A Guide to the Clare Valley Wine Region
THE QUIET REVOLUTIONARY
Considered one of Australia’s oldest and most beautiful wine-growing regions, Clare Valley has long been South Australia’s quiet achiever. Lush and secluded, it’s peppered with heritage towns and over 30 cellar doors (read our list of the Best Clare Valley Wineries and Cellar Doors!). It is a place filled with such lovely people and authentic charm it’s hard not to fall in love with it… or its world-beating Riesling!
I’m always excited to return to Clare Valley. I take the back roads, via Two Wells, Mallala and along the Blyth plain, through patchwork fields of green cereal crops and golden canola. The quality of the light is amazing – everything seems brighter, the colours more vivid. Making wine there was a pleasure and a privilege.
CLARE VALLEY WINE REGION MAP
Situated in the mid north of South Australia some 120km from Adelaide, Clare Valley is in fact a series of six valleys and five villages, from Auburn in the south to Clare in the north, within an extension of the Mount Lofty Ranges. Owing to its elevation, diverse soils and geography, it’s ideal for the growing of premium grapes, enjoying consistently good winter rains, and cool nights over the hot summer.
HISTORY of Clare Valley
Once a copper-mining boom town, Clare Valley is a study in contrasts. Steeped in tradition, it has nonetheless ushered in far-reaching innovations to the industry. And with so many of its wineries remaining family-owned-and-operated, it retains a personal touch, embodying the values of provenance, character, and working together.
FROM THE SACRAMENTAL TO THE SUBLIME
Innovations to the industry. And with so many of its wineries remaining family-owned-and-operated, it retains a personal touch, embodying the values of provenance, character, and working together.
Jesuits establish Clare Valley’s first winery, Sevenhill Cellars, to produce sacramental wine. It still operates today.
The Wendouree vineyard is established by Alfred Percy Birks. Its vines still thrive
Clare Valley’s vineyards grow in number, with many attaining wide recognition.
The Riesling Trail is founded along an old, disused rail line.
The screw-cap is championed by 13 innovative Clare Valley winemakers.
The Greek variety Assyrtiko is first grown in Australia by Jim Barry Wines.
Clare Valley has come into its own as a significant wine region, known for world class white and red wines.
CLARE VALLEY GROWING CONDITIONS
With its meandering streams, rolling hills and countless gum trees winding their way around vineyards and colonial stone houses, Clare Valley is a place of sheer bucolic beauty. Its distinctive geography and climate have always been ideal for farming and agriculture, and those same qualities provide excellent foundations for the production of quality wine.
It’s such a special grape-growing region due to the warm days and cool nights. It allows grapes to ripen fully but retain natural acidity and hence freshness.
Clare Valley is blessed with a moderate continental climate, enjoying warm to hot summer days tempered by cool afternoon and evening breezes. Whilst rainfall is comparitively low, and there is a high percentage of heat degree days, temperatures drop quite a lot through the night, a diurnal variation that keeps average temperatures lower and grants the vines relief from the heat. Ripening is slowed, and the fruit develops extra complexity – a boon for aromatic wines like Clare Valley’s regional star, Riesling.
During ripening months, Clare Valley regularly sees temperatures plummet from 40oC during the day, all the way down to 1oC at night!
Studies have revealed at least 11 different recognised soil types in the Clare, from terra rossa red topsoil over limestone in the Watervale district, to the broken slate of Polish Hill River, sandy loams and degraded quartz to the west of the main valley in Skillogalee, and low-irrigation alluvial grounds in the region’s northern reaches.
The varied soils, altitude and sites create the diversity necessary to produce a range of wine styles.
The undulating hills provide many aspects, so we can grow Riesling, Shiraz and Cabernet on different slopes in the same vineyard.
Harvest time in Clare Valley typically kicks off in early-mid February and extends into mid-April. Lower elevation sites tend to see harvest commence earlier. Vineyards are generally machine-picked at night, where the cool helps preserve fruit flavours and natural acidity, but handpicking is still common, with small yields vigilantly nurtured to harvest.
SNAPSHOT OF CLARE VALLEY
Altitude: Low-Med 190-609m
EXPERIMENTS IN EXCELLENCE
A combination of tradition and innovation has made Clare Valley one of the country’s most influential regions, and its winemakers have had a hand in numerous key developments in the Australian wine industry. Contributing 3% towards Australia’s total crush, small-scale growers and family-owned concerns continue to dominate the Clare Valley winemaking landscape, which has seen a shift away from high-volume to small-batch production.
