The Clare down there
Words Rob Geddes Photography James Knowler
Published Summer 2010/11
As soon as you visit a place there is something inside you that tells you whether you belong. It’s an intangible thing. It’s in locals’ hospitality, it is in the wines, in the soil, in the air. The Clare Valley gave me that feeling - it welcomed me with open arms and kept on hugging like one of Nan’s best farewells, long after I’d left.
The Clare Valley, in fact, isn’t just one valley – it is a series of six twisting and turning valleys connected by five little communities bound together by great Riesling and old-fashioned levels of trust, honesty and reliability.
Clare was founded in the 1840s by a combination of free settlers and Jesuit Silesians emigrating for religious freedom. The valley’s productive climate meant it was pivotal to farming and also serving the succession of booming copper towns that exploded from the 1850s.
Burra was the first such town and back then the Jesuits of Sevenhill would rise by night and walk the 30 kilometres to Burra with a yoke or wheelbarrows laden with precious produce for the miners. In return, bullock drays piled with copper enriched the villages of the region on their way to ships at Port Wakefield.
The welcoming – Auburn
Today, most people start their visit to Clare from the south via Auburn, a mere 95 minutes from Adelaide. This is a town that has improved with age and lost nothing of the past. Atmospheric buildings line the neat main street and mounting steps that used to help folk get on their horses are still outside the post office, testament to the fond memories country people have of the horse era.These days Auburn is home to three wine producers of international fame.
Riesling maestro Jeffrey Grosset is the first of these and it says plenty of his wines that his gorgeous cellar door is only open for about one month per year, from September until the wines run out in October.
Mount Horrocks Wines is at Auburn’s old railway station and like its location, its wines are delicate, elegant and serene. Their ‘station café’ is also worthwhile for delightful light lunches.
Completing the trio is Taylors, the biggest winery in the region. Its majestic vineyard sits like a picnic rug on the hills north of Auburn, and is home to whiz kid winemaker Adam Eggins, whose team keeps pumping out success after success with both whites and reds.
Next stop, Leasingham
As you leave Auburn, heading north to Clare, the Adelaide Plains give way to the picturesque tree-lined rolling hills and the red soils that define the vineyards of the region. Just before Leasingham you will find O’Leary Walker Wines, home to a dynamic duo of winemakers, David O’Leary and Nick Walker, whose great wines and brilliant cellar door reflect the optimism Clare has in the future.
Claymore Wines is a short distance further on the main road and just like their funky cellar door, their wines have a funky edge. Ripe, rich and fleshy, they are on the fuller side of the valley style, but still retain freshness and a degree of elegance. Friendly staff and carefully cellared museum releases add interest.
For a touch of history it is worthwhile taking a right-hand turn at Leasingham and following the old copper trail road to the heritage-listed township of Mintaro. Here you’ll find the majestic Martindale Hall, an early Victorian-style building which transports you back 120 years to an era of great wealth. Decorated with lavish furnishings and exotic items from around the world, it was famously used as the school in Peter Weir’s landmark 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Stay in Mintaro and visit Irongate Studio Gallery, which houses the works of award-winning contemporary artist Jen Penglase-Prior. It’s also home to an impressive display of glass, sculpture and ceramics by some of South Australia’s most talented artisans.
Down the road, the bushy conifers of Mintaro Maze will capture the attention of big and little kids. Businesses use it for leadership courses and the army for training exercises.
Grab a bite to eat (or even stay overnight) at the historic cottages at Reillys Wines, where you can enjoy an interpretive vineyard walk and good country fare matched with their big, smooth reds, or kick back in the sunny beer garden of the Magpie and Stump hotel for an afternoon brew.
Another fact about Mintaro is that it has been providing slate for billiard tables around the world for over a century. It’s the slate that stamps the burgeoning sub-region of Polish Hill River, located on the winding road back to Sevenhill, as something special.
Out here it is all about Riesling of defined structure and lime citrus flavour derived from the slate soils. The leading players are Pikes, whose wines are delightful and cellar door gallery is worth a visit, along with Wilson Vineyard and Paulett Wines, who added another crown to the area by picking up the gong for the World’s Best Riesling at the recent Canberra International Riesling Challenge.
Just three kilometres up the north road from Leasingham is Watervale, home to several quality wineries, which are low key and delicious to their core. Stephen John and Crabtree are the must-visit cellar doors on the left. Off to your right is the Annie’s Lane cellar door (their vineyard is out towards Polish Hill River). Each year Annie’s Lane hosts the region’s popular Day on the Green concerts.
