Arguably Australia's prettiest wine region, the Clare Valley is just under two hours' drive (about 120 kilometres) north of Adelaide. While it accounts for less than two percent of the country's total wine production, the Clare is renowned worldwide for its premium cool-climate varieties, especially riesling.
Settlers from England and Ireland, including pioneer and explorer John Horrocks, populated the region in the 1840s, naming the new settlements - Auburn, Penwortham, Clare - after villages they'd left in their homeland; many of their stone buildings are still standing today. The first vineyards were established by Jesuit priests in 1851 at Sevenhill, to produce sacramental wine for the emerging Catholic parishes around Australia. They also built a church, St Aloysius, completed in 1875; it's the only parish church in Australia constructed with a crypt beneath it, where 41 Jesuits are buried. Brother John May, the region's most famous winemaker, leads tours of the historic cellars and religious buildings on Tuesdays and Thursdays; he has passed the winemaking responsibilities at Sevenhill to the capable hands of Liz Heidenreich. (You can sample her work at the cellar door.)
The valley runs north-south, with many wineries located on Main North Road. But the prettiest countryside is off this busy thoroughfare, so be sure to explore the side roads for many more charming, welcoming cellar doors.
The best options for eating out in the Clare are cellar-door lunches. At Skillogalee, you can taste David Palmer's impressive wines, including his unique sparkling riesling, then move onto the verandah of the restored 1851 miner's cottage for a relaxed lunch (or afternoon tea) overlooking established gardens and vines. Prime position is under the gnarled and shady olive tree that's as old as the cottage itself.
Sevenhill Cellars, College Road, Sevenhill; (08) 8843 4222; sevenhill.com.au. Skillogalee, 1 Trevarrick Road (off Hughes Park Road), Sevenhill; (08) 8843 4311; skillogalee.com.au.
Irongate Studio Gallery, in the heritage-listed town of Mintaro, showcases the abstract pastels and limited-edition prints of Jen Penglase-Prior. Also on display are glasswork, ceramics and woodwork by talented South Australian artisans. Torr Street, Mintaro; (08) 8843 9271; jenpenglaseprior.com.au.
For the sybarite
So much more than the B&B it's advertised as, Thorn Park by the Vines is a luxurious guesthouse retreat surrounded by eucalypts, on a five-hectare property between Sevenhill and Clare. With its corrugated-iron cladding and shady verandahs, there's a strong sense of the Australian vernacular in the design, and each of the three spacious guest suites is decorated in a different style and palette, with linen sheets and well-appointed ensuites. Hospitality is the key here, and for consummate hosts Michael Speers and David Hay - who operated the renowed Thorn Park
Country House at Sevenhill for more than two decades - it just comes naturally.
Hay is in charge of the kitchen, turning out four-course dinners that are, quite simply, the best food you'll eat in the valley: warm salad of confit duck, beetroot, apple and hazelnuts; slow-roasted fillet of beef with vincotto; cheese custard; lemon curd tart. He also runs cooking classes (by arrangement) in Thorn Park's expansive kitchen.
Thorn Park by the Vines, Quarry Road, Sevenhill; (08) 8843 4304; thornpark.com.au; doubles from $390 (bed and breakfast) or $590 (dinner, bed and breakfast); two-night minimum stay.
For the adventurer
Following the contours of the former railway line between Auburn and Clare, the Riesling Trail winds its way through vineyards, farmland and natural bush. Certain sections of the 35-kilometre cycling and walking trail (which was extended 10 kilometres north of Clare in 2010) are lined with fruit trees - the product of pips tossed out of train windows many years ago - so in season you can collect damsons and other fruit as you go.
While the main part of the trail can be ridden from Clare in the north to Auburn in the south in about two hours (and walked in about seven), it's best appreciated at a leisurely pace, in stages, so you can explore the villages and stop at cellar doors en route. The gradients are relatively gentle, but if you're cycling from Auburn to Penwortham (in a northerly direction), you are heading uphill, so don't be surprised if your legs burn.
