Adelaide, South Australia, sibling city and state of Austin, Texas, is a delicious destination for food and wine lovers
I am always looking for an excuse to travel somewhere exotic, a place with some foreign flora and fauna and a bit of excitement as the name rolls off the tongue. Of course, a good wine scene is a plus. The latest chance popped up when Michael Harbison, the lord mayor of Adelaide, the capital city of the state of South Australia, came to Austin a courtin' business.
We have a number of strong connections with both Adelaide and South Australia. Texas and South Australia are sister states. Both were founded in 1836; both are about the same size, though South Australia is one of Australia's smaller states; and the two states' capitals Adelaide and Austin are sister cities. With all these connections, it made good sense for the lord mayor to be seeking business connections. The PR firm representing South Australia's tourist commission invited me to attend a dinner with Mr. Harbison, along with about a hundred other Austinites.
Here's where my luck turned Lotto-licious. I mentioned that I'd never been to Australia and had always wanted to go, and it turned out that Air New Zealand was going to be offering its inaugural service to Adelaide from Auckland and was looking for six U.S. journalists to fly on that flight and then spend a week traveling South Australia. Would I like to go? Hmmm. Oh, I guess so.
Flying Austin to Adelaide is no easy chore. For any of the airlines, you'll have to make at least two stops, one on the west coast of the U.S. and another in either Auckland, Sydney, or Melbourne. The shortest flight requires split-second timing and still takes 26 hours. If you want to play it safe and I did given the distance I was traveling with reasonable layovers, your flight time balloons to more than 32 hours. By the time we reached Auckland, I had 28 hours under my belt, and that's when the festivities began.
Inaugural flights are big deals, with flowing champagne, bigwigs scissoring bigger ribbons, and lots of fancy finger food flowing about the place. For these six bleary-eyed, jet-lagged journalists, it was almost overload. We just wanted to get somewhere we could dump our bags, get a shower, and crawl into bed. But we were all excited about our trip and ready for some fun.
Immediately upon arrival at the Adelaide airport, we were whisked away by the charming Ralf Hadzic, owner of a large touring service called Life Is a Cabernet (www.lifeisacabernet.com.au).
Hadzic had lived in Texas for years, serving as the general manager at the luxurious Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas, working on the side with Jimmy Buffett and Roy Orbison, and eventually marrying a Texas girl. He started us going on our first in a line of two-per-day gourmet meals at the noteworthy Bridgewater Mill Restaurant (www.bridgewatermill.com.au), operated by the folks that own Petaluma Winery. There, chef Le Tu Thai offers a fusion of Chinese flavors, French methods, and local ingredients that woke all of us up. I fell in love with the Grilled Kangaroo Island Marron With Crustacean Mousseline, Shellfish Essence, Truffle Cream and Salted Duck Egg. Marron is the local version of crawfish, though a good bit larger than our mudbugs. The meat is sweeter than shrimp or lobster and addictive once tried. Chef Thai is a wizard with desserts, as well, especially the Coconut Rice Pudding with Mango Panna Cotta and Palm Sugar.
The next morning we got up early and flew to Kangaroo Island. This is a must-see for nature lovers, foodies, and wine lovers looking for the next new place before it gets too expensive. The island is one of the most unspoiled areas on Earth, with just a small population of fiercely independent souls living on a place that is mostly conservation and national-park land. Nature lovers find New Zealand fur seals relaxing on rocky shores; bizarre, spiny echidnas waddling along probing for insects; lazy koalas napping in gum trees; wild kangaroos up to 6-feet-tall and their little brothers, the wallabies. The island is also world-famous among honey lovers as the last refuge of the purebred Ligurian honey bee, whose honey tastes like oranges and eucalyptus and comes in varying strengths depending on the time of year.
Once you've developed a taste for marron, you'll want to go to the world's largest marron farm, Andermel (www.andermel.com.au), and see the care that goes into raising these incredible crustaceans. A local chef grilled a dozen or so with a stunning marinade made of 200 grams of honey (just shy of 7 ozs.), four tablespoons of olive oil, one tablespoon of laksa paste (go to an Asian market), one teaspoon of minced garlic, and one tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce. Try it with shrimp or lobster for a tasty treat.
Kangaroo Island has one of the best ratios of quality wines of any place I've been. There are only 13 wineries, but the worst I tasted was good, and the majority were very good to excellent wines. The Islander Cabernet-Shiraz-Viognier blend was a wine most California winemakers would die to make: velvety, rich, and pleasing. Other wines to look out for include Cape d'Estaing Cabernet, False Cape Sauvignon Blanc, and Springs Road Chardonnay.
Given the amount of time and money spent to get to the other side of the world, it seems penny-wise to blow valuable time trying to find your way around the island when there's a lifelong resident available to guide you around, getting you in the back-gates of private property to see what most tourists only dream of. We were lucky enough to spend our time with the smost knowledgeable man on the island, Craig Wickham (www.adventurecharters.com.au), a man I highly recommend for the job.
Ditto for our man Hadzic back on the mainland. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the legendary wine areas around Adelaide: the Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. He would be my guide while the other five travel-and-food journalists took off for a couple of days in the wild outback town of Coober Pedy.