Nearby, artist Murray Edwards has located his intimate gallery on the lee of one of the highest hills in the region. The drive in yields spectacular views revealing the many hidden valleys that make up Clare. Park near the top and climb the hill for wonderful views of the Skillagolee Valley before visiting Murray at his studio. As he says, “It’s a beautiful, inspirational place – I enjoy sharing it.”
Next is Penwortham, a gem of a village with a pretty church, Morrisons honey tasting and explorer John Horrocks’ home, built in 1848. It is here you’ll find Penna Lane Wines, Pearsons Vineyard, Mitchell Winery, Jeanneret Wines, Kilikanoon, and Skillogalee Wines and Restaurant, which is a sublime place to lunch either under the long veranda or out under the spreading olive tree.
At Kilikanoon there is the chance to taste their full range of wines including their extensive offering of Shiraz and Riesling as well as local heroes Semillon and Grenache. Winemaker and Penwortham local Kevin Mitchell bided his time to open his own winery, working with several big local and international names before buying a small farm in Skillagolee Valley in 1997. This friendly, popular, well-run cellar door has wines with intense regional character and paradoxical style. The elegant whites and big textural reds all have distinctive varietal flavour.
Along the road, Mitchell Cellars offers lovely hospitality thanks to modest couple Andrew and Jane Mitchell. Their fleshy, progressive style of 2010 Riesling is especially exciting, as is their mature 2002 McNicoll Shiraz.
The highest part of the ranges and a hub in its own right, Sevenhill is testimony to the fact that opposites can co-exist side by side in Clare. It has a pub that rocks on the weekend while just a short walk away are the tranquil and historic Sevenhill Cellars and St Aloysius Church.
The grounds of Sevenhill Cellars are full of spreading gums and old world charm with space for families to picnic, while the winery houses a museum with underground cellars. Our first saint, Mary MacKillop, lived here when excommunicated thanks to the compassion of the order including her two brothers who were in residence. When standing in the museum section sniff deeply and you can take in the aromas of wine ageing in old barrels. Visitors will find a magnificent church and crypt and can hire bikes.
And onto Clare
The end point of Clare Valley is the lovely township of Clare. With a population of just under 10,000 it is the biggest town in the valley, and probably the most charming with a delightfully rustic main street. However, before you arrive in Clare from the south you should visit Stone Bridge Wines for a taste of their excellent Shiraz, Riesling and Cabernet Malbec. Go on a Sunday when winemaker (and former baker) Craig Thomson fires up the wood-fired pizza oven. Just beyond, near the lookout, is Neagles Rock Vineyards, a worthwhile stop for their rich, luscious, ripe reds.
Off to the right of the main road is the understated but essential-to-visit Tim Adams cellar door, where you’ll find wonderful Pinot Gris, Shiraz and Riesling.
Adjacent is Kirrihill cellar door where winemaker Donna Stephens has a standout wine with her Kirrihill 2009 Cabernet. Her team is also a dab hand with Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills. Above Kirrihill cellar door is the Artisans Table Restaurant led by Roger and Tania Graham offering good food, friendly service and delightful valley views.
At the other end of Clare and an easy walk from Main Street is Knappstein. Locals know it takes a lot of beer to appreciate a good wine and on both fronts a visit to Knappstein is essential. Try their 8.18.8 Riesling for a glimpse of the likely future for this amazing varietal.
On the northern edge of Clare is Jim Barry Wines where you can taste a range of very high quality wines and most likely be served by a member of the family. Check out their Cabernets or the mighty Armagh Shiraz.
The Riesling Trail
Another huge attraction for the region is the highly recommended Riesling Trail, a smooth, gently undulating walking/cycling path that stretches 27 delicious kilometres from Clare to Auburn.
It offers you a peek behind the façade of this industrious region and a great perspective as to how altitude frames the wines and the localities.
Most pick up their bike from Riesling Trail Bike Hire in Warenda Road, Clare. You can hire bikes of all sizes and configurations so no member of the family is left out. Additional loop routes exist from Penwortham and Sevenhill Cellars or along the scenic winding road to Polish Hill River.
And don’t worry if you can’t get your bike back, the Sevenhill pub has a bus and they’re happy to rescue you if you linger longer at the winery or need assistance.
Overall, I reckon every wine lover should visit the Clare Valley. It is the perfect size to see in one weekend and for me is a pleasant paradox: compact yet diverse, close to Adelaide yet unspoilt, outwardly conservative but inwardly feisty. What’s more, the winemakers’ pride in Riesling and fight to protect its name as a variety, not a style, has changed Australian wine. This is a story with many more pages to turn; I would go back tomorrow.