It's also worthwhile heading off on one of the three side loops to explore the surrounding countryside in greater depth. The nine-kilometre John Horrocks Loop takes you west of the trail through Penwortham to the wooded hillsides near Skillogalee Creek, home to wineries including Kilikanoon and Skillogalee, before rejoining the trail at Sevenhill. The challenging Father Rogalski Loop follows hilly back roads from Sevenhill to Polish Hill River, which was settled by mid-19th-century Polish immigrants and is now renowned for its riesling grapes used by wineries, including Pikes, which has a welcoming cellar door next to the Polish community church, offering tastings, cheese platters and grounds in which to enjoy them.
Kilikanoon, Penna Lane, Penwortham; (08) 8843 4206; kilikanoon.com.au.
Pikes, Polish Hill River Road, Sevenhill; (08) 8843 4370; pikeswines.com.au.
Hire bikes from Sevenhill Cellars (see page 12); Cogwebs, 30 Main North Road, Auburn, (08) 8849 2380; Clare Valley Cycle Hire, 32 Victoria Road, Clare, (08) 8842 2782; Riesling Trail Bike Hire, 10 Warenda Road, Clare, 0418 777 318.
Some of these operators will provide a pick-up/drop-off service (at additional cost) if you only want to cycle the trail in one direction.
For the family
Perfect for a family escape or gathering of friends, Skillogalee House is a restored stone homestead ringed by vines on the Skillogalee vineyard. One bedroom has its own ensuite; the other two share a spectacular bathroom, with its massive freestanding bath positioned diagonally across it. With a barbecue and pergola-covered outdoor eating area and a well-appointed cook's kitchen with a range of condiments, espresso machine and cafe-style citrus squeezer, the house is an ideal place for self-catering. Excellent breakfast provisions and a bottle or two of Skillogalee wine are also provided. Plus there's plenty of space for children to play outside in the established gardens. Grab some glasses and snacks and drive up to the lookout at Spring Gully Conservation Park for sunset views across the northern end of the Adelaide Plains to the Spencer Gulf coast.
Skillogalee House, Hughes Park Road, Sevenhill; (08) 8843 4311; skillogalee.com.au; doubles from $380 per night.
For the wine lover
Jeffrey Grosset is widely regarded as one of Australia's greatest winemakers.
His Polish Hill Riesling - beautifully structured, aromatic but restrained - is a striking example of the Clare Valley riesling style, but his award-winning wines also include the savoury Gaia (cab sav and cab franc blend) and a wonderful off-dry riesling released for the first time in 2010. The Grosset Wines cellar door is usually open only in September and October; once the wines sell out, it closes down.
Mt Horrocks Wines cellar door (open weekends only) occupies the former railway station in Auburn, so it's a good starting or finishing point on the Riesling Trail, where you can grab a coffee, tea and cake and sample winemaker Stephanie Toole's wines, including the famous Cordon Cut Riesling, a vibrant, tangy sweet wine.
Allow plenty of time at O'Leary Walker's brand-new cellar door on a hilltop site at Leasingham, both for sampling the award-winning wines made by David O'Leary and Nick Walker from grapes sourced from small parcels of land in the Clare Valley and beyond, and for relaxing with one of their tasting platters (either dips, cheese or antipasto and charcuterie, with crusty bread from Burra Bakery) while drinking in the best panorama in the valley. (If you're cycling here, use the sneaky back entrance directly off the Riesling Trail. And if you fancy a longish lunch, be sure to organise someone to pick you and your bikes up.)
Grosset Wines, cnr Manoora Road and Stanley Street, Auburn; (08) 8849 2175; grosset.com.au. Mt Horrocks Wines, Old Railway Station, Curling Street, Auburn; (08) 8849 2202; mounthorrocks.com. O'Leary Walker Wines, Main Road, Leasingham; (08) 8843 0022; olearywalkerwines.com.
Head north-east from Leasingham to the charming heritage village of Mintaro to discover well-preserved blue-stone buildings housing antiques shops, galleries, a pub, cafes and B&Bs.
The writer travelled courtesy of the South Australian Tourism Commission.