Thursday, 6 November 2008

Having decided to make full use of the facilities on offer at the cottage, Madam had indulged in a sauna the evening after we arrived and I’d indicated that I wouldn’t mind a ride along the Riesling Trail on one of the bikes stored in the shed at the back of the premises.

Yesterday had dawned bleak and drizzly, putting that concept into the Not this morning, Josephine basket, but a cloudless sky took care of any excuses, and I set off around 7:10, planning to ride to Leasingham and back before breakfast.

Bearing the fact that I don’t recall riding a bike at any point over the past twenty-plus years and that most of the route along that section of the Riesling Trail covered a gentle uphill slope, the news that I didn’t quite make it into Leasingham mightn’t come as a great surprise.

I turned back when I reached the tank farm behind O’Leary Walker at the time I’d planned to start the return journey and coasted downhill for much of the way back.

After a shower and breakfast, it was back to Clare for the start of what I think is the most overwhelming day’s wine tasting I’ve experienced to date.

The basic plan was to start at Jim Barry, pop into Neagles Rock, and then side-track across the highway to the Quarry Hill lookout and some photos (but no tasting) at historic Sevenhill Cellars. From there we planned to head around the Spring Gully Loop to Skillogalee for lunch, then on to Mitchell, Kilikanoon, Olssen and (maybe) Crabtree on the way home. Ambitious? Yes, but I thought it was doable with an early start if we were able to space the tasting and slip Mitchell (and maybe Kilikanoon) in before Skillogalee and lunch.

We weren’t out of the blocks as quickly as I would have liked. It was around ten when we pulled into Jim Barry, behind a foursome from Brisbane who had some connection to the winery’s Queensland distributor and were there for a long and leisurely tasting. With two groups of tasters and a couple of outside interruptions, we were there quite a bit longer than I’d planned. 

That combination of factors produced much more copious tasting notes than I was able to manage elsewhere. Starting with Riesling, the 2008 Watervale ($15) was another in the run of fantastic wines that are the valley’s trademark. 

Anyone minded to quibble is reminded the track running along the former rail line from Auburn to Clare is the Riesling Trail rather than the Shiraz, Semillon Sauvignon Blanc or anything else Trail.

Slightly upmarket, 2007 Lodge Hill ($18) showed the benefit of bottle age and was quite excellent. 

The first knockout punch of the day came with the 2007 Florita ($40) a stellar wine made from free run juice (about 40% of the available volume) that was 100% Riesling without any trace of skin, stem or stalk. Quite simply, a fantastic wine. 2008 Silly Mid On Sauvignon Blanc Semillon was always going to pale in comparison.

From there, we moved on to Lavender Hill late picked styles, the 2007 Riesling (quite beautiful) and the 2006 Riesling Semillon, which reminded us of the Pfeiffer’s Late Picked Muscadelle and was on special at $30 the 375 mL half dozen. We broke the we’re not buying anything to carry home and invested in a six pack.

We started on the reds with 2004 Three Little Pigs Shiraz Cabernet Malbec ($18), nicely peppery with charming label artwork. The 4/6 label features a pig bowling what appears to be a perfectly flighted leg break! Questions about cricket references produced the explanation that the family had bought the old Penola Cricket Ground in the Coonawarra, source of the non-Clare component of The Cover Drive ($18), a blend of Cabernets from Clare and Coonawarra, a classy wine worthy of comparison to the classic shot of batsmanship. 

Things were warming up as we got to the 2006 Lodge Hill Shiraz ($18) with three gold medals to its name and great value for the price. 

As we moved towards the top of the range the quality, already almost stellar, made a succession of quantum leaps.

The 2005 First XI Cabernet (100% from Coonawarra $55) was stunning, and the Benbourie Cabernet Sauvignon (100% Clare $90) was sublime.

With the 2005 The McRae Wood Shiraz things just kept getting better. 

By the time we reached the summit (2005 The Armagh Shiraz $195), I’d run out of superlatives.

Walking out of the tasting room it was just as well we were about to make a diversion before the next winery because the palate (and the mind) needed time to clear after what we’d encountered.

We stopped at the lookout atop  Quarry Hill for a spectacular view over the Polish Hill River) and headed on to the Sevenhill Cellars, where Madam had a wander while I sat in the car trying to gather my thoughts before the next flurry of activity which was going to feature a succession of more five-star wineries. That was going to be tough, but we weren’t planning a return visit that would allow me to visit the ones we missed this time.

We pulled up at Neagles Rock long enough for me to alight so Madam could continue over to investigate the Tourist Information Centre, leaving me to make my way past the amiable winery dog and make my way to the Cellar Door. Tasting kicked off with NV Chardonnay Pinot Noir ($19), an everyday drinking style that’d be worth investing in if we drank more of that style. 

Unfortunately, we still have 4/6 of last year’s bubbly purchase on hand, but anyone who drinks this style regularly should find it worth checking out. 

Predictably, the 2007 Riesling ($19) was yet another classic Clare Riesling. 2007 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc ($19) was also excellent though I was inclined to disagree with the suggestion that the Clare Valley does the style just as well as it does Riesling. Maybe I’m biased towards the straight variety rather than the blend.

I found every Riesling I tried in the area fitted into a recognisable regional style and, while showing subtle variations, were consistently superb expressions of the style. Most of the Semillon Sauvignon Blancs were outstanding wines though I didn’t pick up the same consistency of style.

Or maybe it’s just a case of Hughesy loves Riesling.

Moving into the reds, 2008 Sweet Dorothy Cabernet Rose ($19) was, as the name suggests, a sweeter style than most I’d tried, but that wasn’t a problem. Perfect summer drinking (yet again). 

