The riesling ride

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Pedal-powered lovers of wine can soak up some heritage along the way, writes Stephanie Clifford-Smith.

Until a few years ago there was really only one way wine-lovers toured the Clare Valley: driving. Now, thanks to the transformation of a disused railway line, cycling is an option combining the benefits of exercise with a closer look at the area famous for its riesling. Perhaps the most appealing part of the proposition is that cyclists don't have to share the road with cars.

The trail runs 35 kilometres north from Auburn, with its streets of heritage-listed stone buildings, to Barinia, the northern boundary of the Clare Valley. There's no need to do the whole thing and, because it's relatively flat, average fitness is the only prerequisite. The truly athletic can explore various loops that run off the main trail, where there are more wineries.

I hire a bike from Clare and ride 15 kilometres south to Watervale over a leisurely three hours and find surprisingly diverse landscapes in that short distance.

Having been fitted with my bike and helmet, I set out around 10am, heading south. The first part of the trail lies in a cutting that provides plenty of shade. Pine trees lean in towards the road and the elevated banks are dotted with purple and white scabiosas.

The owner of Riesling Trail Bike Hire, Michael Cloke, gives me a map where he marks a few areas to ride cautiously but mostly the path is sound and well maintained. It's fine, compacted gravel with a slight camber and, unless there's been heavy rain, it's an easy surface to negotiate.

The Clare is a great place for growing riesling thanks to its cool nights and warm days. The lower evening temperatures slow the development of fruit sugar which is spurred on by the warmth of the day and gives the acid a chance to catch up and provide balance. That said, the mornings can be cool so it's wise to dress in layers.

About seven kilometres from Clare is the little town of Sevenhill and here, there are several options to detour from the path. Turning right takes riders into town with its old, low-slung pub and decent, straightforward food. But it is too early for lunch so I go to a hillside cemetery surrounded by vineyards then back to the Sevenhill Winery, the oldest in the Clare.

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Sevenhill was established by Austrian Jesuits who came to South Australia as chaplains for Catholics fleeing persecution in Europe. In 1851, on realising how fertile the soil was, the clergy bought 40 hectares, named it after the Seven Hills of Rome, and began growing grapes to make sacramental wine.

There's a cellar door with a good list of riesling and other whites, reds and some lovely fortifieds. The gold medal-winning rieslings from the winery's Inigo range can be tried here, the 2010 vintage especially fragrant and passionfruity. The area also produces many fine shirazes. The 2008 Inigo Shiraz, which wine writer James Halliday describes as inky and chewy, also has more obvious, and perhaps more appealing, characteristics to the less-expert palate, such as cherry and chocolate flavours.

Here and at other wineries, visitors on bikes can arrange home delivery of wine or ask for stockists' details close to home. Leaving the cellar door, the original church (1875) is worth seeing. It's made from local stone and has a crypt, the only one in a parish church in Australia. The Jesuits' home is another impressive local stone building on the site and was originally the state's first Catholic secondary school.

Beyond Sevenhill, the landscape opens in parts to "corduroy" vineyards, so named for their ridged appearance, and to sheep and wheat farms. Unless picnicking, it's advisable to plan where to eat as, once on the trail, there aren't many options. I decide to lunch in Penwortham, turn off the track and ride down into the village to find there is nowhere serving food. A woman selling homemade jam from her garage says there used to be a cafe which explains the cutlery symbols on the sign pointing to the place. While there, St Mark's Anglican church, an old stone structure with a steeply pitched iron roof, is worth a look.

Back on track it is another five or so kilometres of flat cycling through open landscapes before turning left, downhill to Watervale. This town is technically the centre of the valley and home to some of its most famous rieslings. It also offers a couple of places for lunch - the pub and the general store - so it is time to hang up the helmet and rest.

The writer travelled courtesy of the South Australian Tourism Commission

Trail tips

Riesling Trail Bike Hire 10 Warenda Road, Clare. Phone 0418 777 318. Half day $20, full day $35. More for tandems. Rate includes a bottle of water and use of a backpack. See rieslingtrailbikehire.com.

Picnic Supplies can be bought from Wild Saffron, 288 Main North Road, Clare. See wildsaffron.com.au.

Buy lunch Alternatively lunch on the vine-fringed verandah at Skillogalee, Hughes Park Road, Sevenhill. This is quite a diversion from the trail, so unless you're feeling energetic, it would be wise to visit before or after the ride. Great food using largely local produce. Bookings recommended on (08) 8843 4311. See skillogalee.com.au.

Locals on the right track

A DISUSED railway line dating from World War I forms the base of the Riesling Trail but it took a natural disaster to make it happen.

The Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983 ripped through nearly four kilometres of railway line in the Clare Valley. Passenger services ran there until the 1950s, then it was freight-only. But the line hadn't made money in years — most freight was moved by road by the '80s — so the fires provided the perfect excuse for the line to be dismantled. The tracks went to Queensland for sugar cane transport and the sleepers were sold to landscapers. Bridges were also dismantled for scrap.

The line lay fallow for a few years until Clare locals, led by winemakers, saw its tourism potential. The former head of the trail's management committee, Graham Mill, was behind it from the start. "The idea was to create a use for the corridor and to attract people into the valley," he says. "The community saw tourism as an integral part of the valley's future."

There was a yawning gap where the Quarry Road bridge had been as well as smaller breaks that needed to be filled.

"The winemakers got together and raised some money to rebuild bridges, BHP [Billiton] gave some steel and a local metal fabricator built the bridge," Mill says. "Once we got the bridge in place it meant we could develop the trail from Clare to Auburn."

The trail opened in 1998, funded by local winemakers and the state government. People power was vital to the project and the trail now attracts about 40,000 tourists a year.

"It was 'good citizen' stuff," Mill says. "A lot of the work that's been done has been by voluntary contributions. It's very much been a community activity."

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