IT WAS AUTUMN when I found myself cycling along the Riesling Trail in South Australia’s Clare Valley. Leaves of tonal brown, gold and red laced the track. The cool, refreshing breeze was a welcome relief while engaging in a brisk pedal – it had been a while since I found myself on a bike.
A visit to the Clare Valley is one of vinous story-telling filled with tales of pride and passion from those who have paved the way to make the region what it is today.
This is one of Australia’s oldest wine regions and home to some of the most famed wine families in the country – Barry, Pike, Birks of Wendouree Wines, Taylors, Grosset and Mitchell, just to name a few. You’ll find a real sense of place and pride in this part of South Australia. But while tradition is a big part of the Clare Valley tale, changes are a-foot, with risk-taking from a new generation of winemakers that has helped cement the region as one of quality, but also a place where producers are keen to try something new.
It was in the 1950s, when Jim Barry floated the idea of planting riesling in the Clare Valley – a variety not really found in the area at the time. Fast forward to now, and the region is known for some of the most respected and sought-after examples of the variety, and a place highly regarded by other riesling hopefuls. Following in his father’s footsteps, Peter Barry also looked to try something new, planting the Greek variety assyrtiko here – the first Australian winery to produce it. At the turn of the millennium, the Stelvin screwcaps gained international recognition with a group of local winemakers, led by Jeffrey Grosset, joining forces to use the caps on their rieslings. As we know today, this trial set the stage for screwcaps to be used widely across Australia and the world.
Moments of innovation like these are what have helped shape the region and have paved the way for the next generation of winemakers who are continuing this drive for something new. Whether it be the planting of alternative varieties to combat the rising temperatures of climate change, to the transformation of their sites to organic and biodynamic practices – the seeking of new ways to work with wine continues.
The Clare Valley is home to more than 30 cellar doors across its five subregions: Auburn, Watervale, Sevenhill, Polish Hill River and Clare. There are some larger wineries in the area, but most of the cellar doors are boutique and homely, where a visit will often find you chatting with the winemakers or family.
The best way to get to the region is by car, about a two-hour drive from Adelaide. Once there, car is still a good option to get around, but be sure to dedicate a day or two to cycle the famed Riesling Trail during your visit. The 33km trail sneaks along the side of the main road, occasionally crossing over, and following an old train line from Mount Horrocks to Clare that was damaged by fire in 1983.
There are plenty of routes for the more experienced cyclist – and for those who may need to get comfortable being back on two wheels again. Grab a map from the Clare Valley Wine, Food and Tourism Centre, or jump online and download one from Clare Valley Tourism (clarevalley.com.au) to plan ahead.
Your visit to the Valley kicks off with a stop at Knappstein Wines (knappstein.com.au). Set in the heritage-listed, 1878-built Enterprise Brewery building, the Knappstein Wines cellar door celebrates the history of Clare and the Knappstein family who bought the building and established the winery in 1976.
ake your pick from a classic Knappstein tasting, jump into a focused wine flight, or allow some time to get hands-on by booking a spot at the Let’s Get Blended masterclass. Held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, this masterclass lets you be the winemaker for a morning. This is a chance to work with classic Clare Valley varieties shiraz and cabernet sauvignon to create your own favourite blend. After class, try the Knappstein range, with its premium drops.
Next up, it’s time to experience the establishment that is Pikes (pikeswines.com.au). You’ll soon understand what I mean by ‘establishment’. Pikes Wines, Pikes Beer Co and Slate Restaurant are all here at your disposal. First, sink your palate into a tasting in the Pikes Wines Tasting Room or, for those more inclined towards a brewed tipples, try next door at Pikes Beer Co. Once you’ve picked out a few faves from the range, take a seat at Slate Restaurant. A favourite with both locals and visitors, the menu features a wealth of native produce paired with goodies from the Slate kitchen garden. Try and get a seat on the deck if possible so you can soak in the vineyard views.
The afternoon is reserved for some quality time with the Barry family, and a visit to the Jim Barry (jimbarry.com) cellar door. Book in advance for a Collector Tasting (A$100pp) where you’ll get to taste through the best of the portfolio, including top vintages of the famed Armagh shiraz, the aforementioned assyrtiko variety and even get a look at some back vintage wines not available for general tastings. The team offer premium experiences for your visit to take a deep dive into the Barry family story, including the famed vineyards. The Armagh Experience is one of those, where you’ll enjoy a guided tasting of the award-winning Armagh, Benbournie, McRae Wood and Pb ranges at the newly opened Armagh Hut, which overlooks the prized Armagh Vineyard itself. It’s one of the most gorgeous spots to sip I’ve come across, with the surrounding vines providing a real sense of place for your tasting.
The Barry family also have your accommodation sorted for the trip with The Mill Apartments (jimbarryaccommodation.com.au/the-mill-apartments) in the heart of Clare. The cosy apartments come with everything you need, including a basket of locally sourced produce for a leisurely breakfast in your digs before your day begins.
To finish your first day in this area, wind down with a hearty Italian feast at Ragu & Co (raguandco.com.au) in the stunning Chaff Mill building in Clare. Previously known as Umbria Restaurant, take your pick from authentic antipasto, flavoursome pasta or a tasty pizza – but don’t forget to add a side of the fried potatoes tossed in olive tapenade.
