Friday, 7 November 2008

An early night was, as it turned out, the smart option. 

Through the night, the wind picked up, not enough to disturb the slumber at first, but in the predawn hours as the wind howled and the rain swept across in scuds of varying intensity a warm bed was the place to be.

Somewhere around two, the wind dropped, and the thunder moved in, eerie in the silence and threatening enough to make a return to sleep a difficult proposition. 

But with several hours of sleep already under the belt, lying half-awake listening to the rolls of thunder gave me a chance to think back over the previous couple of days.

Madam’s research activities had, once again, paid off. 

She looked at a number of possibilities before booking us into one of the cottages that operate under the name of Lavender Blue. There are two cottages on site, one (Tuscany) occupying the upper level of the premises while the second (Provence) is tucked away on the lower level of the 130-year old building on the northern outskirts of Auburn.

We’ve stayed in a number of similar establishments in a variety of locations over the past few years, and while all of them had their particular strong points, Tuscany was definitely among the very best of them. For some, the fact that the Main North Road runs past the front door might be a problem, but the passing traffic noise wasn’t enough to disturb a good night’s sleep. 

Thunder, on the other hand, was a different proposition.

Each morning we’d managed a hearty breakfast from the provisions supplied, and that was after we’d fashioned a light supper out of the supplies on the first night. There was plenty of room, the view from the upper levels of the building was fantastic, and everything that we needed was on hand, even if an item sometimes took a little finding.

A sauna and access to bicycles were a definite bonus as well. If we’re back in the area and Tuscany is available I don’t see any point in looking elsewhere.

After polishing off the remaining breakfast ingredients, once we’d packed up and loaded the chariot, we headed off for a flying visit to Annie’s Lane. After that, we planned to side-track through Mintaro, so Someone could get some photos of Martindale Hall en route to the Barossa.

When we arrived at the former Quelltaler Winery (nowadays Annie’s Lane) we learnt the overnight weather had done more than rumble ominously. 

Significant power outages in between Clare and Auburn meant we were probably lucky to have progressed as far as we had. 

The morning’s breakfast and ironing, in particular, would have been grossly hampered by lack of power.

The accommodation at Tuscany had come with a 20% discount voucher for use at Annie’s Lane, which was, to be honest, the primary motivation for a visit (in case we ran across anything interesting, you understand). In the end, I ended up having a cursory taste of what was on offer. 

The range didn’t seem to be offering anything out of the ordinary, and the wines are widely available and often discounted. 

Everything was sound, well-made and perfectly acceptable. I’d be happy with the Riesling if it turned up on a restaurant wine list, for instance. In our part of the world, that’d be a likely prospect, but over the past couple of days, I’d tried a number of wines that would, in my opinion, be better investments when you’re looking at a dozen bottles you’re not likely to find at the local bottle shop.

We arrived at Martindale Hall to find the gates closed, and since they weren’t scheduled to open for another twenty minutes (all we wanted was a couple of photos, after all) we decided to bid a fond farewell to the Clare Valley and make for the winemaking big smoke.

The trip through Manoora, Riverton, Tarlee and Kapunda was uneventful apart from a mild degree of concern as to whether the fuel supply would hold out. Just before midday, we turned off in Tanunda in search of parking and information. 

On the way, we’d passed Penfolds and a host of other wineries that it would probably be worth a visit, but a quick check in the Barossa guide book we picked up listed fifty-five wineries. So, working on, say, five a day we’d be looking at more than a week and a half if we were going to be visiting them all. As it was, we didn’t have a full day at our disposal before the car was due back in Adelaide.

In any case, after three days in Clare, any suggestion along those lines would have been tantamount to relationship suicide. I’d figured out that we could probably visit two without too much drama. 

The question was, under the circumstances, which two?

Which is where the research factor comes in. 

Given the numerical constraints, I restricted my research to the places Mr Halliday had assigned five stars. That meant we were still looking at twenty-one wineries.

It was obvious other selection criteria were needed. 

For a start, there was no way I wanted to pull into somewhere that was, even on Friday afternoon, likely to be packed, which ruled out some of the higher-profile establishments.

