Kerri Jackson soaks up more than just good wine on a Penfolds tour that's steeped in history.
The Barossa Valley, about an hour's drive north from Adelaide is arguably Australia's most famous wine region. And it is truly a wine region - in the sense that it seems every spare centimetre of land here is covered in grapevines.
And that means come late-summer, the often dust-bowl dry South Australian landscape is all lush green vines laden with plump, sweet grapes awaiting harvest.
At the heart of all this sits Penfolds, one of Australia's oldest and most highly regarded wine-making companies. A tour through Penfolds' South Australian vineyards, particularly in the Barossa, is a tour through Australian wine history and culture.
Start the tour at Magill Estate, in Adelaide, tucked into the city's foothills. It's here that Penfolds was founded by Dr Christopher Rawson and Mary Penfold in 1844. They planted grapes to make fortified wines to be used for medicinal purposes.
It was originally named The Grange Vineyard, after the original homestead cottage, which still sits perfectly preserved on the site. The name has since found its way on to the label of the company's most prestigious wine - Penfolds Grange, which retails for $650 but goes for much more on the secondary market.
Though Penfolds now has vineyards and wineries across South Australia, Magill remains its spiritual home.
Here, as your wine tastings come with a side of history, it's worth paying for one of the guided tours which take you to the historic tunnels or "bins" from which Penfolds' famous Bin wines take their names.
And stay on for dinner at the stunning Magill's restaurant, where floor-to ceiling windows overlook the small vineyard and the city beyond.
From there it's out of the city and into the Barossa, headed specifically for Penfolds' Kalimna vineyard, but passing any number of other well-known Australian wine names along the way as well as a few boutique brands causing a stir.
We detour through the pretty settlement of Seppeltsfield, another historic Aussie wine name. Large stone winery buildings are the most significant structures but what really grabs your attention are the dense rows of huge phoenix palms which line the roads; entirely out of place, but more picturesque with it.
There's a quick stop for exquisite pheasant pate at Maggie Beer's Farm Shop, eaten outside beside the pond where turtles bob about looking for attention - then it's on to the Kalimna. For Penfolds, Kalimna is its most significant Barossa vineyard, famous particularly for its shiraz, which find its way into Grange and other Penfolds premium wines like St Henri and Bin 28.
But among all the shiraz and some mourvedre vines sits Block 42, a small block of cabernet planted about 1888, still producing high-quality fruit from wizened, gnarled vines and thought to be the oldest cabernet vines in the world. Though block 42 is too precious to let the public through they can certainly taste its fruit, and that of Penfolds' other Barossa vineyards at its cellar door.
Found in the town of Nuriootpa, the commercial hub of the Barossa, Penfolds' Cellar door is a cool spot to enjoy the wines, once you've driven through the vineyards from which they came.
And if, after all that sampling, you fancy yourself a winemaker, book yourself in for the Make Your Own Blend experience. Don a white coat and head into the winemakers' laboratory. From there you're given a taste of Penfolds' Bin 138, a blend of grenache, shiraz and mourvedre, and then asked to blend your own version. Either try to match the winemakers' effort or go wild and invent your own. It's a great thing to do with a bunch of friends - and it's amazing just how competitive everyone gets.
With your blend complete it's bottled for you to take away and sample.
Not a bad souvenir from a day tracing Penfolds history in the Barossa.
IF YOU GO
Wine tours: A huge number of companies offer bus tours through the Barossa, but if you have specific wineries you want to see it's not a bad idea to designate a driver and rent a car so you can explore a little more off the beaten track.
Penfolds' Magill Estate offers three different tours of its Adelaide vineyard: the heritage tour includes a tour of the estate and a tutored tasting of six wines; the super premium tour includes the tour, cheese platter and tasting of five luxury wines; the Great Grange tour includes the tour, cheese platter and a tasting of six luxury wines, including Grange.
The Make Your Own Blend experience at Nuriootpa runs at 10.30am and 2pm every day and takes about 90 minutes. Bookings at least a day in advance essential. The Barossa cellar door also offers Grange tastings at 2pm daily.
Where to eat: Maggie Beer's Farm Shop, owned and run by the Australian food icon, is brilliant for refreshment in the Barossa - though it's popular with the tour buses so can be crowded. As well as its renowned pates and pheasant pie, the cafe shop also sells Beer's extensive range of condiments, and wine.
Where to stay: In Adelaide, try the Crowne Plaza on Hindmarsh Square. It's barely a year old, with an excellent restaurant, and is just a block back from the famous Rundle St shopping precinct.
For details on Penfolds 2011 Bin selection release see this article.
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