After a week of impressive hardcore forums, master classes, dinners and tastings, after an enjoyable time spent in the silky, well-manicured hands of the big wine conglomerates, now it was time to take a few deep breaths of fresh air and enter a more relaxed, laid-back portion of the visit. I was going cycling through the Clare Valley.
The Clare Valley, north of Adelaide and northwest of Barossa, is regarded nationally and internationally as Australia’s prime Riesling producing region. But Riesling was not always the predominant grape variety here. Vines were first planted in the Clare Valley in 1842. Subsequent plantings were dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Malbec. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Riesling began to make an impact in this cooler climate region. By the mid-1980s it accounted for one-third of the Clare Valley’s production.
The general feel of the Clare Valley, after a couple of days in Barossa, was similar to the feeling I get when I leave Napa for Sonoma. Both of course are major areas with amazingly talented winemakers and a perfect terroir for the grapes they grow. But in Barossa, as in Napa, there emanates a sense of big money and big business. For all its friendliness it is a serious place and well-aware of its dominant position in the trade. The Clare Valley, like Sonoma, gives the impression of a place that makes excellent wine and enjoys itself in the process.
We began quite appropriately–after a glass or two of delicious Claymore ‘Tubular Bells’ Sparkling Riesling 2011 and raw oysters–with a Riesling master class, tasting many of the best Clare Valley Rieslings from the current 2013 vintage and then in vintages going back to 2001.
Riesling styles in the Clare Valley are usually dry and range from a delicate floral, orange blossom bouquet with citrus (lime/lemon) overtones to refreshing, crisp, minerally, full-bodied wines. With age the flavors intensify to richer honey and toast, while colors take on a deeper, mellow hue. I was immensely impressed with these wines and couldn’t help but wonder why they, and Australian Riesling in general, weren’t better known in the U.S.
Next our small group of ten wine experts from around the world–Russia, Mexico, Canada, Poland, Brazil, Germany and the U.S.–set out on bicycles to explore the Clare Valley’s Riesling Trail. And to make the trek even more interesting, we had four stops where local winemakers provided some of their wines for tasting. The relaxed out-of-doors vibe continued when Peter Barry, managing director of the pioneering Jim Barry Wines, took us to his local pub for a welcome glass (‘butcher’) or two of beer. We met up with Peter again as well as a number of other great local owner/winemakers at an outdoor barbecue and bonfire–also a welcome respite from the many formal dinners we had attended. There was so much good wine, but I was stunned by Jim Barry’s ‘The Armagh’ Shiraz in the ’90, ’92 and ’96 vintages as well as a 1985 Malbec from the same estate.
The following morning, after a breakfast and an impressive tasting at Paulett Wines and a tour of the region, we attended a Clare Valley Shiraz and Cabernet master class at Sevenhill Winery. This tasting confirmed something we had already realized–that Clare Valley is not just about Riesling. These Shiraz and Cabernet wines were a treat and could stand proudly beside Barossa’s best.
Sevenhill Winery was established by the Jesuits in 1851 and is the oldest winery in the region and the only remaining Jesuit-owned winery in Australia. After the tasting we had the pleasure of walking through the vineyards and visiting the church and crypt with Sevenhill’s Emeritus Winemaker Brother John May, SJ. Brother John is a gentle man with great wine knowledge who exudes a sense of peace (and humor) with the world, and it was a pleasure to walk with him for a while in the vineyards and to taste his wines.
But now we were headed back to Barossa for the final leg of our visit.
This blog will conclude on December 26th.
Bill Stobbs, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits Wine Supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwinebills