Painted Rock Winery sits on the edge of Lake Skaha.

Nestled between the Adelaide Hills and the Gulf of St Vincent, McLaren Vale is a magical region in which to take a weekend break. Rolling vineyards and a rambling coastline ensure glorious vistas at every bend in the road, while the Mediterranean climate is ideal for growing all manner of grape varieties, often organically and biodynamically, as sustainability is key to the local winegrowers.

The Vale, as it is known, is home to the Kaurna people, first inhabitants of the land who spoke an intricate language and had an advanced culture, with a deep perception of the environment and land management. McLaren Vale is where some of the first vineyards were planted in South Australia, and it is home to some of the oldest bush vines in the country, if not the world, as it has remained phylloxera free.

Boutique wineries abound, and through sustainable practices are producing distinctly individual wines of complexity and depth. The mesoclimate has cool ocean influences and there’s a great diversity in the soil, perfect for its five main varieties of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, grenache, chardonnay and merlot.

There are also plantings of Mediterranean varieties, such as fiano, vermentino, barbera, montepulciano, nero d’Avola and tempranillo, producing wines for superlative cellar door tastings. The number of wine producers stands close to 200, there are almost 100 cellar doors to meander through, and each year the best winemakers earn numerous accolades.

Samuel's Gorge.
Samuel's Gorge.

In the mid-1800s, John McLaren, from the National Land Office, was responsible for surveying a valley south of the Onkaparinga Gorge; the two villages of Gloucester and Bellevue – originally small hamlets turned into towns as settlers moved south from Adelaide. Meanwhile, 19th-century Italian immigrants sealed their influence as masters of wine and food, purchasing land for vineyards, olive trees, almonds, and dairy cattle for milk and cheese.

McLaren Vale’s reputation as a premier food and wine destination can be traced back to their inventiveness. Today its appeal lies in a multitude of activities: cellar doors, food markets, rock climbing, art galleries and beach walks, along with star accommodation in which to nestle down after a day’s tasting.

Peter Fraser has been winemaker at Yangarra for more than 20 years.
Peter Fraser has been winemaker at Yangarra for more than 20 years.

A number of routes to McLaren Vale are possible depending on your starting point. Old Willunga Hill Road from Mt Compass starts from the south and winds down a steep hill where the valley comes alive, with vines that stretch almost to the ocean’s edge and colours that change with the seasons – or even the time of day in the South Australian sunlight. From Meadows in the Adelaide Hills, it’s a scenic route through Clarendon, where you will witness the tall pine forest in contrast to a predominately rural bush setting.

The freeway streamlines a trip from Adelaide, taking roughly 40 minutes and it couldn’t be an easier run down to the Fleurieu Peninsula. If you’re not keen on driving, there are coaches that offer hourly drop-off and pick-up services at wineries in the valley. Another option is to take a cycling tour to explore the Vale’s wineries and vineyards.

If you’re really pressed for time, you can even take a helicopter ride from the city.

Sarah Marquis of Mollydooker Wines.
Sarah Marquis of Mollydooker Wines.

A popular spot to pull up at is Down The Rabbit Hole ( downtherabbitholewines.com.au) on Binney Road, just off Main Road. Domenic Palumbo and Elise Cook have repurposed a double-decker bus to use as their tasting room, and old sheds have been transformed into eating and purchasing sites.

Patrons can lay a blanket on the ground and enjoy a locally derived organic picnic, paired with organic and biodynamic wines. The platters of deliciousness are available on the weekends, while on weekdays, there is an indoor à la carte restaurant; both are overseen by head chef Harry Aparcana.

Palumbo and Cook started their dream winery after roaming throughout Australia in a ’60s-style Kombi van, from Broome, Western Australia to Tasmania’s East Coast and everywhere in between. The blog on their website is a stunning reminder of what beauty lies in Australia. They welcome you into their winery, as if old friends, with sunshine and good cheer. The vibe is casual hip and relaxed, smiles are for everyone and nothing is too hard to achieve.

