Wine, according to Ernest Hemingway, is one of the most civilised things in the world, and when you're sitting on a shaded patio outside your favourite cellar door, sipping a glass of their finest product and taking in the splendour of the vines and the grapes and the Australian countryside that surrounds them, it's certainly hard to argue.
Wine is civility, but it's also beauty, it's enjoyment, and it's something that travellers have long sought to include in their holiday plans. After all, wineries tend to fit effortlessly into the tourism landscape: they're usually spectacularly scenic, easily accessible, set around charming country towns, and they have wine. Lots and lots of wine. What more could you want?
See also: Australia's best winery restaurants
But wineries, these days, are not just wineries. Modern-day Australian cellar doors have become so much more than simply places to sell and consume this cherished drop. Wineries are now art galleries. They're concert venues. They're purveyors of fine food. They're an entire tourism experience, the providers of immersive and interesting experiences designed to grab and hold your attention for an entire holiday.
Wine tourism is big business, and the attraction of visitors is a part of the industry that's becoming just as important to producers as the stuff in the bottle. It's not enough for your winery to simply make wine: you need to host concert series and art exhibitions, to have great restaurants and luxury accommodation, to offer outdoor activities that complement some of Australia's most beautiful locales.
For travellers heading to a wine region, it can all be a little overwhelming but immensely rewarding. However, as with the drinking of wine itself, all it takes to become a modern wine (tourism) connoisseur is a little basic knowledge, and a willingness to try new things, and you're ready to give it a taste.
BEST FOR BEGINNERS
For your first trip to a wine region, there are several factors to consider, including how far you want to travel, how much you want to spend, what sort of wine you like drinking, and what sort of experience you're after. Australia has more than 60 wine regions, so there's bound to be one that fits.
"I would also pre-book a tasting master class at a winery," says Sally Cope, the executive officer at Ultimate Winery Experiences. "That way you learn how to articulate your palate: you learn the words to describe what you're tasting, and get an idea of what you like. They do a great one at Jacob's Creek in the Barossa."
Another master class option in Australia's most famous wine region is the Barossa Wine School, offered by Artisans of Barossa, a two-hour introduction to wine tasting and the region. "The class includes a tasting of five to six key wines that give you a good overview of what the Barossa is like," says Howard Duncan, the chief operating officer at Artisans. "It empowers you to go off and taste with a little more knowledge."
BEST FOR CLASSICISTS
SOUTH AUSTRALIA AND VICTORIA
Yering Station cellar door and gallery. Photo: Visions of Victoria Tourism
Some of the world's oldest grape vines can be found in South Australia, which avoided the global outbreak of phylloxera – a microscopic bug that destroys vines – in the late 19th century. In Victoria, there are vines at Tahbilk (tahbilk.com.au), in the Nagambie Lakes region, which date back to 1860, while Rockford (rockfordwines.com.au) and Yalumba (yalumba.com; both in the Barossa) and Sevenhill Cellars (sevenhill.com.au) in the Clare Valley, all have vines dating back to the 19th century. The age of those vines gives you an idea of the history and traditions at the wineries.
Some of Australia's classic institutions are, however, also setting the pace as innovators. "D'Arenberg (darenberg.com.au) has a new five-storey cellar door, which is designed to look like a Rubik's Cube, sitting on a hill overlooking McLaren Vale," says Sally Cope. "There's going to be some very immersive, sensory experiences as you go through the building: sights, sounds, touch. It will be an extraordinary experience."
For a more traditional tasting, St Hugo has just opened a cellar door in the original Jacob's Creek winery in the Barossa, while Yering Station (yering.com) in Victoria's Yarra Valley is set in a 160-year-old building.
BEST FOR TREND-SETTERS
SOUTH AUSTRALIA, NSW
Those keen to sample the wares of Australia's up-and-coming winemakers occasionally run into problems, given many of these small outfits don't have cellar doors. There are, however, solutions. One is to look out for collective cellar doors, where multiple boutique producers band together to offer tastings under one roof. Good examples are Artisans of Barossa in the Barossa Valley, Summertown Aristologist (thesummertownaristologist.com) in the Adelaide Hills, and the Small Winemakers Centre (mudgeewine.com.au) in Mudgee.
Another option is to keep an eye out for smaller producers who occasionally throw their doors open to the public. In the Clare Valley, rising star winemaker Kerri Thompson conducts tastings of her Wines By KT label (winesbykt.com) on the last weekend of every month, and it's an experience she says she enjoys as much as her customers. "Having these conversations about the wines and the styles that people are enjoying, it's been really inspiring when it comes to vintage," she says. "It's a whole educational process."
