Tuoi Do is admonishing me for not liking coriander. Hands on hips, voice raised in mock disapproval, the diminutive Vietnamese-born chef makes it clear to everyone within earshot that I am an idiot. Tuoi's shtick is the perfect start to this wine-matched degustation dinner at FermentAsian restaurant in Tanunda that is part delicious, part performance art.
Australian Grant Dickson was playing oboe in a touring production of Miss Saigon in Singapore in 2001 when he met Tuoi. She had a job serving coffee in traditional dress at the same venue. Grant was smitten and started drinking a lot more coffee than was good for him.
Fast forward to 2010 and the couple embarked on a high-risk Vietnamese culinary adventure in a region renowned for its German heritage. Since then FermentAsian has become a Barossa Valley "must-dine", Tuoi has won a South Australian Chef of the Year Award and Grant's wine list was named 2016 Gourmet Traveller Wine List of the Year. The list, a full-bodied 90-page tome, is filled with Grant's own wine analysis and droll prose and is worth the price of admission alone.
Grant's patter that matches the wines with Tuoi's dishes is typical of the narrative-driven delight that makes this Northern Vietnamese food and global wine excursion such fun. His dry, Stephen Fry-esque commentary is replete with back-stories and anecdotes about the sauces and sources.
"We've come a long way since Tuoi used to dry-retch in the car park behind the restaurant due to the stress," says Grant as he pours the pink sake he has paired with the pork mince in betel leaf entree. He goes on to tell the tale of the woman from a small Japanese village who created the drink from inedible, purely ceremonial pink rice. It's as if he knows her personally. He challenges us to locate the bacon back palate. And there it is.
"Perfect with coriander," he chides with a smile.
Tuoi and Grant are just two of the stars in the modern Barossa Valley, a region renowned as much these days for its clever innovators as its traditional top-end tipples.
Over a most agreeable steak at Vinters Bar & Grill I hear the story of another star, Peter Lehmann, who many consider the saviour of the Valley. The born-and-bred Barossa boy was working as a buyer for Saltram in 1977 when he was told to buy far fewer grapes that year. At the time there were 180 families that relied on the annual crush to survive so Lehmann and others formed a co-op, bought all the grapes and saved the day. He died in 2013 but 140 of those original families (some now fifth and sixth generation) are still supplying Peter Lehmann Wines today. The company is now owned by John Casella, who is steadily expanding the company's Barossa empire. I am lucky enough to sample the 2012 Lehmann Stonewell, their best Shiraz of vintage. It's another star. Five stars actually, according to the 2016 James Halliday Australian Wine Companion.
I find a brace of blue-collar Barossa stars at Yalumba, the oldest family-owned winery in Australia. Shaun Gibson and his mate Corey work the onsite cooperage and can make 4-6 barrels a day from scratch "when we're flat out". An enthralled crowd watches on as they select French and American oak staves that have been exposed to the elements for two years before their final cut. Shaun talks us through the process – and the jargon - as they bevel the staves, raise the barrel and flush on the hoops with a very serious-looking mallet. He lowers a fire bucket inside the barrel and hoses it to make the staves pliable. Finally he flips it, bends the bottom half into shape and bungs on another hoop. It's a creative, violent routine. "Cool, there ya go," says Shaun, as if he's just opened a stuck jar lid.
Yalumba's five-hour signature Bud to Bottle tour ($350) includes the cooperage as well as the Hill-Smith family's private museum cellar, premium red wine tastings direct from the barrel and lunch with matched wines at Vintners Bar & Grill.
Another reinvented Barossa staple is Jacobs Creek, which was established here in 1847 and hosts 170,000 visitors annually. Many of these wander the 14 rows of the exhibit vineyard out the front of the cellar door and sample the varietal grapes. Brilliant for wanabe connoisseurs, the Jacobs Creek Sensory Evaluation is a $40 introduction to wine tasting, pairing palate education with four wines and Wine Ambassador Nicholas Meyer's infectious enthusiasm and impish grin. We learn how to swirl, smell, taste and search for harmony and balance. "Eyes, nose, mouth," teaches Nick. We sip tea to learn about finding tannins and chew mint to discover our olfactory sensitivity. We pair a strawberry in pepper with a pinot noir to learn about spice, heat and flavour. At the end there is a red jelly cube taste test. The mystery flavour comes as a shock and elicits Nick's biggest smile. A pairing Masterclass including lunch is available for $150.
FIVE MORE BAROSSA VALLEY HIGHLIGHTS
SUNSET DRINKS AND/OR DINNER AT THE LOUISE, MARANANGA
Facing south over the Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz vineyard, this is a posh prelude to dinner, headlined by the Appellation Menu of seasonal local produce. Despite its fine dining, The Louise has gained a quiet reputation for sensational hamburgers. Top-end accommodation suites are also available. thelouise.com.au
JACOBS CREEK COOKING CLASS, TANUNDA
Beside JC's 1840s building and organic kitchen garden, chef Nikolas Tucker (yes, really) will guide you through picking the vegies and cooking the feast before you dine like royalty at the stately 15-metre-long table. Group bookings of eight to 16 guests by appointment. jacobscreek.com/au
THE SEPPELTSFIELD CENTENNIAL CELLAR DOOR, SEPPELTSFIELD
Built in 1878, this heritage marvel houses row-upon-row of barrels containing the world's longest and only unbroken lineage of single vintage Tawny Port. A collector recently paid $10,000 for a 375ml bottle of the first port (1878) but a more affordable option is the $125 Centenary Tour, which includes a taste-your-year-of-birth Tawny direct from barrel. seppeltsfield.com.au
APEX BAKERY ("BAROSSA BORN AND BREAD"), TANUNDA
Most of the recipes at this slow ferment, wood oven bakehouse date back to the 1800s. Ask for a quick look at the oven and don't leave without a Bienenstich (Bee Sting). apexbakery.com.au
BAROSSA FARMERS MARKET, ANGASTON
Held every Saturday from 7.30-11.30am, this bustling produce market features a sumptuous range of fresh and artisanal produce and the friendliest people imaginable. Grab an oven-baked omelette, pancakes and/or a pastry for breakfast and pick up fabled Barossa smallgoods, pasta, and olive oil. barossafarmersmarket.com.au
Qantas flies direct to Adelaide from all mainland capitals and the Barossa is about an hour's drive away. qantas.com.au
Lucy's House is a renovated 1851 cottage at Heritage Wines in Marananga. A self-contained one bedroom B&B with a kitchenette – stocked with eggs, bacon and fresh bread – plus a modern bathroom with heated floors and the Valley's softest bed. Comfortable, bucolic and the perfect pairing for a Barossa stay. From $235 a night (minimum two nights). heritagewinery.com.au
Mal Chenu travelled courtesy of Casella Family Brands (Peter Lehmann Wines).