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Winsor Dobbin lifts the lid on what city slickers can sample in this friendly piece of riesling country.

Location

CLARE VALLEY is a lovely winemaking region known for its rolling hills and is about 120 kilometres from Adelaide. It is a one-hour drive north of the better-known Barossa Valley and comprises a string of villages along the Main North Road. It is best reached by car.

What to expect

On either side of the Main North Road - from Clare in the north through Sevenhill and Watervale to Auburn in the south - you'll find vineyards producing arguably Australia's greatest rieslings (Jeffrey Grosset is the most renowned riesling producer) as well as excellent reds made mainly from cabernet sauvignon and shiraz.

Settlers from England and Ireland first moved into the region during the 1840s and several of their cottages remain intact. Vines were planted alongside those first villages and winemaking has continued since.

Picturesque villages such as Mintaro have several interesting old stone and slate buildings and the region is dotted with atmospheric country pubs such as the Rising Sun at Auburn, the Sevenhill Hotel, the Wheatsheaf at Allendale North and the Magpie and Stump at Mintaro.

Vines are planted from 400 metres to 500 metres above sea level and thrive in the cold nights and warm-to-hot summer days. Several growers are experimenting with Mediterranean grape varieties, too.

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The Clare is a working rural community; many farms and vineyards have been in the same families for generations. You are in the country, so don't expect city-slicker attitudes.

Places to eat

Skillogalee (www.skillogalee.com.au) is regarded as one of Australia's best winery restaurants. Run by Dave and Diana Palmer for the past 20 years, Skillogalee serves lunch 363 days a year and offers seating for about 30 guests in two rustic rooms and for a further 40 to 50 on the verandah, overlooking the winery's gardens. All dishes on the menu can be matched to Skillogalee wines and morning and afternoon teas are served and gourmet picnic baskets are available, although it is as a long-lunch venue that Skillogalee has built its reputation. There are several bed-and-breakfast options for those who wish to stay.

Wild Saffron (wildsaffron.com.au) is a licensed gourmet cafe at which owner Jodi Weckert has meals to eat in or take away - perfect for those staying in a self-catering cottage. The menu changes daily and breakfast is available at weekends.

Reilly's winery restaurant at picturesque Mintaro, a village noted for its stone cottages, is open for lunch seven days a week and specialises in "from the garden to the plate" cuisine. There's an organic garden that guests are invited to wander through. Sit by the fire in winter, or on the verandah in summer.

Cygnets at Auburn, the recently opened Last Word Inn at Clare (open seven days until 9pm) and the new Artisan's Table, next to the Kirrihill cellar door, also do good food, while the Penna Lane and Eyre Creek cellar doors offer regional platters. The Wheatsheaf and the Sevenhill Hotel both have good pub meals.

Wineries and cellar doors

Most Clare Valley wineries are family-owned and there's a good chance of meeting the winemaker or viticulturist at the cellar door of venues such as Mitchells, Pikes, Neagles Rock, Crabtree, Paulett, Taylors, Tim Adams and Jim Barry. Pop into Sevenhill and you'll find Jesuit monks tending their grape vines, just as their predecessors have done for more than 150 years.

For some of the best views in the valley, Mount Surmon's lofty terrace is the place to head. Here the vineyard platter is laden with regional tastes including olives, chicken, fetta, dried tomatoes and pickled vegetables. At Paulett, too, the vistas are as spectacular as the dry rieslings. Pikes's beautiful 1870s cellar door overlooks vines in the Polish Hill River valley. Here, Cathy Pike has introduced grazing plates to eat on site or take away. A $20 gourmet package has a selection of cheeses, walnuts, olives and fig paste, as well as an environmentally friendly bamboo plate and wooden knife.

Riesling specialist O'Leary Walker has just opened its new cellar door, which promises to be one of the region's most attractive, while the newly opened Eyre Creek cellar door near Auburn has been converted from an old dairy into an intimate tasting space overlooking the dry-grown vineyard.

The Knappstein cellar door in the former Enterprise Brewery building is now also home to a microbrewery. Both the cellar door and brewery are open for tours and tastings.

Wendouree makes some of Australia's long-living reds and has cult status among aficionados but is open only by appointment, while Kilikanoon, Grosset (open only when there is something to sell), Annie's Lane and Kirrihill are also popular.

Places to stay

Thorn Park by the Vines (thornpark.com.au) is the new boutique venture for David Hay and Michael Speers, whose famous Thorn Park country-house hotel is now a Jesuit retreat. It offers boutique accommodation and fine food with residential cooking classes available by appointment. There are just two rooms, making this the perfect escape for couples.

There are dozens of small, self-catering cottages dotted through the villages and vines, with Hughes Park and River Walk Cottage among the most popular.

Other favourites with regular visitors include North Bundaleer Homestead, The Reserve Apartment in Clare, Quince Cottage near Watervale and the Stationmaster's Residence in Clare. Guests can enjoy an outdoor bath at William Hunt's Retreat in Mintaro.

Main attractions

The annual Clare Valley Gourmet Weekend, to be held on May 15-16, will draw up to 10,000 people to the region to enjoy the flavours provided by local food producers, restaurateurs and winemakers.

The valley was the first to host a regional food and wine festival in Australia and the region's hamlets remain popular. The valley mood is authentically Australian - and there's usually a friendly welcome at its cellar doors. Martindale Hall at Mintaro was used as the set of the girls' boarding school for the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock, while the town of Freeling, on the way to the Clare from the Barossa, is better known as where the popular television series McLeod's Daughters was shot.

Natural attractions

Walkers and cyclists will love the Riesling Trail - an old railway line now transformed into a popular riding track. The 35-kilometre sealed bicycle track connects the townships of Auburn, Leasingham, Watervale, Penwortham, Sevenhill, Clare and White Hut.

The trail is a segment of the 800-kilometre Mawson Trail for mountain bikers and is a fabulous way to experience the region's townships and history.

Local secret

Claymore Wines (claymorewines.com.au) is one of the more idiosyncratic producers in the Clare, with all its offerings named after famous rock songs or artists.

Wines such as the Dark Side of the Moon shiraz, Joshua Tree riesling, Deja Vu rose, Purple Rain sauvignon blanc, You'll Never Walk Alone grenache shiraz and Walk on the Wild Side shiraz viognier have become collectors' items among rock fans.

Your favourites can be sampled at the cellar door. The wines are very good.

Just up the road

Kapunda and Burra are heritage towns that began life as copper-mining outposts. Both have stone cottages and historic buildings.

Kapunda, the former home of cattle baron Sir Sidney Kidman, is best known for it statue of miner Map Kernow (Son of Cornwall), which greets visitors as they drive into town.

Burra is a beautifully preserved place. Its attractions include the former Redruth Gaol and the Monster Mine, as well as Thorogoods of Burra (a boutique cider brewery) and the Uptown Gallery.

In the 1850s, Burra was second only to Adelaide in population in South Australia.

More information

The Clare Valley Gourmet Weekend is on May 15-16. Contact the Clare Valley Information Centre at Main North Road, Clare. See clarevalley.com.au and southaustralia.com.

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