Located about 130km north of the city of Adelaide amidst the northern Mount Lofty Ranges sits Clare Valley – one of South Australia’s top wine regions long recognized for producing premium Riesling. Though this intriguing white variety still thrives here today, there is so much more waiting to be discovered in Clare Valley. The region is beyond picturesque as winding roads curve between lush hills and meandering rivers run past historic stone buildings and through colorful vineyards. Clare Valley has an epic 33km biking path known as the Riesling Trail which can be cycled in around 3 hours and connects many of the regions wineries and attractions. And with 50 wineries to choose from, a charming town, and numerous restaurants, Clare Valley truly has something for everyone.
Like many of South Australia’s other prominent wine regions, Clare Valley was settled in the 1830s by English, Irish, and Polish immigrants. Jesuits fleeing religious persecution from Silesia (Poland) were some of the first to plant vineyards in the region in the 1840s. Their vineyards were planted at Sevenhill, establishing Sevenhill Cellars in 1851 as the first winery in Clare Valley. Though the original wines were intended for sacramental use, Sevenhill Cellars is still a popular destination for Clare Valley visitors today. In addition to characteristic Clare Valley wines, Sevenhill Cellars has an underground cellar originally excavated by hand and a gorgeous winery built with stones excavated from the property. Clare Valley’s unique combination of climate, topography, and soil diversity create a terroir destined for producing vibrant, acclaimed wines.
The climate in Clare Valley is a moderate continental climate with warm to hot summer days and cool to cold nights during the growing season. The region experiences a huge diurnal temperature swing with some days reaching up to 40°C and nights cooling down to as low as 5°C. Mount Lofty Ranges’ higher elevations help with this temperature drop. The diurnal swing lowers the region’s average temperature and slows the ripening process from the daytime heat. This is one of the reasons Riesling thrives here. The long hang time helps to retain the crisp acidity Clare Valley Rieslings are known for. The large diurnal temperature difference makes it difficult to accurately classify the region from the data alone, so some consider Clare Valley to be a cool climate region.
The many hills and slopes of the region provide either protection from or exposure to cooling maritime breezes. A key factor in deciding where to plant certain varieties. Clare Valley sees around 230mm of rain during the growing season and the region’s approximate 4,300ha of vineyards range from 190-610m.
Clare Valley can be unofficially classified into 3 sub-regions—eastern Polish River, central Clare Valley, and western Skillogalee Valley. There is a diversity of grape growing conditions considering the region’s many slopes, valleys, and windswept plateaus. Clare Valley has extremely diverse soils, as could be expected when considering the varied topography of the region. There is the classic terra rossa topsoil, similar to that of the Barossa Valley. Limetone hides under the topsoil in Watervale while there’s broken slate in the Polish Hill River district. The deep alluvial soils in the north end of the valley mean little to no irrigation for those vineyards. Vineyards in the Skillogalee Valley to the west are planted in sandy loam with pockets of degraded quartz.
Though Clare Valley Riesling elevated the region to the global stage, today wine lovers can expect more diversity while out wine tasting. Surprisingly, just under 30% of total wine production is allocated to white wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and Shiraz are the 3 most planted varieties. The region’s Cabs tend towards rich dark fruits and plush tannins. They are often blended with Shiraz and occasionally Malbec. Riesling, the region’s flagship variety, can be bursting with notes of lime, citrus and minerals when young and can be cellared for 5-7 years. During this time, the wine can develop that elusive oily, petrol quality so many Riesling fans (including me) love. The region’s Shiraz generally retain lovely acidity and vibrant fruit notes because of that diurnal swing with notes of spice and ripe blackberries.
Clare Valley winemakers have always enjoyed experimenting with new wines and winemaking methods. Other varieties of the region include Mataro, Malbec, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Verdehlo, and more!
Pikes Wines is definitely a must visit with around 20 wines on offer including the epitome of Australian Riesling and some fun ones like Savignan and Fiano. I also really enjoyed the Shiraz and bubbles at Kilikanoon. Our travel scheduled only allowed for one short day of wine tasting , but we other wineries we wanted to visit were Sevenhill Cellars, Jim Barry, and Taylor’s.