McLaren Vale wineries: Dirt tracks lead to red heaven

You can't beat crisp air, rolling vineyards, a cosy winery and a Shiraz, writes Daniel Scott.

Justin Lane is a self-confessed "winemaker without boundaries", a dedicated Italophile who brings a refreshing quirkiness to a sometimes precious business.

From the moment I enter the shed-like cellar door of Lane's McLaren Vale winery, Alpha Box and Dice, I know I am going to enjoy myself. In one corner is a clutter of armchairs underneath a wall crowded with diverse art works. There are antique suitcases arrayed as coffee tables, juggling sticks lying around and two working pinball machines to entertain the kids.

"The whole ritual of wine-tasting can be really pretentious and off-putting," says Lane as he offers me a taste of Apostle, one of seven wines named alphabetically from A-G. It's a good Shiraz, tempered with about 27 per cent Durif.

Alpha Box and Dice is an early stop on a four-wheel drive tour of the Fleurieu Peninsula with local guide Ben Neville. It's an area that encompasses the McLaren Vale wine region and reaches out along the Gulf St Vincent to the south-west of Adelaide, and which I've driven through several times to catch the Kangaroo Island ferry from Cape Jervis. With its softly contoured coastal hills, sleepy villages, empty beaches and reputation for fine shiraz, the Fleurieu has long intrigued me.

Neville's company is called "Off-Piste" tours (meaning off-track), a nod in the direction of the region's French name, given to it by the explorer Nicolas Baudin in 1802. Leaving Adeaide via the southern Mount Lofty ranges, I soon find out why, as Neville guides our troop-carrier down an unlikely-looking dirt road that threads between dairy lands and orchards.

Soon, we are driving straight between vines in the northern section of the McLaren Vale.

While Alpha Box and Dice's modernism seems at odd with this illustrious history, Samuel's Gorge winery, where we stop next, is centred on an 1853 barn and named after Samuel Way, the colony's first chief magistrate.

Set on a ridge top above the Onkaparinga River National Park and looking down over rows of vines running down toward the sea, Samuel's Gorge is as scenic an Australian vineyard as I've visited.

From Samuel's Gorge we climb over the Willunga Hills, tumbling ancient ranges colliding into and transecting each other, where Cornish settlers came to work in slate mines in the 19th century.

At the edge of the hills are the long stretches of beach that line Gulf St Vincent, including Aldinga.

If there is an off-road track to be taken anywhere in the Fleurieu, Neville seems intent on taking it. To set up our lunch of freshly barbecued squid, we crunch up a rocky incline to a remote hill-top overlooking the sea.

Then, after lunch, we enter Deep Creek Conservation Park, following a matrix of tracks behind the coastal bluffs.

On a clifftop near the tip of the Fleurieu peninsula, Neville brings the tour to an end. But not before pouring us a glass of sparkling McLaren Vale wine and unveiling a didgeridoo, which he plays with

expertly controlled circular breaths.

The writer travelled courtesy of the South Australian Tourism Commission.



Off-Piste offers range of tours, pick-up from Adelaide airport or hotels. 4WD adventure costs $199 per person. See, 0423 725 409.

Alpha Box and Dice Winery is at lot 50, Oliver's Road, McLaren Vale. Cellar door open Friday-Sunday, 10-5pm. See, (08) 8323 7750.

Samuel's Gorge winery Lot 10 Chaffreys Road, McLaren Vale has tastings between 11-5pm, daily. See, (08) 8323 8651.