‘Right Place, Right Time’: The Adelaide Hills Food and Wine Resurgence

Young gun winemakers helped turn the Adelaide Hills into this country’s hippest wine region and now some of these winemakers, as well as chefs and other food identities, are skipping the cellar door to create unique and exciting food and wine experiences just 20 minutes from the city.

Apples from Lenswood, berries from Mylor and milk from Paris Creek can be found almost ubiquitously in the restaurants and cafés of Adelaide’s CBD. Until recently, you were hard-pressed to enjoy local provisions like these worthy of the short drive to the Hills, aside from a scattering of café and old pub favourites.

Thankfully, a wave of young chefs and winemakers is recgnising the blank canvas that is the Adelaide Hills. Venues like The Summertown Aristologist, Lost in a Forest and The Uraidla Hotel are breathing life into these areas. New ownership at The Hagen Arms, The Stanley Bridge Tavern and FRED Eatery are too, sparking interest.

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Basket Range, and its crew of minimal intervention winemakers (which includes the labels Jauma, Charlotte Dalton, BK Wines and Gentle Folk), is one of the catalysts for this new wave of offerings, believes Charlie Lawrence, co-owner of wine and pizza lounge Lost in a Forest. Taras Ochota, Charlie’s business partner along with Nick Filsell, is at the forefront of the low intervention movement with the wine label he runs with his wife, Amber, Ochota Barrels. “Taras is part of a conversation that’s trying to get Basket Range recognised as a sub-region for winemaking,” says Lawrence, noting that the wine movement from this area has sparked interest in the region.

Although there’s a new presence of young gun winemakers, one thing that’s missing is the cellar door. “They just love to get in to it and make the wine, it’s that simple,” he says. This means setting up a formal tasting room is low on the priority list.

“It makes sense to be close to where everything is made,” says Aaron Fenwick, who runs the natural wine bar and food haven The Summertown Aristologist alongside Anton van Klopper and Jasper Button.

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“The traditional manner of a cellar door experience is pretty boring,” Fenwick, the former general manager of Restaurant Orana and Blackwood, says. “It’s not engaging, and usually not that enjoyable. We’re licensed as a cellar door, and are trying to redefine how people experience that.”

His partners van Klopper and Button run tastings for their respective labels, Lucy Margaux and Commune of Buttons, through the venue. They also offer food pairings created using produce grown on their properties, or sourced locally through friends.

The venue is named for aristology, which is the art and science of cooking and dining. A true aristologist would place high value on the integrity of ingredients in a dish, and how they pair with beverages. This is a task not taken lightly by Fenwick, who hopes to maintain a high standard.

“We want to end up totally self-sufficient through our nearby properties,” he says. “That’s the five-year plan, anyway.”

The word being repeated is ‘local’, an easy goal to reach when residents are practically leaving produce at the door. “Nearly everything on the menu here comes from suppliers in the Hills,” says Todd Langley, co-owner at Aldgate café, FRED Eatery. “Then we get customers who drop in produce to give us: honey, lemons, artichokes. They just say, ‘Hey I’ve got extra stuff would you like it?’”

Lawrence’s experience at Lost in a Forest has been similar, seeing “bags filled with porcini mushrooms” donated by customers last season.

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With fresh quality produce and a lush backdrop, you may be expecting to pay a high price for a dining experience up here. But affordability is where the point of difference lies. “We’ve had postcards written to us just to say thank you,” says Lawrence, as he confirms the lack of comfortable food and drink venues in Uraidla. “At the start of the year it was a borderline ghost town up here.”

From further up in the Hills come similar tales, with FRED Eatery swiftly extending opening hours to include nights. The café serves a set daytime menu, and started dinners to give the chefs an outlet for experimentation. “People are looking for places to dine at night,” Langley says. “We get pressured to do another night all the time … It’s a renaissance, a regeneration!”

When wineries close their doors in the late afternoon, the options for Hills locals dwindle to pubs. A chicken schnitzel isn’t a bad option, but, as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life.

Pub adopters Pablo Theodoros at The Stanley Bridge Tavern and Steve Grimley at The Hagen Arms Hotel had menu changes as a top priority as soon as they took over. Grimley, who purchased The Hagen Arms in Echunga (with partner Tim Wilkins) on a whim, is pleased to know that the timing on his impulse couldn’t have been better. “We did buy in a romantic way, but the more you think about it, you think, ‘Shit, this is unreal, we’re in the right place at the right time’,” he says.

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Grimley, of Fuse Wine Services and Five O’Clock Somewhere, says the pub is slowly undergoing renovations to not disrupt locals. “The first thing we did was bring in a new chef,” Grimley says. “Even if we don’t know a lot about pubs, we know what a good menu
looks like.”

Their goal is to revive the space and bring back community spirit. Renovations through the bar and dining area can be seen, with bigger plans for the shonky back toilet and upstairs to follow. The street facing balcony is about to get a lick of paint or two and will re-open just in time for summer.

Theodoros and business partner Frank Hannon-Tan (Mother Vine) also have outdoor plans in tow at The Stanley Bridge Tavern, with a beer garden nearing completion. The old entrance room of the venue holds a lot of history, including Benny, a neighbourhood dog who walks over every morning. He waddles about all day, only to walk home with his owner after evening knockoff. Like most of the locals, they mainly sit at the front bar, so it’s the rear dining room that will see the most change.

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“We still want to be a place that you can come to get schnitzels and burgers, but have a nice fine dining touch,” Theodoros says. “Keeping it really accessible and casual, not too high end”. The menu will incorporate native ingredients from a grower just up the street, and the whole project is set to unravel over the next few years. “We’ll be keeping West End on tap though,” he confirms.

When asked, ‘Why open in The Hills?’ there’s a resounding message from each venue owner of a community in need of options. New businesses have felt the warmth of a vibrant and resource-rich hub between the Barossa and McLaren Vale. Being immersed in the area that supplies so much produce to our city makes a lot of sense. And the best part: it’s only a 20-minute drive away.

Photos: Jonathan van der Knaap

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