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Clare Valley Winemakers: www.southaustralia.com/ClareValley.aspx

Clare Valley region

The Clare Valley wine region is a 30 km strip of quality wine terroir about 130 km north of Adelaide, surrounded by semi-desert/marginal agricultural land of the Pt. Pirie and Jamestown area. The Clare Valley is most famous for its dry Rieslings and full bodied Shirazes.

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View of the Polish Hill River Valley from the Paulett cellar door balcony. The purple is the spring blooms of Salvation Jane flowers. (photo: genxywines)

It should be too hot and dry but is saved by the altitude. The Clare Valley, being an extension of the Mt. Lofty Ranges (which runs from the Adelaide Hills and Barossa Valley and then dips, popping up again at the Clare Valley, then becoming the Flinders and Gammon Ranges) has an altitude of 615m near Watervale (with most of the wine making spots over 350m). The altitude triggers the rain that produces this green oasis in the semi-aridity of the South Australia's northern pastoral areas .

European settlement began in the region with pastoralist and explorer John Horrocks in 1842 and was quickly followed by a farming and mining boom. Horrocks planted the first vines here in the 1840s but died young after accidentally shooting himself while falling off a camel.

john horrocks
Explorer John Horrocks planted the first vines in the region in the 1840s (photo: genxywines)

There was strong Irish-Catholic immigration into the area. No big surprise then that a group of Austrian Jesuits established Sevenhill (named after Rome’s famous seven hills) in 1851 to supply the Catholic Church with sacramental wine (and the Jesuit appreciation of good table wine).

The Germans came up here about the same time as their counterparts were setting up in the Barossa - the sub-region Watervale is the translation of original German name Quellthaler. The Catholic Polish community also set up here. They had religious barriers with the German Lutherans and language barriers with the Jesuits. The wine efforts of this community are now known as Polish Valley sub-region.

At the end of 19th century there were nearly 500 hectares of Clare Valley vineyards that met the local need for cheap plonk in the successive copper, slate, silver and wheat booms in the area.

The main historic grape varieties were full bodied and robust red varieties - particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Shiraz. Wine-making declined in the first half of the 20th century not because of phylloxera, rather it was a victim of the shift from quality table wine to cheap fortified wines suitable for long shipping export to the UK. The only survivor of the 19th century was Sevenhill.

Quality wine making was re-established in the Clare Valley during the 1950s and 1960s. The mineral and agricultural booms had long gone, so wine were seen as a last chance to revive the region.

The revival was led by the Rieslings (the best Rieslings include Crabtree, Grossett, Knappstein, Mitchell, Mount Horrocks, Petaluma, and Pike’s). The Rieslings when young are pale green and have lime and lemon flavours, and in cooler years a slatey, minerally backbone. With age they turn gold-brown and develop considerable toasty, spice and citric complexity.

More recently the Chardonnays and Semillons have been winning deserved praise although it continues to be most well known as a producer of robust, earthy and often tannic reds (Jim Barry, Tim Adams, Leasingham, Crabtree, and Skillogee) closer to traditional wine-making than contemporary Australian smooth drink now wines. Shiraz, Cabernet and Grenache are dominant here but there is a small niche for alternative varieties such as Sangiovese (Cardinham Estate) and Gewurztraminer (Skillogallee).

The region’s most iconic – and impossible to get - reds come from Wendouree’s 90 year old vines made with traditional methods. World wine critic Hugh Johnston comments in his world wine atlas that the Clare Valley’s reds are more sturdy and structured than the Coonawarra’s smooth tannins. I also find that a lot of the reds pick up a eucalypt aspect from the gum trees around the vineyards.

The region is divided into fourth sub—regions. The westerly Skillogee Valley sub-region is highest (500m) and most protected from the hot desert northerly winds. Ripening is delayed, which produces fine and focused fruit flavours in the Rieslings.

The easterly Polish Hill River Valley is also a top Riesling sub-region, not due to its altitude, but the ridge of hills that cuts off the baking late afternoon sun. The soils are also acidic and low yielding from being over-worked - which makes the reds a bit lean but is great for making some powerful flavoured but tautly structured Rieslings.

The deep, dark loams around Watervale produces extremely full-bodied reds and also Rieslings with the classic lean, citrus tang but are less austere than the Polish Hill.

The fourth sub-region is Stanley Flat just to the north of Clare. It is the warmest sub-region most well known for full bodied reds and fortifieds but Cardinaham Estate has shown that very good Riesling is possible.

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The 19th century underground stone cellar at Sevenhill. I can vouch for its efficacy - it was very hot outside but very mild down in the cellar (photo: genxywines)

There are now over 5,000 hectares of wine and about 35 wineries. Wine tourism is also growing here with about 30 cellar doors. As most of the wineries lie along a narrow strip they are connected by a 25 km off-road walking-cycling track known as the Riesling Trail (with convenient bike hire options).

A regional style of cuisine, heavy on honey or olives from the region’s old olive trees is emerging in the restaurants of Clare, Auburn and the wineries.

It is mandatory for all wine lovers to visit the 150 year old underground wine cellars at Sevenhill. The winery also has a good range of now unusual aged fortifieds such as liqueur verdelho and liqueur frontignac and a variety of sherries. top

Annie's Lane

Annie's Lane is a contemporary revival of the 1863 Quarteller Winery

Mount Horrocks

Mount Horrocks is one of the region's oustanding Shiraz, Semillon and Riesling producers

Steven John

Steven John's cellar door is based in a charming 80 year old stable

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Wendouree is a tiny producer of artisan cult reds. Along with Sevenhill it is a survivor from the 19th century.