A Driver’s Guide to Australia’s Best Wine Regions.
Driven to drink? Obviously we don’t encourage doing both at the same time because in the words of PJ O’Rourke, “you might spill something”.
But seriously, there are few things more rewarding than posting up in a wine region for a night as you decompress your way back into society after a longer touring mission into the deeper stretches of the outback.
And the good news? Most wine regions are close enough to our major cities to make them a slick 4WDing getaway in their own right.
And the even better news? All the regions have pick up and drive you around services, that can drop you back to your bed at day’s end (even a campsite if it’s close enough). Because let’s face it, if the wine’s good, you’re not going to be spitting it out during the taste tests.
HUNTER VALLEY, NSW.
This is where the Hunter River, her tributaries and congruent waterways all wiggle their way toward the Pacific Ocean.
This is where the Great Divide exhales its fertile waters from places like the Gloucester and Barrington Tops to create a wellspring of streams, farmland and sunlit hills just fit for grapes.
The main region we’re focusing on here is Pokolbin, about an hour west of Newcastle, but grapes are grown throughout the whole region, notably the Wollombi Valley and the Upper Hunter.
WHY THE HUNTER? Pokolbin’s been a big hit with Sydney-based tourers since modern cellar doors re-opened to punters in the 1960s, and as such, it’s probably best equipped for weekend tourers and day trippers. It’s got a wide mix too, of well-known mobs, and more boutique family operations, all of which operate vineyards in the region’s Mediterranean climate.
THE SORT OF WINE YOU’LL BE SUPPING? The Hunter is famous around the world for its Semillon and Shiraz, and not surprisingly they’re the grapes you’re most likely to find on the vine. You’ll also find plenty of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties planted throughout the region.
WHAT ABOUT NEARBY OFFROADING OPTIONS? Much ado about everything here. The name spots such as the Barrington and Gloucester Tops, plus the likes of the Watagans NP, and the “Devils Backbone” in Yengo NP.
SO, WHAT MAKES THIS REGION SO DAMN SPECIAL? It’s Australia’s original home of viticulture, and its historical tentacles go all the way back to early settlement in the 18th Century. Back then the governor in Sydney wanted to stop people from making their own spirits, so he gave vine clippings to early squatters in the Hunter and encouraged them to go forth and multiply. Reason being, that the new colony needed a more civilized type of drunk than a ‘moonshine drunk’. By the 1850s even the French were praising the new Australian wines, with Napoleon III becoming partial to a particular Hunter sparkling, that he celebrated even over his local champagnes.
A SELECTION OF LOCAL WINERIES? Lindemans, Tulloch, Drayton, McGuigan, and Mount Pleasant are the bigger wineries at Pokolbin. But there are plenty of smaller operations, all of them being experts in teaching you the finer aspects, through rigorous tastings of course. If you really get a hankering for a particular wine you can order by the bottle or the case. Or you can move on to the next winery until you find something you want to drown in.
YOU DRINK, WE DRIVE TOURS? You can jump in with a bunch of different operators who pick you up from your digs and drop you off later in the day, so long as you’re not obscenely far away. Try www.twofatblokes.com.au, or www.huntervalleywinetastingtours.com.au.
ANY TIPS FOR THIS REGION? The Mediterranean climate means its always pretty close to the coast, so don’t be afraid to mix it up with a longer and sandier trip that includes the stunning sands of the Great Lakes region and the aquamarine waters of the Mid North Coast.
CAMPFIRE? Gloucester River and Barrington Tops are the noteworthy camping zones in the Upper Hunter. If you want something 4WD-heavy, try Blue Gums in the Yengo National Park, or the Bangalow campground in the Watagans NP. More specs at www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au.
LOGFIRE? There are so many accommodation variations and destinations in the Hunter, something for everyone, so it’s impossible to recommend any one place. From deluxe escapes to budget B&Bs, we use www.huntervalleypokolbin.com.au.
