Jenny Semmler says she moved to South Australia’s Riverland in 2000 for love – then fell head over heels in love with the region itself.
It’s the river, vineyards, blossoming orchards and local wildlife that particularly appeal to the co-owner, with winemaker husband Eric, of small family winery 919 Wines – and she believes winter is an excellent time to visit.
Below, Semmler shares some of her tips for things to do, see and eat in the Riverland.
How long have you lived in the Riverland and why are you happy to call it home?
I love the proximity to my home state, Victoria; Mildura is only an hour and a half away if I want to jump on a plane to visit family or friends. Adelaide is really accessible, too, and since the Northern Expressway has been built I can drive into the heart of the city in two and a half hours.
I love the local wildlife that lives on our two vineyards. We have counted 30 different bird species near the winery, and have a family group of kangaroos that we follow like a soap opera.
I love the scents of the orchards in spring. The heady orange blossom, for me, is the signature scent of the Riverland and the way I know I’ve arrived home.
What are three of four things that visitors to the region must see/do?
Picnic by the river: There is nothing better than sitting quietly by the river with a glass of bubbles and a picnic. The sounds of the kites soaring above the river gums, the gentle breeze and fish jumping out of the river are medicine for the soul. Take a hike through the bush to see the beauty of the wildflowers and smell the eucalypts – if you’re very lucky, you may see an echidna looking for his dinner. As the sun sets, hold hands under the diamond sky and listen to the gentle sounds of night. Simply magic.
Take a boat trip: Every three or four years we hire a houseboat for a week and explore a different part of the river. The cliffs between Blanchetown and Morgan are magnificent and change colour continuously, providing photo opportunities to rival Uluru. Near Kingston, the river broadens out into a series of amazing wetlands which are nice to explore by canoe. At Renmark, the scenery is varied – from townscape to cliffs and forest. My favourite place would have to be from Customs House up towards the border, where the landscape opens out to redgum forests and mallee. I love the serenity of sleeping afloat, and always come home feeling refreshed.
Take a trip on the historic PS Industry out of Renmark, and step back to the time when the river was the lifeblood of the regions. I love to watch the banks glide by and the smell of the engine as it works up steam.
Drive the Riverland wine route: The state’s longest regional wine route is in the Riverland and includes everything from world-famous brands to little-known gems.
Start at Blanchetown, where Burk Salter has been quietly turning out some of the region’s best Cabernet for decades. Travel upriver to Cadell, where you may be lucky enough to catch Spook Hill’s pop-up cellar door, or try the True Grit challenge at Caudo Vineyard. Pick up some Petit Verdot at Illalangi in Waikerie, then head to Banrock Station, where you can try something from the seasonal regional menu on the deck overlooking the wetlands.
The next day, take a loop through the wetlands at Moorook to the Whistling Kite Biodynamic Vineyard (ring before your trip, especially if you want to go to one of their workshops). Then go to Salena Estate for a taste of traditional and alternative varieties, before heading to Berri and turning to Glossop. There, you will find both the largest winery in the Riverland, Berri Estates, and the smallest, our own 919 Wines. At Monash, Cirami Estate has small-batch rare variety wines available for purchase, and at Renmark, Mallee Estates offers more conventional varieties and a nonna-made Greek afternoon tea. Last winery of the day is the century-old Angove Family Winemakers, then you can finish with a drive out to the brewery at Wilkadene for a cleansing ale.
Your favourite places to eat and drink?
Ruston’s Roses has great Thai food, my favourite dish being the duck and green mango salad. The chef is Thai and always enjoys it when an Aussie asks for “extra heat” so he can cook closer to the authentic Thai style. The presentation is exquisite and in the springtime the roses are in full bloom. It pays to book.
During the week and on Saturday mornings, Sprouts Café in Berri is the local hot-spot for delicious hearty food presented with a country smile. This is where the locals go for a quick bite, but if you want to linger and take in a view, try Café Alba on the riverfront instead.
My local watering hole is the Berri Resort Hotel, where I meet with the local writers once a month for a pint and a poem or prose. I also claim the Loxton Hotel as local, since we have a vineyard on that side of the river as well. It has an Eat Local menu where you can get Murray cod, local lamb and duck, and citrus and almond dishes.
I love the Barmera Bakery. Vanilla slice is the mark of a great bakery (think crispy pastry, creamy vanilla custard and a veil of icing, no coconut), and theirs is up there with the best in southern Australia. They also make a great selection of pies for the meat lovers. My idea of skiving off at lunchtime is to grab a pie and a slice and eat it on the banks of Lake Bonney.
For a decadent drink, try a Belgian hot chocolate at Havenhand in Waikerie. Now that’s pretty special!
What is the Riverland’s best-kept local secret?
The Special Place for Jimmy James on the riverfront in Berri is a memorial to the black tracker. It’s only a short walk, but you need to put aside your European outlook and think like a traditional man to find the traces of the people who have passed that way before. If you’re into geo-caching, there are several located in this area.
Why should people visit the region in the cooler months?
The sky in the Riverland is usually blue from horizon to horizon, and in the winter we have cuddle-up nights and mild sunny days, which are a cheery change from the overcast and wet conditions in Adelaide and the south.
It’s a great time to go walking, particularly on some of the longer hikes, and there are fewer people on the river if you prefer solitude. The almond trees blossom in July and August, and driving the roads by the orchards gives this amazing feeling that you’re floating through clouds.
Fire restrictions are eased in winter, so you can stoke up a campfire and cook a roast in the Dutch oven and potatoes in the coals, and the night sky in winter is brilliantly clear, so it shines like a million diamonds.
Jenny and Eric Semmler own the award-winning 919 Wines at Glossop, where visitors can taste wine in the cellar, see the winemakers at work, and try new-variety table wines or fortifieds. Jenny is also a board member of Destination Riverland and co-ordinator of the Riverland Creative Writing Group.
More My Backyard articles:
Copper Coast – by Kernewek Lowender executive officer Rosemary Cock
Barossa Valley – by Hentley Farm chef Lachlan Colwill
Yorke Peninsula – by singer Ronnie Taheny
Clare Valley – by Good Catholic Girl Wines head girl Julie Barry
Eyre Peninsula – by Boston Bay Wines’ Tony Ford
Kangaroo Island – by artist Janine Mackintosh
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