A winery, a meadery, a fab restaurant, a maze & a secret limestone cave. ALL the reasons to visit Maxwell Wines in South Australia’s McLaren Vale.
Maybe it’s because of the time of the year, but I’ve been on something of a mushroom binge over the last month or two. I’ve visited one of our South Australian mushroom producers, I’ve been cooking with them in the gorgeous new KitchenAid Cook Processor and just the other day I joined in with all things truffle-related at Adelaide Central Market’s Truffle Festival (do check out my Instagram feed for some images). And I recently, at long last, manged to visit one of the Fleurieu Pensinsula’s best known wineries to explore their special secret – a limestone mushroom cave at Maxwell Wines.
Situated on 90 acres of gently sloping, south-facing, alluvial clay over limestone and within cooee of the township of McLaren Vale, some of Maxwell’s vineyards have been planted since the 1930’s. Ideal for producing small batches of high quality fruit, the vines are now under the stewardship of a third generation of the Maxwell family. They produce an extensive range of fruit driven wines of significant complexity and subtlety and are also, famously, the largest producer of mead in the southern hemisphere. Mead is a fermented honey drink whose origins go all the way back to 7000 BC. It has been celebrated in myths and poetry for centuries and even been referred to as the “ancestor of all fermented drinks”. (Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in ‘A History of Food’.)
I vaguely recalled Maxwell’s and their mead from a foggy winey weekend in my younger days when my stamina (and my liver) were up for such epic distractions, but things have changed around there over the years. (Actually, they’ve changed a bit here too, but I’d rather not go into that.) Moved in the 1990’s from it’s original site, Maxwell’s cellar door offers stunning views of the gently rolling vine-planted hills and an exceptional restaurant called ‘Ellen Street’ (named after the road the winery fronts on to, which the local authorities rather inconsiderately re-named Chalk Hill Road). My main mission was to hunt down the mushroom cave but, well, a girl’s got to eat and I’d heard many wonderful reports about their food so my friend’s suggestion of lunch was warmly welcomed.
Ellen Street’s light, airy space was deliciously warm and cosy on the day of our visit and all the stories I’d heard of chef Tom Bowden’s food proved to be absolutely true. Tom has a splendid international pedigree and combines his exceptional experience and skills with the best of the region’s seasonal produce. The results are dishes of remarkable, but totally unpretentious, sophistication with sensational depth of flavour and all of it beautifully plated with flair. Truly an Instagrammers dream. We started our meal with a very surprising Miso Shitake Broth. The clarity and delicacy of this understated little glass of consommé completely belied it’s enormous flavour – a stunning way to start a completely delicious meal.
With this excellent lunch under my belt, I headed off to visit the mushroom cave. Forty metres long and hand-carved into the side of the hill at the rear of the winery, the cave was put in almost a century ago by local man Fred Shipster who used it for a brief period to grow mushrooms. One searingly hot summers day the doors to the cave were left open, his total crop expired and poor old Fred just gave up.
He closed it up and it sat there completely disused until the 1980’s when it was rediscovered and used for storage. In more recent years it has been used for private dining events and last year a very special dinner was held there for Tasting Australia. In between it’s more formal moments, the cave has gone back to it’s original purpose and it provides a limited range of mushrooms for Tom’s use in Ellen Street.
The cave is not accessible to the general public, but is available for private functions – just contact the winery. It would be a very special venue for a significant birthday and it’s fascinating to discover such a unique little local secret.
As I was leaving that afternoon I spotted something else I wasn’t expecting – Maxwell’s has a maze! Planted well over 20 years ago, the maze is in it’s final stage of development, but still being somewhat protected, so they ask that you check at the cellar door before entering it. I don’t think that letting the kids run riot in there while you enjoy a quiet drink is something the nice folk at Maxwell’s encourage (tempting though it might be).
Mega wine weekends no longer appeal to me, but I still love getting around our wonderful South Australian wine regions and exploring what’s on offer – and what’s on offer at Maxwell’s is well worth a Sunday drive, believe me.
Corner of Olivers & Chalk Hill Roads,
McLaren Vale, South Australia, 5171.
Ph +61 8 8323 8200
Not a sponsored post – Lamb’s Ears and Honey’s paid for her own meal at Ellen Street.