MARGARET RIVER, WA.
The wineries that have mushroomed up between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin over recent decades have a reputation as some of the best in the world.
While it might have otherworldly facilities for wine and fine dining, at its heart, it’s a down to earth area that doesn’t carry on with much pretension.
What a pocket of the country! As if old karri forests colliding with the deep blues of the Indian Ocean wasn’t enough, this corner of WA is also home to some of the most grape-friendly terrain on the planet, while also being a jump-off point to some next-level offroading and camping zones.
WHY MARGARET RIVER? Sure it’s got the Mediterranean climate, but it’s the salt air that puts Margaret River into a different realm. It’s a realm shared by other wine regions just as famous for surfing; in France, Bordeaux (Lacanau), and in South Africa, Stellenbosch (Cape Town)
THE TYPE OF WINE YOU’LL BE SUPPING? It’s a pretty even between reds and whites in this terrain. You’ll find just as many Cab Savs as you will Sav Blancs.
THE BEST NEARBY 4WDING? To the north there’s a slick little sandy hit out along the beach to Joey’s Nose, going through the forest and beach at Boranup is also another easy and close option, as is the Three Bears beach run. If you want something local that’s more challenging, then give Bobs Track and Hamelin Bay the once over. And these are just the places close to town, the further out you stretch, the more tracks unveil themselves.
SO, WHAT MAKES THIS WINE REGION SO DAMN SPECIAL? For most, it’s the coast. Having it that close. Whales and dolphins jumping over waves, and kangaroos jumping over fences. Actually, just on that note, as you drive at sunset, it can turn into a game of Frogger as roos bound all over the place. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a local LandCruiser that doesn’t have panel damage or a few love-taps on the bullbar.
A SELECTION OF LOCAL WINERIES? The original mack daddy here is Vasse Felix, a winery set up by a heart doctor in the 60s, and named after a famous sailor lost at sea. The boutique options are hard to go past – literally, they seem to be dotted on every second property – but the more familiar names include Wild Oats and Cape Mentelle. There’s almost too many too mention.
YOU DRINK, WE DRIVE TOURS? There’s no shortage of these guys on the ground here either, and as it’s still not a giant population down here, everyone knows each other, and most people know about wine, have worked for wineries, etc. The best place to find a list of tours is once again over at www.margaretriver.com, this should cut out the clutter and nonsense of Google ads at least. If you want a customised look at the region, the best guys on the ground here are Gene and Saul at Cape to Cape Tours, www.capetocapetours.com.au.
TIPS FOR THIS REGION? This might seem like sacrilege, but there’s more than great boozing and 4WDing… the beaches here are famed around the world, plus there are caves and weird headland formations to get lost in.
CAMPFIRE? You’re almost as spoilt for choice as you are when it comes to choosing a decent drop of red. Leewin-Naturaliste National Park is draped along the coastal stretch, with the pick spots being Contos and Boranup. For more information try www.parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au
LOGFIRE? The local tourism and chamber of commerce have put together an epic little directory of places to crash with a roof over your head, and without you having your computer being clogged up with thousands of booking website pop-ups. Take your time over to pick the place you want over at www.margaretriver.com.
CLARE VALLEY, SA.
Two hours north of Adelaide, up the Horrocks Hwy, you’ll notice either side of the highway is filled with trellises collapsing under the weight of rich green and purple fruit.
The Hutt and Hill Rivers irrigate the place, and if you want a break from driving and you’re feeling unreasonably athletic you can hit the hiking and cycling ‘Reisling Trail’ that runs from Auburn to Clare.
WHY THE CLARE VALLEY? The vineyards have their fruit here in what’s referred to as a Continental climate, about 500m above sea level. This higher vantage is believed to be responsible for more temperate fruit that ripens more evenly.
