Forget spicy Shiraz from Victoria and blockbuster reds from Barossa. Adelaide Hills is Australia’s most talked about region, with producers discovering its cool, moist climate is great for fresh, elegant wines. By JAMES LAWTHER MW

Head east from the city of Adelaide and within half an hour you’ll have left scorched plain and suburban sprawl for the green, wooded hills of the Southern Mount Lofty Ranges.

Viticulturally, this is home to the Adelaide Hills, a region defined by its minimum 400m altitude and bounded to the north by the Barossa Valley and to the west by McLaren Vale.

Despite living in the shadow of such august neighbours, the Adelaide Hills is presently on a roll. Cool-climate viticulture and ‘region-specific styles’ are the new mantra in the Australian wine industry and both can be found in the Hills. A relatively cool, moist climate leads to wines, particularly whites, with a leaner, crystalline, ‘bright fruit’ edge and a dab of elegance. New investors, undaunted by the rising price of land, have made it – in recent years – one of Australia’s fastest growing wine regions, with 3,338ha (hectares) under vine compared with 1,035 pre-1997.

Vines were planted here as far back as 1839 but the modern era dates from 1978, when Brian Croser selected the Piccadilly Valley – at 500–600m the highest and wettest (average rainfall 1,145mm) valley in the Adelaide Hills – for premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir plantings, for wines under his Petaluma label. He was followed by a trickle of high-profile names in the early 1980s, among them Stephen and Prue Henschke, Tim Knappstein and Geoff Weaver, all of whom established vineyards in the Lenswood sub-region. The boom in planting followed in the 1990s and has just begun to plateau out. Initially, errors were made with unsuitable grape varieties (generally the more robust red varieties) grown in potentially good sites, but this is steadily being ironed out.

The region, 80km north–south by 30km east–west, is more complicated than seen at first glance. Variations in altitude and the influence of rain shadow and aspect mean careful deliberation has to be given to site selection and variety.

Away from the epicentres of the Piccadilly Valley and Lenswood, moving north towards the Barossa and Eden Valleys or south, nearer McLaren Vale, temperatures increase and rainfall drops.

‘In terms of growing conditions, the Adelaide Hills is like a mini Europe going from Burgundy and the Loire through Bordeaux to the Rhône,’ explains Brian Croser. Yields need to be tempered (emphasising the demand for quality, premium wines) as this is not a region conducive to bulk production.

If the region is still strongly associated with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for both still and sparkling wines, a host of other varieties can now be found. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz are the principal reds with a smattering of others such as Tempranillo and Sangiovese, while Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Semillon, Pinot Gris and Viognier tail Chardonnay in terms of plantings of whites.

It is the crisp, focused whites that have so far secured the reputation of the region. This looks set to persist, with plantings now more significant than for reds. Chardonnay has 815ha under vine; Petaluma’s Tiers Chardonnay and Penfolds’ Yattarna, much of it sourced from the Hills, are as good as Chardonnay gets in Australia.

The big surprise, though, has been Sauvignon Blanc, soon to overtake Pinot Noir as the region’s second most important variety and now very much the commercial engine of the Hills. Few areas in Australia are as well adapted to the production of this variety and the Adelaide Hills is capitalising on this fact. In a long-term forecast to 2009 by the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia, it is the only major variety not to show a decline in intake.

Flavour wise it has the lively, fresh stamp of the variety with a grassy-citrus nuance. ‘Our Sauvignon Blanc sits somewhere between Marlborough and Sancerre,’ says Michael Hill Smith, one of the leading exponents at his Shaw and Smith winery.

Other great whites are Riesling, Viognier and Pinot Gris. The Riesling has something of the taut, restrained style of nearby Eden Valley. ‘It’s the sleeper among whites,’ says Nepenthe winemaker Peter Leske. A particularly fine, apricot-scented Viognier from Longview Vineyard showed the potential of this variety, while plantings of Pinot Gris – or Grigio – doubled in 2003 to 80ha, indicating the interest.

