Having spent the last couple of decades working, eating and drinking my way through South Australia’s regional culinary landscape, I’ve learnt a thing or two about communities and the people that make and shape them. Some welcome newcomers with open arms, whereas others are comfortable in their own little corners of the world, resistant to change, or just plain stuck in their ways.

A few of our wine regions are far more insular than others. I’m not naming names but I’ve seen first-hand what generational defiance looks like. It can show through service, in the bottle or on the plate for some cellar door-cum-restaurants or eateries. At the worst end of the spectrum it’s so noticeable that it can leave a pretty average taste in your mouth.

In 2009 Sharon Pearson and Garry Sweeney set off on a trip around the country to find a vineyard property to call their own. Fortunately for these two former Sydneysiders, they chose a location in heart of the Mt Lofty Ranges in the Adelaide Hills, at a time when its wines were gathering some momentum on the new-world wine stage, and it was quickly securing a solid reputation as a foodie destination. And, generally, the wine folk of the hills are as progressive as the wines themselves.

Inside the restaurant.

And with that Mt Lofty Ranges Vineyard went from a boutique wine business with a humble cellar door, to a boutique wine brand that quickly evolved to establish itself as a regional restaurant of note.

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. A little over two years ago the paint on a new restaurant extension and three-tiered dining deck had barely dried when the Adelaide Hills were changed forever, as the Cudlee Creek bushfires swept through the region, devastating vineyards and properties, homes and livelihoods. The team at Mt Lofty Ranges Vineyard evacuated as they saw smoke on the very near horizon, but thankfully a wind change saved their cellar door and vineyard. Just.

And then 2020 happened. For most of us the year was average at best, but later in the year, the Adelaide Hills lost a legendary winemaker in Taras Ochota, who alongside Peter Leske had been making wines for Mt Lofty Ranges since 2009.

Another year past and there are still things affecting our regions and industries, as we’re all very aware. But I’m not here to dwell on that and, as I’m seated on the upper terrace on a glorious summer afternoon, it’s immediately clear that the staff isn’t either. Enthusiastic smiles might be hidden behind masks, but it’s obvious that they’re just as happy to be here as we are.

I’m happier still when the amuse-bouche land. The first is a whipped duck liver parfait sitting on a crispy beetroot base and filled with a shimmering little pool of blackberry syrup. It’s love at first bite. And also at first sip, of the Aspire Riesling – a varietal that has been championed by these new Hills recruits thanks to the perfect growing conditions on the edge of Mount Lofty that has the added bonus of some spectacular views over vineyards.

Then, a smoked trout mousse is piped on a crunchy lentil base and topped with salsa verde and capers. The combined piquant and salty flavours are balanced nicely with the smoked fish paste. If this is a taste of what’s to come we’re already (very) hungry for more.

Crispy pork with apricot. Photo: Paul Wood

The restaurant’s octopus dish, with agnolotti. Photo: Paul Wood

As a group of four, we greedily order one of almost everything from the – slightly – set menu. It has options – just a two or three for each course – which actually makes our job much easier.

Unlike us, the small kitchen team led by chef Adam Bowden is working hard and the next plates land as quickly as others are removed.

A blended crab and prawn concoction is worked into a salad of sorts, alongside sweetcorn and avocado. This is one of those creamy, dreamy dishes that manages to exude all of the nuanced flavours individually but still remain light and balanced. A sweet yet savoury quenelle of sorbet slowly melts into the mix, keeping things cool while boosting the freshness offered by herbs and fresh greens that make up this magical assembly.

And then a neatly organised ‘Provincial Terrine’ features layers of thinly sliced vegetables you might also find in ratatouille, making the most of a summer harvest.

Here we are, enjoying nature’s finest (and another glass of that Riesling), and we’re only just getting to mains.

Another dip in the ocean lands next, with slices of lightly pickled octopus, crispy fennel and slivers of olive coming together to camouflage a delicious roast tomato and fennel agnolotti below. These are little pillows of pleasure – a pasta dish that is surprisingly fresh and light, and another summer-appropriate take on what could typically be reserved for cooler months.

Things seem like they may get a little heavier with the pork dish served next – a stuffed cutlet with a crackling outer and tender juicy centre that cements our belief in the skills of the kitchen. This is plated with grilled apricot and greens that soak up a masterstock that has a fruity hint, and punchy pork-infused flavour. Whether it’s balance, portion control or a culinary sleight of hand, we still seem to have plenty of room for dessert.

It seems fitting that the first sweet (but balanced) plate features strawberries from the Adelaide Hills, freshly sliced and artfully placed around whipped creme fraiche that has been formed in a doughnut-shaped mold. This is dusted with pistachio and marigold leaves that add a little texture and impart their nutty and lightly spiced flavours, respectively. Little cubes of deliciously dense cake provide the perfect vehicle to scoop up each forkful of the creamy centre.

The two desserts on offer. Photo: Paul Wood

And then from the Hills to the tropics is another sweet winner. This time, slivers of summer fruits swim in a pool of intentionally melted pineapple custard. A fluffy meringue round floats neatly in the centre. This dish is titled “Floating islands, exotic fruits” and it has us wishing we really could. But until the world opens up and we can get away to a tropical island once again, this is where I’d rather be.

MT LOFTY RANGES VINEYARD CELLAR DOOR & RESTAURANT

166 Harris Rd, Lenswood

(08) 8389 8339

reservations@mtloftyranges.com.au

mtloftyrangesvineyard.com.au

Open for lunch daily

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.