Their grapes are estate-grown in nutrient-dense soils with Palumbo overseeing the winemaking team of head winemaker Walter Clappis, and James Cooter, Kimberley Cooter and Fabiano Minchella. Nuance makes Down The Rabbit Hole a nonpareil winery visit, one example being a line of their signature poem appearing on the back of the labels of their core range. Cook believes their shiraz is the stand-out with its silky-smooth finish.

Samuel’s  Gorge’s Justin  McNamee.
Samuel’s Gorge’s Justin McNamee.

On California Road, stop in at Inkwell Wines ( inkwellwines.com). Dudley Brown, Irina Santiago-Brown and their dog Daisy provide two sustainably focused wine tastings – Daily Wine Tasting and Deeper Well Experience – in repurposed wine shipping containers, and a tasting room setting with exceptional views, from Mount Lofty to the tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula. Their viticulture methods rely on organic principles and their winemaking on wild fermentation with no additions and low alcohol.

Gentle basket-pressing shows in the colour and breadth of the palate in many of the wines. They don’t use petrochemicals on their soil and maintain root health through naturally derived nutrients from products like kelp and mineral dust. Two-million-year-old sandstone and clay deposited from ancient riverbeds now provides the ideally challenging soils in which to grow grapes of intense flavour.

Art and wine collided when the Inkwell label featured in ‘How Wine Became Modern’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2010. Inkwell Wines are created from single vineyard estate-only grapes while their label Dub Style is produced using grapes from McLaren Vale and around South Australia. They play with blends and textures to improvise taste sensations, something Brown calls a “left-brain creation”. The contribution that Santiago-Brown has made to vineyard sustainability in the region and further afield has been recognised globally.

Signature Inkwell wines to taste are 2018 Infidels Primitivo, 2019 Tangerine Viognier, and 2019 Dub Style Arinto.

Down the Rabbit Hole Wines.
Down the Rabbit Hole Wines.

Located on McMurtie Road, the Mitolo ( mitolowines.com.au) mantra is ‘forte e gentile’, a nod to the Abruzzian sense of strength and gentleness they embrace. Family and friends, wine and food are the ethos of this winery, which dates back to the 1950s and is the brainchild of Frank Mitolo. The Mitolos collaborate with the Loprestis family, old friends in a true Italian sense, who grow top-quality grapes in the Vale.

Mitolo’s partner and winemaker Ben Glaetzer has the utmost respect for the fruit grown on the clay soils and touched by ocean breezes. He sources barrels from various coopers to build complexity while retaining the purity of the fruit in his ferments.

The tasting room is polished and refined, made from environmentally sensitive building materials, including reused shipping containers. The friendly team will invite you to select your tasting experience from three choices: Paddy’s Row, Flour Mill Road, and Museum Release.

Wine must go with food and their restaurant – Little Wolf Osteria – shines in the Vale, providing modern Italian fare with a sense of theatre to enjoy inside or on the terrace. Chef Vincenzo La Montagna is joined by general manager Greta Wohlstadt and her assistant Sam O’Reilly, both previously from Restaurant Orana in Adelaide.

The restaurant has a comprehensive range of Italian wines and Champagnes alongside the newest standout Mitolo wines such as the 2019 Cinquecento Sangiovese, which won best Mediterranean variety at the McLaren Vale Wine Show 2020, and the balanced and medium bodied Scylla Nero D’Avola.

Their main focus has been on shiraz with GAM, Savitar and Marsican all demonstrating pure fruit expression and complex oak characteristics.

Walter Clappis, Kimberly Cooter and James Cooter of Down the Rabbit Hole Wines.
Walter Clappis, Kimberly Cooter and James Cooter of Down the Rabbit Hole Wines.