Onto the Reds

The red wine scene is a little more confused. Pinot Noir is still the major variety, with 532ha planted. Much is destined for sparkling blends, of which only Petaluma’s Croser (blended with Chardonnay) has clear Adelaide Hills visibility. Pinot purists can find still versions with a lifted, aromatic vibrancy and length of flavour at Ashton Hills and in a more powerful mould at TK Wines (Knappstein Lenswood Vineyards) but the region has yet to stamp its authority over other Pinot-producing areas in Australia.

Curiously, Shiraz is beginning to emerge in a definitive style from certain selected sites. In the south of the district around Mount Barker and Macclesfield temperatures are warmer but there’s a good diurnal range. The wines appear to have a generous ripeness of fruit but more restraint and freshness than the powerful blockbusters of the Barossa and McLaren Vale. The 2003 and 2004 vintages – both warm years – were good for Shiraz here whereas the cooler 2002 was a top year for Pinot Noir and whites.

Otherwise there are experiments with Italian varieties and Tempranillo, as yet without great conviction. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot remain important but plantings have all but ceased and, barring a few examples, have failed to truly excite either as mono-varieties or in a Bordeaux-style blend.

Further growth of the Adelaide Hills ‘brand’ will continue to be hampered by two constraints. Much of the fruit produced in the region is sourced by the big companies (Hardys, Mildara Blass, Orlando, Penfolds) and finds its way into multiple blends leaving only 20% to bear the Adelaide Hills label. Secondly, there are tough restrictions on development due to the fact that the region is a water catchment area for Adelaide. Pollution from winery waste is seen as a constant threat, and estates are also only allowed to crush up to 2,000 tonnes of grapes. Despite the 60-odd labels that now exist there are only a dozen licensed wineries in the region and of these just four of major consequence, Petaluma, Nepenthe, Shaw and Smith and TK Wines (Knappstein Lenswood Vineyards).

The majority of wines are, therefore, either made under contract by these four wineries or processed outside the region. If the regulations soften for certain ‘merited’ claims, as muted, the Hills will move on another step.

Key Players

The pioneering winemakers who have given Adelaide Hills its reputation for quality.

Ashton Hills

A boutique winery in European mould, Ashton Hills is an important estate in terms of style, quality and authenticity. An early pioneer, Stephen George established his dry grown vineyard (now 3ha) on a ridge overlooking the Piccadilly Valley in 1981 producing his first wines in 1987. ‘This is the Burgundy of the Adelaide Hills,’ he proclaims. Along the way there’s been plenty of experimentation with clones (there are presently 15 Pinot Noir) and trellising. Top of the line are the estate-grown Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, all of a fine, precise nature. The Galah range is a second label made from bought in fruit. Stephen George also acts as a consultant to icon estate Wendouree in the Clare Valley.

Chain of Ponds

Chain of Ponds was recently purchased by Honi Dolling and business associates. Much of the fruit is still sourced from vineyards belonging to the original owners, the Amadio family, who first planted in the Hills in 1985 and now own extensive holdings around warmer Gumeracha and Kersbrook to the north. A wide range of wines is produced at the winery, including a number from Italian varieties, all in the good value rather than premium range. Personal preferences were the recent edition Pinot Grigio, clean, fresh Black Thursday Sauvignon Blanc and rich, juicy Ledge Shiraz. An attractively sited restaurant also makes this a local destination.

Nepenthe Vineyards

The Tweddle family established Nepenthe Vineyards in 1994 and there are now 85ha located at Lenswood and further east at Charleston. A winery was added in 1996. This has been one of the most exciting ventures in the region with staggeringly good wines across the range. Much of the credit for this goes to winemaker Peter Leske, formerly of the Australian Wine Research Institute and with vintage experience in France (Domaines Dujac and l’Arlot in Burgundy and Alain Graillot in Crozes-Hermitage). Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are all of note, as are the ageworthy Fugue (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot) and powerful but pricy Zinfandel.