Tasting 60-100 wines per day while eating two gourmet meals might sound like fun to some, but it really is tough work. It's all worth it when I make a true discovery, and there were several. We started up in the hills at Nepenthe, where the rouge was a favorite, blended from cabernet, merlot, and shiraz; it should cost about $15 here in the states and go great with a charcoaled piece of meat.
The most exciting wine I found in the Adelaide Hills was Ashton Hills Winery. The two owners would fit perfectly in Austin's ex-hippy culture. Gear seems to be strewn haphazardly hither and yon, but what's in the bottle is magic. There's not a duff wine in their lineup, but the best are the Piccadilly Pinot Noir and the Lone Star Shiraz.
A short drive over to McLaren Vale for lunch with one of Australia's certified eccentrics in Chester Osborn, the winemaker and CEO of d'Arenberg. With a wild mop of curly blond hair, grand motions, and grander ideas, Osborn has changed the Australian wine industry in two important ways. First, he is an experimenter at heart, and he'll try any blend or any grape at least once. Second, you can thank him for all the oddball names on the Aussie wines. Names like Stump Jump and Footbolt and Dead Arm all come from Osborn's wild imagination. Of course, who would care if he wasn't making some of the best wines in Australia? Despite the huge quantity of wine they place on the market, everything is basket-pressed and barrel-fermented, unfiltered and unfined, just like a small handmade operation. We tasted two sublime $70-plus wines, the Ironstone and the Coppermine Road. But what really impressed us was the quality of the entry-level wines, like the Stump Jump Grenache/Shiraz, a $10 bottle. Chester has also seen to it that his winery has the best restaurant for at least 25 miles right at the winery. It's called d'Arrys Verandah. With beautiful mountain views, gentle breezes, and some of the best food in Australia, it's a must.
Hadzic regaled me with Roy Orbison stories while we drove a little over an hour to the Barossa. This is Australia's Napa, home of the big gun reds that carry prices in the $300-and-up range. But it's also home of a wine industry facing a severe glut, and trying to figure out what to do with a veritable lake of juice. We are the beneficiaries, as South Australian wines stay cheaper than they should be. Quality per dollar, South Australian wines are some of the best in the world.
The Barossa is set up for touring, with beautiful B&Bs and hotels in every price range and restaurants from unpretentious to awe-inspiring. For wineries, this is home of the big guns you find at our local retailers: Penfolds, Wolf Blass, Seppelts, Peter Lehman, Yalumba. But it's also home to dozens of wonderful wineries that require some searching. The Willows Winery is known among serious collectors for its $75 Bonesetter Shiraz, but I fell in love with their unctuous Semillon ($13). The Scholz family has worked the Willows for more than 150 years, and it's still a labor of love you can taste.
The Robert Parker-approved Torbreck was in a suitably upscale and intimate location. Here's a hint for those of you wanting to try the very best winemaker David Powell has anointed the 2004 Descendant as the greatest wine he's ever made. I liked it a lot, too. Hurry up and order some now at about $70 a bottle. By next year, if things run true to course, it will be worth three times that.
The big wineries also make some great wines, especially Yalumba. Yalumba's Tricentary Vines hand-picked Grenache, which costs about $30 over here, was one of the best wines I tasted in Australia, extra-spicy with ultra-fine tannins.
Hadzic took us back to Adelaide for the biggest foodie experience of the trip: a visit to the Adelaide Central Market. Opened in 1870, it is truly the hub market for the entire city. With more than 250 traders under one roof, every conceivable and impeccably fresh vegetable, meat, and seafood is on offer, along with a series of ethnic restaurants that use the ingredients placed in front of them.
Oh, please, city fathers and mothers: Go to our sister city and see what they hath wrought. Then come back and do it here.
We have the best grocery stores in the United States, with Central Market and Whole Foods. They are nothing compared to the Adelaide Central Market. Rows of impeccable cheeses; the lightest imaginable prosciuttos; diver scallops still in their closed shells; flawlessly Frenched rack of lamb for the equivalent of $4 (U.S.) per pound; stalls filled to the brim to serve every ethnicity living in Adelaide. I could have spent two days just wandering the market. It is truly gourmet heaven. And if you really want to see something interesting, be there at around 2pm on a Saturday, when the vendors are getting nervous about selling what's left over. The spectacle is amazing. The Central Market is open Tuesdays and Thursday through Saturday.
For lunch or dinner, if you want to get out of the din in the market, step out onto Gouger Street and just stick your nose into the various ethnic restaurants lining the market. Pick one, order a single dish, then move to another. Try something daring. The neighborhood is safe (all Adelaide seems safe), the locals are Texas-friendly, and there is a vibrant nightlife.
With all the fun, the 33-hour flight home didn't seem such a drudge. My main concern was how to get back over there with my wife. I want her to experience South Australia, too.
I found a funny statistic: of all the tourists that go to Australia, only 8% go to the state of South Australia. I'm reminded of all the Europeans and Asians I meet in my travels who tell me they want to go to New York City. Why would they want to miss Monument Valley and Big Bend and Austin? My advice is to be a smarter tourist than the average American. Aim a little further, beyond the standard Sydney, and you'll be able to enjoy the incredible food, wine, and nature in our sister state.
For more information, go to www.southaustralia.com.
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