A Clare win­ner

El­iz­a­beth Mery­ment en­joys me­an­der­ing through one of our loveli­est wine-grow­ing val­leys

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - South Australia Holidays -

THE road to Clare Val­ley’s Seven­hill Win­ery is draped on ei­ther side with grape vines that glit­ter in the sun like gold chains. Un­der a huge blue sky that arcs from hori­zon to hori­zon, gnarled gum trees keep watch over th­ese valu­able, fickle trel­lises. Crows on fence posts of­fer oc­ca­sional cries, and drift­ing from sweep­ing pad­docks that lie out of sight are the un­mis­tak­able scents of sheep and hay.

Then into this mes­meris­ing land­scape looms a re­mark­able sight.

It’s a church. But not some tiny, ram­shackle stone tem­ple built for the hand­ful of folk who live in th­ese parts. Rather, this church is a great hulk­ing cathe­dral, out here al­most in the mid­dle of nowhere, as breath­tak­ing as a plot twist in a good novel.

For us Clare Val­ley first-timers en­joy­ing a quiet Sun­day drive with no more than a pho­to­copied map and some dimly re­mem­bered ad­vice as travel aids, St Aloy­sius Church makes for a joy­ous sur­prise. Here is a struc­ture that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the qui­eter quar­ters of Paris, or Salzburg, Prague or even Ade­laide.

Most re­mark­ably, St Aloy­sius sits proudly in the midst of th­ese hectares of grapevines and along­side a 160-year-old win­ery and a cel­lar door that hap­pens to be open to­day for wine tast­ings. Per­haps we shouldn’t be so shocked. Clare Val­ley,

Sun and shade: Grapevines over­hung by an­cient gum trees at Seven­hill, the Clare Val­ley’s old­est win­ery 140km north of Ade­laide and one of South Aus­tralia’s loveli­est wine re­gions, is renowned for its scenery and gourmet de­lights. But it’s the pleas­ant sur­prises that we’re en­joy­ing the most. Like dis­cov­er­ing that stay­ing on a his­toric and fully work­ing sheep sta­tion can be ter­rific fun, or that one of the na­tion’s dreami­est restau­rants, the quaintly named Skil­lo­galee, is right here and as fine as its rep­u­ta­tion sug­gests.

But, for the mo­ment, we’re quite taken with St Aloy­sius, which, a small amount of in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­veals, was built by Je­suit priests who set­tled here from Aus­tria in 1848. Al­though they came with the lofty goal of mak­ing Seven­hill a bas­tion of Catholi­cism, they ended up be­com­ing bet­ter known for the sacra­men­tal wines they made.

Th­ese days, Seven­hill Win­ery is dis­tin­guished as Clare’s old­est and per­haps favourite vine­yard, and its ries­lings win im­por­tant awards.

The church is still func­tion­ing and a lovely, cav­ernous af­fair it is, dimly il­lu­mi­nated by thin streams of light that fil­ter through its high arched win­dows. Be­neath is a crypt, ac­ces­si­ble down a set of rick­ety stairs, where the bod­ies of monks who ded­i­cated their lives to St Aloy­sius are in­terred. But per­haps as in­ter­est­ing for many vis­i­tors is the win­ery’s cel­lar door, where crisp ries­lings are poured into tast­ing glasses by smil­ing staff. What an amaz­ing place.

Cel­lar doors are, of course, one of the key de­lights in this re­gion that is known, per­haps un­kindly, as the lit­tle sis­ter of the Barossa Val­ley next door. As one Clare lo­cal tells me proudly, Clare is just like the Barossa, only with fewer tourists.’’

It seems an apt de­scrip­tion, for al­though the two ar­eas look alike, the Clare Val­leys’s main towns, Clare and Auburn, have a de­cid­edly re­gional feel. Th­ese are the sorts of places where slow­mov­ing lo­cals greet ev­ery­one in the street as they pass; the shops that line the trad­ing thor­ough­fares sell farm­ing equip­ment and close at week­ends. And the glo­ri­ous blue­stone build­ings re­main as lovely as they were when erected more than a cen­tury ago.

