By Mark Chipperfield
Perhaps it’s the aroma of wood smoke, sunshine falling on the bare hills and weathered stone or the sight of geese waddling across a country lane, but there is something irresistibly romantic about winter in the Adelaide Hills.
While the flora and fauna are unmistakably Australian – yes, you can hug a koala here and listen to the kookaburras – there is something distinctly European about the topography of the Hills, its neat 19th century villages and sense of continuity, and seasonality.
Just 20 minutes from the centre of Adelaide, the Hills have a tradition of small-scale agriculture stretching back to the first days of European settlement.
Today’s cool-climate wineries, celebrated across the globe, rub shoulders with apple orchards, dairy farms and market gardens; many date back to an era long before pinot noir and sauvignon blanc ruled the Hills.
Those who pine for the close-knit rural communities of Italy, France or Germany will find much to enjoy in the Adelaide Hills on these crisp, misty winter days: rugging up for a country walk, exploring a farmers’ market or just kicking back in front of an open fire with a glass of red.
All of these elements come together in the annual Winter Reds Weekend which is celebration of the region’s red wine portfolio and its dynamic food culture – not to mention its tradition of warm-hearted country hospitality.
“Of course the weather can be pretty cold at this time of the year, but you also get those lovely sunny winter days,” says Robin Shaw, head of the Adelaide Hills Wine Region.
“The place is just gorgeous and so verdant after the rain – it just seems appropriate to be sitting in front of an open fire with a glass of red wine.”
Wine plus open fire equals cure for winter blues
From its humble beginnings in 2009, when only a handful of wineries took part, the Winter Reds Weekend (subtitled Play With Fire) has grown into a major annual event hosted by 34 wineries, pubs and restaurants and offering everything from structured wine tastings to fire dancers and fashion competitions.
Food featured prominently on the 2016 program, with a good range of dinners, tapas nights, degustations and family-friendly pizza sessions.
One of the gastronomic highlights was an appearance by My Kitchen Rules contestant Bree May at Howard Vineyard, where she will serve traditional Spanish and Italian fare using ingredients sourced mostly from the Adelaide Hills.
What began as a Sunday celebration at a handful of wineries is now an two-day festival involving big name producers such as Bird In Hand, Shaw + Smith, The Lane Vineyard, Petaluma, Tomich Wines and Longview Wines and covering the entire Hills region from Gumeracha in the north to Macclesfield in the very south.
“The festival has grown really quickly over the past couple of years,” says Shaw. “We had around 9000 people at the festival in 2015 and I’d expect even more people this year. But we don’t want to get too big. We want to retain that sense of intimacy about Winter Reds – I think that’s what visitors from Sydney and Melbourne in particular really appreciate about the Hills.”
According to Shaw not only has the scale of the event changed, but the style of wines on offer has also broadened to include newer varietals such as Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola and Cabernet Franc, all of which are now being produced.
“Although Shiraz remains the biggest single red varietal in the Hills, our winemakers are experimenting with many types of other varietals and blends, which is also very exciting,” she says. “So the festival is a great opportunity to sample some of these lesser known wines.”
Earlier in 2016, two wineries from the Adelaide Hills, Bird in Hand and Mr Riggs, won gold medals for wines made from Montepulciano at the International Wine Challenge in London – the first time that a non-Italian Montepulciano had taken the top award at the competition.
Judges praised the ability of Australian winemakers, especially those from the Adelaide Hills, to achieve consistency across vintages while using different grape varieties. “A phenomenal performance,” said IWC co-chairman Charles Metcalfe.
Shaw says that what makes the Hills so attractive is the dominance of small, hands-on producers, the willingness to experiment with new grape varietals and the sheer passion that these winemakers bring to their craft.
“When you wander into a cellar door in the Hills chances are it will be the owner or the winemaker who will be doing the wine tasting,” she says. “That’s pretty special.”
The evolution of winemaking in the Hills has been matched by the development of a robust and substantial regional food culture – this has also changed considerably over the past seven years. Shaw points to local culinary superstars The Lane Vineyard, The Gallery (at Bird in Hand), Piccadilly Restaurant and Maximillian’s, part of the Sidewood Estate in Verdun, which has recruited young Adelaide chef Jamie Laing to revamp its menu.
“I suppose the other thing that has changed over recent years is our ability to attract and retain really talented chefs,” she says.
While most people will naturally want to stay in the Hills during the festival, accommodation options range from up-market hotels such as Mount Lofty House to B&Bs, motels and country cottages, it is also feasible to stay in downtown Adelaide and drive up to the Hills each day using a modern and efficient expressway.
Festival goers need not use their own vehicles during the Winter Reds Weekend. Several local tour operators will run shuttle services between the various festival venues. Designated drivers, meanwhile, will be entitled to complementary non-alcoholic drinks over the weekend.
Winter Reds Weekend was held from July 29 to 31, 2016 (Date unconfirmed for 2017). Entry to the festival is free, although some events are ticketed and must be booked in advance.