Start your second day by visiting the Grosset (grosset.com.au) cellar door for a tasting. Jeffrey Grosset, an iconic Clare Valley figure and this magazine’s inaugural Winemaker of the Year in 1998, passionately crafts single-site expressions from his vineyards Polish Hill, Springvale, Rockwood and Gaia. Book in for a tasting of Grosset’s seasonal releases, with the Polish Hill a standout, possessing that great structure and minerality that Clare riesling is known for.
Next for the day is a tasting and lunch at the stunning cellar door of O’Leary Walker Wines (olearywalkerwines.com). Perched up high overlooking the patchwork of Clare Valley vineyards, choose from the Signature Flight to experience O’Leary Walker’s classic rieslings and other Clare favourites, or try the Premium Flight to also check out wines from the estate’s Adelaide Hills sites.
If you’ve built up an appetite, the O’Leary Walker Restaurant is just a short stroll away, offering three-, four- or five-course options for lunch. If you’re as indecisive as I am, let the team take care of it with their Feed You option. The menu features an array of fresh flavours, local produce and hints of Asian influence, all of which pair perfectly with a glass of Polish Hill River or Watervale riesling. If you’re not feeling like a long lunch, there are gourmet platters to nibble on, or an Indulgent Picnic Experience equipped with a bottle of their Hurtle Sparkling wine and, of course, that gorgeous view.
Finish your vinous adventures for the day with a visit to the newly opened Koerner Wine (koernerwine.com.au) tasting room set among the vines of the Koerner family’s Gullyview Vineyards in Leasingham. ‘Vibrant’, ‘approachable’ and ‘refreshing’ are the words that come to mind for the wines portfolio by brothers Damon and Jono. The duo focus on expressive, yet modern takes on Clare Valley stalwarts cabernet sauvignon, malbec and riesling. The keen among you will notice other varieties in the mix, too, like vermentino, and the Italian red varieties mammolo, sciacarello and sangiovese. Be sure to time your visit right, with the tasting room open every weekend, and public holiday.
Dinner tonight is at local favourite Seed (seedclarevalley.com). It’s all about communal dining, with a couple of shared menu options plus their Seed Table experience, which lets you sit back and relax while the team chooses dishes for you. The Bistro is also open for lunch, and during the warmer weather there’s the Seed Rooftop – perfect for pizzas and cocktails. Looking for a quiet night in after a busy day? Seed has it covered, with their deli serving up artisan small goods with which to craft your own local platter. Don’t forget to stick your head into the Seed Wine Shop, too, for a local bottle to pair.
Time to dust off your sneakers. Today’s the day to cycle the famed Riesling Trail through Clare, Sevenhill and Watervale. Get in nice and early so the lovely team at Clare Valley Cycle Hire (clarevalleycyclehire.com.au) can set you up for the day. There is a range to choose from, including an e-bike, a traditional bike or a hybrid (just in case you might need the extra help after a few wines).
Once you’ve found your groove on the two wheels, first stop is our Star Cellar Door recipient Shut the Gate (shutthegate.withwine.com). Take your pick from a seat at the tasting bar, or get comfy on one of the couches around the quirky and cosy interior for your tasting. You’ll spot a great range of alternative varieties on the list, including barbera, sangiovese, negroamaro, tempranillo, fiano and gewürztraminer sourced from both the Clare Valley, and Wrattonbully.
You’ll also find a produce store at the Shut the Gate cellar door, so be sure to have a browse at what’s on offer.
More cycling will take you to Crabtree Wines (crabtreewines.com.au) in Watervale. You’ll feel right at home in the quaint set-up here with its gorgeous views. The friendly team will lead you through a tasting, with the Watervale Riesling and Fortified Shiraz my personal favourites. Then it’s just a short cycle downhill to your next stop at the Watervale Hotel (watervalehotel.com.au). After multiple recommendations by locals, safe to say Nicola Palmer and Warrick Duthy’s masterpiece of a venue did not disappoint. The duo have created a stellar wine and food offering that is a one-stop visit to experience the best of the Clare Valley. Duthy’s enthusiasm for the local wine industry is evident through his incredible wine list that showcases wineries without a cellar door. The list also covers both the modern and traditional styles coming out of the Clare. It’s the true definition of a regional showcase.
Duthy is devoted to educating visitors about the Clare Valley, hosting a range of wine experiences, including the Teach Me, Feed Me wine masterclass and long lunch; Wine Masterclasses and Wine Flights. Food-wise, Palmer has such a flair for her craft. With a reverence for the environment and low-waste practices all the way from paddock to plate, the menu is led by the produce from the couple’s organic and biodynamic Penobscot Farm. I suggest settling into a seat at the Chef’s Table if you can, so you can see the magic at work.
I’d be surprised if you’re hungry after an afternoon at The Watervale Hotel, but if you find you are, be sure to grab some goods from Shut the Gate on the way home for a night in after a hard day pedalling, and a big Clare Valley adventure.
Taylors Wines 89A Winery Rd, Auburntaylorswines.com.au
Koonowla 18 Koonowla Rd, Auburnclarevalleyvineyards.com.au
Matriarch & Rogue 62 Spring Gully Rd, Clarematriarchandrogue.com.au
Skillogalee Trevarrick Rd, Sevenhillskillogalee.com.au
Sevenhill Cellars 111C College Rd, Sevenhillsevenhill.com.au