Clare Valley

"There are only two sorts of people in this world," the legendary Clare winemaker Mick Knappstein used to say. "Those who were born in Clare and those who wish they were." Clare is a tranquil, timelessly picturesque region. Its natural beauty is enhanced by the fact that it is relatively remote and unspoilt, with none of the crass commercialism of more popular, easily-reached regions.

Clare is a 90-minute drive north of Adelaide through flat, wheat and woolgrowing farmland: dry, almost barren and pretty well featureless. You would never believe fine wine could lie north of this arid dullness. But boy! It does indeed.

By any reckoning Clare should have a hot climate: north of Clare the 'outback' truly begins. But the altitude of its series of forested upland valleys (between 300 and 500 metres), its cloud cover, cool nights and occasional sea-breezes, moderates the climate enabling it to produce, seemingly against the odds, some of Australia's best rieslings.

There are about 35 wineries and makers such as Grosset, Mitchell, Pike, Paulett, Leasingham, Knappstein, Quelltaler, Jim Barry, Brian Barry, Wilson, Tim Adams, Crabtree, Mount Horrocks and Skillogalee regularly turn out superb riesling. Absentee winemakers Petaluma, Wolf Blass (Gold Label) and Leo Buring (Leonay) also make some of the region's finest.

This is riesling quite unlike anything in Germany or Alsace, but what Petaluma's Brian Croser calls the "dry, late-picked Australian style". Harvested at between 12 and 13 degrees Baumé, it is fermented to dryness or near-dryness and is full, rich and soft in the mouth with flavours ranging from dried wildflowers to peach blossom to lime-juice and assorted citrus fruits.

My idea of paradise would be to live in the Clare Valley in a pole house set in the eucalypt forest, with a glass-walled bathroom on the top floor and a spa bath from which I could gaze out across the treetops. And a cellar full of Clare wine underneath. Such was the home winemaker Peter Rumball built and briefly owned during the mid-1980s. It was a kind of paradise. The house and its setting were one thing, but the idyllic Clare Valley itself was the other half of its appeal.

It is a beautiful place, with rolling hills clothed alternately in vineyards, eucalypt bushland and open pastures. In the warmer half of the year, the grass is dry and straw-coloured, contrasting with the bright green of the vines and the darker, almost blue-green of the forests. Above it all is the endless, deep azure, cloudless sky.

The Clare Valley basks in a sunny, dry climate with only 24 to 28 inches average annual rainfall, most of which comes in the winter. Although quite northerly in latitude (34 deg. S) it has a moderate temperature regime which ensures fine table wines. The latitude is similar to Sydney and the hot irrigated vineyards of  Griffith and the Murray Riverland. Yet the white wines are much finer and more aromatic and the reds more intense and long-living.

The old wineries such as Sevenhill (founded 1851), Leasingham (1893) and Wendouree (1895) are sturdy old buildings built of local stone. Dotted around the towns and countryside are old houses and ruins constructed of the same stone, helping to give a dimension of history, a sense of a past. The Polish Valley, on the eastern side of the winegrowing region, was first settled by Polish migrants in the 1850s. Most of the old buildings still to be seen were built by those early settlers.

The Clare region was pioneered by John Horrocks in 1840. He gave his name to the highest peak in the area, Mt Horrocks, from which on a clear day you can see the sea in Spencer Gulf. Irish settlers also came to the areas of Blyth and Armagh in the north-west of the region. The first vines were planted by Edmund Gleeson about 1841.

Most of the great wines of France come from limestone-based soils, and while Australia doesn't have the great abundance of those formations that France has, the Clare Valley is an exception. From Auburn in the south to just north of Watervale, the area to the east of the main road has plenty of red loam over limestone. The Sevenhill area has more fertile soils and further east at Polish Hill River the soils are poor and slate based. Indeed, the Mintaro area has slate quarries which historically provided billiard table tops as well as slabs from which the district's earliest fermenting vats were constructed. Some of these still survive in the cellars of Paulett and Wendouree.