Oliver’s Taranga ( oliverstaranga.com) cites itself as being the custodian of some of the premium vineyard land that is the heart of McLaren Vale. With a six-generation family heritage in viticulture and winemaking, their expertise can be witnessed in tastings of the wines they produce. They are handcrafted in small batches from a defined variety of grapes, namely shiraz, vermentino, mencía, touriga, and sagrantino.

The vineyards are of such standing in the area that the grapes are often purchased by surrounding wineries and other South Australian wineries further afield.

History is key to the winery’s success, with the team holding onto the importance of family ties, an inherent intuition of wine production that culminates from years of discovering the land on which the grapes are grown.

A portion of their blocks are designated to produce grapes for Penfolds Grange and they’re the first vineyards in the McLaren Vale region to have received this privilege.

Don Oliver stands as the viticulturist, daughter Corrina Wright is the winemaker, and Brioni Oliver carries out operations with the respect for family, land, and heritage. This is a vineyard and winery embracing the past and looking towards the Vale’s future. The 2016 M53 Shiraz is heralded as one of their shining vintages.

The historic Workers Cottage houses the current tasting rooms and remains open as the winery undergoes extensive renovations due to finish in 2021. Tastings on offer are Tastes of Taranga and the Icon Tasting, both designed to lead the way through the Oliver’s Taranga family history in viticulture and winemaking.

The crew at Oliver’s Taranga have been growing grapes for six generations.
The crew at Oliver’s Taranga have been growing grapes for six generations.

Down on the Strout Rd, Wirra Wirra ( wirrawirra.com) vineyard and winery is serious about sustainable winemaking, as well as having a bit of fun in life. There is a sense of play as you enter the tasting rooms housed in ironstone buildings originally constructed at the turn of the 20th century and rebuilt, retaining their exquisite stonework, by the Trott family in the late 1960s.

There is a choice of tastings and tours including the standard Cellar Door tasting, Shiraz Revolution, Discover Wirra Wirra and Trott’s Tales.

The late Greg Trott had a profound impact on McLaren Vale and established the area as a premium wine growing region, with his own wines being some of the first in the valley to earn international acclaim.

Trott facilitated the marriage of hard vineyard work and the joy of drinking wine by starting the Bush Festival to celebrate each vintage – even erecting a catapult on the property to hurl watermelons, all in good fun.

The art of meaningful winemaking continues through the Wirra Wirra team headed by Paul Smith, and their use of effective biodynamic efforts, such as sheep, bees, and alternate cropping, to produce some of the Vale’s best reds’.

Wirra Wirra.
Wirra Wirra.

Where to Eat

The Currant Shed ( currantshed.com.au) in McLaren Flat was established in 1916 and serves delectable Australian inspired dishes, using produce sourced from its own garden or local suppliers, in a sharp rustic atmosphere.

In Whites Valley, if you’re after a quick bite or coffee, the Flower Cellar Door ( flower-cellar-door.business.site) café is a family run boutique restaurant with food served in an eclectic greenhouse setting or outdoors overlooking the vineyards.

Little Wolf Osteria ( mitolowines.com.au/Restaurant) is located at Mitolo Winery showcasing food with modern Italian influences using home grown produce, locally sourced seafood with dishes made traditionally and cooked over fire.

If you’re after food, wine, and art Red Poles ( redpoles.com.au/cafe-and-restaurant) restaurant offers dining both inside and out in a bush setting surrounded by vineyards. An Indigenous art space and live music on Sundays provides a friendly laid-back attitude with a menu of dishes from local produce made with care and creativity.

Another favourite is The Little Rickshaw ( thelittlerickshaw.com.au), serving handcrafted, seasonal food designed to share, as well as wine, and spirits in an informal setting in Aldinga.

The Salopian Inn ( salopian.com.au) wine cellar is not to be missed and was awarded three glasses at the 2019 Australia’s Wine List of the Year. Their adeptly crafted food is created with produce from their own organic garden.

