Andrew Bain samples new cellar doors and cafes on an easy cycle along the Clare Valley Riesling Trail.
In the Clare Valley, the southern starting point of the Riesling Trail speaks volumes. What was once the Auburn railway station is today the cellar door for a winery. The message is clear: the railway is dead; long live the wine-themed rail trail.
Stretching between Auburn and Clare along the course of the former Riverton-Spalding line, the Riesling Trail has been turning wine tasting into a sport on wheels for almost 20 years.
In recent times, however, much has changed along the trail. It has been extended 10 kilometres beyond Clare to Barinia. There are new dining options, trail entrances to both the oldest and newest vineyards in the valley and a boutique brewery for the wine-weary cyclist.
The trail, named for Clare's star wine variety, has almost no gradient of note - bless those railway makers. It climbs slowly from Auburn to near Penwortham, then descends just as gradually into Clare. As I pedal from Auburn, I have only the wind to contend with, blowing head-on from the north. Headwinds are usually a curse but on this trail I regard them as a way to work up a thirst.
Vineyards appear immediately, though at this southern end of the valley they're the exception rather than the norm, breaking up large patches of farmland. By the time the trail approaches Leasingham, just seven kilometres from Auburn, the hillsides are striped with vines. The trail's best views are here, and commanding the finest outlook of all is O'Leary Walker Wines.
Just eight of Clare's 37 cellar doors can be accessed directly from the trail. O'Leary Walker is the closest to Auburn, a fact that sabotages more than a few riders.
"Sometimes cyclists sit out front with a platter and a wine and they just don't move," says O'Leary Walker cellar manager Amanda Crawford. "We see them getting picked up in cars. They relax and unwind a little too much, which is nice."
Pedalling past winery vats, I arrive at one of the newest and most modern cellar doors in the valley. The winery was created in 2000 by long-time winemakers David O'Leary and Nick Walker, but the cellar door opened about a decade later, in 2010, perched atop a knoll set aside for the purpose.
Stone for the building was salvaged from ruins in the area, wood came from the demolished Adelaide Oval grandstands, and the patio is paved with the famed slate of nearby Mintaro. A glass wall offers views across the valley. The tasting list has 18 wines, including O'Leary Walker's award-winning rieslings, and there are platters of food to help soak up the wine before I head on to the trail again.
Past Leasingham, the trail becomes a true mix of rural sights: cattle graze between vines on one side of the trail while kangaroos nibble at a paddock on the other, olive trees and the occasional apple tree adding to the region's gourmet appeal.
Near Penwortham, the trail passes beneath the Main North Road and there's a break from the vines. Briefly, I could be anywhere in South Australia's mid-north, among white-trunk gums, sheep, gentle slopes and magpies. Above Sevenhill, where rail tracks remain embedded in road crossings, I turn off the trail and descend into town.
The Clare Valley is dotted with fine eateries, but the newest and best positioned for cyclists is Sevenhill's Little Red Grape. Opened inside an old stone cottage in July, Little Red Grape is already one of the busiest places in the area, with a regional cellar door offering light lunches. There are homewares and wine sales at front of shop and every cyclist's best friend - a bakery - out back.
Beside the trail in Sevenhill is the Clare Valley's foundation stone: Sevenhill Cellars, the region's first winery. Established in 1851 by the first Jesuits to arrive in Australia, and named rather boldly after the seven hills of Rome, vines were planted to make altar wine. Sevenhill still sells altar wine to churches in Australia and Asia, but also makes a further 25 varieties.
Every winemaker through the winery's 160-plus years has been a Jesuit brother, and the property's centrepiece remains the 1875-built St Aloysius church. Inside is a painting of the Madonna, presented to the Jesuits in 1848 by King Ludwig of Bavaria. Beneath is a crypt containing the remains of 41 Jesuits.
From Sevenhill, it's just five kilometres between the vineyards to Clare where, beside the trail head, is another of the valley's newest cellar doors. Mr Mick opened in June, taking over the old Leasingham winery. The cellar door is inside an old bluestone still house, where pipes run a maze across the walls above a copper still.
Mr Mick is the creation of winemaker Tim Adams, who grew up in Clare and completed his apprenticeship in the 1970s at Leasingham. The chief winemaker at the time was Mick Knappstein - Mr Mick is named in his honour. Wines remain consistent to Clare's reputation, ranging from a bubbly blanc de blanc to a late-harvest riesling.
Further into town, inside Knappstein Winery itself, is the counterpoint to 25 kilometres of wine - a brewery. The Knappstein Enterprise Brewery is the only beer maker in the valley, making lager from Australian malt and sauvin hops sourced from Nelson in New Zealand.
There are no wineries along the trail extension beyond Clare to Barinia, but it's a chance to ride off several hours spent among food and wine, so I climb back on the bike and pedal on.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of the South Australian Tourism Commission.
Clare is 140 kilometres north of Adelaide, along the Main North Road.
Bikes can be hired from Cogwebs, Auburn, and Clare Valley Cycle Hire. See cogwebs.com.au; clarevalleycyclehire.com.au.
A Riesling Trail brochure, with maps and winery listings, can be downloaded from the South Australian Trails website at southaustraliantrails.com. Follow the "Top Trails" link.