words by brad crouch

To get under the skin of a wine region you need to get under its soil. Getting down and dirty in McLaren Vale starts by crossing the 95km-long Onkaparinga River.

The renowned wine region on Adelaide’s southern doorstep is an easy 40-minute drive from the CBD down the Southern Expressway, and as you cross the Onkaparinga bridge dividing urban from rural there is a subconscious urge to exhale and roll the shoulders as the city falls into the rear view mirror and country life beckons.

This is a relaxed community of family-owned vineyards and boutique produce, where buxom hills tumble down to largely empty beaches lapped by crystal waters.

There is no shortage of cellar doors ready to offer a friendly chat as well as a tasting — but that’s the case in many wine regions. So how do you get under the Vale’s skin to build a stronger connection?

A top-end tour taking just six people shows it off from the air, from the barrel room, the dining table and by getting under the soil.

The day starts with Ben Neville from Off Piste 4WD Tours and winemaker Scott Zrna from Fox Creek Wines escorting visitors in a luxury 4WD deep into Onkaparinga Gorge National Park.

While thousands cross the bridge over the river each day near its mouth, relatively few venture up into the gorge — and after years of hard work Ben is the only commercial operator allowed in with a 4WD.

It is serene and beautiful. Kangaroos and kookaburras abound as we splash across a river crossing, climb the surrounding hills and pause by flowing waters where a table and white cloth appear out of the vehicle for a midmorning feast of local produce with not another soul in sight.

Ben then takes us on a bit of a school-type 4WD tour, pointing out the vast variety of soils from sand to clay and diverse minerals such as felspar seen in local cuttings.

One is a mish mash where “the grandparents mix with the kids” — 600-million-year-old rocks and minerals are somehow interspersed with youngsters just 50 million years old.

In bygone times the gorge’s hills apparently were as big as the Himalayas and they still provide a microclimate.

These differing soils, the climate, rainfall and more are the challenges of making a wine so that each glass has a rich story to tell, winemaker Scott enthuses.

Geological “laundries” mashing up rival minerals, soils and epochs give new meaning to exposed rockfaces you might normally pass without a second thought.

It is all educational without being boring, like being out with a couple of mates who know and love their local area and are keen to share its secrets, giving the dirt on the dirt so to speak. A view from one ridgetop includes views across to Kangaroo Island.

“You need to understand what is going on under the surface to see why a wine tastes as it does — around here you can get differences in soils within the same vineyard,” Scott says. “The more layers you get, the different impacts on things like the fruit aromatics and tannins. Diversity in the soil means the winemaker has a lot to work with, like a chef has a spice rack.”

The tour then heads to Fox Creek Vineyard, home of award-winning wines, cheese platters and a James Bond moment. A helicopter is on hand for a whiz around the region. It is a Bell 47, the type from TV’s MASH, with its bubble-like cockpit providing unobstructed views.

The patchwork of vineyards clearly show different soil types from the air, while the view of the coastline shows water so clear you can spot dolphins and a shipwreck. Helivista pilot Paul Beck points out spots of interest including local restaurants.

Back on land, cheerful local chef Todd Steele is whipping up lunch on the back deck of the Fox Creek Wines’ tasting cottage which dates to 1870. He points to various properties while explaining where dishes such as lamb, rib eye, goat’s cheese and beets came from. In this community everyone knows each other.

A tour of the high-tech winery and tasting masterclass follows, learning about how machinery pops the berries rather than crushes them. In the solemn coolness of the temperature-controlled barrel shed, Scott talks about the more than 30 different types of barrels they use and how they all do different things to the wines.

“It is a mixture of science and art and voodoo,” he quips. “There is quite a story in a single glass of wine.” A taste of the Reserve is a fine way to wind up the tour. And there is no written test to see what you learnt about wines, soil profiles or geology.

Just a feeling that getting to know the locals and learning about their backyard, including the dirt, really does take you under the region’s skin.

The Below the Surface tour takes a minimum of four people, maximum six people.

Ph 0423 725 409
or see offpistetours.com.au