The 2006 Grenache Shiraz ($20) was smooth and would be almost unrecognisable to anyone who’d cut his teeth on the big Grenaches of yesteryear. They were on the last stocks of the 2005 Shiraz ($25) which was excellent, but you’d need to be quick.

2006 Sangiovese ($25) was excellent with a lovely velvety mouthfeel and every inch the 94-point wine that Halliday rates it as while the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) was summed up very nicely in the cellar notes as not shy in any way. At the same time, it’s not aggressive. It makes its presence felt without trying to knock your block off.

By this stage it was 11:45 with a circuit around the Spring Gully Loop to the Spring Gully Lookout as the next item on the itinerary, then another winery (well, maybe two) before lunch. 

The Lookout wasn’t quite what I’d been hoping for. I thought we’d be looking east across vineyards whereas we ended up looking towards where the sun would set in a few hours’ time.

The time factor, after we’d spent so much longer than planned at Jim Barry (not that I’m objecting) meant it ended up as one more winery before lunch, so we headed over to the old stone apple shed that houses Mitchell Wines. Once we’d finished it wasn’t quite time for lunch, but there wasn’t time for another, particularly when the next stop was going to be Kilikanoon.

Lack of something to scribble on close at hand means I’m relying on memory to describe a relatively hurried visit to a winery where I liked everything on offer very much. The 2006 Watervale Riesling ($22) was another in a succession of fantastic wines. The 2004 GSM Grenache was excellent, with the S originating from Sangiovese rather than the usual Shiraz. The quality continued with the 2006 Peppertree Vineyard Shiraz ($25), 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) and the stunning 2000 McNicol Shiraz ($40).

If that seems to be giving the place short shift when I asked Madam for her impression of the place she suggested that it was probably the best winery we’d visited that day. When we met the foursome we’d seen at Jim Barry over lunch I was quite emphatic. They had to visit Mitchell.

Getting to Skillogalee and lunch meant a slight bit of backtracking, and since we were there slightly before the time we’d booked I tried some of the range. It was enough to suggest a glass of Riesling would go well with lunch. From the time we were seated under the olive tree, it was evident why we’d been told lunch at Skillogalee was a must do. A lovely spot. 

The views across the vines were divine, and the food was superb. I had half a dozen Coffin Bay oysters from the daily specials (hence the decision to go with a glass of Riesling), and both of us went for pasta with a creamy prawn and pea sauce which couldn’t possibly be faulted.

Back on the road, we headed to Kilikanoon, where I was struck by the contrast between the 2008 ‘Mort’s Block’ Riesling ($21). It was another beautiful expression of one of my all-time favourite wine styles and the 2008 ‘Mort’s Reserve’ Riesling ($30) taken from selected rows from the same vineyard. The difference was noticeable. I’d be happy to drink the former in any appropriate circumstance while the latter is stunning.

2007 Barrel Fermented Semillon ($18) had picked up buttery characteristics along the way, which was all right with me, while the 2007 Second Fiddle Rose ($18) was full-bodied, balanced, and an excellent summer wine, as was the 2006 Prodigal Grenache, another one in the contemporary softer style.

2005 Medley Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre was the kind of style that’d be the perfect match for Italian meat or pasta dishes and is the sort of wine that creeps up on you. Maybe it should carry a label advising caution when approaching the bottle. 2006 Blocks Road Cabernet Sauvignon ($29) wasn’t quite my cup of tea, though when she tried a sip Madam disagreed, and the 2005 Covenant Shiraz ($38) had a lovely long finish though it took quite a bit of swirling in the glass to bring it out.

Small wineries don’t come much more interesting than Olssens of Watervale, located at the end of a dirt track that might encourage the less fanatical among us to turn back. 

My iPod note reads unusual varieties such as Carmenere and Primitivo di Gioia so turning back wasn’t an option unless the road started degenerating into impassability.

Even if it had, I think I might have been tempted to get out and walk.

Again, this was a no notes taken episode. While I liked the whole range, for me the standouts were the ones I came for, the 2006 BHV Primitivo ($35), the 2006 BHV Carmenere ($35), the 2005 BHV MMS ($25) and 2005 The Olssen Six, a blend of all six classic Bordeaux varieties.

That’s something that doesn’t happen in Bordeaux any more since they stopped growing Carmenere after the phylloxera plague.

We had the time; it was on the way home, so we stopped into Crabtree Wines (as much for the view across Watervale as for the tasting opportunity. 

I couldn’t help myself and wandered into the Cellar Door while Madam roamed the hillside taking a few photos.

2008 Pomona Individual Block Riesling ($30) was stunning, a result of decision to pick and ferment every block of Riesling as a separate package. 

One particular parcel stood out, and a mere hundred dozen bottled. 

A wine for Riesling fans. 

The 2008 Hilltop Riesling ($15 cellar door only) was a slightly sweeter early drinking style, and 2008 Watervale Riesling was very much in the traditional Watervale style.

Of the other wines I tried before closing time, Watervale Zibibbo would work with spicy food in much the same way as a Gewurztraminer, while the 2006 Watervale Riesling was, predictably stellar. 

I liked the 2007 Tempranillo enough to shell out for a bottle in the expectation that we might need something to go with pizza or pasta over the rest of the trip.

Back in Auburn, dining options needed investigating. A walk around the village revealed the presence of a pizza operation that closed at eight o’clock (last orders half an hour earlier), so we decided to stroll back to the cottage, phone in an order just after seven and have an early night.

© Ian Hughes 2017