Now many of you have probably already been to the Clare, but as a quick summary, the Clare valley is located 130km due north of Adelaide, and is a long, thin region running north-south for about 20km. It has a climate classified as moderate-continental, meaning that in the growing season, it has long, warm summer days followed by cool nights. This extended ripening time results in abundant fruit characters while the cool evenings (sometimes very cool- it got down to 9 degrees when I was there, only a week out from December!) retains crisp acidity and gives the wines balance and structure. This region is one of the cornerstones of Australian Riesling production- in fact you can hire a bike and ride along the ‘Riesling Trail’, which runs through the back sections of many producers vineyards- just make sure you stop at a few wineries to partake in some refreshment; you don’t want to get dehydrated!
Through my travels I found that the Clare has 4 distinct sections, and each section produces a subtle yet unmistakeably different style of wine due to different altitudes, temperatures, soils and environments. Below is my quick little summary of these differences, along with my thoughts of why they are different. Honestly there are probably many other sub-regions to be found in the Clare, but this was what I uncovered across 2 days;
Sevenhill is the section in the dead centre of the region and is quite secluded, with many of the wineries surrounded by heavy woods. The wines here have a distinctive green mint flavour to them, giving a leafy, eucalypt aroma to the Cabernets, fresh lime pith to the Rieslings and a green peppercorn note to the Shiraz. This is because the surrounding woods are all ancient eucalyptus trees, which exude eucalyptus oil fragrance, which can blend with the other grape aromas. The main wineries here are Kilikanoon and Mitchell and the wines from here are known for their ageability- especially the reds with their gravelly tannin structure.
Stanley Flat is in the very north of the region just up the road from Clare town centre. This is the flattest part of the region and the furthest away from the influence of the ocean, meaning it is the hottest section within the Clare. Shiraz does well here, though Riesling struggles due to the heat, and it’s therefore no shock that Jim Barry’s Armagh Shiraz vineyard, which produces the regions flagship wine, sits right in the heart of this region. The other famous producer from here is Wendouree, though they are very hard to find as they keep a low profile and don’t have a cellar door. This section is warm enough to ripen Mataro and Malbec, which Wendouree uses in some of their blends.
Watervale is the southern-most section of the Clare, and consists of a series of hillsides that roll towards Adelaide and the Spencer Gulf. The ocean breeze can be felt in the afternoons and the temperature on these hill-side vineyards plummets overnight. Riesling is the key variety down here, and it is all about lemons and limes and of course the fresh acidity classic to this variety. Almost everyone in the Clare buys fruit from here, but O’Leary Walker is based right in the heart of this section, and Pike’s, with their ‘Traditionale’ and ‘The Merle’ Rieslings- benchmarks of the whole region, are just to the east.
Polish Hill is in the very south-east of the Clare, and is distinct due to its soils. Mintaro black slate, which adorns the walls and pavements of many local houses and pubs, lies a few metres underneath the soils of this section of the Clare. Once vines reach a certain age and their root systems have extended through the topsoil and into this mineral-rich slate, they transfer this into the wines, giving them a zesty, almost gravelly minerality that is incredibly unique. The soils here are quite poor in nutrients (hence why the vine has to result to digging into hard rock!) and slate holds no water, so the berries and bunches that come from this section are about two-thirds to half the size of bunches from neighbouring sections of the Clare. This equates to increased complexity and length in wines made here due to the higher skin to juice ratio. It will come as no surprise that Jeffrey Grosset’s winery is found smack-bang in the middle of this section, which it gives an insight into why his wines (especially his Rieslings) are some of the most highly regarded in Australia, if not the New World.
So what does the future hold for the Clare valley then? Well, pretty much every winemaker mentioned that the weather is definitely getting warmer and the seasons drier, and with neighbours Barossa and McLaren Vale cornering the ‘big, juicy, high-alcohol’ red market, they all know this isn’t the direction they should be heading into. Almost every winery I visited was trying new things in an attempt to offset the upcoming weather changes. I had the opportunity to try some wines made from or including ‘alternate varietals’, including a Fiano and a Shiraz/Nero d’Avola blend from Grosset, a Sangiovese at Pike’s, all of which were delicious, and also saw the new plantings of Negroamaro at O’Leary Walker. These are all central/southern Italian varietals already suited to a dry, warm climate, and seem to be doing quite well in the Clare so far! Who knows- the future may hold a brand new direction for the Clare and see Fiano or Touriga Nacional overtake Riesling as the most popular variety!
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles