It's shortly after 7am and I'm tiptoeing from my tent across a damp wintry paddock in the Coonawarra and gently cursing the kookaburra that had rudely woken me at dawn. One of us is laughing, but it definitely isn't me. Buoyed by the prospect of a hot shower, I jog the last few feet to the communal bathroom only to realise I've left my towel behind – such are the joys of sleeping under canvas.
The six white domed tents at Bellwether Wines might be billed as the region's very first glamping experience but owner Sue Bell, an award-winning winemaker, is determined to keep things as real as possible. "For me camping is all about being out in nature," she explains over a morning espresso. "Having an en suite in every tent is not environmentally sound – and I also think would be quite ridiculous."
Apart from the delights of glamping in Sue's paddock (powered and unpowered sites are also available), guests can taste the Bellwether range of handmade wines, book a sumptuous evening meal or catch some live music in the barrel room; Tex Perkins, Archie Roach and the Blackeyed Susans have all played in the atmospheric shed.
When Sue bought the solid 1868 Glen Roy Shearing Shed 10 years ago she was determined to offer something more engaging than a typical winery cellar door – hence the glamping, long-table dinners and visiting musicians.
"People can also buy a vintage experience," she says. "They can stay here for a week and help us in the winery. They go away with a much better appreciation of what goes into winemaking."
The spirit of playfulness and generosity at Bellwether Wines is evident across the Coonawarra and indeed the Limestone Coast – a clumsy handle that links such disparate attractions as Robe, Penola, Naracoorte Caves and Mount Gambier, South Australia's second-largest city.
Winemakers Shannon Sutherland (Rymill Coonawarra), Luke Trotter (The Blok Estate) and John and Melissa Innes (Ottelia) are producing approachable, food-friendly wines that are extending the Coonawarra's palette beyond its signature aged cabernet sauvignon.
Even big name wineries such as Rymill Coonawarra are embracing new varietals and wine styles and looking behind their traditional portfolio of cabernet sauvignon and Shiraz. The Alternatives range, released for the first time in 2019, features sagrantino, cabernet franc, petit verdot and basket-pressed shiraz.
Head winemaker Shannon Sutherland says the new range is designed to showcase Coonawarra's high-quality fruit and demonstrates what can be achieved with minimal intervention in the winery.
"The idea is to let the vineyard sing as much as possible and stay right out of it," he says. "So there is no pumping or racking – just soft hands."
While wineries such as Zema Estate and Patrick of Coonawarra remain committed to making august and well-balanced cabernet sauvignon, other varietals such as chardonnay, tempranillo, barbera, sangiovese and pinot noir are now popping up on regional wine lists.
Boutique producer Ottelia, for example, sources pinot noir and sauvignon blanc grapes from Mount Gambier, shiraz from Mount Benson and merlot from Wrattonbully.
Ottelia's commitment to sustainable, fruit-forward wine is reflected in the cuisine at Eat Fodder, its bustling dining room. The seasonal menu features dishes such as pork, prawn and ginger dumplings, ricotta gnocchi and crispy pork, cabbage and radish top salad – with herbs and vegetables sourced from the restaurant's own veggie patch.
The small dining room, which also serves wood-fired pizza, is popular with locals so book well in advance; Eat Fodder only opens for lunch.
"Why would we open for dinner?" jokes head chef Paul Stone, surveying the happy throng. "We still want to have a life and get home to see the kids."
Good things are also happening on the coast – a 90-kilometre drive from Coonawarra. At Robe, a small fishing port that attracts holidaymakers from Adelaide and across the border in Victoria, visitors will find freshly roasted coffee, craft beer and some of the region's best steaks; thanks to a change of ownership, Sails Restaurant now serves rib eye, wagyu rump and sirloin on the bone alongside locally sourced seafood, including Southern Rock Lobster (October to May).
The town's newest arrival is Robe Town Brewery which makes 20 different types of ales using a modest 1000-litre kit and an oak barrel packed with hay and straw to give the beers a distinctive rustic flavour profile.
"I actually learned to cook on a wood fire in the forest, so when I started brewing it made sense to heat everything on a wood fire," says brewer Maris Biezaitis, who grew up in Latvia. "I had plenty of wood, so why go to the city for gas?"
In addition to his low-tech brewing process, Maris also incorporates native Australian berries and greens into his recipes – plus some idiosyncratic ones, such as ambergris, a musky-scented substance found in whale intestines.
"The first beer that I made here, Shearer's Joy, has a sour mash of malt, potatoes and horehound in the boil instead of hops," he says. "Horehound is an old medicinal herb that was used to flavour beer during the colonial days."
Despite its relative isolation and seasonal tourist economy, Robe also has a thriving coffee scene with two standout cafes: Drift and Union Cafe, on the main street. But dedicated caffeine addicts should seek out Mahalia Coffee, the town's long-running roaster tucked away down a backstreet.
Founder and head roaster Mahalia Layzell established the business almost 20 years ago and now sells her beans to local and Adelaide businesses, and private customers across Australia.
"We're so city-centric in Australia and I think we're naïve," she says. "Just because we're in the country doesn't mean we're parochial – I think people are starting to value our [regional] producers – and the coffee industry has played a part in changing people's perceptions."
Mount Gambier is about the same distance from Adelaide and Melbourne, with a driving time of about four-and-a-half hours.
REX operates regular flights between Adelaide and Mount Gambier, with a flying time of 70 minutes. See rex.com.au
Penola-based Coonawarra Experiences offers hosted tours using a luxury KIA people mover. The company specialises in bespoke winery tours, but can design a special itinerary to suit your interests. See coonawarraexperiences.com.au
At Bellwether Wines, stay in one of the six Bell glamping tents or pitch your own in the paddock of this historic farming property just north of Penola. Glamping is $200 a night for couples. Unpowered sites $30 a night. See bellwetherwines.com.au
Mark Chipperfield was a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.
FIVE LIMESTONE HIGHLIGHTS
THE BLUE LAKE
When the sun is shining, this popular Mount Gambier beauty spot provokes plenty of oohs and aahs. During the warmer months this flooded volcanic crater turns an intense blue colour. You can walk or jog around the lake by following the 3.6-kilometre track.See discovermountgambier.com.au
Apart from the spectacular display of stalactites, stalagmites and straws, these caves also contain a huge number of fossilised skeletons, including those of fearsome megafauna that once roamed across Australia. It is one of only 11 World Heritage fossil sites on the planet.See naracoortecaves.sa.gov.au
ROBE TOWN BREWERY
Using a modest wood-fired brewing kettle, this craft brewery is producing some of South Australia's most interesting and unique beers. The range includes ales, stouts, porters, sours and saisons made with local barley. Open Tuesdays to Sundays for tastings.See robetownbrewery.com.au
Master roaster Mahalia Layzell has been roasting high-quality beans in Robe for 20 years and her brand is now sold to discerning clients around Australia. The building contains a great little café, gift shop and a family-friendly outdoor terrace. See mahaliacoffee.com.au
The most exciting and delicious new dining experience in the Coonawarra is housed in a former schoolhouse. But don't be fooled by appearances. The menu is fresh, contemporary and occasionally daring, with plenty of dishes to share. Open for lunch, Thursday to Monday. See fodder.net.au