For­tu­nately, though, this is no hick joint where the culi­nary and cul­tural life re­mains as it was in the 19th cen­tury. There’s a flour­ish­ing cafe scene (try Epic Food, at 260 Main Rd North, Clare, for good cof­fee and ex­cel­lent homemade cakes) and a busy pub cul­ture (the counter meals at Seven­hill Ho­tel, Main Road North, Seven­hill, are as good as any­thing you’ll find in re­gional Aus­tralia). So­phis­ti­cated din­ing op­tions in­clude Ci­tadel 5453, at 12 Main Rd North, Clare, which has a good menu fea­tur­ing top lo­cal in­gre­di­ents.

The win­ery restau­rants are also ex­cep­tional, es­pe­cially Skil­lo­galee, lo­cated in scenic sur­rounds in the bush out­side Seven­hill, where fine coun­try lunches are served on a veranda over­look­ing the vine­yards. There is some­thing ut­terly de­li­cious about sip­ping sweet Skil­lo­galee wine while look­ing at the very vines on which the grapes have ripened.

It’s rather hard to avoid wine in Clare, given the lo­cal ries­lings are con­sid­ered the finest in the na­tion. To get a look at as many of the lo­cal vine­yards as pos­si­ble, fol­low the Ries­ling Trail that winds through Auburn and Clare, tak­ing in fa­mous winer­ies such as the gi­ant Leas­ing­ham out­fit and some smaller and more ob­scure op­tions such as Clay­more, Olssen and Crab­tree Wines.

While it’s pos­si­ble, I guess, to do parts of the 25km trail on foot or bi­cy­cle if you are feel­ing en­er­getic, we find it en­joy­able to drive be­tween the cel­lars, thus en­sur­ing a full boot of good­ies for our re­turn

Hope and glory: St Aloy­sius Church

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home. And for my money, the smaller winer­ies make the more pleas­ant and unique ex­pe­ri­ences, as well as of­fer­ing some very in­ter­est­ing (and of­ten hand­crafted) drops.

Wine tast­ing is all very nice, but for us the ab­so­lute high­light of Clare is its sheer beauty. Be­yond the vine­yards that lie som­no­lently on this val­ley’s gen­tle slopes are wide sheep sta­tions car­peted with but­ter-coloured grasses. Here, 500-yearold gums shade flocks of sheep, while old wooden wind­mills ro­tate softly in the gen­tle breeze.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, on the open roads be­tween vil­lages, crum­bling stone cot­tages or roughly hewn shear­ing sheds with rusty tin roofs come into view. His­toric vil­lages, such as the beau­ti­fully pre­served Min­taro, about 15 min­utes from Seven­hill, and the spot where scenes for Pic­nic atHang­ingRock were filmed, are packed with her­itage sand­stone build­ings wrapped in climb­ing vines, with curls of smoke ris­ing from chim­neys.

It’s hard not to be struck by the sheer Aus­tralian-ness of it all. This is what I imag­ine real Waltz­ing Matilda coun­try looks like, all sheep, shear­ing sheds, kelpies and wide brown plains. And if it is faintly sur­pris­ing that such a slice of Aus­traliana comes with its own so­phis­ti­cated and flour­ish­ing wine in­dus­try, well, that’s the Clare for you. Ac­com­mo­da­tion in the Clare ranges from fam­ily farm­stays to ro­man­tic, self­con­tained blue­stone cot­tages such as Rose Cot­tage in Auburn. www.rosec­ot­tageatauburn.com.au. For mo­tel-style lodg­ings, the Ris­ing Sun Ho­tel at Auburn is a good op­tion and Martin­dale Hall at Min­taro, one of the lo­ca­tions for Pic­ni­catHang­ing Rock , of­fers his­toric B & B ac­com­mo­da­tion. www.southaus­tralia.com www.mar­tin­dale­hall.com. www.sev­en­hill­cel­lars.com.au www.skil­lo­galee.com

Pic­tures: El­iz­a­beth Mery­ment

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