Many years ago I’d had the good fortune to come across a Shiraz from Rockford and had constantly been on the lookout for any of their wines ever since, with absolutely no success whatsoever. Since, as far as I can make out, their distribution doesn’t extend into our part of the world I figured Rockford was one of the two to visit.

I’d also run across a number of references to Thorn-Clarke as one of the rising stars of the Australian wine industry, and since it was close to the night’s accommodation I thought I’d found the second one.

But that was before I started looking at websites. 

Once I’d finished going through those there was only one choice - Seppeltsfield.

For a start, something was lacking in my tasting experience, and the something was the high-quality sherry-style wines produced in Australia. Looking at the photos on the website it was obvious the buildings and grounds would provide Madam with heritage-oriented photographic interest while I had a taste or two.

Once we’d picked up a guide book and the map it was time to think about lunch, but even before the German-accented lady drew a circle around it on the map, Madam had decided lunch was going to be a picnic basket from Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop. She’d also set her heart on trying the ice-cream there.

We drove out through light drizzle, parked and wandered indoors to find that the picnic basket was an eat-it-here affair of pate, dips and bread. There was an area where we could taste the pate, and once we’d made our selection it was a case of grabbing a table overlooking the lake which, even through the drizzle, was a pleasure to behold.

I’d opted for mushroom pate and a glass of Beer Brothers Semillon Chardonnay for lunch, while Madam’s had the red pepper version and a non-alcoholic Cabernet.

Looking at the contents of each little basket you might feel you’d need a bit more to keep you going for the rest of the day. I found there was just enough to fill the yawning void without leaving you too bloated to be able to fit in a little liquid afterwards.

Madam picked up some ice-cream on the way out, planning to give it time to soften a little on the way to nearby Seppeltsfield. On the way, we passed two wineries that my research suggested could well be worth visiting, but the game plan brooked no variation.

Approaching Seppeltsfield Madam was impressed by the hilltop Seppelt Family Mausoleum looking out across the valley, and by the avenues of huge ancient date palms along the way.

A pause in the precipitation gave me a chance to duck over into the tasting room while Madam sat in the car with the ice-cream. 

Safely inside the tasting area, I took a stroll around the museum displays. 

Having been sold off by Fosters, Seppeltsfield is now owned by the same interests as Kilikanoon. In the processes involved with the sale the stocks of table wines were separated from the fortified stocks, so while there were table wines available to taste, they were going to be much the same as some of the range I’d sampled at Kilikanoon the day before. 

In any case, I wasn’t there for the table wines.

The starting point on the fortified trail was the Flora Fino (500mL $22), absolutely bone dry and an excellent aperitif or a delightful accompaniment to tapas. It was made from Palomino, as was the Clara Blanca Amontillado (500 mL $20), wine which had, believe it or not, sixteen years in wood.

And it showed.

The third sherry on offer was the Vera Viola Oloroso, a semi-sweet wine that is, or so I was told, more in the Spanish style.

These are wines that are flying under the radar as far as popular taste in Australia is concerned. In a way, you’d almost hope they stay that way and never make a comeback. If that were to be the case, the aficionados might be able to quietly enjoy sipping away at some fine styles without breaking the bank. But, on the other hand, there’s a danger they’ll disappear altogether if producing them becomes less attractive to the bean-counters who are starting to rule the roost in the upper echelons of the big wine concerns.

However, now I know what I’ve been missing I’ll be doing my bit to sustain them in the future.

Moving on to the Tawny side of things the Cellar No. 7 ($20) with an average age of five years was a light style that doesn’t need a log fire on a cold winter night while the Para Grand Tawny ($26) with an average age of ten years was wonderfully complex.

The sale of the winery and its large stocks of unfashionable fortified wine meant the new owners acquired substantial supplies of Rutherglen Muscat and Tokay and, as a lover of both there was no way I was going to be walking out without sampling what was on offer. 

The Cellar No. 6 Tokay and Cellar No. 8 Muscat (both $20) were excellent examples of the younger version of these great Rutherglen styles, while the Grand Tokay and Grand Muscat (both 500mL $32) were just superb.

The ownership shakeout has resulted in changes to names and labelling, but someone wandering into a bottle shop to find something under the Seppelts label at around the same price point will probably be looking at the same product,

Back in the car, we made our way back to and through Tanunda on the way to my other must visit winery, Rockford Wines in Krondorf Road. 