Petaluma

Petaluma pioneered viticulture in the Adelaide Hills (1978). Prime mover Brian Croser remains at the helm but the winery (along with others in the Petaluma group) is now owned by New Zealand brewer Lion Nathan. Matching variety to site has always been one of the keys hence the selection of cool, wet Piccadilly Valley for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Croser traditional-method sparkling wine, always in need of a little bottle age, is sourced from here as are the finely textured Chardonnay and Tiers Chardonnay, the latter grown on Calcsilicate soils that are 1,800 million years old. More recently Mount Barker with its sandy loams and warmer climes was chosen for Viognier and Shiraz. Bridgewater Mill is both a second label and one of South Australia’s top restaurants.

Shaw and Smith

Shaw and Smith is the brainchild of cousins Martin Shaw (winemaker) and Michael Hill Smith MW. White wines are their forte but reds have been recently added to the list. A brand new, hi-tech winery was completed for the 2000 vintage. Previously the wines were made at Petaluma (first vintage 1990). The M3 vineyard (28ha) planted in 1994, supplies the well-crafted single vineyard Chardonnay of the same name and provides a component part for the market-leading Sauvignon Blanc. Another 25ha was planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir in 1999. Shaw and Smith have followed the present trend by sourcing their Shiraz (first vintage 2002) from further south in warmer Macclesfield.

TK Wines (Knappstein Lenswood Vineyards)

Tim Knappstein is a legend in the Australian wine industry. He created his own label in the Clare Valley in the 1970s and then sold out to Petaluma in 1992. By then he’d already started planting Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir in Lenswood (from 1981) and producing classic wines from the fruit. In 2004 he sold the Lenswood vineyards but retains access to the grapes, making the wines at a new hi-tech, contract winery he manages for investors. TK Wines is the new label from the 2004 vintage with Gewürztraminer an interesting addition.

Geoff Weaver

Former Hardy’s winemaker Geoff Weaver planted his first vineyard at Stafford Ridge near Lenswood in 1982. There are now 14ha of low-yielding Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir. The wines, produced by Geoff Weaver at Petaluma, all have keen precision and length and a crisp, vibrant quality, the Chardonnay and Riesling showing good ageing potential. If ever a label exemplified the true character of the Adelaide Hills, this is it.

New Faces

As the Adelaide Hills starts to make a name for itself, new investment is pouring in. These are some of the best.

Bird in Hand

This relatively new label is worth keeping an eye on. The Nugent family bought the property on the site of the 1879 Bird in Hand gold mine in 1997, producing their first wine in 1999. About 30ha have been planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and a former dairy turned into a winery. There are three labels, Bird in Hand (varietal wines), Two In The Bush (blends) and the high-end Nest Egg (special selection) as well as a production of olive oil. The Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc showed good value and flavour. I was less convinced by the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon but winemaking consultant and Kym Milne MW is now involved here so there should be improvements down the line. www.OlivesOilWine.com

The Lane

John Edwards is the genial and garrulous magician behind The Lane. The vineyard, near the German settlement village of Hahndorf, was first planted in 1992 and now includes Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of the fruit goes to Hardys to be used with other Hills fruit in the joint venture, value-end Starvedog Lane brand. The pick of the rest goes to the premium The Lane label, owned by Edwards but produced at present at Hardys Tintarra. ‘We’re 30% of the way towards realising a dream which is to make our own wine on site,’ he exclaims. Highlights are an expressive Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon, peppery Reunion Shiraz and ageworthy 19th Meeting Cabernet Sauvignon. www.thelane.com.au

