While it might not have the glamour of some of its neighbours, South Australia’s Clare Valley is a region abundant in beauty, not to mention world-beating wines and welcoming locals.
Bin the guidebook, stow the cellar door guide, switch off the sat nav – because everything you need to know about Clare Valley can be found in a glass of locally-made Riesling.
Rather like its signature variety, ‘the Clare’ is somewhat under-appreciated. It’s only two hours’ drive north of Adelaide, but the wine region is considered a bit off-piste – not as close as the Adelaide Hills, not as prolific as McLaren Vale and not as illustrious as the Barossa. There’s no five-star retreat promising infinity pools and pampering.
The main town of Clare services the 9,000-strong region with all the glamour that ‘servicing’ implies. And while fans of Martindale Hall and Mintaro Maze may disagree, the attractions outside of food and wine don’t exactly loom large. But this little region, just 35 kilometres from north to south, packs a surprising punch. Not unlike its hero wine.
“Delicacy and power,” says Carissa Major, manager of Claymore Wines. “It’s a contradiction really, but Clare Valley Rieslings manage to be both elegant and full-flavoured. People don’t expect it, but that’s probably because they’re thinking how Riesling used to be, all sweetness and perfume.”
Thirty years ago, Claymore’s owner, Dr Anura Nitchingham arrived in Leasingham and bought 40ha of 70-year-old vines. Today, his twin obsessions – rock music and Liverpool FC – are invoked on labels of vintages made from batches as small as two tonnes.
Like Claymore, most of the region’s 40-odd producers are relatively young and modest in size. That said, Clare Valley has proper gravitas owing to post-1980s players-who-became-stayers. Think names like Pauletts, Pikes, Killikanoon, Kirrihill, as well as longer-established producers like Jim Barry, Mitchell, Knappstein and family-owned Taylors, which is easily the biggest, producing some 250,000 cases a year.
Today, Clare Valley Rieslings are world-renowned for their on-trend trifecta of natural acidity, bright minerality and pure fruit weight. (Neatly proving the point, Claymore’s 2020 Joshua Tree recently won Gold at the Melbourne International Wine Competition.) Of course, it’s all about the geography: at around 500m, the wine region is South Australia’s second highest, with eight interconnecting valleys enjoying hot days and cool evenings courtesy of breezes off the Gulf St Vincent.
But this is back-of-bottle stuff and, if anything, obscures just how beautiful Clare Valley really is seasonal sights.
At first blush, it presents as a string of villages threaded through rolling paddocks of pasture, grain and vine. In winter, it’s robed in emerald green, invoking the home county of the Irish settlers who named it. In summer, when the sun burnishes the stubble, you’d swear you were among the rolled gold fields of Tuscany. Dotted throughout are humble homesteads and lumpy cottages, places of tin, stone and timber left weary by 180 years of agricultural endeavour.
Riesling was first documented in Germany in 1435, and Clare Valley too has provenance. The Shiraz vines at Sevenhill were among the earliest in Australia, planted in 1850 by Prussian Jesuits so they could make sacramental wines in the shadow of their stone church. This rather delicious companion-planting of clerics and grapes still thrives at Sevenhill Cellars, where visitors can wander among the original 500-gallon casks and stone vaults.
“Thirty-five per cent of our production is sacramental wine,” says Adele Agars, cellar door manager. “We do a blessing of the product before it goes to bottling. One of our three resident Jesuits will officiate the blessing. It’s traditional, quite formal – and very lovely.”
The equally lovely village of Mintaro is another living legacy. Before the velvety blackness blankets the grain fields, you should book into the Magpie and Stump pub for a night of light and colour. The single-storey pub has been serving since 1850, and the eclectic mix of growers, tradespeople and travellers still gathers in the front bar – albeit now modishly refined with boho comforts and a very good restaurant. The trick is not to overindulge so you can rise at dawn and enjoy the trippy tableau of hoar frost steaming off tin roofs, wood smoke tooting from stovepipes and magpies carolling at the pale sun.
