Combining native Australian bush and wildlife, stunning seaside vistas, boutique wineries and gourmet food, our wine tour of McLaren Vale with Off Piste 4WD Tours offered a superb introduction to the beautiful Fleurieu Peninsula region of South Australia. Grapes have been grown here since the 19th century and our guide, Ben Neville, knows the area better than most. His parents still live at McLaren Vale in the family home, a restored circa 1890s butter factory, surrounded by picturesque vineyards and rolling hills.

Ben Neville

There are over 70 cellar doors in this region, ranging from small, family run wineries to large international brands, but this tour offers a boutique look at this beautiful part of South Australia. You won’t be sharing your tasting experience with hoards of other visitors. You will, however, enjoy more than a few surprises along the way.

Beautiful McLaren Vale

Our tour began in Adelaide with a pick up from the Mayfair Hotel in a flash 4WD. It didn’t take long to reach our first stop at Onkaparinga River National Park where wallabies jumped alongside the 4WD and a short walk revealed views over McLaren Vale and the cliffs which make up the many gorges in this National Park. When we saw Ben leading the way along a pristine bush track with a bottle of wine and two glasses in hand, we knew this was going to be a pretty special tour. Our stunning view was accompanied by a chilled glass of Primo Secco, a refreshing sparkling wine from local winery Primo Estate where we would be having lunch.

First stop of the day at Onkaparinga River National Park

Onkaparinga River National Park

We continued driving through the National Park and down a steep trail with spectacular views, before Ben stopped to serve us a generous morning tea featuring some of the region’s produce. Freshly baked bread, local cheese, a stellar caramel slice plus wine and beer brewed just down the road were served beside a creek, in a clearing surrounded by towering gum trees set against a brilliant blue sky.

Morning tea surrounded by pristine bushland

Next it was time for our first official tasting which took place at Bekkers, a boutique winery run by husband and wife team Toby and Emmanuelle Bekkers. Crafted in tiny quantities, the wines at this vineyard aim to push the limits of what is possible for McLaren Vale and Australian wine. Scored at over 95/100 in the Halliday Wine Companion, they aren’t cheap at around $80 or more a bottle. However, these much lauded wines are a bargain at the price. We were treated to a generous tasting experience with Toby Bekkers himself, who explained McLaren Vale’s geology, soils and climate and how they related to what he and his French winemaker wife were aiming to achieve.

Wine tasting at Bekkers

After this very personal introduction to McLaren Vale, it was time for lunch at nearby Primo Estate. It was definitely luck rather than good management but we had timed our visit perfectly for one of Primo’s renowned pizza lunches. Even though the event was officially sold out, Ben managed to get last minute seats so we could join the fun. Before we arrived he told us ‘This is what McLaren Vale is all about, you are going to love it’ and he was right.

Lunch at Primo Estate

During our tour we discovered this wine region has a charming laid back atmosphere with locals who make you feel genuinely welcome. We sat down to lunch at Primo where most of the other diners were residents or long-time visitors yet we didn’t feel like outsiders at all. In fact, it was one of the most convivial lunches we had enjoyed in years. Primo Estate celebrates its Italian heritage with a bit of friendly competition where diners at the lunch have to guess which Shiraz is from Tuscany and which one is Australian.

Pizza, wine and good times

Joe Grilli, the eldest son of Italian immigrant Primo Grilli who planted the family’s first vineyard in 1973, returns to Italy every year to oversee the vintage of Primo’s Italian wines which are then shipped back to Australia. Primo also has a picturesque Australian vineyard right outside the tasting rooms. Rustic wood fired pizzas emerged from an oven that was fired up at lunch time the day before, and good food and good conversation flowed on the long communal tables. It seemed like only a few minutes had passed when it was time to leave but, in fact, we had been there for hours and there was still so much to see.

Next we stopped by the family home at the historic butter factory for a glass of wine in Ben’s mother’s beautiful garden and learned more about what the area was like in the 70s, when the family first moved there. It felt especially tranquil here after the lively atmosphere at lunch.

Our day ended with coffee at the nearby Star of Greece Café, perched high on the cliff tops overlooking the waters of St Vincent gulf, where we watched surfers take on the waves below. I had been reading about this cafe for years so it was wonderful to finally experience its iconic view. After a drive along Sellicks Beach we hit the bitumen once more for the drive back to Adelaide.

View from the Star of Greece Cafe

Sellicks Beach

If there is something particular you want to see, Ben can include it on the itinerary but I would suggest you don’t do too much planning yourself. Perhaps the greatest joy of this tour is letting a local expert plan the perfect day out. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Disclosure: The writer visited McLaren Vale at a guest of Off Piste 4WD Tours and the South Australian Tourism Commission.