BEST FOR FOODIES
VICTORIA, SOUTH AUSTRALIA AND WESTERN AUSTRALIA
House-cured ocean trout with apple yuzu gel, radish and roe at Ezard @ Levantine Hill in Victoria.
Wine and food are a natural pairing, so it's no surprise that many of Australia's wine regions have a heavy focus on gastronomy. Some of the best include Victoria's Yarra Valley, which features the hatted Ezard at Levantine Hill (levantinehill.com.au), as well as Mornington Peninsula, where you'll find a two-hatted restaurant at Ten Minutes By Tractor (tenminutesbytractor.com.au), as well as high-quality eateries at Montalto (montalto.com.au), Paringa Estate (paringaestate.com.au) and Port Phillip Estate (portphillipestate.com.au).
In South Australia, Seed Kitchen (seed.kitchen) in Clare Valley is turning out some seriously high-quality cuisine, while the Barossa – with restaurants such as Hentley Farm (hentleyfarm.com.au), Harvest Kitchen (harvest-kitchen.com.au), and Fino (fino.net.au) – has a deserved reputation as one of Australia's culinary leaders.
"And then there are cooking schools," says Cope, "which are becoming really popular. Pizzini Wines (pizzini.com.au) in Victoria's King Valley, they've got their Italian cooking school, A Tavola, where you can learn to cook pasta, and then sit down and eat it matched with their wines."
Another option for foodies is to time your visit with a food festival. Some of the country's biggest include the Barossa Gourmet Weekend (barossagourmet.com), in September, and the Margaret River Gourmet Escape (gourmetescape.com.au), in November.
BEST FOR ADVENTURERS
VICTORIA, NSW, WESTERN AUSTRALIA AND TASMANIA
The barrel room at Robert Stein Winery & Vineyard, Mudgee. Photo: Amber Hooper
Australia's most popular wine regions are generally those that are easily accessible from large cities: however, for travellers with a little more time on their hands, there are some amazing wine experiences in more rural areas.
One of the leaders, both in terms of the quality of wine and the standard of the experience, is the town of Beechworth near the NSW-Victoria border. Here you'll find some of Australia's leading small-batch wineries, including Sorrenberg (sorrenberg.com) and Giaconda (giaconda.com.au), as well as dining options such as Provenance (theprovenance.com.au), which received two hats in the latest Good Food guide.
Elsewhere in Australia, there are great wines at Robert Stein (robertstein.com.au) in Mudgee, NSW, as well as a great restaurant at Logan (loganwines.com.au), and you'll find tasting experiences well worth the journey in Mount Barker, Western Australia, the Strathbogie Ranges in Victoria, and the Tamar Valley in Tasmania.
BEST FOR LUXURY SEEKERS
TASMANIA, VICTORIA AND SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Suite at Port Phillip Estate at Red Hill, Victori
There's a moment when the cellar door closes, when the last cars drive away, and when the sun begins to set, when you realise: I've got this all to myself. That's what an overnight stay at a winery is all about, indulging in what's usually a luxurious experience while sleeping on-site among the vines.
The best of these properties in Australia right now is probably the five-star Jackalope Hotel, a new boutique property on the Mornington Peninsula. This spectacular hotel has views over vineyards from its rooms, and a seamless blend of artistic flair and comfort throughout (jackalopehotels.com).
It's similar in that way to the MONA Pavilions (mona.net.au), a series of eight luxury villas set on the same property as the MONA art gallery and Moorilla Estate winery near Hobart. Each villa is unique, and features artworks from the gallery.
Elsewhere, Port Phillip Estate (portphillipestate.com.au) in the Mornington Peninsula has six beautiful suites for overnight visitors, while there are amazing rooms at Tower Lodge (towerestate.com.au) in the Hunter Valley, Chateau Yering (chateauyering.com.au) in Yarra Valley, Cape Lodge (capelodge.com.au) in Margaret River, and Seppeltsfield (seppeltsfield.com.au) in the Barossa.
BEST FOR EXPERIENCE SEEKERS
WESTERN AUSTRALIA, VICTORIA, TASMANIA AND SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Restaurant and tasting building at Vasse Felix in Margaret River. Photo: Tourism Western Australia
What if simple wine tasting isn't enough? What if you want to meet the people behind the labels, to find out how they make their wine, to even have a go at blending it yourself? It can be done.