Above: Justin Ardill, owner and winemaker of Reilly’s Wines, hard at work in the winery
MORE THAN MEETS THE VINE
The region is home to many passionate viticulturists, who have spent years honing their craft, focussing on fruit quality and authentic regional expression. There has also been a growing embrace of sustainable and organic vineyard practice, with growers employing a wide range of vineyard management systems and approaches. As many vineyards are low to moderate vigour, simple trellis systems like Vertical Shoot Positioned Trellising is quite common. Vine-training systems are often bilateral cordon, and spur-pruning is widespread, although cane pruning is becoming more widely practiced in an attempt to control for eutypa, a common fungus around the world. Beyond eutypa, Clare Valley is largely unaffected by pests or disease.
HANDS IN THE SOIL
With high heat conditions and relatively low rainfall, soil management has come to greater prominence in the region, with some growers pioneering ways to improve soil and minimise evaporation for reduced water use. Straw mulch under vines and between rows is one such technique for conserving soil moisture.
FINDING THE VIBE
For Steve Wiblin, owner and winemaker of the celebrated independent winery Erin Eyes, good wine starts in the vineyard. “It’s a bit of a vibe thing with vineyard management,” he says. “Understanding your vineyards, varieties and timings is essential.”
The most vital aspect though, says Steve, is canopy management. “When to lift the canopy, when to summer prune and when or if to drop excess fruit – these are all crucial actions, and vary by variety and vintage conditions.”
And as conditions change, he sees it becoming even more critical. “The importance of canopy management will only increase in the face of warmer, drier conditions.”
CLARE VALLEY VARIETIES
PREMIUM GRAPES, SOPHISTICATED STYLES
While deservedly celebrated for its Riesling – brilliant, age-worthy and utterly distinctive – Clare Valley reds have truly come into their own, while alternative varieties continue to enjoy a rise in popularity.
Founder and winemaker Marnie Roberts of independent Clare Valley winery Matriarch and Rogue perhaps says it best. “Any region that can pull off our delicately structured Rieslings and at the same time produce complex, fine-drawn Cabernet and nuanced yet flavour-bursting Shiraz, has to be special.”
Alongside the region’s ‘holy trinity’ of Riesling, Shiraz and Cabernet, Clare Valley is seeing increasing interest in its Pinot Grigio and Semillon, with alternative reds like Grenache, Mourvèdre, Tempranillo and Malbec also turning heads and delighting tastebuds.
“Malbec just shines here, and when paired with Cabernet it makes for such approachable drinking without compromising depth and intensity,” says Roberts.
SIGNATURE CLARE VALLEY VARIETIES
28% Red 28% White
RIESLING (1/4 ANNUAL CRUSH)
Cool nights and the characteristic slate and limestone soils of Clare Valley result in Riesling that is light to medium-bodied yet full of fruit richness. Vibrant, citrus-based flavours open up to notes of honey and toast, while the lingering acidity softens for a smooth texture and richly satisfying mouthfeel.
SHIRAZ (1/3 OF ANNUAL CRUSH)
Clare Valley Shiraz is typically medium to full-bodied and richly textured yet elegant. Dark fruit flavours like blackberry, black cherry and plum feature, with notes of liquorice and savoury spice. These are wonderfully balanced wines, with warm days allowing vibrant varietal flavour, and cool nights helping with acid retention.
CABERNET SAUVIGNON (1/5 OF ANNUAL CRUSH)
Lush and powerful yet elegant, Cabernet from Clare Valley has all the dark fruit flavour of Cabernets from other warm-climate regions, but with more restraint. They are ripe and rich but show finesse and good ageing potential, often blended with Malbec and occasionally Shiraz.
CLARE VALLEY PRODUCE
PRODUCWOOL, WINE WHEAT COUNTRY
Clare Valley is a rustic gourmand’s delight. Prime agricultural country composed of pastoral holdings and outlying wheat farms, the natural cycle of the region seems to be ‘wheat in winter, vines in summer and livestock in between’. The result is what many will tell you is some of Australia’s best grain, beef, lamb, seasonal fruit and more.
With agriculture providing the original beating heart of communities out this way, many farmers add value to their businesses where they can with post-farmgate produce. That means you can expect to find oodles of home-made goods like self-labelled jams, chutneys and olive oils available to buy at local stores, as well as at large events like the Clare Valley Gourmet Weekend (held every May and still going strong after 35 years) and the regular Sevenhill Producers Market.