Arriving at the stonewalled compound Madam decided she liked the look of the place, an impression reinforced as we walked into the tasting room, which had the look and feel of an ancient cellar rather than some modern architect’s self-indulgent showcase.

Which is the way I like it. 

These places are supposed to be all about the wine. Multimillion dollar winery complexes are all very well, but you can’t help suspecting a showy exterior may be an attempt to distract you from the wine.

And the wines were stunning.

2006 Hand Picked Eden Valley Riesling ($19) was excellent. Loads of flavour, lovely finish, a match for anything we’d tried over the previous couple of days. Even better was the 2004 Local Growers Semillon, an aged style that, in the words of the cellar door tasting notes invites itself to lunch. At $18, I suspect I’ll be inviting some into the wine rack.

The 2008 White Frontignac ($15.50) had a touch of sweetness without being cloying, much like the Gewurztraminers we’d tried in Clare, and was another wine that would go well with spicier dishes.

Moving on to the red side of things, the 2008 Alicante Bouchet is a lovely light summer red, an almost ideal Rose style without any sweetness. One to chill and chill out over while nibbling on a Christmas/New Year lunch. One of my first acts on returning home was to order a case. The 2004 Moppa Springs (47% Grenache, 40% Mataro 13% Shiraz $23.50) was nicely complex with a fantastic rounded mouth-feel and a joy to swirl slowly around the palate. One to savour.

The 2005 Rod & Spur ($29.50), named for the traditional pruning method, was a huge wine that took absolutely no prisoners but was surprisingly mild for its size. The 2005 Rifle Range Cabernet Sauvignon was another big, full-bodied style with real Cabernet character, enormous and earthy but still mild with it. Fantastic.

It isn’t usually available for tasting, but there was an opened bottle of the 2001 Shiraz VP ($62.50), so we had a chance to try a stunning wine that should last for years. One to buy and lay down for a 50th birthday (assuming you have offspring born in 2001) or, maybe those of us born in ‘51 might think about laying one down if we’re confident of making it to the century mark.

I was more than happy with the state of the world when we headed away from Rockford, following the Scenic Heritage Drive, but the conditions didn’t favour sightseeing so Madam suggested I might like to visit another winery, which provided an opportunity to readmit Thorn-Clarke to the tasting schedule.

The winery, located east of Angaston, is slightly out of the way. As we pulled into the car park, I wondered, surveying the list of mining-related companies beside the door, whether we’d come to the right place, but once we’d been directed to the door on our left, it was obvious that we had. 

The Thorn-Clarke core range ($15) comprised wines that were consistently excellent, starting with the 2007 Sandpiper Riesling, a cool-climate style made from Eden Valley fruit. The 2007 Sandpiper Pinot Gris was, predictably, in the French rather than the Italian style with strong pear flavours and the 2006 Sorriso Rose, a blend of Nebbiolo and Cabernet was a dry, easy-drinking style. Another one for a summer afternoon. 

Of the core range reds 2007 Sandpiper Shiraz ticked all the right boxes, and 2007 Sandpiper Cabernet Sauvignon was an excellent easy-drinking wine, as was the 2005 Sandpiper The Blend (Shiraz, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc).

Further up the price range in the premium wines, 2007 Shotfire Chardonnay ($20) was on the buttery side of the spectrum (the style I like), and 2007 Pinot Gris ($20) was surprisingly similar despite the fact it hadn’t had the malolactic fermentation that usually leads to those characters. Interesting. 

From there it was a matter of checking into the accommodation at the Vineyards Motel, an unprepossessing establishment that had the advantage of being across the road from Vintners Restaurant, the venue we’d selected for dinner, and the adjacent Saturday morning Farmers’ Markets.

Dinner was an enjoyable and relaxed affair, involving the chicken and kangaroo dishes from the daily specials. 

I chose a glass of Tin Shed Cabernet Franc ($9) to go with the ‘roo, though the most memorable part of the evening came after we’d started the walk home. The walk quickly became a run as we crossed Stockwell Road, pursued by rain that had been threatening to do something more than drizzle all day and had waited till we were on foot in the open to do so.

© Ian Hughes 2017