South Australia’s Barossa Valley is a step back in time to simpler days, when the most urgent and pressing business was the production of a fine wine. Along wide avenues flanked by stately palm trees are charming bed and breakfasts, elegant stone chateaux, dignified Lutheran churches and as far as the eye can see, quietly undulating vineyards blanketing the landscape.
The Barossa was made to be seen by bicycle, and one may soon find oneself wobbling unsteadily between open cellar doors where wine makers warmly invite the public to try complimentary samples of their intoxicating wares. The valley is truly an oasis of fertility in a land whose climate tends toward long, drawn out drought, soaring temperatures and frequent out of control bush fires.
Outside the cozy brick cottage, nestled among the vineyards, the trees were in bloom. Within a simple wooden outbuilding a hot spa bubbled invitingly, and beyond a shed full of bicycles, free for the taking. Upon arrival, we discovered champagne in the fridge and chocolates on the table. A variety of breakfast items were lined up neatly on the counter. This was not the loud and boisterous backpacker’s hostel to which we had grown accustomed. We were staying in the charming little town of Tanunda, one of several that comprise the majority of the Barossa’s population of about 20,000.
The Barossa is famous for being Australia’s premium wine region and is home to over 50 wineries; some very well known, others small, boutique operations. There have been vines here since the 1840s, when the valley was settled by wealthy English landowners and Germans fleeing religious persecution. The production of wine remains the area’s main source of income. German heritage is still profoundly evident in the valley today in the form of stately Lutheran churches, German place names, food, drink and entertainment. In 1847 a German newspaper was put into circulation in Tanunda, the first of its kind in Australia.
The Chateau Tanunda is considered to be the birthplace of the wine industry in the Barossa. The first vines in the valley are purported to have been planted in the foothills of the estate in 1844. An impressive blend of Bavarian and French architecture, its first bricks – handmade on site – were laid in 1888. At the time it was the largest winery in the southern hemisphere, with a capacity to hold five million litres of wine and brandy. That is about 24,000 barrels!
It was under clear skies that we pedaled our bicycles around the back of this imposing stone villa to where the cellar door was open; a wordless invitation to come in, look around and have a drink! Row upon row of barrels lined the cool, massive cellar, quietly aging the product within. At the counter, a polished, well-spoken young woman offered samples of their "fresh and crisp" Riesling, "elegant and complex" Shiraz and "luscious and fruity" Botrytis Semillon. Trying to play the part of sophisticated wine connoisseurs, we thirstily sampled their wares, sharing meaningful glances that could only be interpreted as a foreshadowing to a world of wine-induced trouble!