AND THE TYPE OF WINE YOU’LL BE SUPPING? While Riesling is the tipple that put the valley on the map, these days the majority of produce that leaves the valley each season are lush reds; Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
WHAT ABOUT THE BEST NEARBY 4WDING? The red-letter track around here would have to be the Goyder Trail, incorporating both the Northern and Southern sections, with each section being a full day’s drive. The take off point for each loop is the Market Square at Burra. Which leads us on to the other drawcard for those with dirty mudguards… the Dare’s Hill Circuit. The loop starts at Hallett and gives your windscreen a panoramic IMAX film’s view from Dare’s Hill peak.
SO, WHAT MAKES THIS REGION SO DAMN SPECIAL? Despite the global reputation, the 50-odd wineries here are relatively close together and fairly small in size, so there’s usually more customised attention to guests who come to the cellar door. It’s also renowned for winning almost 10% of Australian awards, although it only represents about 2% of Australia’s total wine-growing area.
A SELECTION OF LOCAL WINERIES? Make sure to check out Sevenhills, which was started by a band of (very) merry Jesuit monks in 1849, with a cave these days that extends well beyond altar wine. The other big name being the Hardy Bros’ owned Knappstein Wines. But we recommend trying out as many of the smaller wineries as you can while you’re passing through.
YOU DRINK, WE DRIVE TOURS? You’re spoilt for choice here with about 10 different mobs who will ferry you from winery to winery as you get your cheer on. Clare Valley Taxis have a deluxe minibus option and a handful of cabs that can take you all over the valley and give you top advice along the way. Try firstname.lastname@example.org.
TIPS FOR THIS REGION? Do some sightseeing, this being one of the few places in the country where the tourist traps are actually worth a gander. The historical sandstone mansion Martindale Hall being just one of them. It’s a museum tour essentially, it costs about $15, and is an interesting take on colonial era grandeur. www.martindalehall-mintaro.com.au.
CAMPFIRE? The Red Banks Conservation Park is the go. This is the place to sidle up your waterhole swag next to a friendly echidna. Plenty of bushwalking to sweat off those hangovers too.
LOGFIRE? Pretty much every type of bed imaginable with some real classic old stone buildings in the mix where you can kick back in front of the hearth with your favourite loved one (AKA bottle of red). Get the skinny on accommodation with a detailed local directory at www.clarevalley.com.au.
THE GRANITE BELT, Q.
A stretch of distinctly-Queensland terrain that resides on a mountain range on the NSW border, that in recent years has rapidly gained a reputation for decent wine. It’s also the place in the Sunshine State that has the most distinctive four seasons, with snow falling most winters.
WHY THE GRANITE BELT? Because it’s new and it feels like anything can happen here, it’s not lost in the past or any preconceived version of how a wine region should operate. It’s also home to a well-rated vintners college (Banca Ridge wines).
AND THE SORT OF WINE YOU’LL BE QUAFFING? Shiraz was the first to be grown here, a little over 50 years back, and it still remains the favoured drop from the area. Stanthorpe’s Semillon production comes in a close second.
HOW DECENT ARE THE LOCAL OFFROADING JAUNTS? Well the main 4WDing game around here is undoubtedly Sundown National Park. And although it has an excellent reputation for challenging terrain it’s still not bastardised or overrun with too many offroading hillbillies. Along the border region you can have some serious dirty hit-outs at places like Red Rock Gorge and Rat’s Castle and explore gorges, waterholes and old tin mines splayed along the byways and waterways.
SO, WHAT MAKES THIS REGION SO DAMN SPECIAL? Well, you’re in Queensland, just a couple of hours from the likes of Straddie and Moreton, but in a completely different world. Although peak season for tourists is actually winter, last time we visited was in summer. Reason being, the mountains here are a much cooler option than the devil’s tail of heat that scorches the rest of the southeast during Christmas holidays.
A SELECTION OF LOCAL WINERIES? Ballendean Estate, Bungawarra Wines and Andelas Estate are the long-standing vineyards, but in the last 30 years a slew of new wineries have entered the fray. There’s about 50-odd cellar doors these days.
