Off the wine lovers' beaten track, Winsor Dobbin finds there are plenty of hidden gems deserving attention.
The Clare Valley, Coonawarra and Langhorne Creek are among Australia's finest wine-producing regions, home to some of our leading winemakers and most familiar brands. All three, however, suffer from being slightly off the beaten track in comparison to the Barossa and McLaren Vale.
That makes these hidden gems all the more enticing for the adventurous gourmet, who will discover less-crowded cellar doors and often get the chance to taste wines with the winemaker or the winemaker's family.
Australia's largest premium red-wine grape-growing region is less than an hour from Adelaide's CBD and is home to 22 wineries and 10 cellar doors. It's a short drive from the lovely little town of Strathalbyn.
Bleasdale, which has a charmingly rustic cellar door, is Australia's second-oldest family-owned winery behind Yalumba in the Barossa, having been founded in 1850.
Several of the local families have been growing grapes for five generations, including the Potts family at Bleasdale, the Adams family at Metala and Brothers In Arms and the Follett family at Lake Breeze.
Despite this, Langhorne Creek remains something of an undiscovered winery treasure, known only to serious vinophiles, who love this part of the Fleurieu Peninsula for its rich, approachable reds and its quiet, quintessentially Australian country charm.
The quality of the fruit produced in Langhorne Creek cannot be disputed. It has been a main component of several Jimmy Watson winners, including Wolf Blass Grey Label.
"Few people realise that Langhorne Creek has supplied the fruit for some of Australia's greatest labels for over 100 years," says James Hall, from Brothers In Arms winery. "We are not a star region but we do offer great value for money."
Wineries based in Langhorne Creek include Bleasdale, Bremerton, Brothers In Arms and Lake Breeze, while smaller operations include Ben Potts Wines, Casa Freschi, Ben Glaetzer's Heartland Wines, Cleggett, Gipsie Jack, Kimbolton, Step Road, Zonte's Footstep, Angas Plains Estate and biodynamic producer Temple Bruer.
Most of the grapes grown locally are sold to labels such as Penfolds and Jacob's Creek.
Cabernet sauvignon and shiraz are the undoubted stars, although several top-notch fortifieds are also produced in a region dotted with towering red river gumtrees, quiet waterways and warm breezes.
Where to stay Most visitors base themselves in the historic township of Strathalbyn, just a 10-minute drive away. The Strath Motel offers quality accommodation. Phone (08) 8536 3311 or see strathmotel.com.au.
Where to taste The historic Bleasdale cellar door; Bremerton, with its modern cafe; the Winehouse, which offers tastings from several small producers; family-run Lake Breeze; tiny but welcoming Zonte's Footstep; and Cleggett.
Where to eat The Bremerton winery cellar door, a restored 1866 stone barn set among the vines, sells a wide range of local produce and features regional platters and wood-fired pizzas. Rusticana Wines is home to both the Rusticana cellar door and the Newman's horseradish factory and both products feature on the cellar door cafe's lunch platter menu.
Coonawarra and neighbouring Penola are mere specks on the map but are places of pilgrimage for lovers of fine wines and have a global reputation, despite their isolation.
Coonawarra is a five-hour drive south-east of Adelaide and a similar distance from Melbourne. The nearest town is Mount Gambier – but Coonawarra has a formidable reputation for the magnificent red wines produced from the region's unique terra rossa soil.
A cigar-shaped strip of land either side of the highway between Penola and Coonawarra is blessed with very special terroir: red-brown topsoil sitting on a white limestone base.
The region also has a cooler climate than many other Australian grape-growing regions, resulting in a long ripening season, which produces excellent fruit flavours and unique tannin structure.
Some critics say this is the best terroir for cabernet sauvignon in the world (although Bordeaux, the Napa Valley and Margaret River would doubtless dispute that) and it is cabernet on which Coonawarra has built its reputation. Coonawarra's name was founded on shiraz but during the past 50 years cabernet sauvignon has become increasingly important.
Wine grapes were first planted in Coonawarra in 1890 and nurtured by pioneers such as the Riddoch and Redman families.
The region's producers range from some of the biggest names in the industry – Wynns Coonawarra Estate and Yalumba Menzies – to smaller wineries, including Zema Estate, Balnaves, Majella, Rymill, Katnook Estate, Leconfield and Bowen Estate.
Recent arrivals include DiGiorgio, Koonara, Reschke and Raidis Estate.
In a bid to entice tourists, Coonawarra holds a series of annual festivals including After Dark, in April, when all the cellar doors open in the evening, and the biggest event of the year, held each October – the Coonawarra Cabernet Celebrations and Barrel Series auctions – a wine lover's dream with a range of tastings, dinners and entertainment followed by the famous auction of limited-release barrels.
Where to stay must@coonawarra is a group of delightful modern apartments and studios in Penola. Phone (08) 8737 3444 or see mustatcoonawarra.com.au for more information.
Where to taste Coonawarra may be a remote spot but it's no sleepy hollow – there are now more than 25 cellar doors, with Rymill, Wynns, Brands, DiGiorgio, Hollick, Majella and Zema Estate all offering a warm welcome. Bowen Estate is probably the most atmospheric and Balnaves the slickest.
Where to eat Former Rymill winemaker John Innes recently opened Fodder, a casual cafe in Coonawarra, while Upstairs at Hollick winery restaurant and Pipers of Penola serve serious food matched with stellar wines.
Just two hours' drive north of Adelaide, the Clare Valley is one of Australia's oldest and most famous wine regions and has sometimes been compared with Tuscany because of its bucolic beauty.
It is certainly one of our most scenic wine areas, relatively small in size with a range of micro-climates in the various sub-regions that include Watervale, the Polish Hill River, Skillogalee Valley and Auburn.
Established in the 1840s, the Clare produces some of our very best rieslings, shirazes and cabernets. Clare Valley wines are generally known for their powerful fruit flavours, combined with elegance.
Most of the wineries are family-owned and operated, including Taylors, the biggest winery in the region.
Settlers from England, Ireland and Poland first moved into the Clare during the 1840s, producing a rich heritage of architecture and historic villages, many of which – like picturesque Mintaro, with its many rental cottages and cute cafes – remain largely intact.
Vineyards were planted quickly by the new arrivals and the winemaking tradition lives on. Because of its relatively small size, the Clare can be explored easily over a few days.
Several of the old buildings are now used as guesthouses, restaurants and galleries.
Many visitors use the lovely walking and cycling path known as the Riesling Trail, a sealed track that links several of the villages of the valley and passes right by a number of the most famous wineries. The big names here include Grosset (Australia's leading riesling producer), Wendouree, Pikes, Knappstein, Mitchell, Pauletts, Kilikanoon, Tim Adams and Jim Barry. Newer stars include O'Leary Walker, Claymore and Kirrihill, while at Sevenhill Cellars, Jesuit priests make wines for both the table and the altar.
Where to stay Thorn Park by the Vines offers luxury boutique accommodation and fine food with residential cooking classes available by appointment. There are just two rooms, making this the perfect escape for two couples. Phone (08) 8843 4304 or see thornpark.com.au.
Where to taste There are several excellent options but don't miss out on Pikes, Mitchell, Crabtree, Reilly's, Mount Horrocks and Sevenhill. The views from Pauletts are extraordinary.
Where to eat Skillogalee has been a wining and dining favourite for close to 20 years and is open for serious food and wine lunches 363 days a year. Or try the regional platters at the Penna Lane cellar door.