Primo Estate has a strong connection to the Le Marche region of Italy.
Primo Estate has a strong connection to the Le Marche region of Italy.

Where to Stay

Chapel Hill Guest House ( chapelhillwine.com.au/stay/guest-house/) sits on top of the hill overlooking the Gulf of St Vincent and Onkaparinga Gorge. Its chalet-style accommodation can house a large family or group of friends on a weekend excursion or extended holiday.

Citrus Cottage ( portwillungacottages.com.au) is where local winemakers stay, offering an experience akin to nights spent in rural France. The small two-bedroom home with all the finer details is located in the heart of historic Willunga.‍

Hotel California Road ( inkwellwines.com/hotel) is part of the Inkwell Wines property with modern, luxury vineyard suites and viewing decks housed within an ecologically designed structure that provides a unique atmosphere of well-being.

To truly experience the local lifestyle, Red Poles ( redpoles.com.au) could be the perfect holiday guest suite. Located in the heart of the Vale its quaint rooms are ideal for a short visit and have access to the courtyard, gardens, and an open fire pit.

The Vineyard Retreat ( thevineyardmv.com.au) has perfected casual refinement in a working vineyard with self-contained guesthouses – two of which are refashioned from shipping containers. This world class accommodation is breathtakingly down to earth and provides a concierge service to facilitate an immersive experience in the Vale.  

The spectacular Hugh Hamilton cellar door.
The spectacular Hugh Hamilton cellar door.

Other Vale Wineries

Bekkers - bekkerswine.com
Chalk Hill-
chalkhillwines.com.au
Dandelion Vineyards -
dandelionvineyards.com.au
d’Arenberg -
darenberg.com.au
Hugh Hamilton -
hughhamiltonwines.com.au
Mollydooker -
mollydookerwines.com.au
Primo Estate -
primoestate.com.au
Samuel’s Gorge -
gorge.com.au
SC Pannell -
pannell.com.au
Yangarra -  
yangarra.com

Other Vale Wines to Try

2018 Hedonist Grenache, A$35
Made from a combination of fruit from both young and old bush vines, it’s a bright ruby red, with raspberry and cherry aromas. The palate is full of juicy red (biodynamic) fruit with herbal undertones. Lively acid and silky tannins make for a refreshing drop that can be slightly chilled on a hot day.

2020 Angove Wild Olive Fiano, A$22
A certified organic wine showing stone fruit, melon and spice on the nose which follows through to the textured lively palate.

2018 Serafino BDX, A$28
A beautifully aromatic wine with ripe berry, coffee and spice on the nose following through to red berry, black olive, chocolate and a touch of cedar on the palate. An elegant wine that will cellar for another decade.

2020 Mazi Grenache Rosé, A$23
This picked up the trophy for Best Rosé at McLaren Vale Wine Show 2020. A delicate pale pink wine with floral and strawberry aromas. There’s a hint of musk and vanilla spice, and strawberry and blood orange on the palate. A refreshing dry style reminiscent of its European counterparts.

2017 Wolf Blass Grey Label Shiraz, A$45
From a cracking vintage, blue fruits abound on the nose and the palate and there’s plenty of oak. A big wine from this Barossan-based winery that will please fans of this style and will do well in the cellar.

2018 Hickinbotham Trueman Cabernet Sauvignon, A$75
A powerful drop from winemaker Chris Carpenter working in conjunction with Peter Fraser. Black fruit, olive and violet aromas follow through to a long seamless palate of ripe plum, mulberry and blackberry flavours.

2018 Yangarra Roux Beauté Roussanne, A$55
From organic/biodynamic vineyards devoted to Northern Rhône, the grapes are fermented in ceramic eggs to produce a wonderfully textured wine showing creamy stone fruit with a mineral edge.

2016 Chalk Hill Clarendon Syrah, A$48
A beautifully aromatic wine brimming with red berries and black cherries. There’s a touch of spice, too and a long finish.