The various soils produce quite different grapes and comparing rieslings from the various sub-regions and soils is fascinating, somewhat akin to doing a similar exercise with the rieslings of Alsace. Several sub-regions have been proposed to the 'geographic indications' authorities. They are Auburn, Watervale, Sevenhill, Polish Hill River, Clare (around the township) and Hill River.

Clare is not on the way to anywhere much, so the road is not busy and there is a feeling of a quiet, peaceful, rural lifestyle. The main road is the one tourists take to reach the Flinders Ranges, a popular camping and bushwalking area, but the feeling of seclusion is one step from what Australians refer to as the back of beyond.

In recent years the Clare Valley has experienced its share of the vine planting boom that's gripped all of Australia, but in a quieter way, as Clare has limited water resources and irrigation  is vital to harvesting an economic and healthy crop. Nevertheless, BRL Hardy and Petaluma have a large new vineyard called Yertabulti, and Southcorp and Kirribilli among others have put in major spreads. Underground water, however, is rare in the region and neither new dams nor bores may be installed without permission from the relevant authority.

The dry vinegrowing season means water is important, but it is this dry summer and dry autumn that gives Clare one of the least disease-prone climates in Australia. Spraying for moulds and mildews is relatively minimal, and only in the rare wet seasons is there serious risk. This is why Southcorp chose Clare for its first foray into organic viticulture, producing organically grown wines for the European market. The other side of the coin is that where the ignoble rot is rare, so is the noble, and botrytis cinerea visits infrequently. Some growers spray a water mist in the vineyard in late autumn to encourage it.

Clare has 2,000 hectares of producing vines which yield 17,000 tonnes of grapes a year, just 4.7% of South Australia's crush. But it's mostly premium quality, which means the area is much more important than the figures suggest.

Recent plantings have finally seen chardonnay overhaul riesling. Clare is probably the last region in Australia to see chardonnay become the dominant white grape. This is because riesling has been such a success. There is little doubt that Clare is now the leading Australian region for riesling, with Eden Valley its only serious competition. The sheer number of high quality Clare rieslings is quite outstanding. And with back-to-back stand-out vintages in 1997 and '98, Clare is kicking a lot of goals with riesling. The classic Clare style, as made famous by Leasingham, Leo Buring and Lindemans over the past 40 or 50 years, and more recently by numerous others, is to European palates a full, rich wine with a residual sugar level below threshhold, giving a dry finish. It has a floral, citrusy aroma but with less high notes than good Rhine, Mosel or Alsace riesling. A toasty, straw-like note starts to creep in at about four or five years, and the best vintages are capable of lasting for 30. During this time they build complex toasty bread, honey, citrus peel and buttery nuances, the colour deepens to a full gold and the palate becomes very soft, rich and rounded. Only in less well-made wines and unkind seasons do these wines acquire a petrol or paraffin overtone, which is regarded as a negative in anything but the subtlest measure.

The other reason chardonnay has been a relatively slow starter in Clare is that many held the view that chardonnay the great traveller does not make very distinguished wine there. Indeed, some still adhere to this view, and Mitchell for one does not field a chardonnay at all. It is possible there's been a "let's keep chardonnay out, this is riesling territory" sentiment, but I tend to agree that Clare chardonnay lacks both varietal definition and creamy palate texture. Semillon, usually gently wooded, is Clare's other dry white of interest. At Mitchell it's blended these days with a little sauvignon blanc, and Quelltaler's Annie's Lane is a fine example of a straight, oaked semillon. Sevenhill makes a good oaky white blend called St Aloysius from chenin blanc, chardonnay and verdelho. (The wood-aged fortified verdelho at Sevenhill, like an alternative to Rutherglen tokay, is worth a detour by itself.)

