On the Riesling Trail in South Australia’s Clare Valley

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Oct 11, 2016

by LARISSA DUBECKI, Writer

Cycle along the Clare Valley Riesling Trail and you’ll discover the charms of South Australia’s other great wine region.

Various sources will tell you the Clare Valley Riesling Trail is 25 kilometres, 33 kilometres or 36 kilometres long. They’ll also tell you that tackling it on a bicycle – which, let’s be clear from the outset, is the only sensible way to do it – is easy, middling or difficult. It says plenty about the mercurial nature of this unique collaboration between nature and humankind that all of the above are true, depending on the time of day, the temperature and the amount of wine imbibed at the 32 cellar doors dotted along the way.

SEE ALSO: Explore Swan Valley’s Food and Wine Trail

There is one thing, however, upon which everyone seems to agree: turning a disused railway line into a cycling and walking track that cuts through the heart of one of South Australia’s iconic wine regions was a stroke of genius. 

Traditionally, the ideal holiday has been something passive, preferably spent horizontally. Now, relaxation is just part of a wider experience. To that end, the Riesling Trail is asserting itself as one of Australia’s must-dos. And it brings a beguiling dose of social infrastructure to the region that globally renowned wine guru Jancis Robinson has dubbed one of the world’s most important riesling producers. As becomes clear at the Skillogalee cellar door, it’s also making an impact internationally.

On day one of our three-day ride, we run into a Minnesotan couple who are traversing the trail on sturdy mountain bikes before flying north to the Great Barrier Reef. That’ll be two strikes off their bucket list. They’re pink-cheeked and beaming – the result of cycling up a steep hill and sipping sparkling wine at 11am. Our gentle mocking of their Tour de France outfits prompts the cheery young woman behind the counter to leap to their defence. “We don’t discriminate against Lycra here,” she scolds. 

The trail can be described in the same terms as the area’s famous rieslings: flinty and dry, with great acid (a handy metaphor for the lactic acid build-up in the legs that by day two has turned two able-bodied people into arthritic Olympic race walkers). Cycling its length gives you a feel for the terroir.

The graded gravel track, repurposed in 1995 after lying disused following the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires, offers a glimpse into the area’s history. Gnarled old gums with twisted limbs give way to a stand of wild olive trees with flashes of European pale-green between their trunks. The faint scent of eucalypts and farm animals drifts away in a tunnel of pines, their branches gently touching over the path. Later, there are vines and more vines, serried ranks cascading down the hill; chickens pecking among old farm machinery; and two kookaburras laughing on a wire as if put there by central casting.

So how long does it take to ride the trail? Diehard Lycra lizards have been known to get from the southernmost end at Auburn to its northern point in Barinia in a couple of hours. But where’s the fun in that? Hugging the pretty townships of Leasingham, Watervale, Penwortham and Sevenhill, the trail better suits mere mortals as a hop-on, hop-off proposition that works as a daytrip or a three-day commitment. If you’re inclined towards the former, local wisdom holds the five-kilometre section between Sevenhill and Penwortham to be the prettiest.

Clare Valley’s oldest winery, Sevenhill Cellars – started by Jesuits in 1851 – is certainly the most postcard-perfect. Its 1860s church, built from local stone, and quiet cemetery tucked out the back is home to rabbits and wildflowers. Instagram beckons. Sampling so much award-winning riesling along the way, we almost inevitably begin to triage wineries based on looks rather than taste. Clos Clare is gobsmackingly beautiful; Pikes is grand and imposing; Jeanneret Wines is small and intimate; and there’s the young and funky Mr Mick.

You can eat well on the Riesling Trail, too. Well, not exactly on the trail. Most of the wineries require a slight detour, with only a handful, including Tim Adams Wines, directly accessed from the trail. But it isn’t only about the wineries. In Auburn, the sandstone Rising Sun Hotel, with its preserved-in-aspic front bar, makes a great fuel stop and a place to click down a gear when arriving from the big smoke. Local lamb shoulder, bewitched by a caramel crust, doubles down with a polenta-crumbed cutlet and charred-pear purée. Just add chips, smug in the knowledge that working off lunch on a bike is a neat answer to the often cruel mathematics of calories burned versus calories consumed.

A healthy crop of B&Bs has grown to accommodate tourists, including Thorn Park by the Vines, a beautifully decorated bucolic hideaway close to the Clare township – look for the bridge over the road with rusted iron fretwork, known locally as the Harbour Bridge. Co-owner David Hay cooks a Euro-classical four-course dinner while his partner, Michael Speers, keeps busy topping up glasses with the impeccable wine selection. They can also organise bikes, delivered by one of the increasing number of bike-hire companies in the valley.

Hay and Speers know that riders underestimate the trail at their peril. Only hours before, a guest had hobbled off, having sprained her ankle falling off a bike the previous day. “I think she’d enjoyed a nice long lunch just before the accident,” Hay confides. 

Essentially, the trail is what you make it. It can be physical exercise. It can be an exercise in beauty. It can be an endless cellar door. On a logistical note, the wineries are happy to post any purchases. “Some of our staff will drop it in on their way home from work,” says Deb Bowman from Tim Adams Wines. “I’d never suggest taking a bottle on your bike!”

Midafternoon is peak time for seeing groups of cyclists waiting forlornly by the side of the road, too exhausted (or too something else) to continue. Blessedly, local taxis are equipped with bike racks. “You always get a few of them. A lot wind up at Skillogalee – they tend to get there and think that’s it for them,” says taxi driver Justin Calvert. He’s right. Skillogalee sits off the trail halfway up the kind of hill that map-makers of yore might have marked with “Beyond here there be dragons”; it’s on one of three additional trail tributaries, each loop much more challenging than the trail proper.

Locals will also tell you that, thanks to a gentle but steady gradient, it’s easier to tackle the trail going southwards. We witness the result of not heeding that advice when three children zip by, their mother puffing along, agonisingly, far behind. Her expression makes us wonder if she’s thinking longingly of the pile of dirty laundry at home. Moral of the story: pace yourself, both on the bike and at the cellar doors. Getting lost in a happy riesling buzz might mean forgetting to look for the turn-off signs. We whiz past young-gun winery Shut the Gate (08 8843 0111), only to realise our mistake five kilometres too late. 

And right there you have just about every Riesling Trail mistake rolled into one. We find ourselves far from home just as dusk is insinuating itself on the landscape, slogging northwards, a bottle of wine too lovely not to be bought weighing down the backpack – and who the hell drank the last of the water?

Each rotation of the wheels becomes a triumph of will. But then we pedal past an overgrown hawthorn hedge loaded with red berries while galahs wheel and screech overhead in their evening joy. Beyond a spinney of gum trees, a kangaroo bounds along unhurriedly, keeping pace with the bikes as we puff and pant onwards, driven by thoughts of dinner. It sums up the experience perfectly. It’s the agony and the ecstasy. It’s the Riesling Trail. 

Where to eat on the Riesling Trail 

The Rising Sun Hotel

A charming historic pub on Auburn’s main street, The Rising Sun Hotel offers a two-speed menu of pub classics and more ambitious contemporary fare such as octopus with chorizo and white beans. 

Terroir Auburn

In a converted 1862 general store in Auburn, brothers Dan and Rohan Moss do great things with a determinedly locavore menu at Terroir. Order the haloumi made by Rohan, pan-fried and served with besan tempura broccolini and sumac-spiked yoghurt.

Mr Mick’s Kitchen 

The younger offshoot of Clare Valley stalwart Tim Adams Wines, Mr Mick’s Kitchen (mrmick.com.au) has a beautiful courtyard. It’s the place to go on a sunny day, with an even sunnier tapas menu of Iberian tastes such as salt-and-pepper squid with sour cherry sauce and albondigas (meatballs) with capsicum and jalapeño relish.

Seed Winehouse + Kitchen 

The hip new player on the valley’s food scene, the chaff mill reborn as Seed Winehouse + Kitchen is chock-full of atmosphere and offers gorgeously imagined modern dishes such as whole trout steamed in paperbark with house-made mascarpone and radish – a stunner.

Paulett Wines 

The views! At Paulett Wines, it’s all about the sweeping views from the covered balcony but the café menu brings a taste of terroir by incorporating bush ingredients from the native garden – think chicken liver pâté with a lemon myrtle twist.

SEE ALSO: South Australia's Off-Beat Wine Experiences