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Clare Valley, South Australia: An underrated wine region is like a little piece of Europe

Travel News from Stuff - 21-11-2022 stuff.co.nz

I'm being escorted around one of South Australia's prettiest valleys for the day by local Dave Willson, a former wool buyer who decided it was time for a "tree change" and started running tours around his home town.

"You think you know your home until you get asked questions you don't know the answer to," he laughs. "I had to re-invent myself and re-learn." Knowledgeable and never short of a joke, easy-going Dave is one of those local blokes who everybody knows, and vice-versa.

He repeats something I'll hear a lot over my three-day visit. "People have seen McLaren Vale and the Fleurieu and they want to see something different" he says, before adding, "Clare Valley particularly appeals to the people who don't like the bling and bullshit of the Barossa. I constantly hear, I didn't realise how pretty this is. I didn't realise how good the wines are. I wish I had more time."

Strung together by half a dozen small towns, Clare Valley is one of Australia's oldest wine producing regions. But 200 years ago, it was a very different place. Around 50 kilometres to the north was the thriving copper mining hub of Burra, and the people who lived in the towns that supported the mining industry were also, ahem, very passionate about alcohol.

Dave points to a small red-brick building that now houses a museum in the outskirts of Clare. "That used to be a police station in the mid-1850s. The police were issued with wheelbarrows to collect the drunks from the main street."

As well as watering the workers from the mill in Burra, Clare was known as the 'garden of the north', having many orchards, sheep and other produce from which to feed them.

We also visit the old "bullock town" of Mintaro. Back in the 1800s, bullocks used transport produce with two-wheeled drays to and from Port Adelaide, and because they used to travel a mile an hour, townships would form every 12 kilometres, linking the town when no real roads existed and moving produce between them. The "bullockies" themselves were described as "horrible drunks" and nothing would distract them from their hobby.

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Thankfully trains were invented and the world moved on, bypassing Mintaro in the process. Lucky for the township, slate was discovered and now it's probably South Australia's most charming country town, with its old slate cottages now turned into Airbnbs.

Centred around the hotel with a large beer garden, the entire town can be strolled in a few minutes, taking in the pub and a cute winery in an old shoemaker's cottage. is the only one in the valley to make beautiful Saignee – "a red wine drinker's rose".

But it was sacramental wine that first developed in this region, in of Sevenhill, Clare Valley's little piece of Europe. Named after the seven hills of Rome, it was started by a super religious and wealthy landowner who was looking for a place to start a Catholic village, and set out with a Jesuit father, who saw potential in the soil for creating quality sacramental wine.

A church with a crypt was built, vineyards were planted and the settlers sold produce such as butter to the miners while they waited for the grapes to grow. Sacramental wine is still made at the winery today, but they're better known for their contemporary wines, particularly a viognier – a take on your traditional style of chardonnay. Named Spire's Lament, it was named after the church spire that was never completed as the funds were used for "more pressing community projects".

While we're in Europe, locals at the nearby township of Auburn call it 'the Paris end of Clare Valley'. A giant red 'A' marks your entrance into the township which is an enclave of historic buildings with an active art scene.

It's also home to stellar wineries including , Jeffrey Grosset being the man at the forefront of the screw cap revolution. Being organic, biodynamic, and small-batch, these highly sought after wines are extremely limited so the cellar door is only open several times a year.

The more accessible is run by his wife, Stephanie Toole, and the old Auburn railway station has been converted into a cellar door where you can try her organic wines year-round. The old railway line itself is now part of the 'Riesling trail' which you can walk or cycle from town to town.

The newest cellar door belongs to , owned by brothers Damon and Jono Koerner who are from winemaking stock, with many of the surrounding vineyards belonging to their parents who have been selling grapes for 40 years. Their three labels – starting at the entry level Brothers Koerner – are some of the hottest on the market.

"We wanted to make a value-for-money product that people can drink every day and serve as a gateway into the other wines as well," younger brother Jono says of the new label.

