Adelaide Hills

The Adelaide Hills wine region is set to expand, following a decision to lift a moratorium on building new wineries. There has been a temporary ban on building wineries and cellar door facilities in the Hills for the last five years, because of environmental considerations. The Hills are an important part of the catchment for the Adelaide water supply, and it was felt that run-off could be polluted by winery waste. Just how dangerous winery waste – which is mostly grape residue – could be was a moot point, and the fact that thousands of cows, sheep and other animals graze there was apparently not deemed too serious.

"New rules have been added to existing rules to make it 100% safe," says David Handyside, the chairman of the winegrowers' association. "Even in the event of a catastrophe, effluent would be contained," he said. The most toxic substance in wineries these days is alcoholic brine (used in refrigeration), he said. "Cellar door sales should never have been an issue, and that was admitted at the outset of our recent discussions."

So the Hills, which is among Australia's highest quality wine regions, and one of the most attractive to visit, is likely to get at least six new wineries, taking the total to 14. Until now, development of the Hills wine industry has been held back by the moratorium, necessitating vineyard  owners to engage existing wineries (such as Petaluma and Shaw & Smith) to make their wine for them, or enlist wineries outside the region. Longview wines, for instance, are made by a number of winemakers in the Barossa and McLaren Vale as well as Shaw & Smith.

 "The moratorium has set the region back about five years," says Handyside.

He says about a dozen producers have signalled they want to build cellar door sales outlets, and four or five have opened since the moratorium was lifted in mid-year. 

The Adelaide Hills now has 3,500 hectares of vineyards in a region which totals 1,400 square kilometres, says Handyside, "So it's a tiny fraction of the land compared to other uses. And vines are very efficient from a water-use point of view. Pasture for dairy farming uses 10 megalitres per hectare per annum, while vineyards average 1.5 megalitres."

Still, there has been no restraint in the planting of vines, and these have done nothing to damage the natural beauty of this diverse, undulating and relatively (for Australia) green landscape – although parts of it were already looking rather dry in November, thanks to the drought. Having judged at the region's wine show for the past three years, I can say this is one of the highest quality, and most rapidly improving, wine regions in Australia. 

Best known for its sauvignon blanc, the Hills is anything but as one-tune band, as it also produces some of our finest chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, cabernet and more recently, shiraz. Viognier, gewurztraminer, pinot gris can also hit the heights and there are even some worthy examples of zinfandel, sangiovese and nebbiolo.

The trophy for best wine of show was judged off between Kersbrook Hill Riesling '05, Nepenthe Sauvignon Blanc '06, Wolf Blass Gold Label Chardonnay '05, Petaluma Viognier '05, Ashton Hills Estate Pinot Noir '05, Mike Press Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon '05, Coobara Cabernet Merlot '05 and Mike Press Reserve Shiraz '05, all trophy winners in their categories. The chardonnay won – a very fine, long and harmonious wine of great complexity and more than a hint of Burgundy about it. It's a tribute to the efforts Chris Hatcher and his team have put into perfecting their chardonnays in recent years, helped no doubt to some degree by a consultant winemaker from Burgundy they've been using. Ashton Hills has been making great pinot for a long time and it was good to see them rewarded. The pinot trophy went to their cheaper Estate wine, while the Reserve label won a silver medal and will no doubt come into its own with a little more time in bottle. This show is the only one Petaluma enters, and as a sort of godfather to the region it's good to see it winning some top awards. Its viognier has for several years been one of the best in the entire country, with more finesse and better balance than many of its competitors. Nepenthe is one of the Hills' biggest wineries and most significant players in the sauvignon blanc field, and the '06 is Peter Leske's last as chief winemaker – so it was good to see this wine rising to the top of a large and distinguished field. Kersbrook Hill is a new producer to me, and somewhat unknown, but I was deeply impressed that it provided two of the three gold-medal rieslings in the class ('05 and '06), while the other gold went to Wirra Wirra Hand Picked '06. This was a superb class, and the silver medallists also deserve a mention: Chain of Ponds Purple Patch '04, Longview Iron Knob '05 and '06,  and Henschke Green's Hill '06. Henschke's '02 Green's Hill also shone, winning the trophy for the best exhibition class dry white.

The name Mike Press may mean little to younger readers, but Press is a very distinguished winemaker who was a key member of the Mildara team for many years and started his career at Penfolds under Max Schubert. He now has his own vineyard in the Hills and the '05 reds are his first under his new label. The fact that in his first show outing, he topped three classes (shiraz, cabernet and merlot) against some stiff opposition, speaks volumes about the talent of the man. Keep an eye out for these when they are released in the near future.

This show revealed the Hills as a region of unusually high quality, with relatively few faulty wines. This is partly due to the high calibre of winemaking – which must be due in turn, at least in part, to the fact that many producers use skilled contract winemakers. Which takes us back to the introduction to this story. It's to be hoped that when a profusion of new wineries are built, and more people start to make their own wines, that this high level of winemaking can be maintained.