You only need to drive an hour from Adelaide to find the birthplace of South Australia’s wine industry. Come for the shiraz. Stay for the rustic cuisine, luxe digs and immersive experiences you can’t have anywhere else. This is our guide on the best things to do in McLaren Vale.
An easy 45-minute drive south of Adelaide, McLaren Vale bursts out of the urban sprawl in a distinctively Mediterranean landscape of craggy limestone cliffs, market gardens and olive groves caressed by sea breezes. The food culture takes similar cues and despite more than 180 years of winemaking history, the region is gleefully unfettered by tradition.
“Alternative” heat-resistant varietals grow next to hardy bush vines producing intensely flavoured grenache and organic, biodynamic vineyards abound in what’s arguably Australia’s most sustainable wine region.
The best winery and vineyard: Chalk Hill Wines
What is it? You can’t swing your arms around in a circle in McLaren Vale without hitting dozens of world-class wineries. But the thing that sets Chalk Hill Wines apart is that there’s much more on offer here than just a cellar door. It also has one of South Austraila's best distilleries called Never Never and an Italian cantina, Cucina di Strada, created by the maestros behind nearby Pizzateca.
What’s the scene? There’s a genuine collective feel to the venues on site – all three work in unison to create an exciting and varied vineyard experience. Thanks to each brand’s propensity for experimentation, it’s the place to try great food and wine with a bit of an edge.
Best way to experience it? Start your day visit with a gin and tonic tasting flight at Never Never Distilling Co., which features its award-winning Triple Juniper gin paired with Fever Tree tonics. Have a break with a lunch of rustic, rectangular pinse – Roman-style pizzas – from Cucina di Strada. (“It’s almost impossible to choose a favourite between the vego – eggplant, mushrooms and mozzarella – and the salami,” says Sean Baxter from Never Never.) Then round things off at Chalk Hill’s Tasting Lounge with a flight of its premium Alpha Crucis range of wines.
Don’t miss: Head to the sprawling lawn at the top of Chalk Hill for a picnic and enjoy the view of the vineyards. Dial it up a notch with a No Way Rosé Spritz made with Never Never Triple Juniper gin, Regal Rogue Wild Rosé vermouth, pink grapefruit and the vineyard’s own fiano.
Woodstock Wines Estate. Winery and wildlife sanctuary all in one, the enduring McLaren Vale property is an entertaining stop for families, with kids encouraged to feed the kangaroos each day at 11.30am.
The next generation of winemakers is also on show at the character-filled “share house” on McMurtrie Road. Three local boutique producers craft playful wines using alternative varietals, such as Sherrah’s superb fianos and Lino Ramble’s smooth-sailing saperavi with enough tannins to sink a battleship.
Winemaker Peter Fraser of Yangarra Estate at Kangarilla is a dedicated custodian of the land and his Rhône varietals repay that care in spades. The sumptuous High Sands is the pinnacle of grenache in the region.
The grass is even greener at Gemtree Wines at McLaren Flat, where you can learn the basics of biodynamic farming and sample fruit-forward shiraz paired with native foods before exploring the onsite wetland planted with 50,000 trees.
The best restaurant: The Salopian Inn
What’s the scene? There’s a friends-and-family vibe at The Salopian Inn, an eclectic eatery that’s as much a favourite with locals as it is for visitors. Don’t expect sleek minimalism here; set inside a converted 19th-century farmhouse, the mood is warm and welcoming.
What makes it special? Owner and chef Karena Armstrong conjures every dish from scratch, using ingredients so local that a good chunk of them are found outside the door in the kitchen garden. Plates are designed to share and often have an Asian or Middle Eastern influence.
What’s the must-have dish? The red braised kangaroo tail with chilli caramel and pickled radish is such a hit that guests kick up a fuss if Armstrong gives any hint she might remove it from the menu.
Don’t miss: A seat at the bar is one of the most coveted spots; it’s the place to sip on one of the Salopian’s stock of more than 200 different gins and watch as the team creates magic in the kitchen.