Leabrook Estate

Civil engineer Colin Best has dabbled in wine for a number of years but made his first commercial vintage of Leabrook Estate in 1998. A closely planted, low-yielding, 3ha vineyard provides the core of the fruit, with the rest being bought in. The wines are made in a converted wool manufacturing plant. This is a small, hands-on operation, very much in the European mould, producing harmonious wines with a real textural quality. Traditional methods are preferred (there is no acidification, for example). Top of the line are the Cabernet-Merlot, Pinot Noir and Three Regions Shiraz (Adelaide Hills, Langhorne Creek, Adelaide Plains). www.leabrookestate.com

Longview Vineyard

Longview is probably the most ambitious of the newer labels with a convincing range of single-vineyard wines. The sale of his Two Dogs alcoholic lemonade brand to Pernod Ricard in 1995 helped Duncan MacGillivray realise the new project which is based in beautiful hilly terrain near Macclesfield in a warmer sector of the Adelaide Hills. The first vineyards were planted in 1997 and there are now 70ha of 11 different varieties including Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay and Viognier. The winemaking is presently contracted to Shaw and Smith. Personal highlights were the finely scented Beau Sea Viognier, citrusy Iron Knob Riesling, and spicy, black pepper Yakka Shiraz. www.longviewvineyard.com.au

Pike & Joyce

There’s a lot of experience behind this partnership label. The Pikes, winemaker Neil and viticulturalist brother Andrew (formerly with Southcorp), produce wines in the Clare Valley while the Joyce family have been successfully growing fruit (apples, pears and cherries) in Lenswood for several generations. A family connection and decision to diversify led to the first vine plantings in Lenswood in 1998. There are now 18ha of former orchard converted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. The wines are made at the Pikes Clare Valley winery. Best to date are the full, grassy Sauvignon Blanc and rich, oaky Chardonnay.

www.pikeswines.com.au

Setanta Wines

Setanta, named after a famous Irish mythological hero, is family owned and run by Sheilagh and Tony Sullivan and Bernard Kierns. The latter is a former biochemist who now looks after the viticultural side and plans to do the winemaking when a licence is granted. At present four wines are produced under contract in Lyndock and Langhorne Creek from fruit grown on the Setanta vineyard located at Forreston on the edge of the Adelaide Hills and Barossa. The first plantings were in 1996 and first vintage in 2001. A set of truly striking labels depicting Irish mythological scenes have been created for the Speckled House Riesling, Emer Chardonnay, Cuchulain Shiraz and Black Sanglain Cabernet Sauvignon. True to the location, perhaps, the Riesling and Shiraz were my favourites. www.setantawines.com.au

BEST NEW RELEASES

Petaluma, Tiers Chardonnay 2002

Beautifully balanced wine. Subtle melon and peach aromas with a wisp of quality oak. Smooth, layered texture. Bright and harmonious. Sophisticated winemaking. Up to 2010 £39.99 (2001); Bib

Ashton Hills, Chardonnay 2002

Fine, taut, fresh, almost Chablis-esque in style. Stone fruit with a honeyed edge. Great balance and length. Up to 2009. (The 2003 is a softer, fuller wine but again elegant in style). Au$27.50.

N/A UK; +61 883 901 243

Ashton Hills, Estate Pinot Noir 2003

Stephen George makes the best Pinot Noir in the Adelaide Hills (the 2002 was outstanding but is now out of stock). Garnet hue. Spicy, dark cherry and violet nose. Explosive flavours on the palate. Intense, persistent and with great length. 2006–2012. Au$45. N/A UK +61 883 901 243

Geoff Weaver, Riesling 2004

Great precision and flavour. Linear in style. Limey nuance. Palate crisp, delicate with good middle fruit and a bone-dry finish. Will fill out with time. Up to 2010. £10.99; BoC

Leabrook Estate, Cabernet-Merlot 2002

Majority Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. Medium bodied, harmonious. Blueberry/blackcurrant fruit with a eucalyptus note. Palate ripe but fresh. Touch of tannic bite on the finish. Up to 2010. £17.99; Rac

Longview Vineyard, Beau Sea Viognier 2004

Shows great finesse. Delicate floral, apricot nose. Soft, round, caressing fruit on the palate with a long, clean fresh finish. Just delicious. Up to 2007. £11.99; Rac

