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