Touring the Clare Valley is a delight. But if you really want to appreciate the area’s natural beauty and world-class wines, you’re best to go by bike, along the Riesling Trail, says LYNN ELSEY

Picture the scene: after parking your mountain bikes, you and your partner amble out of the mid-afternoon heat into the cool confines of Tim Adams’ cellar door.As you brush off the trail dust, the fellow behind the counter sets out two wine glasses and asks, ‘can I start you with the 2008 Riesling?’ After tasting a few of the winery’s gems and topping up your water bottles, you head back out to your bikes, continuing along the Riesling Trail to the next stop – Leasingham Wines.

Cutting through the heart of South Australia’s bucolic Clare Valley, the Riesling Trail runs from the tiny village of Auburn to the larger mini-town of Clare itself. Passing through fields, vineyards and villages, the 25km cycling and walking trail offers an agreeable way to experience the sights, sounds and tastes of this peaceful wine region – not to mention a scenic way to work off the Prosciutto wrapped Burra beef fillet and chocolate whisky cake from lunch at Skillogalee Winery. Although the trail which runs along an old railway line – has been around for about 10 years, it’s still a relatively undiscovered and under-used venture. Then again, even for Australians, the Clare Valley is something of a well-keptsecret.

But how the area’s picturesque stone villages, award-winning wineries, locally produced foods, cosy cottages and low-key environment have remained off the standard tourism radar is a mystery.Clare is one of the few Australian wine regions where wine is still the raison d’être, meaning those on a quest for designer togs, trendy boutique hotels or swish, glossy restaurants will be disappointed – the most popular venue for evening dining here is the deck of a secluded vineyard cottage. But for those who relish environs where passion for the product still rules the day, Clare is a special place. With hot days and cool nights, the region’s rolling hills provide an ideal home for stunning

Riesling, and elegant Shiraz and Cabernet.

The ‘valley’ itself is actually a series of smaller dales with a surprising number of

microclimates. ‘There’s probably a dozen or two world-class Rieslings in Clare,’

claims Peter Barry. As the managing director of Jim Barry Wines, Barry is clearly not without bias, but the medal count of the area’s beloved tipple provides ample ammunition to back up his claims. The Rieslings continually rack up accolades and awards – and that’s before you consider the reds. While South Australia has a reputation for powerful – sometimes overpowering – Shiraz, Clare’s Cabernets and Shirazes stand out for their restrained elegance; the same can be said for the area’s attitude towards wine and tourism. Tucked away in a quiet area an hour and a half north of Adelaide (a good half-hour northwest of the better-known Barossa Valley), the Clare Valley fits the moniker ‘off-thebeaten- track’ remarkably well. Exploring the region is an easy proposition. Whether propelled by bike, foot or car along the main trail or one of the trail’s loops, options to entice the senses are almost as plentiful as the ubiquitous Australian gum trees. Setting off from Sevenhill, for example,

a left turn on the Riesling Trail leads to O’Leary Walker, Wakefield, Grosset and Clos Clare wineries. Turn right and the wines of Tim Adams, Neagles Rock and Jim Barry await. Opt for the John Horrocks Loop and you could soon be sampling Kilikanoon’s Covenant Shiraz or Mitchell’s Watervale Riesling.

For some visitors, trouncing the trail is the goal. They zoom along, notching up the kilometres and ignoring the delicious diversions along the way. For others, the trail is a fun way to take a closer look at curiosities such as Murray Edwards’ art studio and gallery. The charms of the ridgetop location and picturesque mudbrick cottage are matched by the geniality of the artist, who is as likely to invite a visitor back for a glass of wine while he sketches as he is to showcase his paintings. Indeed, the Clare’s stone cottages are one of the threads that link the valley. From crumbling hillside status to thelovingly restored examples in the village of Mintaro, they provide constant reminders of the history, land and individual touch of the region. At the small wineries dotting the hills and valleys, your contact in the tasting room is likely to have a personal connection with the vineyard. On any given day you might find Leigh Eldredge pouring at Eldredge Wines or Ali Paulett discussing the flavours of the 2004 Andreas Shiraz at Paulett Wines. Along with stopping to investigate historic buildings or bushland rife with ’roos, food and drink breaks are part and parcel of the trail experience.

Along with a handful of more traditional winerybased options, gourmet hampers and platters are easily arranged for al fresco dining along the trail. And rest assured, in true relaxed Clare style, there is no requirement to knock off all or even half of the trail in one go. Flexibility for exploring the trail underpins the bike hire company Cogwebs. Located at the south end of the trail, the friendly crew will happily retrieve tired cyclists from anywhere along the route. If you just want a small taster of the experience, it’s as simple as picking up a bike along the trail, at Sevenhill Cellars for example, and taking a short spin in the countryside. The locals will gladly provide suggestionsfor less hilly sections or places to picnic.

Theoretically, the trail can be covered, one way, in two and a half hours by bike or seven hours by foot, but such an endeavour would defeat the purpose of the trail: to savour the Clare. The nature of the area’s pace – slowish – provides the time to soak up the real flavour of the place. Peter Barry says that the substance of Clare is as simple as turning left or require a few trips up and down dusty hills, manoeuvering in and out of cellar doors and plenty of time to chat with the owner of your quaint cottage who sells his grapes on to local producers. The result is taking away a sense of the region’s true passions… community, taking time to enjoy life and some sumptuous wine.

Written by LYNN ELSEY