Above: Clare Valley's farming and wool industry
FOOD AND WINE MATCHING IN CLARE VALLEY
From creamy indulgence to spicy tomato, pasta is the ultimate crowd pleaser. Feel like a light spaghettini with crab and lime? A Clare Valley Riesling will make those flavours pop. After something a little heavier, like a grilled vegetable and pesto lasagne? Pour yourself a big Cabernet blend from your Clare Valley friends!
LIGHT AND AROMATIC WHITES
Riesling and Pinot Grigio
These fresh and zingy varieties with their crunchy acidity pair perfectly with delicate, simply-prepared pastas containing fresh seafood, goat’s cheese, lemon, and green vegetables like peas or spinach.
MEDIUM TO FULL-BODIED AND TEXTURAL WHITES
Chardonnay and Oaked Semillon
With a step up in texture and weight, these varieties lend themselves to slightly more substantial or decadent creations with butter, egg or cheese sauces, and those with a richer seafood component like crayfish.
LIGHT TO MEDIUM WEIGHT AND SAVOURY REDS
Grenache and GSM blends Merlot
Match these earthy, spicy wine styles with pastas containing earthy vegetables like pumpkin, simple tomato-based sauces, and anything containing mushrooms or truffles.
RICHER AND FULLER-BODIED REDS
Shiraz, Cabernet blends, Tempranillo and Malbec
Full of bold, big flavours and tannins, pair the more robust red varieties with meat-based sauces and slow-cooked ragu, as well as recipes containing olives, pesto or grilled vegetables.
THINGS TO DO IN CLARE VALLEY
Time to hit the trail
One of Clare Valley’s signature attractions is the Riesling Trail. A 35-kilometre-long cycling and walking track, it follows the path of the old rail line that sliced through the hills before it was irreparably damaged by the 1983 Ash Wednesday Bushfires. We think it’s perhaps the best way to experience the true beauty of the region.
Wine and cheese at Claymore; Stone Bridge Wines
FIRST STOP, CLARE
It all begins with a visit to the Riesling Trail Bike Hire to collect your trusty steed. Kent will size you up with the perfect bike and give you the local lowdown on the trail. From there, an easy 12-minute ride north on the trail will take you to your first destination, Knappstein Enterprises Winery and Brewery.
Originally established as the Enterprises Brewery in 1878, the brewing of beer started up once again in this heritage building in 2006. For Riesling lovers, definitely look to the Single Vineyard range, which is a perfect expression of the diversity in Clare Riesling. Or, try their Knappstein Reserve Lager – it’s delicious!
ONTO SEVENHILL AND PENWORTH
With your thirst quenched, head south 6km from Clare to Sevenhill, where it’s time to take a detour. John Horrocks Road is a little off the trail but runs through some seriously beautiful countryside, which will take your mind off the fact your legs are on fire. More importantly, it leads you to one of the jewels of the Clare Valley, Mitchell Wines.
Andrew and Jane Mitchell established their winery in 1975 and have created something really special. Within their quaint cellar door, they present stunning single vineyard Rieslings, as well as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Semillon. Now, it’s awfully hard to transport wine on a bike, but not to worry – Jane will personally deliver any purchases direct to your accommodation that very same day.
Time to get back on the trail. This is where things start to go downhill, literally, not figuratively, as you glide through the rolling hills towards Watervale. Don’t miss stopping by Watervale General Store, one of those charming country icons that is part café, part grocery store, part post office. The food is simple and delicious!
A short ride away you’ll find Leasingham, the home of Claymore Wines, makers of Dark Side of The Moon and Bittersweet Symphony. With all their wines named for classic hit songs of bygone eras, pick a favourite from their jukebox to enjoy alongside a delicious board of local South Australian cheese.
AUBURN AND THE RETURN
The Riesling Trail comes to an end a further five clicks south at the town of Auburn. You may have had your fill of great food and wine, but don’t overlook this next stop! Terroir Auburn is an 1860s building with a modern, airy Parisian feel and a sophisticated ‘locavore’ dining experience with a small but perfectly-formed wine list featuring both local and international comparison varieties – a must-visit.
Enjoy the return ride, and make sure to rehydrate along the way (we recommend the wine list at Stone Bridge in Sevenhill). Then, once back in Clare, expect things to hurt once you stop moving and the lactic acid sets in… leaving you with little choice but to sit back and reflect on the beauty of the Clare Valley, and all the amazing experiences it has to offer.
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