South Australian winemakers don't hide their light under a bushell, nor should they, writes Thomas Bywater
How do you know if someone is a winemaker?
You know because they tell you, a couple of times, usually within minutes of meeting.
To make wine you need three ingredients: grapes, yeast, and an industrial vat of ego. Things South Australia has in abundance.
The acreage around Adelaide, the capital of Australia's most productive grape-growing state, is a patchwork of vineyards. Each is a mini fiefdom, pursuing its individual vision for good Aussie wine.
There are more than 200 cellar doors in the region. You'll find old vine syrah in the Barossa, chardonnay and grapes at the top of the Eden Valley. Even pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs in the high Adelaide Hills, which are — almost — on par with Marlborough growers. Almost.
There is a startling array of wines and winemakers to be found within a couple of hours' drive of Adelaide. From known labels to garden-shed vintages, it seems everyone is growing, pressing, and selling stuff a cut above your average Aussie drop.
It wasn't always that way.
The raw materials all arrived in the early 1800s, as part of the craze for Port-style tawny fortified wine. The Barossa is now world-famous for syrah - or shiraz as they call it here. What they won't tell you is the grape was originally planted to add body to the sugary tincture of liquid gout.
Yes, for more than 100 years Australia's main wine export was the choice drink of grumpy old men and dinner party bores.
Fortunately, by the 1950s the after-dinner drink fell out of fashion. The port barons of Penfolds and Seppeltsfield turned their hand to making table wine. And they did it at an industrial scale.
Orlando Wines began planting vines along a little-known backwater stream called Jacob's Creek. Australian winemaking had been born, but was not yet fully formed. This was the era of "sunshine in a bottle". Cheap plonk, produced in ever-larger quantities.
It would take a new generation of winemakers to give the Barossa region its character. Winemakers such as Charles Melton.
"Jacob's Creek did wonders for Australia. It put bottles on people's shelves and Barossa on the map," says Melton, at the table outside his cellar door in Krondorf. His own modest plot partly borders Jacob's Creek, which presses wine into bottles and bottles into hands of people in more than 60 countries.
However, this praise for an industrious neighbour plays down his own part in the Barossa wine story.
If Jacob's Creek could be credited for the explosion in quantity of Aussie wine, Melton and his friends are entirely to blame the subsequent price hike.
In the 1980s, at a time when most winegrowers were pulling up unfashionable grenache and syrah, Melton was a key part of the Barossa cartel that decided to rethink the grapes they were given.
Along with Andrew Wigan and Peter Lehmann, they carved out a niche for themselves as the rock stars of Australian wine. He explained this self-confidence was not just promotion, but essential to their survival.
"You won't survive making average wine," says Melton. The vineyard would never be able to turn a profit in a "race to the bottom shelf" of the bottle shop. He had to come up with something more refined.
It was Melton who pioneered the Barossa's first GSM blend. Inspired by Bordeaux and Rhone Valley wines, adding a hint of mourvedre he called his blend Nine Popes.
Named half as a tribute, half as a challenge, to France's own premiere GSM.
On the table, he has a bottle of 2015 Chateau Neuf du Pape as part of the tasting. Claiming it was a casual leftover from the day before, he quietly dared a direct comparison to his own produce.
Grey, mustachioed, in a Gallic jumper; the veteran winemaker wouldn't be out of place in the Rhone Valley himself. He is part of the landscape.
But Melton, known to his friends as Charlie, was named Graeme Melton when he arrived from Sydney. He changed it on the suggestion by Lehmann that cellar masters aren't called "Graeme".
Contrived? Perhaps, but winemaking is contrived. As much a part of the process of growing, harvesting, pressing, is the bottling up of hype. Labelling it with a story that'll stand out in a busy wine merchant's cellar.
Don't misunderstand me. This is farming. With three-month-long harvests. Working 18-hour days, shifting industrial quotas of fruit and chemical engineering.
Another few hundred kilometres further east, they could be growing chickpeas, not grapes. Yet there's something sexy about rows of grapes. It's an appeal that has seen the concept of cellar-door tourism spring up around the fact that people will travel to see where it all happens, to taste the produce.
This is sod-shovelling with panache.
Perhaps that's easier to see in McLaren Vale where vineyards and cellar doors are side by side and miles apart in style and direction. Sharing a patch, although at opposite ends of the spectrum, you'll find the dolce vita-inspired Primo Estate cellar door neighbouring the rotunda of Hugh Hamilton Wines surrounded by ancient Georgian saperavi grapes.