Nepenthe Vineyards, Pinot Noir 2002

Dark cherry and plum fruit. Ripe sweetness on the palate but acidity and structure behind. Clean, digestible finish. Up to 2007 £13.99; Stf

Petaluma, Mount Barker Shiraz 2002

Includes 7% Viognier. Ripe, plummy fruit with a lift of spice and orange zest. A touch of toasted oak behind. Rich, smooth texture with fine, rounded tannins. A New World Guigal. 2006–2012. £19.99; Bib

Shaw and Smith, M3 Vineyard Chardonnay 2003

Elegant honeysuckle and almond nose. Palate rich and full, showing tropical fruit flavours and restrained buttery oak. Crisp, bright finish. Best in another year. Up to 2009. £15.95; Lib

TK Wines (Knappstein Lenswood Vineyards), Pinot Noir 2002

A robust example of Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir. Complex dark cherry, mocha and earthy aromas. Rich, powerful palate loaded with fruit. Crisp, assertive finish. Up to 2010. £17.99; McK

Chain of Ponds, Ledge Shiraz

Built in quite a powerful mould. Plenty of creamy, dark fruit with a hint of liquorice and black pepper. Warm, full and rich on the palate. Up to 2008. £12.99; D&D

Longview Vineyard, Yakka Shiraz 2003

Has a dash of Viognier. Succulent, ripe plummy fruit on the nose and palate. Nutmeg and peppery spice. Lots of charm. Fresh, minerally finish. Up to 2010. £11.99; Rac

Geoff Weaver, Sauvignon Blanc 2004

Delicately fragrant tropical fruit nose with a grassy undertone. Subtle fruit flavour with a mineral note. Pure, precise and crystalline. Drink now. £10.99; BoC

Setanta, Speckled House Riesling 2003

Fuller style, drinking well now. Affirmed lime character on the nose. Ripe fruit gives a roundness on the palate but there’s a bone-dry finish. Up to 2007. £13; Nov

BEST VALUES

Nepenthe, Unoaked Chardonnay 2004

Just the ticket for summer drinking. Simple, direct style. Ripe, citrus tone. Bright fruit character. Mouthwateringly refreshing. Delicate but ripe flavours. Drink now. £9.49 (2003); Odd

Shaw and Smith, Sauvignon Blanc 2004

Citrus-apple nose. Good depth and flavour on the palate. A certain ripe fruit sweetness followed by a clean, fresh finish. A benchmark for the region. Drink now. £9.95; Lib

Chain of Ponds, Black Thursday Sauvignon Blanc 2004

The name makes reference to a bush fire that swept the area in 1990. Crisp citrus aroma with a leafy note. Clean and fresh with middle palate ripeness. An easy quaffer. Drink now. £7.99; D&D

Chain of Ponds, Pinot Grigio 2004

Green apple with a touch of herb on the nose. Soft, round palate. Good volume, a little neutral in flavour but clean, dry finish. Drink now. £8.99; D&D

Longview Vineyard, Iron Knob Riesling 2004

Expressive citrus-lime aroma and flavour. Crisp, fresh and linear. Should develop.

Up to 2009. £9.99; Rac

Nepenthe Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc 2004

Expressive, aromatic nose. Citrus and melon notes. Fresh but with a hint of ripe fruit sweetness. Drink now. £7.99; Wai

Starvedog Lane, Sauvignon Blanc 2004

Melon-citrus aroma and flavour. Soft middle palate. Average acidity and lift. Fresh finish. Competent. Drink now.

£9.99; BoW

TK Wines (Knappstein Lenswood Vineyards), Gewürztraminer 2004

A bit of a rarity in the Hills but this example shows the potential for the variety. Light to medium bodied, dry, fresh style.

Rose petal aroma and flavour. Crisp and precise. Drink now. £10.99; McK

James Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter.

Written by James Lawther