June 17, 2012
Distinct characters ... O'Leary Walker Wines at dusk. Photo: Andrew Bain
Winsor Dobbin presents the latest in a series of guides to the leading wine regions of Australia and New Zealand.
The Clare Valley is one of Australia's greatest wine regions - and also one of the prettiest. Strangely, it is also one of the least visited.
A two-hour drive north of Adelaide, high in the Mount Lofty Ranges, the Clare is often overshadowed by rival South Australian wine districts such as the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. But it is home to many of our best family-owned wineries and produces arguably Australia's best dry rieslings.
The first vines were planted in the Clare in 1842 and many of the families have been making wines for generations - the Mitchells, Pikes and Taylors among them. At many of the cellar doors you'll be greeted by a family member, if not the winemaker himself.
This is a quintessentially Australian region - and quintessentially country, with majestic gum trees, rolling hills and valleys. The many small townships along the Main North Road are dotted with rustic pubs and quaint stone cottages.
All major domestic airlines fly to Adelaide and big car-hire companies have desks at Adelaide Airport.
Visitors take a step back in time at the Sevenhill complex, where they will find Jesuits tending to their grapevines, just as their order has done for more than 160 years. The historic winery, cellars and cellar door, St Aloysius Church, are all worth exploring. The wines have traditionally been made by Jesuit Brothers but the current winemaker is the first woman to have the role - Liz Heidenreich.
Riesling specialist Pikes has a beautiful 1870s cellar door overlooking vines in the Polish Hill River valley - and it is also home to a small art gallery. It is open seven days a week and has grazing plates of local produce on offer.
The Kirrihill cellar door, directly underneath the Artisan's Table restaurant, is set up for both parents and children, with a designated kids' club area. Each young visitor is given their own gift pack with crayons, water, lollies, balloons and a colouring-in page. Parents can taste in peace and maybe take a picnic hamper away with them.
Heritage-listed Quelltaler is one of the region's oldest wineries, dating to 1863, and is the headquarters for the Annie's Lane operation. There is an on-site winemaking museum and art gallery and the extensive grounds host A Day on the Green concerts.
The modern O'Leary Walker cellar door has spectacular views of the Watervale vineyards and features both indoor and outdoor seating with local produce platters, seasonal specials, cakes and coffees.
Taylors at Auburn offers winery tours on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, except during vintage, and has a large range of wines to sample.
Also try Jim Barry, Knappstein, Kilikanoon, Paulett, Mount Horrocks, Clos Clare, Mitchell, Claymore, Greg Cooley Wines, Reilly's, Penna Lane, Tim Gramp, Tim Adams, Mt Surmon, Eyre Creek, Stone Bridge Wines and Eldredge.
Skillogalee in Sevenhill is one of Australia's best winery restaurants and those who like to dine outdoors will love the English-style gardens. Open for lunches 363 days a year, this family-owned and run stalwart of 20-plus years also has several bed-and-breakfast options.
Wild Saffron gourmet cafe in Clare village is licensed and has a range of meals to eat in or take away - perfect for anyone staying in a self-catering cottage. The menu changes daily and breakfasts are available at weekends.
The Little Red Grape is a bakery, cellar door and home wares store in Sevenhill village. The bakery is open seven days and the hungry can choose from meat pies, artisan breads, muffins and fruit tarts, while sandwiches and baguettes are available to eat on a lawn area or to take away.
At Artisan's Table Wine Bar and Bistro in Clare, chef Roger Graham is known for his passion for local produce. It is one of the few restaurants to offer dinner (Wednesday-Saturday).
Mr Mick's Kitchen's menu features tapas-style dishes that range from pan-fried haloumi with rocket, pear and caramelised onion to crisp-fried soft-shell baby mudcrab. Wines at this Clare village eatery are served by the glass.
Also try Cygnets at Auburn, Penna Lane's Country Kitchen, Reilly's, the Rising Sun Hotel, Sevenhill Hotel and the Station Cafe at Mount Horrocks.
The Clare has five subregions: Auburn, Watervale, Polish Hill River, Sevenhill and Clare, with subtle differences between them - but most producers concentrate on rieslings and shiraz as well as cabernet sauvignon.
Wendouree makes some of Australia's longest-living reds and has cult status with aficionados, while Jeffrey Grosset is regarded as Australia's pre-eminent riesling producer. For budget choices, try the wines of Kirrihill and those under Tim Adams's new Mr Mick label. For rarer varieties, sample pinot gris at Tim Adams or malbec from Stringy Brae.
Rock-music lovers will enjoy wines from Claymore with names including Joshua Tree Riesling, the Walk on the Wild Side Shiraz Viognier and the Dark Side of the Moon Shiraz.
Thorn Park by the Vines specialises in luxury boutique accommodation and fine food, with residential cooking classes available by appointment. There are only two rooms, making it a perfect escape for two couples. From $195 a person.
Clare Country Club has 45 rooms and suites, all with en suite bathrooms with spa baths. All overlook the adjacent golf course and Inchiquin Lake. Conners Restaurant serves dinner seven nights a week. From $99.
Rustic Hillsview Estate offers a worker's cottage that dates to the 1850s and Pine Grove, a former blacksmith's forge in a stone cottage that dates to the 1860s. Both are in beautiful garden surrounds on a working farm just a 10-minute stroll to Auburn village. Evening meals are available by request. From $170 a couple a night.
Mintaro Mews, which is a converted former grain store and stables, is one of the most atmospheric places to stay in the area, with cosy, inexpensive en suite accommodation in a lovely little hamlet. Many guests pop over the road for a drink at the Magpie & Stump Hotel, a typical Australian country pub. From $145.
Also try Brice Hill Country Lodge, ArtWine Vineyard Accommodation, Amy's House, Glendalough Estate, Reilly's Wines Heritage Cottages, the Stationmaster's Residence, Martindale Hall and Stanley Grammar Country House.
The Clare Valley Gourmet Weekend is held in May. Next year's event will start on May 29.
The Kapunda Celtic Festival in October is a two-day celebration of the region's long Anglo-Celtic music traditions.
The Riesling Trail is a 34-kilometre track along a former railway line that links several villages and passes many of the most famous vineyards. It takes about three hours to cycle the entire length and several local businesses have bikes for hire, including Cogwebs at Auburn.
Martindale Hall is one of Australia's great stately homes. This Georgian mansion was used as the setting for the girls' boarding school in the classic movie Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The former copper-mining villages of Burra and Kapunda are fascinating for their rich histories. In its heyday, Burra was the seventh-largest town in Australia, bigger than Melbourne. Today it is home to renowned cider producer Thorogoods.
The Clare Valley Visitor Information Centre is on the corner of Main North Road and Spring Gully Road, Clare. 1800 242 131, clarevalley.com.au.