Many Australian wineries offer behind-the-scenes tours of their facilities, sometimes hosted by the winemaker. Vasse Felix (vassefelix.com.au) in Margaret River is an excellent example, though Voyager Estate (voyagerestate.com.au) in the same region, and Montalto (montalto.com.au) in Mornington Peninsula and Josef Chromy (josefchromy.com.au) in Northern Tasmania, also offer great tours.
For a more hands-on experience, d'Arenberg (darenberg.com.au) in McLaren Vale offers the chance to blend your own wine. Budding vintners are given three samples of shiraz from three separate vineyards, and encouraged to blend their own version of the winery's famous Dead Arm Shiraz. It makes the perfect introduction to the science and the skill behind the winemaking process – and you also end up with your own unique bottle of wine.
BEST FOR CULTURE VULTURES
WESTERN AUSTRALIA, TASMANIA AND NSW
Concertgoers at a winery in the Hunter Valley. Photo: Destination NSW
You only have to look at Leeuwin Estate (leeuwinestate.com.au) in Margaret River to appreciate the natural meeting between vintners and artists. Leeuwin is famous for its "Art Series" wines, each of which features a specially commissioned artwork on the label – and the originals are on display at the cellar door.
"Wine meets art is a popular theme," says Sally Cope. "A lot of wineries have galleries. Montalto down in Mornington has a sculpture award each year, and of course Moorilla at MONA in Hobart. A lot of people don't realise Moorilla is one of the oldest vineyards in Tasmania, and that's the land David Walsh bought to develop MONA."
For music lovers, wineries still have you covered. The Day on the Green (adayonthegreen.com.au) is a concert series that moves between various Australian wineries throughout the year, and plenty of wineries put on their own concerts, too, with places such as Hope Estate (hopeestate.com.au) in the Hunter Valley and Leeuwin Estate attracting the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Ray Charles and Sting.
BEST FOR DAY-TRIPPERS
VICTORIA, SOUTH AUSTRALIA, THE ACT AND WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Swan Valley is only a half-hour drive from Perth. Photo: Tourism Western Australia
Visiting a wine region doesn't necessarily require a huge time commitment: plenty of Australia's most famous vineyards are within an hour's drive of a major city. Melbourne and Adelaide, in particular, have an embarrassment of riches within striking distance.
"From Adelaide Airport now to the Barossa Valley, it's an hour," says Howard Duncan from Artisans of Barossa. "You pick up your rental car, and within 20 minutes this beautiful rural vista opens up and you immediately feel like you've cut the cord from the rat race."
McLaren Vale is even closer to Adelaide, at only a 45-minute drive, while the Adelaide Hills is a similar distance. From Melbourne, it's slightly over an hour to get to the Yarra Valley, and a little further if you want to hit the cellar doors on the Mornington or Bellarine peninsulas.
Elsewhere, the Canberra wine region is easily accessible from the nation's capital, and the Swan Valley wineries are only a half-hour drive from Perth.
THE AUSTRALIAN WINE TOURIST: THEN AND NOW
THEN The more the merrier.
NOW The modern wine tourist is a little more discerning when it comes to their tasting experience. These days it's more about quality than quantity, more about picking a couple of wineries you really want to visit rather than getting sloshed while hitting up seven or eight establishments in a day.
NOW Australian wine drinkers used to have a saying: "Anything but chardonnay." Or, ABC for short. In the '90s, chardonnay was incredibly unpopular, mostly thanks to the overly sweet, woody versions Australia was churning out. Now, however, Australian chardonnay is dry, lightly oaked, and complex. And popular.
THEN Cheese and crackers.
NOW It used to be that you would accompany your wine-tasting experience with some cheese and crackers you picked up from the supermarket on the way through. Now, however, it seems like every cellar door has its own top-quality restaurant, and if you really want cheese you can go straight to a producer's door in many wine regions.
THEN Barossa or bust.
NOW While the Barossa Valley was one of the true pioneers of wine tourism in Australia, modern-day oenological travellers have a huge number of regions from which to choose: everywhere from Queensland's Granite Belt to Orange in western NSW; Mount Barker in Western Australia to the Strathbogie Ranges in Victoria.
THEN Something on the side.
NOW Wine-tasting was always a diversion, a pleasant activity you could spend a few hours on to break up the rest of your holiday. These days, however, people are travelling specifically for wine, planning their trips not just around traditional attractions, but around the cellar doors and restaurants they will be able to visit.
