Introduction to the Clare Valley

Clare Valley Feature Week

To those who live there, the seeming remoteness of the bucolic Clare Valley is one of its key assets. It’s not very far north of the much bigger and busier Barossa, but seems a million miles away, its folded hills tranquil and peaceful, dotted with gum trees and sheep.

Clare Valley is probably the most riesling-orientated wine region in Australia, with 26% of its vines riesling, second only to the ubiquitous shiraz.

It’s a series of valleys running roughly north-south, upland valleys that have surprisingly high altitude, which moderates its more northerly latitude—and it’s far enough inland from the Spencer Gulf to give some diurnal variability in temperature, the cool nights preserving acidity in the grapes and creating a climate cool enough for riesling to prosper. Indeed, Clare Valley is probably the most riesling-orientated wine region in Australia, with 26% of its vines riesling, second only to the ubiquitous shiraz.

It seems like a paradox that such a region should be a prized source of very full-bodied red wines—largely shiraz, cabernet and blends—as well as riesling, but that is the nature of wine. Expect the unexpected.

Great riesling has been made here since at least the mid 1950s when John Vickery came here to make wine for Leo Buring. Famous names both. Later, Jeffrey Grosset arrived and carried the flame for the next generation, although many others in the region can lay claim to being similarly great riesling producers, especially the Barry family of Jim Barry Wines, who took great risks and made intrepid investments in riesling vineyards when others demurred.

Stanley Leasingham was another great riesling name of yore, Tim Adams being a present-day beneficiary of the wisdom of its boss, ‘Mr Mick’ Knappstein. Knappstein and Leasingham may have been the instigators of the trademark Clare red blend, the Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec, which is a tradition carried on by several in the area, not least the wonderfully olde worlde Wendouree, which is arguably the region’s most distinguished vineyard, making sought-after reds from ancient dry-grown, own-rooted vines.

While the statistics reveal 88% of Clare’s varietal make-up is just five grape varieties, the other 12% is an intriguing mixture. There is plenty of grenache and mataro, but also Clare has embraced the Mediterranean, and especially the Italian varieties. Fiano in whites, sangiovese, nero d’avola and tempranillo in reds are especially successful and popular.

It would be tempting to paint Clare as a staid and hidebound wine community but that would be incorrect. New faces are appearing, perhaps not with the frequency of larger regions but they are there. Artwine is doing an impressive range of alternative varietals from Clare grapes:

Leave Your Hat On Montepulciano, Madame V Viognier, Wicked Stepmother Fiano, Grumpy Old Man Grenache, Masterpiece Grenache Gris, and Pack Leader Cabernet Franc.

While the statistics reveal 88% of Clare’s varietal make-up is just five grape varieties, the other 12% is an intriguing mixture.

Fiano is being produced by Hesketh, Pike’s, Miss Zilm, Grosset, Tim Adams, Artwine and probably others.

Newer arrivals fielding Clare wines include Atlas Wines, Bourke & Travers, Vinteloper, and the Jaeschke family has revitalised the former Penfolds Clare Estate as Jaeschke’s Hill River Estate. Mark Barry, formerly winemaker at Jim Barry Wines, has his own venture, Mad Bastard Wines.

As for attractions, a massive investment has been made in the Watervale Hotel by Warrick Duthy and Nicola Palmer. It’s the most exciting new hangout in Clare for wine and food tragics in a long time.

Clare at a glance

  • 35 cellar doors
  • Altitude 190-600m a.s.l.
  • 5,000ha of vines – 3% of Australia’s total vineyard area.
  • 72% red grapes (versus 64% nationally)
Main grape varieties planted
Grape VarietyPercentage planted
Shiraz35%
Riesling26%
Cabernet sauvignon21%
Merlot4%
Chardonnay2%

Temperatures have crept up over the last 30 years.

Time periodMJTGDD
1961-1990 ave.21.6 ºC1778
1992-2021 ave.22.6 ºC1897

(MJT = mean January temperature; GDD is growing season degree days: October to April).

And it’s gotten a little drier:

Time periodAnnual Ave. rainfallAnnual Ave. rainfall during vine growing season
1961-1990 ave.568 mm218 mm
1992-2021 ave.527 mm222 mm

 


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