Even a 5am wake-up alarm doesn't dull the excitement of my first visit to South Australia for a food and wine road trip. And boy, it's so easy getting into Aussie now - you simply scan your Kiwi passport at the "quick gate" and voila, welcome to Adelaide! Now, where's my rental car?
With a population of 1.2 million, Adelaide is known as "the 20-minute city" as everything is close and it's easy to navigate. And, being as flat as a pancake, the city is bicycle-friendly.
My first stop is the Adelaide Central Market, established in 1869 by a group of market gardeners who made their way to a site between Gouger and Grote streetsto sell their produce. It is still thriving with more than 80 stalls and is South Australia's most visited tourist attraction.
Midweek, the market is only partially open compared with the big selling days, Thursday to Saturday (it's closed on Sundays and Mondays). I just love central-city food markets where you browse alongside chefs buying for their restaurants. If the professionals shop here, the produce must be good.
I nip into family-owned Lucia's Pizza & Spaghetti Bar - where they have been making coffee since 1957 - for a takeaway long black, asking for half the usual amount of water and half a teaspoon of sugar. I can almost hear the barista muttering under her breath, "Who's this prat telling me how to make my coffee!"
At the market stalls you can buy almost any foodstuff, from Tasmanian truffles at A$1000 ($1130) a kilogram to Polish sausage for $12/kg and coffee from every part of the world. Prices tend to be cheaper than in New Zealand, with cheese and cold meats all about $2 less per kg.
This experience highlights how Auckland has missed the boat on the central-city market opportunity. Victoria Park Markets, Shed 10 or the old Asian supermarket downtown all could have been great spots.
Just 35km out of Adelaide is famed wine region McLaren Vale, and my destination is the McMurtrie Mile. You can easily spend a full day here. This short stretch houses some Aussie wine superstars at Wirra Wirra Vineyards (my wife, Belinda, has given me a list of wines to bring home) Hugh Hamilton Wines and Primo Estate.
At Primo, cellar door manager Mark van Gestel invites me to taste the Joseph label, named after the founder who started the vineyard at the tender age of 16. I start with a light, refreshing pinot grigio, followed by a nebbiolo variety. Apparently it is a hard grape to grow, maturing far later than other varieties. It has an earthy, almost mushroomy flavour - and would be a perfect match for roasted pheasant.
Of course, a shiraz is on the list. I believe South Australia makes some of the best in the world and this 2011 Joseph shiraz is refreshing and very much alive. Cellaring would do wonders for it.
Then come the big boys, a 2011 cabernet merlot moda - an old style of winemaking where grapes are picked when they are 75 per cent ready and stored in a dry location for weeks until they shrivel. This sweetens them before they go into the wine presses. The result is a complex, moreish red.
From the cellar depths appears the same style of wine, but a 2002 vintage. It is incredible to taste two wines 11 years apart in cellaring. The 2002 is less vibrant in colour, however it tastes smoother and gentler with legs that linger. Its restaurant price would be about $220, and it is worth every cent.
We conclude with espresso and an amaretto biscuit to accompany Primo's fortified wine, called Fronti, which is similar to a Spanish sherry. Sweet and 20 per cent alcohol, when combined with espresso and biscuit Fronti tastes like heaven. I add this new favourite to my other magical combos of goats' cheese, fresh honey and truffle oil ... and black olive caramel with tomatoes and mozzarella.
Fifty metres along the road is Hugh Hamilton Wines aka the Black Sheep Vineyard, first planted in 1837. I especially enjoy a 2009 saperavi, a hand-picked grape producing a dry but full-bodied red wine. To round off my day I check out The Barn restaurant, built in 1860 as a blacksmiths' forge. The surroundings are exquisite and I tuck into a 300g South Australian Hereford prime steak, cooked to perfection.
A thriving market, an extremely enjoyable wine tasting and a satisfying meal ... not bad for my first day in South Australia.
Adelaide Central Market is in Grote St in the heart of the city, and has everything from patisseries to continental meat products and cheeses.
Stop for a coffee at Lucia's Pizza & Spaghetti Bar at 1/2 Western Pde, dip fresh strawberries in chocolate at the chocolate fountain, sample fresh salami bagels or treat yourself at the giant German hotdog stand.
Famed wine region McLaren Vale is home to McMurtie Mile, where you can visit some of the best wineries in South Australia. I indulged in the Joseph Tasting Experience, which costs A$15 (minus the 2002 moda). The experience is not to be missed.
Five top things to do in McLaren Vale
1. Taste the region's best food and wine at the Saturday morning Willunga Farmers Market, selling fresh primary produce from regional farms and the Fleurieu Peninsula.
2. Sample local beers at McLaren Vale's micro-breweries.
3. Follow the region's art trails through galleries, working studios and exhibitions.
4. Pick up a cellar door map and experience the region's magnificent wine industry. There are more than 60 cellar doors to choose from, including big name best-sellers to boutique wineries.
Mike Van de Elzen travelled to South Australia with the assistance of Air New Zealand and the South Australian Tourism Commission. See Australia Passion: Food and Wine.
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