All of these you can see tracking along on a bike. A retired train line turned cycle route, the Shiraz Trail is a 35km bike trail leading from the Adelaide coast into the thick of McLaren Vale.
The masterpiece perhaps is at d'Arenberg. The giant, four-storey glass Rubik's Cube was commissioned by winemaker Chester Osborn. It speaks as strongly as its bottles, called things like Money Spider Roussanne or Dead Arm Shiraz. Housing a Salvador Dali exhibition and an Alternate Realities Museum, the cube itself appears to have arrived from some parallel dimension.
These monuments to ego are an important part of keeping visitors arriving, and leaving with bottles. Wine tourist attractions and cellar doors cover the landscape but it's not all vainglory.
At the door of Maxwell Wines, you can understand the importance of their following their own nous. Rather than seeking validation from wine tourists, you get the feeling the Maxwells are making wines as an intellectual exercise.
The vineyard has produced a flight of grenache wines named after a thought experiment by physicist Clerk Maxwell. The Maxwell Little Demon wines transform a blend of grenache grapes from a rose through to deep, raspberry red.
Mark Maxwell, the second-generation winemaker and third-generation descendant of the physicist, is in charge of the vineyards. Wine and natural science run in the family. His geologist son is the latest generation of academically-minded Maxwells to take a side-step into wine, and together they have produced Eocene Shiraz – named after the period which formed the chalkstone on which the grapes grow.
This is wine that can be appreciated, even if one doesn't appreciate the esoteric thought behind it.
From his father, Mark inherited his passion for winemaking and an erudite interest in mead. The Maxwell's own take on the honey wine, which appears in Beowulf, is the stuff of legend.
He explains his father was halfway through a Viking saga and wondered "just what is this thing everyone's drinking? What does it taste like?" It was an academic curiosity that has turned into a hundred-something barrel business.
"I'd say we're the biggest producer of mead in the Southern Hemisphere. Put it this way, no one's challenged us on it."
Equally eccentric is Mark Maxwell's mushroom cave that supplies the cellar door restaurant. Dug into the limestone cliff, it has the perfect conditions for growing oyster mushrooms. Or quaffing mead.
Although ego is an important ingredient of winemaking, at the same time you get the feeling that even if there was no one to drink it, some would keep on filling barrels.
At one of Australia's oldest winemakers, they were doing this for longer than they would like to admit.
The Seppeltsfield Winemakers turned up in 1850 as German industrialist transplants.
Since 1878, even during wars and depressions when the future of the vineyard was looking less than certain, the winemakers never failed to declare a vintage. Each year, faithfully storing a barrel for 100 years down the line.
These barrels were raised up into the rafters of the impressive Centennial Cellar house at Seppeltsfield.
Climbing into the roof you can see the centuries-old port collection. Here the wooden barrels breathe, age and occasionally dribble in the 40Ce summer heat, like casked centenarians. My guide, Matthew Lehmann, explains the cellar represents "142 years of consecutive winemaking history".
It all came down to a vision that Beno Seppelt had for his wine and the winemaking region far into the future.
"He decreed that the winery would lay down a 500-litre barrel of the finest tawny port, to stay in the cellar for 100 years before bottling." Since 1978 they have 41 consecutive hundred-year releases. At this end of the room, they have just bottled the 1919 cask, a vintage that was put down during the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
One of the vineyard's most popular tours invites visitors to "taste their birth year". "Given that we cover wines from 1878 to 2019, we're confident we have everyone covered," says Lehmann.
The Barossa and the wine-making regions around Adelaide are full of these rare finds. From the Centennial Cellar to unheard of wine start-ups run out of barns and garden sheds.
Though port-style wines and fortifieds now make up a fraction of Australia's exports, it's more a sign of quite how much wine is being made in the region.
Since 1990, the volume of wine being exported has increased 20 times and the price of a bottle of Australian house wine ("goon du jour" as they call it over here ) has almost quadrupled.
Give Australian wine some credit, the ego is richly deserved. It's a sense of self-worth that the rest of the world has only just got around to understanding, along with the value of Aussie wine.
For Adelaide's winemakers, it's never been in doubt.
Air New Zealand flies direct to Adelaide from Auckland. airnz.co.nz
For activities and further information, go to southaustralia.com.