Thirty years ago, Adelaide cardiologist Justin Ardill was sitting outside the Magpie and Stump determined to indulge his love for winemaking and Barossa-style reds. He ended up buying a cute-as-a-bug bluestone cottage across the road as well as a block of 90-year-old vines in Leasingham. His cottage became Reillys cellar door. His wines became a testament to Clare’s other big surprise: it does brilliant Shiraz, pulling the same Riesling trick of combining robust fruit flavours with elegance.
“I really don’t know why they taste as good as they do,” says Justin with disarming frankness. “I always remember my Dad saying, ‘I never doubted you could make wine, I just never believed anyone would drink it!’” Reillys Epitaph Shiraz certainly convinced some: the 2014 vintage rubbed up against Grange in blind tastings at the 2019 Great Australian Wine Challenge to take a medal.
a deeper exploration
Before long you sense a certain openness in Clare Valley. Unburdened by factory-scale production and crisscrossed by a reassuring number of unsealed roads, it invites you to go a little deeper than more heavily travelled regions. On Blue Stone Road, for instance, there’s a deep cutting though the crest of a hill. This cutting exposes two metres of soft grey ‘siltstone’, more generically called Mintaro slate.
It’s acclaimed vintner Andrew Pike who reveals the local curio. “This is part of the reason Polish Hill River Riesling has its minerality,” he says, pushing his fingers into the surprisingly soft layers. “You can imagine the vine’s roots getting into it, finding its way through the fissures and crevices.”
Some 500m away is Pike’s award-winning winery, a peaceful assemblage of old stone, brassy turf and gnarled peppertrees. The winery has a brewery, an acclaimed new restaurant (very properly called ‘Slate’) and, of course, a tasting room.
Tasting is a leisurely and seated affair with experienced staff like Pud Smith (12 years with Pikes) pouring from a substantial wine list. “A lot of people say, ‘I didn’t know Clare makes reds,’” says Pud. “Most of our vines are Riesling, but we’ve got 22 varieties on the property, including Sangiovese, Grenache, Tempranillo. It reflects the adaptability of the region. Clare Valley does a lot of varieties well.”
Clare Valley’s food scene has always had great bones thanks to local growers, but in the last five years, the restaurant scene has matured around a dependable coterie of diners including Slate, the radically refashioned Watervale Pub, Terroir, Seed (its new location is the talk of Clare), the Sevenhill Pub and Pauletts’ Bush DeVine Winery Restaurant.
Bush DeVine occupies the deck of Pauletts’ cellar door. It enjoys uninterrupted views across Polish Hill River to ‘World’s End Gorge’, the dry frontier country that terrified early settlers. New chef Thomas Erkelenz is certainly a frontiersman as well as a forager, and a Hat is surely close for his adventurous seasonal plates like salt-baked sunchokes with black garlic, grilled witlof and macadamia.
Erkelenz’s dishes are matched with Pauletts’ seven Riesling styles, from a Sparkling to a Botrytis. According to co-owner Ali Paulett, it’s helping to bring Riesling to the Instagram generation. “Food and wine touring is getting bigger, especially with the younger generation. It’s much easier to introduce them to a new wine when you’re pairing it with a dish.”
As introductions go, it doesn’t get any better: Ali’s father-in-law Neil Paulett made the 2005 Aged Release Polish Hill Riesling – voted Best Riesling in The World at the 2010 Canberra Riesling Challenge.
Ali and husband Matt are part of a generational change happening across the Clare, with the likes of Jaime and Alistair Pike, Tom and Sam Barry, and Angus and Edwina Mitchell following in esteemed footsteps.
Skye Hopgood is daughter of stalwart winemaker, Leigh Eldredge. “We’re all coming through,” she says at Eldredge’s farmhouse cellar door in the Skilly Hills. “And I think we’re open to new ideas, whether it’s in winemaking, marketing or in the food space. I also think we’re coming together as a region.”
To illustrate, she retrieves a list of producers and varieties. “We all have this,” she says. “If a guest says they like Moscato, I can look that up and recommend they visit x or y. Guests are surprised by that. But as Peter Lehmann said, you should push a region before you push a winery.”