Did you know that sparkling burgundy – Australia's unique gift to the world of wine – was invented in the Adelaide Hills? Or that the first case of Australian wine ever sent to a British monarch came from John Barton Hack's vineyard in Echunga Springs? The recipient, in 1845, was Queen Victoria and Hack's descendants today operate Craigburn Wines in Blackwood, making them seventh-generation winemakers.
Unlike the Blue Mountains, which were seen by early settlers as an impenetrable barrier blocking westward expansion, Adelaidians have always looked kindly on the Mount Lofty Ranges. Apart from giving the city its dramatic backdrop, the Hills have long served as a food larder, weekend playground and a place of refuge from the summer heat.
While first-time visitors are invariably bowled over by the region's pastoral charms, Victorian-era gardens, dinky townships and bracing air, they tend to overlook its maverick personality – the Hills, after all, have nurtured some of Australia's most original winemakers and artisan producers, such as cheesemaker Kris Lloyd from Woodside Cheese Wrights, and wine-making cousins Michael Hill Smith and Martin Shaw, who saw the region's potential for cool climate sauvignon blanc, riesling, chardonnay, pinot and shiraz way back in 1989.
Today, a new contingent of winemakers, distillers and food-focused entrepreneurs is making its way to the Adelaide Hills – a ravishing landscape of thickly wooded hills, steep ravines, orchards and small holdings that have changed little since the 1830s.
In tiny Summertown, for example, you'll find one of the region's most innovative and welcoming eateries behind an unlovely 1970s shopfront. Owned by Aaron Fenwick (formerly of Restaurant Orana and Magill Estate) and local winemakers Anton van Klopper and Jasper Button, Summertown Aristologist is a self-styled "restaurant without rules" where locally sourced vegetables and herbs are treated with religious zeal.
The blackboard menu, which changes daily, is deceptively modest. Even the starter of sourdough, freshly churned butter and zesty pickles bursts with flavour. "You've got to try the raw fish, mussels and sorrel," says van Klopper, who buzzes constantly from table to table. "I've just brought you a sample plate. And how good are those brussels?"
While the wine list naturally features vintages from van Klopper's Lucy Margaux Wines and Button's Commune of Buttons in the nearby Basket Range, there are some intriguing organic and low-sulphur wines from France, Spain and Italy.
Drive 30 kilometres up the road to the wonderfully named village of Gumeracha and you'll discover another new player taking an old formula (or perhaps two) and giving it a new twist. Launched in 2013, Unico Zelo & Applewood Distillery produces hand-crafted regional wines and artisanal gins from an atmospheric old shed that once stored apples, cheese and, yes, brussels sprouts – an inescapable presence here.
Husband-and-wife team Laura and Brendan Carter, both experienced winemakers, were inspired to launch their combined winery and distillery after a trip to Italy, but did not anticipate the immediate popularity of their Applewood spirit range.
"Unico Zelo means unique passion in Italian," says Laura, who is responsible for the company's range of handmade wines. "We are both dedicated winemakers but it was our Okar Amaro aperitif, made with native botanicals, that really put us on the map."
Apart from bringing wine and spirit production under one roof, the Gumeracha operation also offers a bespoke tasting experience – visitors choose from modestly priced flights of either Unico Zelo wines or Applewood gins and other spirits. The Applewood range will soon include a whisky matured in Western Australian jarrah and French oak barrels.
"Our tastings are different to the usual cellar door experience," says Laura. "We bring the drinks to your table, so it's far more relaxed. We also offer tours so visitors can get behind the scenes – people really enjoy these guided tours."
Balancing the twin demands of winemaking and distilling has been easier than the couple anticipated. While Laura concentrates on the next vintage, a dedicated distiller is employed to oversee the Applewood range of gins. Profits from the operation are currently being reinvested in the local vineyards which supply fruit to the winery.
"It's only by having these two products that we've been able to expand as quickly as we have," she says.
Small-scale production and close collaboration with local growers is also the cornerstone of CRFT Wines at Carey Gully. Launched by Barossan Candice Helbig and her New Zealand-born husband Frewin Ries in 2013, the boutique label sources fruit from nine small producers across the Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley and Eden Valley.
The couple, who have notched up some 35 vintages between them, are dedicated to making wines that reflect the true personality of each vineyard, including Arranmore, their own modest two-hectare patch of the Piccadilly Valley.
"Terroir is often overlooked in Australia," says Ries, as he pours glasses of estate-grown chardonnay, pinot noir, gruner veltliner and shiraz. "We have beautiful sites and beautiful aspects but traditionally this fruit has gone off in blends – we want to show people what we're seeing and share the distinct character of each vineyard."
Wine tasting at CRFT wines is an intimate experience. The cellar door occupies what was once a run-down 1900s shearing shed and with its retro furniture, wood-burning heater and record player spinning vinyl discs it feels more like dropping into someone's cosy lounge room. "Owning our own vineyard was always the dream," says Ries.
This commitment to terroir is shared by another Adelaide Hills newcomer. Simon Tolley Wines may carry the name of one of Australia's most famous wine dynasties, but its founder is not driven by global business ambition – just a desire to make distinctive, food-friendly wines that reflect the greatness of the Adelaide Hills
"I'd describe my wines as very drinkable and particularly good with food. Nothing is over-oaked," says Tolley, a trained viticulturist and grower.
Launched in 2016, the winery produces small batches of shiraz, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc from the family's 27-hectare vineyard at Woodside. Visitors can stay at the magnificent five-bedroom Simon Tolley Lodge overlooking the vines. A cellar door is due to open in 2019 but the wines are widely available in Adelaide and the Hills.
"I want to be judged by the wine itself," says Tolley. "For me this venture is a labour of love. I'm putting my heart and soul into every bottle."
FIVE GREAT TASTING EXPERIENCES
This tiny Carey Gully winery offers a range of highly individualistic single vineyard wines. Flights cost $15. Weekends only, noon to 5pm. crftwines.com.au
SIMON TOLLEY WINES
One of the newest producers in Woodside carries a famous wine moniker and is producing some exciting premium wines. Cellar door is opening in 2019. . simontolley.com.au
UNICO ZELO & APPLEWOOD DISTILLERY
Bringing spirits and wine under a single roof is a radical move, but this hip little operation in Gumeracha has carried it off with great panache. applewooddistillery.com.au
PRANCING PONY BREWERY
Celebrated for its European-style full-bodied ales, this family-friendly micro-brewery in Totness is a fun place for a relaxed lunch with friends, a tour or a structured beer tasting. prancingponybrewery.com.au
Based around an imposing old homestead in Macclesfield, Longview combines wine tasting, contemporary art and relaxed Italian-style vineyard cuisine. longviewvineyard.com.au
Mark Chipperfield was a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.
It takes about 30 minutes to drive from Adelaide to the Hills. .
Double deluxe rooms at The Crafers Hotel start from $250 a night. . See crafershotel.com.au
EAT + DRINK
Summertown Aristologist serves the region's freshest produce with organic wines from around the planet. Open 9am-9pm, Friday to Sunday. See thesummertownaristologist.com