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Aussie Stomping Grounds

Gene and I went to Australia to visit our dear friends Bill and Alma, who recently retired there. While some people I know dream all their lives of visiting Australia -- or at least that's what they said when I mentioned our trip -- I admit I had never given it serious thought. I don't like hot weather. I don't trek. I'm allergic to almost everything outdoors. And while I am intrigued by kangaroos, koalas and penguins, I didn't feel compelled to go halfway around the world to see them.

I do know a bit about wine, and that the Barossa Valley near Adelaide is famed for its old-growth shiraz. It seemed that if we were going to be in Australia, we ought to take a trip to the country's most famous vineyards.

At Two Hands Wines in South Australia's Barossa Valley, visitors sample vintages in the "cellar door" and lunch in the "bakehouse." (Don Brice)

Our friends thought my plan to visit Adelaide was foolhardy. For one thing, the distance from Melbourne to Adelaide is more than 450 miles -- about the same as Washington to Greenville, S.C., but without interstate highways.

More important, they said, urbane, cosmopolitan Australians consider Adelaide inferior to the international elegance of Sydney and the culinary diversity of Melbourne. It's a railway stop on the way to Alice Springs and the Outback, or Perth on the western edge of the continent. They insisted we could get our fill of vineyards near Melbourne.

I held out for Adelaide, and we were richly rewarded with some of the best wines we have ever tasted.

A Lesson in Aussie

We thought we were primed when we headed Down Under. We had spent a year getting ready, reading travel guides, consulting wine magazines and trying dozens of Australian wines. Twenty-four hours in Melbourne turned our heads upside down.

At lunch, on the way in from the airport, we didn't recognize a single Australian producer on the restaurant's large wine list. Ditto for lunch and dinner the next day. When we mentioned some of the wines we'd been drinking in the United States, the reaction of our hosts -- and their friends and relatives -- bordered on ridicule. Mostly cheap exports, they cried.

I explained how I'd been fascinated by Penfolds since 1995, when Wine Spectator magazine named its 1990 Grange the wine of the year -- the first time the magazine had given such an accolade to a wine not French or American. Our friends sighed. It may be the country's best-known wine, they said, but the way it's made -- from a blend of grapes plucked from the best grown by myriad small producers -- flies in the face of the more traditional "taste of the earth" approach of boutique winemakers.

By the time we hit the road two days later, headed toward the Rutherglen wine region of northeastern Victoria about three hours away, we were remapping our plans and furiously cross-matching dozens of small wineries we had never heard of with the top-rated wines in the latest Penguin Good Australian Wine Guide. Even with a designated driver (usually Bill), we tried to limit visits each day to six or eight wineries, stopping just long enough to taste a representative sample of their wares, but leaving enough time to enjoy the sights along the way.

The first outing, for example, was by way of Glenrowan, the little town where Australia's most famous outlaw, Ned Kelly, was hunted down and captured in 1880.

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