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The Ultimate Australian Wine Tour

Samuel’s Gorge winemaker Nairn Webb in the winery’s tasting room, in McLaren Vale.

Photo: Hugh Stewart

McLaren Vale: Hot Days, Cool Wines

Set on Australia’s southern coast a brief drive from Adelaide, McLaren Vale is a prototypical wine region. Its gentle slopes are so densely covered with plantings that, strolling from one vineyard directly into the next one morning, I felt like Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. Rows of hills shield the valley from the gusts whipping north from Antarctica, and summer days can have that Huck ’n’ Jim, nap-under-a-tree feel. The temptation exists to make full-throttle wines; one McLaren winemaker I met proudly referred to his own Shirazes as “Baby Barossas.”

Yet hidden among the leafy hillsides are also some of the crispest, gentlest wines on the continent. “We tread the hard road,” says winemaker Stephen Pannell, who does it perhaps better than anyone else. Throughout Australia, I encountered winemakers who revere Pannell’s wines like emerging jazz guitarists do the sketchy, scratchy recordings of Django Reinhardt. (I coveted Pannell’s Grenache, which smelled of cranberry sauce and licorice.) I met Pannell at the Victory Hotel, a glorified Australian roadside pub that has everyone from winemakers to rugby revelers spilling onto the lawn holding a drink. The food—schnitzels and soft-shell crabs; cockles with spaghetti—is amazingly diverse, and the cellar includes not only all the renowned local bottlings but also plenty of classified-growth Bordeaux.

D’Arenberg, the region’s best-known winery, is manned by a fully outfitted crew of eager enthusiasts. Nevertheless, try to visit when Chester Osborn, the fourth-generation proprietor, is on the grounds, because he may take you around himself. Osborn is one of the great ambassadors of Australian wine, and one of the industry’s great characters. With his flowing blond curls and flower-print shirts, he’s not hard to spot in a crowd. He’s currently launching a clothing line and writing a science-fiction novel about a future in which dogs rule the world, and his winery is an extension of his quirky, inviting personality. While managing his other interests, Osborn introduced several dozen of the winery’s colorfully named wines onto the world stage, from the Footbolt Shiraz and the three-grape Stump Jump red to the limited-release Dead Arm Shiraz. I’ve had them around the globe, but never so enjoyably as on the terrace of d’Arry’s Verandah Restaurant, while eating braised duck with kimchi and pickled cherries.

For his next act, Osborn is planning a tasting room constructed to look like an unsolved Rubik’s Cube; the model could itself stand as a work of art. I wish he’d included guest quarters, for hotel options in the area remain limited. I stayed at McLaren Ridge Log Cabins, a mile and a half away, and enjoyed my hilltop cottage with a panoramic view beside a paddock full of braying alpacas. But the amenities of its four tranquil cabins are rather basic, and it fills up quickly in high season.

I wish, too, that I’d had another bottle of Osborn’s wine at hand to pair with the chile-and-squid pie I feasted on outside the storefront Pik-a-Pie Bakery south of the town of McLaren Vale early one morning. The pie, a local specialty, was flaky and crunchy, a tour de force of the genre, but even denser than Victory’s kangaroo steak. It cried out for the sweet fruit and hardy structure of a d’Arenberg Ironstone Pressings or Coppermine Road. “Bring a bottle next time,” the man behind the counter told me, and I don’t think he was kidding.

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