The other sort of wine at which Clare excels is full-bodied red. And I mean full! Clare makes some of the biggest reds in a country blessed with many whoppers. The grape varieties are cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, merlot and malbec, with a little mataro (mourvèdre). Grenache is becoming increasingly fashionable. Yields are naturally low and there are some very old vineyards which produce some of the richest reds. Wendouree has vineyards dating from the 1860s and the vineyard from which Tim Adams makes his Aberfeldy Shiraz is similarly antique. These are colossal reds crammed with dark-berry, plum, chocolate and mint flavours and substantial mouth-puckering tannins.

A signature blend of the district is cabernet sauvignon and malbec, which dates back to a visit the great blender Max Schubert, creator of Penfolds Grange, made to his friend Mick Knappstein at Leasingham on one of his regular wine-buying expeditions in the '60s. Leasingham's famous Bin 56 Cabernet Malbec dates from then, as does Wendouree's. 

Jim Barry's The Armagh Shiraz is one of the biggest reds of Clare. The vines aren't especially old, but they are struggling low-yielders and the wine they produce a glass-staining concentrated monster. It gave Clare a much needed boost when it made its debut. The 1985 vintage came out in 1987 at a then-audacious price of $40. This was much higher than anything else in the Barry portfolio. But the Barry boys knew what they had and the wine is now considered one of Australia's icons. 

Other top red producers are Wendouree, Tim Adams, Leasingham, Mildara/Annie's Lane, Mitchell, Paulett, Brian Barry, Waninga, Grosset, Mount Horrocks, Sevenhill and Skillogalee. Throughout, the wines to look for are straight cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, and blends of cabernet shiraz, cabernet malbec, cabernet merlot and, at Wendouree, a straight malbec. Wilson Vineyard makes a rare, late-picked zinfandel, the only Clare zin and one of the very few in the entire country. Pinot noir is not suited to Clare. Grenache is good, but at its best when blended with other grapes, as in Tim Adams' superb The Fergus.

There are a few things the visitor to Clare shouldn't miss. The 145-year-old Sevenhill winery was established by the Jesuit order to provide work and income for what used to be a college for Jesuit priests. It still does a big trade in altar wine. Brother John May is the modest, kindly winemaker and all his wines are good, especially his shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet blend St Ignatius. Take a bottle of his superb vintage 'port' home for later. The St Aloysius church, built of sandstone quarried on the property, merits a close look.

Skillogalee winery is in the Skillogalee Valley, which got its name from a kind of gruel called 'skilly' that the early Irish settlers made. It follows that this is a place to eat as well as drink: a quick and inexpensive lunch washed down with the property's steely riesling. Book lunch in advance: the Clare Valley, being off the beaten track, is not overburdened with tourists and facilities are somewhat sparse. The best restaurants are Tateham's in Auburn and Mintaro Mews. Thorn Park and Martindale Hall offer up-market accommodation; Auburn's Rising Sun Hotel is good value and inexpensive.

Grand views are not common in Clare, but visit the Paulett winery in Polish Hill River to find a tasting room with a panoramic outlook. The wines are excellent, too. Then drive out to Mintaro and have a beer in a unique pub, the Magpie And Stump Hotel. A good dinner can be had at Crawley's in Auburn or Bryce Hill restaurant at Penwortham.

The Knappstein winery is a must-see. Set in the Clare township, its lovely old stone building saw service at various times as a brewery and a soft drink factory. Knappstein is owned by Petaluma and the winemaker, Andrew Hardy, earned his stripes at Petaluma. He's lifted the quality of the wines to a new level.  

Although pressure of demand has forced the closure of its tasting/sales counter, you can still drive up and see Wendouree. The place is a national treasure. Time stands still. A century-old stone winery stands among scattered eucalypts. No frills, no gardens, no tours. The wines are made in slate open fermenters, basket press and old oak vats. The vines are mostly gnarled centenarians, unirrigated, many untrellised. Yields are paltry (probably sub-economic, if truth be told) and the massively structured reds are deep, tannic and built to age. They're increasingly rare but still not expensive. Proprietors Tony and Lita Brady don't have a commercial bone in their bodies. They do it for the love of it. What better reason could there be?