Older sibling Damon started working life at the Christmas Island Detention Centre as a landscaper, taking time off to travel, which is when he fell in love with wine, and went home to study oenology. "He realised what he loved about it was the people, the socialising and the travel, and everything came together," Jono explains. "Then in 2013 he called me and said, do you want to start a winery? I was working in the cellars at Taylors at the time and it was like a mic drop moment. I dropped the hose instead, and said yeah!"

He points out their vineyards to me from their Leasingham base, where bird-repelling tinsel glitters in the last of the summer sun – vermentino, grenache, sciacarello and sangiovese. "We're pretty lucky to be able to work with the fruit that we do," he explains, which includes riesling vines that turn 100 next year – some of the oldest in the Clare Valley.

"The rieslings hold a special place in our heart, obviously it's an important variety up here. It's got so many expressions. But it's also one of the hardest to make. Any sort of slip-up in the winery, you'll see it in the wine. It's comparable to a lager, one of the hardest beers to brew, which is why it is so hard to get a clean, crisp lager. So the rieslings have a little special spot in our heart."

Koerner wines also embrace minimal intervention, with little sulphur in their wines. "Everything is unfiltered and unrefined. Acid is our preservative – our wines have lots of fresh acidity so they're made to cellar for a long time. Right now the acid is quite salivating, but that softens and fills out, which makes it last.

"I highly recommend cellaring all the wines because they just evolve and change so much. They are also beautiful drinking young… so if you can achieve both these things then you are onto a good wicket."

It's impossible to visit all of Clare Valley's wineries and wonderful eateries, even over a long weekend, but if you only have time to go to one place, then most would agree it would have to be the .

Run by husband and wife Warrick Duthy and Nicola Palmer, the old hotel is much more than just a country pub, encompassing a high end farm-to-plate restaurant, with huge beer garden built during COVID lockdowns, function rooms including an old jail (the 'Hell Hole'), and an off-site organic, biodynamic farm from which they source all their fresh produce.

"It was horrible when we bought it four years ago," says charismatic Duthy." It was only open half the time and half the place was a house and the other half was a pub and it was daggy and horrible. But the building was beautiful. The front bar had a little window to pass drinks through to the 'ladies lounge' in 1983, so not that long ago!"

The hotel was completely gutted and reworked and the couple filled it with furniture they've bought at auctions over the last four years. Palmer is not only head chef, but is also behind all the interior design.

Their hard work has paid off – they've won a list of awards as long as your arm, including the best wine list in SA.

"Our wine list has every winery represented – every grape variety grown in Clare is on the list. We deliberately set out to illustrate the diversity of Clare Valley wines. We take that role on very seriously."

That includes offering wine flights, matched wines to degustations where you get much more than that, including the geology, geography, history built into the six wines that are selected for their diversity. There's also wine masterclasses.

As I settle in for a degustation served with matched mocktails, it appears I am in good company – Clare Valley wine royalty Jeffrey Grosset and Stephanie Toole are among the other diners on a quiet Sunday night.

Part of my degustation includes turkey ravioli with crispy sage and burnt butter, and a farmed barramundi with beetroot three ways. Designated drivers and teetotallers needn't feel left out - my dishes are matched with showstopping mocktails made with brightly coloured, seasonal ingredients that mimic the fruit in wine, poured into spectacular glasses.

As I'm dining alone, Frankie the pub Staffy slumbers at my feet, and I think to myself "I didn't realise how pretty this place is. I didn't realise how good the wines are. I wish I had more time."

Mill Street Retreat in Clare has four modern one-bedroom serviced apartments with Palm Springs vibes from $350 (NZ$384) per night;

Lavish long lunches at Skillogalee are enjoyed on the verandah of its old miner's cottage, in the Valley's most picturesque setting - think winding vineyards set against surrounding bushland. . For more fine dining among the vines, head to Slate Restaurant at Pike's; .

For relaxed bistro-style dining from the old Commonwealth Bank building in the heart of Clare township, proceed to Seed. There's also a providore-style deli open during the day and at night, the region's only rooftop bar opens serving excellent cocktails and woodfired pizzas. .

Entertaining and knowledgeable local Dave Willson runs a variety of tours around the Clare Valley. ;

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