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The Clare Valley
Part 1: introduction

I don’t think it would be mean to say that South Australia’s Australia’s Clare Valley doesn’t have a terribly high profile, as wine regions go. Of course, most wine geeks will have heard about it, but few will be able to place it, or name more than a couple of its wineries.

But the Clare was thrust into the international spotlight in 2000, when it briefly assumed the mantle of champion of the screwcap. Clare winemakers, frustrated by the poor performance of cork, banded together to make a stand on the issue.

Clare is famous for its Rieslings, and these wines are made in a style that shows up any cork-related faults particularly transparently. The Clare winemakers had to overcome a significant logistical obstacle before they could offer their wines in screwcap: at the time, there was no Australian supplier who could offer bottles and caps of the required style and quality. As a result, they had to drum together enough like-minded producers willing to adopt screwcaps to generate an order for 250 000 bottles from Pechiney in France, which was the threshold needed to make this possible. 

With a collaborative effort, they managed it, and the combined shift was large enough to make headlines, for what at the time seemed a very brave move. Jeffrey Grossett, one of the winemakers involved, estimates that from this humble beginning, during the 2004 vintage 200 million wine bottles will be sealed with screwcaps in Australia, roughly 10% of the entire Australian production. The Clare initiative started the ball moving, and prompted the New Zealand winemakers to form the NZ Screwcap Initiative a year later. ‘We were inspired and encouraged by the success of the Clare Valley Riesling move to screwcaps in 2000’, reports one of the founder members, Michael Brajkovich MW of New Zealand’s Kumeu River Wines, ‘and like them we realized that we could achieve much more with a combined effort than we could ever do individually.’ So Clare has handed the baton on to the New Zealand guys, although screwcaps are increasingly being used for reds here and not just Rieslings. 

Aside from its contribution to the closures debate, Clare is also home to some very smart wines indeed. My visit was prompted by an email from Andrew Mitchell, one of the leading Clare producers, who found out I was visiting South Australia. He invited me to stay for a night and take a look around, and I was happy to oblige.

I drove up on Sunday morning from the Barossa. It isn’t far; a gentle drive through attractive farming country, taking an hour or so. Once you are there, the Clare’s quite an easy place to get your head around because it isn’t too big; while it’s not strictly a single valley (it’s more like a couple, with gentle rolling hills separating them), most of the action is signposted and reachable from a single road, running right through the middle of things. There’s also a nice walking route, well signposted, called the Riesling trail. If you fancy a nice weekend in wine country, you could do far worse than target Clare…

Some history. The first vines were planted in Clare in 1850 at Sevenhill, and a number of wineries were established at this time. Another burst of activity occurred in the 1890s, when more wineries – including Wendouree – sprung into action. Leasingham (then known as The Stanley Wine Company) was established in the 1920s, and then nothing much happened until the 1960s, when there was another surge of interest, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s more wineries popped up. Things seem to be buzzing here now (in a laid back, Clare sort of way).

I was only here for a couple of days, so this will be just the briefest sketch of the Clare. I visited Grosset, Mitchell and Wendouree. It's on my list of places to revisit.

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