Australia 2017 – 2. The Adelaide Hills

Late in 2016 Tom Cannavan spent 10 days touring several of Australia’s most important wine regions for this report. It will be published in four parts.


Tradition & Revolution in the Adelaide Hills

The Adelaide Hills has sprung to real prominence only in the past 15 or 20 years, mainly due to a renewed interest in Australia’s cooler growing regions, of which the Adelaide Hills is certainly one. Perhaps the fact that Penfolds chose the Hills as the source of fruit for early editions of its ‘White Grange’ project, Yattarna, helped too.

Yattarna’s fruit focus may now have switched to Tasmania (though Penfolds’ equally superb Bin A Chardonnay is sourced from the Adelaide Hills) but there is terrific quality, particularly in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, from a whole host of wine estates based here. What made the timing of my visit so intriguing was the balancing act going on between tradition and ‘revolution’, in the shape of the Basket Range group of hipster producers, making sulphur-free, organic and natural wines in styles quite unlike the traditional, pristine model of established top names.

Vineyards were planted here in the early 19th century – in a fertile, hilly landscape that appealed greatly to the European immigrants who settled here. But by the early 20th century the end of ‘Imperial Preference’ (a UK system that favoured Australian exports) saw the death of that first wave of viticulture, which was not revived until the 1980s as Australia’s new wave of winemakers sought cooler regions.

Like Tasmania, the cool-grown fruit of the Adelaide Hills is much in demand by winemakers across South Australia, including for sparkling wines. So there are plenty of Hills wines around from both estate wineries, and from producers based elsewhere but buying fruit on contract.

Beards and Bonhomie in Basket Range

Basket Range is the name of a small town in the Adelaide Hills, a rural community that has been the unlikely epicentre for one of the most influential ‘movements’ of the modern Australian wine scene. The winemakers of Basket Range would baulk at the idea of being described as ‘a movement’, composed as they are of diverse and clearly independent characters, and yet they are bound by a shared philosophy that could be usefully described as ‘natural wine’.

This is extremely low-intervention winemaking using only natural yeasts, long skin contact and minimal or no added sulphur. They’re a rag-tag bunch, but once you get them talking it soon becomes clear that their complementary but individual philosophies have been carefully thought out. Left to right: 1. Brendan Keys of BK Wines; 2. Taras Ochota of Ochota Barrels; 3. James Erskine of Jauma; 4. Anton von Klopper of Lucy Margaux.

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We met at ‘Lost in a Forest’, a church in the centre of town recently converted to a cool wine bar and temple to wood-fire pizza, co-owned by the Ochotas. The tasting took place on a rustic wooden bench in the sunshine, with a constant supply of superb pizza slices, and to a background of groups of friends and family coming and going, joining and leaving, in an atmosphere that was as laid-back as possible for a ‘serious’ wine tasting.

And yet these guys are deadly serious: James Erskine has an honours degree in soil chemistry for example, and between them there are enough letters after their names for a decent game of scrabble. So the story here has another thread running through it: that of rejection. All have held senior positions in large, more technical wineries and all have taken a step back, to consider a different path. Anton von Klopper was a forerunner, and his story is more or less echoed with the others in the group, swapping his globe-spanning career as a winemaker, from Germany to Oregon, for a smaller, more intimate relationship with his vineyards, his wines and his community.

Read 16 tasting notes from the Basket Range group

A study in Chardonnay

A group of the region’s top producers gathered at Sidewood Estate for a tasting of Chardonnay, for many people the Hills’ ace in the pack grape variety. These were by and large all ‘traditional’ wines unlike the natural wine proclivities of the Basket Range group, but there is a strong emphasis on organic viticulture, sustainability and lowering the use of both oak and sulphur for most of this group, echoing a general trend among the country’s best winemakers. The Piccadilly Valley and Lenswood are the two officially recognised sub-regions of the Hills, with their own appellation status, and this is without doubt one of Australia’s prime sparkling wine regions with 32 sparkling producers – the greatest number of any mainland regions, with only Tasmania boasting more.

adelaide hills chardonnay

Read 12 tasting notes for Adelaide Hills Chardonnay

Ashton Hills

A misty morning, the tops of the vines disappearing into a soup of spring rain and low cloud, was the perfect explanation by example of what makes Ashton Hills’ little spot such a fine Pinot Noir terroir. And the story here is all about Pinot Noir, make no mistake. At close to 600 metres altitude in the Piccadilly hills, the tiny three-hectare estate was planted by Stephen George, owner and winemaker, in 1982, following an obsessive search for the perfect Pinot Noir property. A Burgundy ‘nut’, from the very beginning the grapes were treated with reverance and the winemaking with as light a touch as humanly possible, resulting in wines that found a global following from a vineyard that James Halliday describes as “the most distinguished site in South Australia for Pinot.”

Stephen George Ashton HillsIn 2015, a rumour reached Wirra Wirra, based in nearby McLaren Vale, that Ashton Hills might be available for sale. I can imagine negotiations were polite but hugely intense with Stephen as concerned about who would take over, as how much they would pay. “Ashton Hills was very well known to us, and we loved the wines,” says Wirra Wirra’s chief winemaker, Paul Smith. “Stephen has been so dedicated over 35 years, and he knows every inch of this land, but his kids did not want to get involved, which was out luckiest break.” Right: Paul and Stephen, picture courtesy Wirra Wirra.

Indeed, Wirra Wirra’s winemaking sensibilites do seem like a natural fit, ‘Smithy’ also being very much a vineyard man, and keen to let the fruit speak and not mask flavours with over-extraction or too much wood. “Stephen still lives on the property,” he tells me, “and to all intents and purposes he still makes the wine, walking the vineyards. He has a hand in making every bottle.” I ask if I will meet him on the visit, but am told he is not around at the moment. But I wonder… perhaps not having to entertain wandering journos is part of the deal that the always bare-footed Stephen George had struck?”

Read eight tasting notes for Ashton Hills

Grooving in the Hills

Hahndorf Hill Larry JacobsIt was something of a surprise to find an enclave of winemakers in the Adelaide Hills with an almost religious fervour for Austria’s Grüner Veltliner variety. High Priest of the movement is Larry Jacobs, ex-owner of Mulderbosch Vineyards in South Africa, now co-owner of Hahndorf Hill Winery and the man who introduced the first cuttings of Grüner to Australia (right, with partner Marc Dobson). Now, Adelaide Hills has more of the variety planted than the rest of Australia put together. “We have slightly cooler mean summer temperatures than Kamptal,” he says, noting that an Adelaide Hills wine was voted best example in the world by Falstaff magazine – outside of Austria that is.

The Grüner Veltliner demands warm days and cold nights, and is thriving here with 40 hectares planted and 30 producers bottling Gru-V wines.  Whilst there is no doubting the quality of the wines on show here – and the point of difference is surely worthy of note for those who think they know all about Australian white wines – there must be a question mark on whether the Grüner Veltliner variety in itself has the ultimate pedigree and global recognition to be worthy of quite so much faith from these producers. But then, I’ll bet the local market snaps them up.

Read three tasting notes for Adelaide Hills Grüner Veltliner

Go to Part III – South Australia: McLaren Vale, Clare and Eden Valleys

2 comments

    1. Hi Kaaren, well there’s a whole load of sparkling wines from Tassie and several from Adelaide Hills, Mornington and other regions in the report, but it’s definitely not claiming to be a sparkling-focused report, or indeed comprehensive coverage of a very big country with a very big wine industry! I’d need another few months to get close to that – chance would be a fine thing 🙂

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