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Australia: Ales of the Vale

By Mike Van de Elzen

Mike Van de Elzen samples the boutique breweries of South Australia

Ekhidna Kitchen & Winery, McLaren Vale. Photo / Christine Cornege
Ekhidna Kitchen & Winery, McLaren Vale. Photo / Christine Cornege

As a chef, I am always looking for the perfect balance in my dishes, whether it's rich versus acid, sweet versus sour or soft verses crunchy. It's the same with drinks. It's always about the steps and the layers that create the final perfect product.

I've heard our transtasman neighbours have brewing and distilling down to a fine art and I'm keen to test that reputation ... and the best way to do that is by visiting one of South Australia's cutting-edge boutique breweries.

We are all familiar with the big-name Aussie beers but my mission takes me to McLaren Vale, a 45-minute drive south of Adelaide.

McLaren Vale has always had a rich history in grape growing. As early as 1850, the historic Hardy and Seaview wineries were in operation and today more than 60 cellar doors can be explored, many accessed by bike on one of several wine and food trails - which I'll be checking out later.

My first stop is Ekhidna Kitchen & Cellar Door, a relatively new offering in the region with tastings of wine, beer and a fantastic food menu available to try six days a week. Ekhidna offers visitors a sampling of nine styles of beer and cider, including a popular ginger beer. The brews are preservative free and kettle cooked, so what you get depends on what's freshly brewed at the time, making the experience special every time you visit.

After a delicious lunch and couple of tastings, I decide to park the car and test out these wine and food trails by bike. Following the 6.5km Shiraz Trail, I weave my way past vineyards and restaurants out to the McLaren Vale Beer Company and its new Willunga Brewery. I love the fact you can stop and have a glass of wine or beer, then bike off again. If you decide you want to purchase wine they even offer a wine freight service to Adelaide so you can ship it on from there.

Ekhidna Kitchen & Winery, McLaren Vale. Photo / Christine Cornege
Ekhidna Kitchen & Winery, McLaren Vale. Photo / Christine Cornege

The McLaren Vale Beer Company is a gateway brewery, designed to entice beer drinkers away from the mainstream brands. It is that little bit edgy but large enough to carve out an enviable slice of this niche market.

Owner Josh Stuart introduces me to head brewer Jeff Wright. I've seen a lot of breweries but nothing beats being taken on the journey with the main man in a small brewery where you can witness each stage of what makes a great beer.

I see how the barley is toasted and how the flavour and colour are created and added to the beer, through to hops being sprinkled into the fermenting tanks to increase the lager's hoppy bitterness.

I learn that New Zealand hops make up 50 per cent of the hops Australians use in their lagers. It seems like one of our best-kept secrets - that Nelson produces hops for breweries around the world, including giants such as Guinness.

McLaren Vale started with its signature Vale Ale and it was soon on tap and in stores in many states. It added a Vale Dry lager and an IPA and then its seasonal keg-only experimental ales which have included US-inspired brown ale with lots of rich malt flavour and big hops, a fruity number in the tradition of the Belgian withier style and full bodied and creamy, and its first experimental beer, an oatmeal stout with a shot of nitro for added creaminess.

My favourite beer type is Indian Pale Ale, aka IPA. With the blend of the toasted barley and its higher alcohol content with extra hops, it is an easy drinking beer. No surprise, then, that this is the number one consumed beer in Aussie.

Having seen firsthand the effort that goes into this process, it just makes it taste all that much better. Cheers!

Suggested food match for Vale beers: Roast chicken with light gravy.



Food and wine Indulgence

McLaren Vale is known as a boutique wine region where "the vines meet the sea", with great vineyard restaurants and a relaxed coastal lifestyle. It also offers a choice of fresh produce, including its famous almond and olive groves, all of which can be tasted at the Willunga Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. Visit Producers of McLaren Vale for hands-on food and wine workshops, including cheese making, vineyard walks, olive grove tours and sparkling wine making. Or try the food at the Victory Hotel or the pizza at Russell's Pizza, open on Fridays and Saturdays.

Two Day McLaren Vale Itinerary

Day 1: Devote the day to great food and wine. Start by picking up a hamper of delicious cheeses at Blessed Cheese before heading on a wine trail, calling in at Coriole, Wirra Wirra, Samuels Gorge and Primo Estate wineries. Enjoy lunch at one of the cellar door restaurants or the Star of Greece Cafe, perched on the cliffs overlooking Port Willunga bay. Pick up a bike in McLaren Vale and cycle one of the many trails. The 17km Shiraz Trail between McLaren Vale and Willunga is a great way to work off some of the day's indulgence. Overnight in McLaren Vale.

Day 2: Start your McLaren Vale tour by picking up a Tour Genie GPS from the Visitor Information Centre and take off along the Fleurieu Way. This 235km touring route weaves around the peninsula and provides a blend of attractions, taking in the coastal towns of Victor Harbor, Port Elliot and Goolwa. Take a cruise in the Coorong, jump aboard the Cockle Train or watch whales as they come close to shore between May and October. Alternatively, follow the Fleurieu Peninsula Arts Trail and pick up some souvenirs from the art and craft spots around the region. Overnight in McLaren Vale.


Mike Van de Elzen travelled to South Australia with the assistance of Tourism Australia, the South Australia Tourism Commission and Air New Zealand. See Australia Passion: Food and Wine.

Getting There: Fly there with Air New Zealand. Book now

Find out more at Australia.com

- Herald on Sunday

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