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Aussie Stomping Grounds

We spent an evening watching the nightly parade of fairy penguins on Phillip Island. These pint-size versions of the Antarctic penguin spend all day in the ocean and with great punctuality return each night at sundown to their burrows in the dunes. There are concrete grandstands to accommodate the crowds, and a boardwalk through the dunes so you can see the young waddling outside the burrows awaiting their parents' return with food. We explored nature parks and saw wombat, wallabies and kangaroos. In the wild, these animals are mainly nocturnal, and the only other kangaroos we saw were roadkill. We traveled along the Great Ocean Road southwest of Melbourne, which rivals French Riviera cornices, and saw the 12 Apostles -- amazing rock formations created by years of erosion.

Drink Up, Adelaide

When Gene and I ventured off alone to Adelaide, we asked for winery suggestions from every waiter and bartender we met, and they were always eager to offer their favorites, frequently places not listed in any of our books. A waiter at Jolley's Boathouse there recommended Rockford Wines, a tiny Barossa Valley winery that produces stellar wines using antique equipment and only sells at the cellar door. The owner of Adelaide's Universal Wine Bar, John Taylor, said, "Try some of this" as he poured us glasses of Tapestry shiraz. He suggested we visit this producer of such wines as Twelve Barrels, of which literally only 12 barrels were made.

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

He, too, suggested Rockford: "Your California stuff is nothing to sniff at, and God knows the French make luscious wines, but to my taste there is nothing like a deep, rich, red Barossa."

We set aside a day each to visit four separate wine regions surrounding Adelaide: Barossa, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley. And we collected winemaking tales along the way. The cellar door manager at Wirra Wirra (an aboriginal name) directed us to Foggo Wines, a family-owned place that has some of the oldest cabernet sauvignons in Australia. There, owner Sandie Van De Wiel explained that some of their wines are produced in such small quantities that her children stomp the grapes. "Our wines are dry-grown, which means we don't irrigate and depend on moisture from the sea breezes to help temper the brutal summer temperatures," she said, noting that several years of recent drought had not changed their methods.

She and her husband, Herb, are second-generation wine producers. "He does it all by instinct," Van De Wiel said of her husband. "We have a university-trained winemaker who runs the numbers," determining things such as acidity.

On the day we visited Clare Valley, about an hour and a half north of Adelaide, there were dust storms so bad you could hardly see across the road. The winemakers apologized for the weather. But the storms didn't stop the revelry at Skillogalee Wines (named after the porridge of grass seed and water that sustained early settlers in the area), where a wedding party gathered on the veranda. And they didn't deter visitors to Sevenhill Cellars, where Jesuits make wine for churches throughout Australia (the giant barriques were labeled "sweet altar wine") and other varietals for public consumption.

I finally made it to Penfolds, in the Barossa Valley in a little town called Nuriootpa. It was the least interesting and most commercial of the 60 or so wineries we visited, and it wasn't offering samples of Grange. I finally tasted the nectar at the Magill Estate restaurant, a stunningly modern building on the site of Penfolds' original winery in the hills overlooking Adelaide.

It was just a sip from a small glass, the last of a bottle that had been opened for sales by the glass. The voluptuous flavors of the wine exploded in my mouth: blackberry, chocolate, plum. It lingered in the back of my throat.

Grange lacked the earthy character of Bad Impersonator, the concentrated sweetness of For Love or Money. But if I had only pursued Grange, I would have never found them.

Nancy Lewis is the food editor for The Post's Extra editions.

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