There are few more delightful venues than the Star of Greece, a repurposed seaman’s cottage on the clifftop at Port Willunga with dazzling views over St Vincent Gulf (the fins you see are almost always playful dolphins).
A private dining experience at Tipsy Hill. Bec Hardy, a sixth-generation member of the lauded Hardy wine family, has opened her home for intimate lunches and dinners hosted and catered by Bec and husband Richard. Each three-course meal includes matching wines from her portfolio and the chance to immerse yourself in the 170-year history of McLaren Vale wine royalty with a tour of the property.
Start with plump kalamata, verdale, koroneiki and leccino olives picked from the groves surrounding Gather at Coriole before diving into small plates that foreground fresh homegrown and foraged produce, including plenty of native ingredients.
There’s a sense of theatre at Maxwell Restaurant, where your meal may include dramatically presented dishes such as an iridescent “pearl” of oyster mousse coated in sparkling wine and silver powder. It’s only one part of a dégustation that’s as stylish as the timber and stone-clad venue.
The best market: Willunga Farmers Market
What is it? Good local food and wine is practically a religion in McLaren Vale so it’s not surprising that this is where you’ll find one of the most vibrant markets anywhere in the state and perhaps the country. Willunga Farmers Market is open every Saturday until noon and is bustling with buskers and bursting with fresh produce.
What’s the insider tip? Fleurieu Food chair Pip Forrester says there’s nothing like strolling through the market planning a week’s menu – or just an extravagant dinner to cook at your self-catering holiday accommodation. She’s likely to pick up Nomad Farms chicken thighs, salad from Alnda Farms and Village Greens of Willunga Creek or platters of goodies such as mettwurst from Fleurieu Prime Alpaca or a jar of the marinated fetta from Second Valley Cheese Co.
Don’t miss: Both the brisket toasties with pickles from Little Acre Foods and the sourdough pesto scrolls from Flour Power Breads are brekkie heaven.
Four Winds Chocolate. Chocolatier and baker Wendy Ashwin is a wizard of sugar and spice – her jewel-like bonbons make the perfect McLaren Vale souvenir while her croissants and doughnuts are best devoured straight from the oven.
SEE ALSO: The SA Road Trip You Haven't Taken Yet
The coolest thing to do: The Alternate Realities Museum at d’Arenberg Cube
What is it? It’s safe to assume that when you step inside a half-solved Rubik’s Cube – the architectural inspiration for this famed McLaren Vale landmark – things are going to go off-kilter. The Alternate Realities Museum – a Willy Wonka’s factory of winemaking – doesn’t disappoint. Visitors can view art installations, the virtual fermenter, a 360° video room and more.
What about the wines? The Osborn family has been making d’Arenberg wines since 1912. They use traditional production methods and the vineyards are certified organic and biodynamic. A range of sophisticated reds and expressive whites is available to taste on site.
Don’t miss: Book the Ultimate Scenic Flight experience to see the region from the cockpit of a 1930s biplane before arriving at the Cube for a private blending lesson and eight-course dégustation.
If walking’s more your thing, you can check out the peninsula’s spectacular beaches or be captivated by ancient stories of the Ngarrindjeri people on a stroll along the biodiverse Gemtree Eco Trail with Elder Mark Koolmatrie. His tour ends with a native tasting plate and an optional flight of Gemtree’s biodynamic wines.
The Mushroom Picking experience at Maxwell Wines. “Our secret gem is hidden beneath the winery,” says Jeremy Maxwell from Maxwell Wines. It’s a 100-year-old limestone cave stocked with cultivated mushrooms that guests can pick and take back to their accommodation in a pre-prepared risotto pack, accompanied by one of the vineyard’s best drops.
Experience the region with Small Batch Wine Tours, a climate-positive business offering a range of tours including one that delves into McLaren Vale’s sustainable credentials.
After a long day in the vines, cruise into the beachside town of Aldinga where Big Easy Radio hosts musicians in a giant teal shed. Check out a raucous Friday night gig or the more relaxed Sunday sessions fuelled by excellent wines.
