet – an excellent alternative to port and in my opinion would go much better with cheese than a port. $30.

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Wirra Wirra

This was a random stop, nothing very special here, we made an exit after just tasting a couple of wines. But they had a giant wine bottle made out of corks, and a trebuchet. Fun.

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Mollydooker

After a tip-off from Ted, we made an appointment to visit Mollydooker. They don’t have an open cellar door, but they looked after us very well with an extensive tour of the winery, some tastings out of the barrel (yes, anyone buying the next release of Velvet Glove – we got a sneak preview) – and then out of a bottle of the Carnival of Love – and they let us have the rest of the bottle too. The wine was outstanding, and learning about their unique vineyard management and winemaking processes and techniques was far more than we got anywhere else.

  • Carnival of Love 2010 - overwhelming amounts of fruit – blueberry, black cherry, plum and spice packed into each mouthful with a long rolling finish and hints of vanilla. Some lingering acid qualities due to its youth – I’d love to try some after a few years cellaring. The 2005 vintage was rated 99 points by Wine Advocate. It’s a real privilege to see where and how this wine is made and taste it within its own birthplace.

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Exploring Sydney

We had only 1 full day here but managed to see quite a lot before heading to Auckland including catching up with John’s cousins Michael in Manly. Our first stop was Hyde Park Barracks as we were interested in learning about the history of Sydney and how the convicts from Britain shaped the city.DSC03690

Britain used to send their convicts to the US, but as the US approached its independance in 1776, it refused to take them leaving Britain to find another solution. That solution was Australia and in 1780, they started shipping their convicts there. This building housed the convicts of Sydney whilst they build the city. But only the men were here- women and children prisoners were sent to another part of the country leaving Sydney with a dearth of women and a problem. So, they started an immigration program with Ireland- Irish women got free transport to start a life here and they were housed in this building (after conversion of course) whilst they waited to jobs and full integration into the town.

We then explored the harbour area on foot and got our first view of the iconic Sydney Opera House

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Across the water from the Opera House is the beautiful Harbour Bridge. For $250 you can harness yourself to the bridge and walk on top of it which we would have done- if not for the pricetag! We walked part way across it on the road level and got a great view!

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We could not leave Australia without seeing kangaroos and koalas! We saw several kangaroos in the wine country as we drove through the country but we hadn’t seen any koalas, so we snagged some cheap tickets to the Wild Life Sanctuary in Sydney to see some. They were even cuter in person and we were able to get quite close to them- they didn’t do a whole lot, mostly napped up in the tree all curled up in the fetal position but they were still cool to see!

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There is also a resident crocodile- 40 years old and 4 meters long at the center.

After that we took a 30 minute ferry ride to Manly to meet up with John’s cousin Michael who moved to Aussie from the UK around 2007. We found a deal on beers beforehand then went to a great microbrewery for some excellent beer and dinner!

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Return ferry ride and a nice walk through the park back to our place. On the way we saw a possum trying to get into the garbage bin. Although a pest to the Aussie’s, we found it cute and in typical tourist fashion, several pitures were taken:)

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On the hunt for wedding wine in Barossa Valley

It’s a good excuse to taste a lot and not buy anything..

We visited Penfolds and Wolf Blass wineries this morning.. they are some of the biggest brand names here, and it’s interesting to see where the stuff you buy in UK supermarkets and wine merchants comes from. The wine is good – mainly their top labels are on for tasting – but the price buying at the cellar door are 50% to twice the cost of buying from a UK or USA wine merchant.

We alternated wineries with food places – an olive shop, a cheese place and a bakery – until we had enough supplies for lunch, so we went back to the hostel and ate it (with a bottle of wine of course). And now it’s time for a nap!

Penfolds:

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Wolf Blass:

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It’s an important academic exercise – notes must be taken:

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3 day Liveaboard Dive Trip on Great Barrier Reef

We always knew we wanted to dive the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) but after talking to divers in Indo, Thailand and Philippines, we were not expecting much. I think GBR was at its best about 10 years ago and has since been abused and partially destroyed. We actually contemplated skipping it altogether and re-allocating the budget to diving in French Poly. But in the end, we couldnt leave Cairns without at least seeing it. So after hunting around for the best deal, we settled on a 3D/2N liveaboard with ProDive. We boarded early the first day and had a really rough 3 hr to the outer reef- sea sickness was barely averted!
The weather at sea was sunny and beautiful which made the water a gorgeous see through blue. But its soooo windy. The first dive was a real surprise for 2 reasons: first it was FREEZING 24C. We both wore 2 wetsuits but I shivered the whole time and did not particularly enjoy it (I know, we are really spoilt to have become accustomed to 28-29C water). The second surprise was the state of the reef which was better than I thought it would be- we were on Milln Reef which hosted several sharks and turtles and loads of fish. Also several sand sting rays and both hard and soft coral.

The diving here is without guides so there is a thorough briefing w compas headings then we are on our own. Its not worrying though as the diving is shallow and we almost always ran into other divers. And we had good kit including compases and safety sausages.

We did 3 dives the first day (skipped first night dive), 4 the second and 1 the last. The second night dive was pretty cool and very easy- we hung out under the boat watching the grey reef sharks (2) hunt the long tom fish that were attracted to the boat lights. There were so many fish under the boat and the shark just swam around at its leisure, sometimes coming within a few meters of us!

The reef definitely appears to be recovering and whilst there is plenty of dead coral, there is also loads of growth and health coral. Generally more hard coral with lots of table coral, staghorn and finger coral but soft coral is also fairly common. I was pleased. However, there is still a lot of work to be done including stopping the shark fishing which is not actually illegal in Australia. The dive leader was explaining that its not illegal unless you just take the fins. So- the fishermen take the whole shark and dump the body on land:(

Our friendly whitetip:

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One of the many turtles we encountered:

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Plenty of good hard coral provides a nice backdrop:

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