FIVE BIGGEST TRENDS IN WINE TOURISM
Jacob's Creek wine and food sensory experience. Photo: South Australian Tourism Commission
MEET YOUR MAKER
Though the classic cellar door tasting remains a popular experience, many tourists are now looking to further their knowledge of the wine they love by meeting the team that produces it. There are several ways to do this, including paying for the privilege at some of the larger wineries, attending an event or calling in to smaller cellar doors staffed by the winemaker.
For those taking their first tentative steps into the world of wine-tasting, a masterclass is becoming a popular option. Run by cellar doors such as Artisans of Barossa (artisansofbarossa.com) and Jacob's Creek (jacobscreek.com), these classes teach you what to look for in a wine and how to describe it, but also what you like, and what you'll want to buy.
FARM TO TABLE
As tourists become more interested in the provenance of the food they eat, so restaurateurs, particularly in wine regions, are focusing on using high-quality local produce. Don't be surprised to find your menu at a winery restaurant listing the local farmers they work with: everything from the meat to the mushrooms, the bread to the cheese, is likely to be sourced from the local area.
PAY TO PLAY
Though most cellar doors in Australia offer tastings for free, an increasing number have begun charging a small amount for the privilege. This charge – usually only $5 per person – is generally waived upon purchase of a bottle, and is understandable given the large tour groups who come through with little intention of buying wine and the quality of the product that's being poured.
As if the wine and the food wasn't enough of a drawcard, plenty of larger wineries now also act as concert venues, some catering to fans of classic, big-name artists, and others to the younger festival crowd. You'll find gigs at places such as Leeuwin Estate (leeuwinestate.com.au) in Margaret River, Rochford in Yarra Valley (rochfordwines.com.au), and Hope Estate (hopeestate.com.au) in the Hunter Valley.
FIVE EXPERTS CHOOSE THEIR FAVOURITE WINERIES
The Basket Range winery region in Adelaide Hills. Photo: South Australian Tourism Commission
JEREMY PRIDEAUX, CITY WINE STORE, MELBOURNE
"The whole Margaret River region is beautiful, and there's a new wave of younger wine producers down there who are making some really interesting stuff. Sam Vinciullo is a small producer pushing the boundaries, and Josephine Perry from Dormilona (dormilona.com.au) is also making some great wine. I find with the smaller cellar doors, they're often manned by the winemaker or a family member, so you have a real connection with the product." See citywineshop.net.au
FRANCK MOREAU, MERIVALE MASTER SOMMELIER, SYDNEY
"What I like when I visit a winery is to have the full package – I can do a wine tasting, the kids can play outside, and then we can go for lunch. One of my favourites is Lark Hill (larkhill.wine) near Canberra. It's a biodynamic winery with a friendly welcome and rustic decor. They have a good diversity of wines with unique grapes such as gruner veltliner; my pick, though, is their chardonnay." See merivale.com.au
GABRIELLE WEBSTER, LOVE TILLY DEVINE BAR, SYDNEY
"I love the Basket Range in the Adelaide Hills. Apart from it being absolutely beautiful, there are some pretty profound producers down there at the moment. There's a little place called the Summertown Aristologist (thesummertownaristologist.com), which is a community cellar door where you can taste a lot of local wines. For somewhere close to Sydney, I love Artemis (artemiswines.com.au), which is about 10 minutes out of Mittagong. They have a beautiful cellar door." See lovetillydevine.com
PAUL HUET, THE PADDINGTON, SYDNEY
"The wineries that stick out for me always make my impression of their wine connect with the place I'm visiting. I remember visiting Giaconda (giaconda.com.au) in Beechworth, Victoria. Making our way into the winery felt almost religious: a tunnel dug in granite takes you on a gentle slope, you feel the air getting colder and the outside noise fading away. Tasting their amazing chardonnay finishes to immerse you in the Giaconda world." See merivale.com.au/thepaddington
LEANNE ALTMANN, SUPERNORMAL, MELBOURNE
"One of my favourites is Henschke (henschke.com) in Keyneton, in the Barossa Ranges. The property combines a true Australian-ness – the eucalyptus, the dry grasses, the vibrant birdlife – and that extraordinary feeling of stepping into the past. The cellar has the old concrete tanks and vats from the time the farm was established in the mid-1800s. Six generations later, the Henschke family maintain tradition through their iconic wines." See supernormal.net.au