The best adventure: The Shiraz Trail
What is it? A seven-kilometre trail that used to be a railway track, The Shiraz Trail stretches from McLaren Vale to Willunga. The journey offers an enchanting mix of rural landscapes; expect sheep-dotted hills, vines and – most importantly – plenty of places to refuel.
How should I tackle it? Most people dip in and out of various stretches on foot and it’s flat enough to push a pram. You can also explore it on horseback or hire an e-bike from Coast & Co during the warmer months, with pick-up from the cellar door at Primo Estate winery.
Don’t miss: Wirra Wirra winery, Serafino, Oxenberry Farm and Hardys are all within easy wandering distance of the trail. And if you start in McLaren Vale and finish at Willunga you’ve definitely earned an order-everything-on-the-menu feast with ocean views at famed eatery Star of Greece, a short drive away on the coast.
Helivista helitour. There’s no more indulgent way to discover the area than with a Wine Flight for two from this local helicopter company, stopping for tastings at three wineries. Or book a Flight & Stay package, including a few nights at one of the region’s best properties, such as The Vineyard Retreat.
Explore at least some of the area’s 80 cellar doors on an electric bike from SA eBikes (they’ll deliver to your accommodation for a fee) or leave the driving to someone else on a bespoke, all-day Over The Top private tour of McLaren Vale and the Fleurieu Peninsula with Off Piste 4WD Tours.
The best accommodation: The Vineyard Retreat
Why stay here? This six-hectare vineyard is home to six luxury one- and two-bedroom guesthouses, including two sleek pods, Avalon and Sierra. Each self-contained property has views across the shiraz and grenache vines to the hills beyond, plus 1200-thread-count linen on the king-sized beds. For the best views, The Vineyard Retreat’s owner, Anthea Cross, suggests you make your way to the hilltop jacuzzi, where you can see all the way to the D’Arenberg Cube and Gulf St Vincent.
What’s new? The sleek Cadole Sierra is the newest pod but two of the established guesthouses, The Manhattan and The Ardmore, also have newly renovated kitchens, living areas and bedrooms, giving each of them a calm, country-cool aesthetic.
What makes it next-level? Your own concierge, Simon Burley, is on hand to curate the dream McLaren Vale experience for you, whether it’s a vineyard tour, coastal safari or three-day Land Rover tour with the lot. The latter begins with transfers from Adelaide and includes behind-the-scenes, meet-the-winemaker one-on-ones, breakfast at a local art gallery with a private viewing of its Indigenous collection and an on-foot exploration of the majestic Onkaparinga Gorge.
Don’t miss: Wake-up alarms and holidays don’t often go together but it’s worth setting one just once during your stay to catch the sunrise over the rolling hills to the east, ideally captured from the doorstep of The Manhattan or The Highland guesthouse.
Beresford Estate, an almost 30-hectare working vineyard, opened a series of contemporary suites and luxury villas last year to complement historic Beresford House, the estate’s super-pretty wedding venue. The Grand Reserve Suites (with a separate bedroom, kitchenette, Italian freestanding bath and outdoor plunge pool) sit on one side of the Beresford Tasting Pavilion and studio-style Reserve Suites on the other. All rooms look out over vineyards lush with grenache, shiraz, cab sav and chardonnay wine grapes, with the odd kangaroo ducking under the vines. Enjoy a continental breakfast in your villa or pre-order a cooked one for an extra cost but don’t spend too long in your Grand Reserve digs trying to figure out the electronic blinds and learning to drive the coffee machine. There’s wine to be tasted (Beresford’s Estate Shiraz is a must), fabulous food up the hill (see below) and plenty more to explore.
At the end of a dirt road on the vale’s western edge, you can survey the vines and ancient red gums surrounding Cabn X’s luxury off-grid cabins (pictured above) from the deep outdoor tub then gaze up at the stars through a window above the bed.
Follow handwritten notes left by the otherwise invisible owners of The Vineyard Retreat at Blewitt Springs and you’ll find well-stocked minibars, wraparound verandahs and a prized hilltop hot tub among the immaculately appointed cottages and villas.
Image credit: Meaghan Coles (Chalk Hill Winery); John Kruger (The Salopian Inn); Tyrone Ormsby (The Star of Greece).