TIPS FOR THIS REGION? Definitely do the tour. These guys have the inside knowledge on who’s really producing the best stuff. The Granite Belt isn’t as established as the other state’s wine regions, so not every cellar door will blow your socks off like somewhere down south like the Clare Valley.
YOU DRINK, WE DRIVE TOURS? We reckon the mob to go cruising the cellar doors around these parts and safely swish a couple of reds around your gums while doing so, is www.winediscoverytours.com.au.
CAMPFIRE? The nearest faraway place from Stanthorpe’s wineries would be the Girraween National Park. Its paradisiacal campgrounds, at both Castle Rock and Bald Rock Creek, are the ultimate place to rest one’s weary head beneath a forest canopy. Book in at www.npsr.qld.gov.au.
LOGFIRE? If you’d prefer not sleeping under the stars, the Granite Belt has a rep for quirky B&Bs. There’s too many, and they’re too spread out to list, apart from to advise you to check the options available at www.granitebeltwinecountry.com.au.
GOULBURN VALLEY, VIC.
One of the early Australian regions to get involved with wine production, with the Tahbilk Winery still producing grapes from their original 1860s vines.
And these days it’s still thriving, and provides an experience a little different from the more famous Yarra Valley region, just a couple of hours away.
WHY GRAPES ARE SUCH A BIG DEAL HERE? Well, it’s a unique and fertile chunk of geography, with the Northern border being the Murray River between Echuca to Yarrawonga, and with the Southern flank being hemmed in by the sheep and horse country of Seymour.
AND THE VARIETIES OF WINE YOU’LL BE SUPPING? It’s unique, in that it’s now the global leader in the use of the Marsanne grape variety, which produces a rich and fruity white, although that’s still outshadowed in volume by traditional whites and reds.
SO, TELL US ABOUT THE NEARBY OFFROADING SITUATION? The northern end of the valley is seen as a launching spot for one of Australia’s iconic inland tracks, the River Red Gum Drive. As far as we’re concerned it’s almost your duty as a 4WDer to check it out before you keel over. While doing the whole 400km-odd length might not be feasible, you can still give one of the sections a decent hit out in the Bahmah NP.
AND WHAT MAKES THIS WINE REGION SO DAMN SPECIAL? Probably the Murray. What a river. It’s easy to turn your vino drinking tour into part of a longer journey that includes hardcore 4WDing, and paddle-steamer tours. Echuca means ‘meeting of the waters’ in the local Koori dialect, and the bordertown was always a focal inland region for livestock and produce, and when it comes to grapes, it still is.
A SELECTION OF LOCAL WINERIES? Around Seymour and Nagambie, you’ll find Tahbilk, Mitchelton, Fowles Wines, Kensington Wines and several other boutique vineyards including Box Grove and Brave Goose.
YOU DRINK, WE DRIVE TOURS? For a look around up at the Murray River/ NSW Border, it’s hard to go past the guys with the minibus at Echuca Moama Wine Tours, try them at www.echucamoama.com.
TIPS FOR THIS REGION? Take a look around the place under your own steam, board a paddle steamer in the Murray as though you’re an ol’ timey riverboat gambler, and if you’re in the Seymour neighbourhood then the Vietnam Veterans walk will open your eyes to the sacrifices made by brave men and women 50 years back.
CAMPFIRE? The big ticket tent-pitching destination around these parts is riverside camping on the Murray. You can post up along most riverside vantages in Bahmah NP, just be aware that these gum trees are known to drop branches like bombs, so it’s essential to find the right balance between shade and having your tent thwacked by a liberated chunk of wood.
LOGFIRE? One of the drawcard wineries in the Nagambie Lakes area is Tahbilk, the Purbrick family’s generational vineyard. And there are a number of B&Bs and cottages within striking distance, check out www.nagambielakestourism.com.au