The Clare Valley is one of South Australia’s most iconic regions. Its fertile soils produce some of the world’s best wines, its buildings are steeped in history and its hills and vales create an idyllic setting in which to relax. One of the best ways to experience the region is by walking or cycling the Riesling Trail, a 35km track that runs from Auburn to Barinia. On a brisk winter’s morning, News Corp journalist Lynn Cameron donned a helmet, jumped on a bike and set out to do just that.
This pretty little town is regarded as the historic gateway to the Clare Valley. Just a two-hour car journey from Adelaide, Auburn was established in 1849. It was the birthplace of Australian poet C.J. Dennis (1876-1938) and is currently home to just under 600 residents.
The official start of the Riesling Trail is a 500m cycle from the Rising Sun Hotel along Auburn’s main road, Horrocks Highway. The trail, a packed gravel surface, runs parallel to the highway for about 3km before veering left to wind its way through farms, vineyards and natural scrub.
Surrounded by sheep in the paddocks, roosters in the yards and workers in the fields, the pressures of city life fall away as the restorative powers of the countryside work their magic.
O’LEARY WALKER WINES
About 6km from Auburn lies O’Leary Walker Wines, set high atop a hill with stunning panoramic views of the Watervale region. Its cellar door conservatory is a welcoming sight after the trail’s gentle but steady climb. I have certainly worked up a thirst.
Wine is off the menu for me however – and not just because it was only 9am. The same rules apply to cyclists on the trail as on any other road in terms of alcohol consumption, so it is a cup of tea for me while administration manager Deb Cornish explains the winery and its history.
“Established in 2000 by winemakers David O’Leary and Nick Walker, O’Leary Walker Wines now employs 15 staff and is famous for its Watervale and Polish Hill River rieslings, but its cabernets and shiraz vintages are also held in high esteem,” Cornish said.
“Between the scenery, wines and share platters, it’s a popular stop on the trail for tourists and locals alike.”
As if to prove her point, just as I am getting ready to resume my ride, three local women arrive at the winery on bikes. Jane Olsen from Penwortham, Lisa Ziersch from Auburn and Susan Cunningham from Watervale are all regular riders of the Riesling Trail, and value its importance to the local economy.
“The Trail attracts 51,000 users per year, half of which are visitors to the region, and contributes approximately $5 million in spend to the regional economy,” said Ms Cunningham, a Riesling Trail committee member, adding that the number of visitors is expected to grow by approximately 4 per cent per annum.
A more gentle ride along the next 3km of the trail took me into Watervale, a tiny village with a population of less than 250 that embodies real country charm.
Lou and Neil Haines, owners of the Watervale General Store, have lived in the Clare Valley for more than 20 years and purchased the store three months ago.
“We saw huge potential right in the middle of the Valley,” Ms Haines said. “I’m attracted to old buildings and the history of it all. It’s been a general store since 1851 but we want to bring it back to a more traditional style.”
As well as the usual general store fare, the Haines have added a cafe that serves home baking and delicacies, plus a vintage section.
“I think tourists are looking for the country charm,” said Ms Haines, “so that’s what we’re trying to create here. There are amazing wineries around us but we’re offering a different experience.”
The next leg of the trail stretches for 6.5km, climbing to an elevation of 490m at its highest point at Penwortham, followed by a short downhill cycle to Skillogalee.
One of the Valley’s most prestigious wineries and restaurants, Skillogalee was built in 1851 by Cornish miner John Trestrow, one of the first explorers in the region. The establishment is run by Diana and Dave Palmer and their daughter, Nicola.
“When my parents bought the property in 1989, it was pretty run down,” said Nicola. “My mother changed it into a restaurant so this was the first winery restaurant in the Clare Valley.
“We work with local produce wherever possible but our emphasis is on quality over locality: we start local and then move outwards. We live in a region that has beautiful produce so we try to utilise as much of that as possible.”
Like so many of the region’s wineries, Skillogalee is famous for its rieslings. “We’re very well known for dry riesling,” Nicola said. “The valley actually grows incredible reds and a lot of other incredible varieties really well, such as cabernets and shiraz. We’re really lucky here in our climate and interesting soil structures.”
Rejoining the trail after Skillogalee involves a challenging hill climb, but then it is a relatively relaxed 3km cycle downhill to Sevenhill.
The oldest winery in the Clare Valley, Sevenhill was established in 1851 by a group of Jesuits escaping from persecution in Silesia, Poland. Arriving in South Australia, they established a community at Sevenhill, named after the Seven Hills of Rome.
“They came with enough sacramental wine to last them a couple of years,” said Tony Worthington, sales manager at Sevenhill. “From the beginning, sacramental wine is something they really wanted to be able to provide to anybody. It’s something still that we have today. We’re a not-for-profit organisation, whereby about 40 per cent of what we do is still sacramental wine. (With) the table wine, all the profits basically go back into the business to be able to provide the sacramental wine at an affordable price; so it’s this lovely little cycle.”
In addition to visitors to its cellar door, Sevenhill remains a centre of spirituality. The on-site college holds 20 people on retreats, with a second property providing accommodation for another 20. “People come here for different reasons,” said Worthington. “Some come for the history, some for the religious aspect, some for the wine. We are very lucky.”
CLARE – BARINIA
A gentle 6km cycle later, I arrive in Clare. Home to more than 3000 people, Clare offers a good variety of accommodation, dining and entertainment options.
With the last section of the trail, from Clare to Barinia, involving an 8km stretch with a steady incline, many visitors opt to end their journey in Clare. I choose to cycle on to Barinia but, at the end of a long day in the saddle and with aching muscles, my suggestion would be to stop at Clare, lock up the bike and enjoy a well-deserved glass of riesling.
Once your ride is complete, Paulett Wines, with its breathtaking views over the Polish Hill River, is worth a visit by car. The business is family owned and operated by Neil and Alison Paulett, their son Matthew and his wife Ali. “We’ve been here since 1983,” said Ali. “It’s a good old family business.”
In addition to its internationally recognised wines, two years ago the winery added the Bush Devine Cafe, offering Australian indigenous foods.
“Especially since we’ve opened the cafe, we’ve noticed a lot more locals coming in,” said Ali. “Locals have always been great supporters of us and we greatly appreciate it. We live and breathe in this town. We love Clare and it’s a fantastic spot.”
5 things you need to know about the Riesling Trail
Take your time. Although only 35km from start to finish, there is so much to see and do that you don’t want to rush it. Take two, three or even more days to immerse yourself fully in the beauty of the region.
Fitness counts. The Trail is not the most challenging bike ride but there are some steep hills and a number of continual inclines that will make your muscles burn.
Stay safe. While much of the Trail is cut through wineries and scrub, there are parts at which you have to cross main roads. These are clearly signed but stay alert.
No over-indulgence. Just as for car drivers, drink-cycling is illegal along the Trail. The same alcohol laws that apply for drivers apply for cyclists, too.
Venture off the track. There are many more Clare Valley highlights to check out away from the Trail, so hire a car and make sure you explore the best of the region.