Captivating Clare Valley
A quiet star in the Australian winemaking landscape, Clare Valley's breathtaking beauty is but part of its innate appeal.
It always sounds like mangled truism dropped from the spittle-flecked lips of an idiot, but I say it anyway. And I say it often. The Clare Valley is the most distinctly 'Australian' landscape in Australian wine. "Aren't all Australian wine regions 'Australian' landscapes?" responds the logical pedant. And they're right. Obviously. All Australian wine regions are, by definition, distinctly Australian landscapes. But the Clare Valley is the reality the imagination conceives when asked to picture the vine a long way from home in a distant, ancient island.
Clare is a farming community where wine is just part of the mix, a far cry from the almost monocultural nature of some other places. Its vineyards are glimpsed through towering gums, or tucked among paddocks of grazing sheep or golden wheat. Its winemakers are more focused on fine detail rather than grand scale. It's closer to Adelaide than the Hunter is to Sydney, but that southern city's unique proximity to multiple regions means the daytrippers head to the Hills, Barossa and the Vale, while Clare has cleverly set itself up as the place for those who want to absorb a region's pleasures without having to rush. That patience certainly pays off.
The undulating charm of Clare Valley (Credit: Elliot Grafton).
Southern Charm of Clare Valley
Approach the Clare Valley from the south, along the Horrocks Highway from Adelaide, and the rise in elevation is so gradual as to go almost unnoticed. By the time you hit Auburn, however, the region's southern gateway, you're already over 300 metres above sea level, and as you push deeper you'll get closer to 500 metres.
The Clare Valley is really a series of three valleys on a plateau, and it's this elevation, combined with the large diurnal temperature shifts it brings, that has long shaped the region's wines. Auburn is the ideal place to acclimatise to the region's rhythms, its 19th-century charm beautifully preserved and intact. Kerri Thompson's welcoming Wines by KT cellar door is the perfect place to start a sensory survey of the region, her benchmark Rieslings and deftly crafted reds are rightly celebrated.
From there, a short wander takes you to the old Auburn train station that now houses Stephanie Toole's Mt Horrocks cellar door, a must-visit not just for the brilliant wines, her Nero d'Avola is perhaps Australia's best example of the variety, but also for its ever-evolving collection of local art and newly installed bio-dynamic herb garden. From there it's just a short walk to see if you've timed your visit well enough to be present when the Grosset cellar door is open for a few short weeks in spring and autumn.
All that walking has earned you a beer at the Rising Sun Hotel, before the appetite you've built up is skilfully sated at Terroir, one of South Australia's finest regional restaurants. Chef Dan Moss is a man for whom seasonality and provenance are much more than just buzzwords. They are the guiding principles for a restaurant loved by locals and widely praised by visitors.
Terroir even has three recently restored accommodation suites for those who want to enjoy dinner properly, knowing their bed is just a short stroll away. After an excellent coffee and legendary toastie from Velvet and Willow, the paths to push on into the Clare Valley diverge in different directions, each with its own array of drawcards. Before splitting, your route takes you past both regional stalwarts, Taylors Wines and O'Leary Walker.
The wineries of Clare Valley
Apart from the obvious attraction of glasses filled with some of the region's best wines, Taylors now entices visitors with a world-class collection of large scale sculpture set strikingly around the grounds, while O'Leary Walker offers some of the region's best views and the kind of decadent lunch offering you need to go with them. On a clear and bright day, there's no better place to be.
Heading east from there will take you towards the historic town of Mintaro, an incredibly beautiful village virtually untouched from the days it was an important stop for the copper carriers coming from Burra, and a source of the world's finest slate. A ramble around its haphazard streets and beautiful old buildings is time well spent.
Reilly's is an institution in this part of the valley, for both its elegant and long lived wines, and its consistently great restaurant. Directly across the road, meanwhile, one of South Australia's oldest pubs, The Magpie and Stump, sits ready to fulfil your need to cleanse.
Looping back from Mintaro towards the main highway will take you through the Polish Hill River Valley, where mean soils and slate bedrock create some of the world's finest Riesling. Here, producers like The Willson Vineyard and Hill River Clare Estate are well worth a visit.
Pikes have multiple bases covered around in the area, with its first-class tasting room, state-of-the-art brewery and outstanding restaurant, Slate, providing a brilliant all round sybaritic experience. A little further up the hill, Paulletts showcases its exemplary range of wines alongside one of South Australia's most-awarded restaurants, Bush Devine. With its unmatched views back across the Polish Hill River Valley and stunning food focused on native ingredients and flavours, it's a must.
Sevenhills’ divine frontage (Credit: Harry Vick).
Savouring a plate at Slate, Pikes (Credit: Duy Dash).
Crossing back over the highway takes you into some of region's most picturesque sites, scattered among among the bushland of the stunning Skilly Valley. Here you'll find some of Clare's most celebrated names Ð think Kilikanoon, Penna Lane, and the soulful and beautiful wines made by two generations of the Mitchell family.
Many people will have nostalgic memories of the bucolic Skillogallee, an institution in these parts for its terraced vineyard, outstanding wines and rustic, maybe even a little idiosyncratic, old cottage restaurant. Simon Clausen had those same memories and now the Switzerland based ex-pat South Australian is the property's new owner. His drive, vision and unmistakable love for the place is already evident and the future looks very bright in this part of the valley.
Anyone who is still in need of dinner would be wise to head towards the award-winning gastro pub The Watervale Hotel for one of the region's finest culinary experiences. Hughes Park Cottages, on one of the district's oldest and most significant farming properties, or the exquisitely appointed Battunga Cottages in Watervale, are ideal places to rest a weary head.
Those not so weary should head for Greg Cooley Wines, where live music from both local, interstate and even international names always pulls the party crowd.
The township of Clare Valley
A couple of diversions either side of the main highway are advised as you make your way to the township of Clare itself. Diverting west, back out into the Skilly Valley, will ensure you see the finely-structured red wines of Sussex Squire, and the outstanding line-up at Eldredge. Vinous hedonists will love the Blue Chip Shiraz.
Diverting east takes you to one of the Clare Valley's historical, viticultural and spiritual treasures. Sevenhill Cellars was established by Jesuit priests and brothers in 1849, who planted some of the district's earliest vineyards, established a winery, boarding school and church, as well as servicing the far-flung and disparate Catholics of the far north and west of South Australia. Still a world-class winery operation today, it is a perennial must-visit.
While Sevenhill was being established by a Fr. Kranwitter in the late 1840s, his brother opened the Sevenhill Hotel nearby. The fact both are still operating says a lot about the virtue of their endeavours. The hotel has offered salvation to just as many as the church, and is home to some of the best pub food you'll find anywhere in the country.
Making your way through Clare itself, be sure to visit the two key historic winemaking sites within the town, Knappstein and Mr Mick, and no visit to the Clare Valley is complete without a pilgrimage to Jim Barry Wines, where a third generation of the Barry family continue their grandfather's mission to spread the story of Clare and its wines around the world.
What to do in Clare Valley
All this indulgence needs counterbalancing with a bit of physical activity, and Clare is set up to do just that for those wanting to burn off a few of the calories that can't help but accumulate when surrounded by so many of the finer things in life, especially when the offerings are so good.
Expect a warm welcome at Skillogalee along the Riesling Trail (Credit: Ian Routledge).
Clare Valley Brewing Co. will slake your thirst for a cold craft beer (Credit: Duy Dash).
The Riesling Trail is a bike track built over the old railway line that allows you to see the whole valley end to end from a two-wheeled viewpoint, and the recently opened Wine and Wilderness Trail is a six-stage walking trail taking in some of the region's most beautiful spots and conveniently passes by more than two dozen cellar doors, several pubs and the magnificent Jeanneret Wines and its adjoining Clare Valley Brewing Co. You can't get more Australian than that.