the big barossa

A free hire car upgrade is always a good way to start a weekend away. Satnav on and away we go, out of Adelaide, up the Main North Road to wine country. Shiraz country, to be precise: the Big Barossa.

Once past the outer suburbs the landscape becomes more and more sun-scorched, all browns, ochres and straw-yellows. An hour later we round a bend in the highway and there they are: vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. “Hello vines!”, I call excitedly.

Off the main highway we meander towards the town of Nuriootpa. I welcome each winery sign like an old friend: Torbrecks; Richmond Grove; Peter Lehman. We locate our guesthouse and head straight to the cathedral of wineries. Penfolds seems the perfect place to worship on an Easter weekend.

I queue to buy some tawny, then join the crowd at the tasting bar. Never mind the pinots, or the affordable Koonunga Hill: I ask the pourer to start me on a shiraz-grenache-mourvedre mix. The first sip is divine, and so it begins.

On down the list I go, past an interesting shiraz-mourvedre and a very lovely cool-climate shiraz, but predictably it is the big Bin 28 that has my eyes rolling back in my head as the deep purple liquid hits home.

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The big hitters of 2010 – Bin 408 cabernet sauvignon and Bin 389 cabernet shiraz, the Baby Grange – are tempting. But it’s the last pour, the 2010 Bin 150 Marananga shiraz that is the very best of all. As the last drops trickle down, I thank the lord for those first pioneering Barossa winemakers who made their home here way back in the mid-1800s.

Back in our guesthouse, we open a bottle of the farm’s own 2008 shiraz and lower ourselves into the waiting hot tub on the verandah. We sit and gaze over the vines as the sun sets, moving on to a decent local tawny as we put the world to rights.

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Back inside we curl up on the sofa with a platter of local pates, cheeses and salamis as darkness settles and the countryside falls silent.

Another day in wine paradise.

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and it begins

Adelaide, November. I arrive in the middle of the most severe November heatwave since records began. It’s not that hot when I arrive: only in the mid-thirties.

I move between a severely air-conditioned office and a severely air-conditioned hotel room, hardly noticing the relentless heat. A small army of volunteers in the meeting room below work through three shifts, calling the elderly and vulnerable, checking they are OK and giving them advice about surviving the heat.

The emergency services are called with alarming regularity: we save quite a few lives in the space of ten days, summoning ambulances and police to those whom we fail to contact. It is tedious but rewarding work.

In the evening I stroll through quiet city streets, enjoying the coolness of temperatures down in the low thirties. Christmas street signs still seem out of place to my northern hemisphere head: colourful lamp-post signs of baubles, candy canes and wrapping ribbon seem a little tame but there is no point in twinkling lights when we are approaching the longest day of the year. The odd storefront Christmas tree adds colour but I miss the darkness of Grafton Street turned to Christmas magic by red fairy lights and Georgian garlands.

Rigoni’s is one of my favourite places to eat Italian. I sit at the restaurant bar sipping a local GSM red, until the bar tender confesses she has poured a cabernet sauvignon by accident. Never mind. My bruschetta tastes good until I find one, then a second, human hair amongst the tomatoes. My dish is graciously swept away and replaced quickly, but no apology. A quiet top-up of the incorrect wine in my glass is appreciated as a gesture.

As I walk back to my hotel the beach volleyball place is buzzing. Dozens of people play competitively on the man-made city beach in the fading light, despite the heat. These South Australians are tough.

A day later the fires begin. Many regions across three states are at catastrophic fire danger levels. Temperatures soar into the mid-forties in Adelaide. I sit with my colleagues watching the fire service website and waiting. Every fifteen minutes the radio wails an old-fashioned but attention-grabbing siren. The announcer reads out the fire warnings for the Yorke peninsula. A scrub fire is heading towards a small town and people have been warned to activate their fire plan. Across the south-east of Australia, Red Cross volunteers are on high alert.

In South Australia we turn our focus away from the fire momentarily to watch the dry lightning approaching from the west, threatening more scrub fires where they hit land. Can this be only November? And yet it only seems weeks ago that the last fire season finally ended.

At the airport I sit and wait for my flight, hoping the dry lightning will not delay me. The powerful air-conditioning in the Qantas lounge does not work within a few metres of the plate-glass windows overlooking the tarmac. I sit at a rare empty seat and swelter. The cool change is coming, they swear. I watch a fellow traveller, a youngish man who is not as carefully coiffed and manicured and fashion-obsessed as many city men here. He is very well dressed but there is the air of a young fogey about him, an independence of style, a touch of dishevelment. I have a wave of homesickness for London.

A change of plane and four hours later, I touch down in Melbourne. The air is blessedly cool and smells of India. Must be all the jasmine in the air. Let’s see what the weekend brings.

visiting noela & the mclaren vale wineries

My friend Noela moved back to Adelaide in the New Year. We miss her! So much so in fact that I went to visit her for the weekend about a month after she had moved there. 

We ate at an amazing Italian restaurant in the city, Rigoni’s, where I was actually served one of the best Spanish paellas I have ever tasted. This Adelaide institution has been open for almost 30 years and it is a real institution.

Next day we spent the evening at the market – what a civilised way to do your weekly shopping. Strolling aisles through cheeses, deli items, good coffee and fresh fruit and vegetables, followed by a fantastic and ridiculously cheap dinner of noodles in the laneways of Asian restaurants surrounding the market.

The highlight, of course, was the day spent wandering the wineries of McLaren Vale on the Saturday. In Noela’s little Fanta can of a car, we buzzed down the freeway to the McLaren Vale region – only about an hour away from the city and overflowing with good wine. Starting at the very first place we came across, the wine flowed and the people welcomed us.

dowie-doole

Simon Hackett is a great little winery with a friendly lady in the tasting room who pressed an open bottle of red wine on Noela for free because she loved it so much and it was the last one. We could have stayed there all day in the cool air, putting the world to rights. The crowds of weekend tasters had not yet descended and it seemed like we were the only two people in the McLaren Vale. We left with about six bottles between us, which is not too alarming until you remember that the car was TINY, we were only at the first winery and I had to carry all my purchases onto a plane later that day…

simon-hackett-winery

My favourite winery had to be Wirra Wirra, where the red wines just kept coming. For months now, my mid-week regular has been Wirra Wirra’s Scrubby Rise – a shiraz cabernet petit verdot which should cost lots more than the $17 they charge me at Dan Murphy’s. The Church Block cabernet shiraz merlot is a slightly more robust and sophisticated wine, but my heart still goes back to the Scrubby Rise again and again.

At Dowie Doole (how could I drive past with a name like that) we sat in the courtyard in late afternoon, five glasses in front of us, and tasted our little hearts out accompanied by some rather good cheese. Marvellous.

Dowie Doole glasses

A coffee and a nice sit down in Market 190 finished off our day, along with the purchase of some wonderful condiments such as a decent chilli jam as we paid our bill. How sad that I had to run back to Melbourne so early. But I am already looking forward to my next trip.