Road Trip: Clare Valley

I've been a little astonished at how quickly my body clock has adjusted to the new time it must keep. To commute into Melbourne for work I need to rise at 5am and catch the 6:12am train from Castlemaine which is 15 minutes drive from the house.

I've have never been known as an early riser, nor particularly well known for going to bed at a sensible hour. While the desire to be an early riser has been with me for some time, my efforts have been rather less than spectacular seeing me struggle to leave the warmth of my nest anytime before 7:15am to this point. Now there is something about the country air or the quality of sleep I'm getting these days which has resulted in me waking a full ten minutes before my alarm and managing this new and previously impossible regime with very suprisingly little effort.

I hope I am not speaking too soon. It is, after all, still early days.

While I've been in Australia for over 4 years, I haven't traveled outside Melbourne very often: a couple of trips to Newstead and Rutherglen, a number of times to Sydney but that's all. That was one of the opportunities I imagined I'd have by moving to the country - the chance to see a different side of Victorian life outside the city.

This weekend I went clean out of the State of Victoria into South Australia to Adelaide (I think Adelaide is to Melbourne, as Hamilton is to Auckland) and the Clare Valley.

Getting to and from anywhere from my new home in the country takes a little longer than when I lived in Melbourne. That's not to say it's too arduous, it's all particularly comfortaby actually, it just takes a bit longer to get to a central point of departure, such as an airport.

The beginning of this trip found me at the train station awaiting the early Friday morning express into the city. Instead of my normal work day though, I was on my way to a weekend of wonderful friends, possibly great food and fine wine in the Clare Valley, South Australia.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

I'd packed for the trip as if it would be as cold as Victoria is rapidly becoming at the moment. Rubbing my bare hands together, realising just how much is was snowing somewhere in this State of Extremes, and wishing I had bought gloves a week ago, the 6:12am to Melbourne's Southern Cross Station came around and into view slowing to stop and pick up all of the passengers taking the same trip into the city.

Bundling and trundling my small purple carry-on bag, I settled into my seat beside the cold, dark window and plugged my earphones into place to find out if Proust really could save my life via an audio book, and drifted off into the land of charming English accents and accounts of particular French writers for the 70 minute trip into town.

Arriving at the central train station in Melbourne is an efficient affair. I can turn left or right from my carriage to end up either travelling up either Collins or Bourke Streets, respectively, to get to work. But this morning I had the day off and a plane ticket to Adelaide so instead of a tram up and into the city, I caught the SkyBus which barrelled along the highway for the 20 minutes it takes to get out to Tullamarine Airport and meet with the rest of the crew who were trucking in from various locals in the city.

Our plan for the weekend ran according to a schedule of a few cornerstone events and the rest to be decided as we went. We picked up a mini van after landing at Adelaide airport and then the 8 of us were on our way. Getting to where we were going only took a dozen or so previously researched directions and a 90 minute drive to arrive at Mars' Aunt's beautifully restored Stanley Grammar School in Watervale.

Stanley Grammar School, Watervale, SA

This restored building is so gorgeous and deceptively huge. I'd seen a floorplan several weeks before the trip, but it failed to capture the size of the place. Between the Billard Room, Library, Dining and Lounge rooms - not to mention the 14 foot ceilings, verandahs and plentiful pantry, this place is punching well above its weight. As there were eight of us, we had the whole place to ourselves and we were pretty gleeful at the prospect.

After our tour of the place, and dibs on rooms, we met Lill. She lives next door to the School and had offered her services as our driver so we could all drink wine and not worry about transport. Sweet!

99 bottles of wine on the wall, 99 bottles of wine...

Our first order of business was food, and we were off with Lill to our reservation at Skillogalee. This had been booked weeks before on recommendations from - well, everybody who has ever been to Clare Valley, actually. "You *must* eat at Skillogalee!" they all said so we did: eventually. They were expecting us; not sure why it took so long to order everything! but hey, we weren't in a rush, but we were also really hungry!

The star of most people's weekend started at this lunch. The Gewurztraminer was a big hit with most of the group, and a carton was purchased on leaving to go back to the warmth of our accommodation. After such a large, late lunch, we opted for dips, breads and crackers rather than a full dinner later that evening. We talked and giggled and drank our way into our first evening in the Valley.

I faded first and fast. Seems these early starts work mostly because I'm in bed and asleep by 10pm and that night was no exception though there were a few surprised comments of people more used to me staying til the last. I took myself off to my crisply laundered bed on the ground floor and fell asleep to the distant hoots of Gewurztraminer-fueled laughter and billiard ball clatter.

I woke early - 4:50am - it's crazy isn't it? I've only had this routine for about a week, I had no idea that's all it took to change a lifetime of sleeping late. Don't panic, though. I didn't get up - I'm not crazy. I dozed until about 8am then got up, dressed, and made myself breakfast to bring back to my room.

Turning the fan heater on (one of those ones with fake flames) I settled down on the French-style settee and got stuck into my porridge, tea and new book.

Slowly, through the morning, I heard other people wake and come downstairs, and at about 10am I left the sanctuary of my cosy room to see what was happening. Great timing, as there had been a community effort and a cooked breakfast was about to be served on the long table in the Billiard Room. Not too many places can have eight people sit down to share a meal, but this wonderful place had two such long tables. This table was the more rustic of the two, and we all tucked in to our perfectly poached eggs, grilled tomatoes, bacon and toast.

Two breakfasts is not the shabbiest way to start a day, you know.

After cleaning up, it was time to climb aboard Lil's tour of The Clare, and our first and only non-alcohol stop at the local craft store. They didn't have much in the way of anything, which is a shame given they called themselves something like Craft and Clutter. But I did buy a charming dish and a small quilted rug which I am very happy with. See? even when I'm not sleeping it's all about the sleeping!

Hitting the road, hard

Now on the business proper, and off to the Knappstein Brewery.

I find it a bit hard to know what to do on tasting tours. Yes, I know that I'm sposed to taste wine, but I'm very unsure of the etiquitte, of what is expected, and the fact that it seemed that - apart from Claymore and Annie's Lane - the hosts weren't all that welcoming. Not that they're unwelcoming, exactly, everyone was friendly enought but, they all acted like a) we ought to know what to do and b) they're really rather be doing something other than this 'front of house' stuff.

We milled about Knappstien and wondered if we'd be invited in, then made our way in on our own and looked at jars of chutney and bottles of olive oil, then to kind of gravitate towards the bar - kinda stiddled up on it - and the woman behind it who let us know what was up for free tasting and what required a $5 charge (redeemable on any bottles purchased so yay). She was a perfectly nice woman, and it was a perfectly nice brewery - but I can't help wanting someone to be more welcoming with information about what to do and how to do it and maybe even offer a tour of the plant or something. This wasn't just a comment for the Knappstein Brewery, but for nearly all the cellar doors we darkened.

Maybe I'm asking too much. Maybe I should have done some research. Maybe I'm just too much of a townie and a tourist.

Lill suggested our next stop could be Sevenhills, or "The Church" as she said no trip to The Clare was complete without it. This vineyard was one of the oldest in the Valley. I don't think any of us were expected "the church" as we drove up the sweeping driveway to the cellar door. No wonder it was known as The Church. A tall, brick Catholic Church emerged from the trees and it was as if we had been transported to Tuscany or Bordeau or some other place with a f*ck off church in the middle of it with paddocks of thick, bare vines, a statue of the Virgin Mary enshrined near the fields and this towering house of God nestled in between.

Stomachs were starting to rumble or rather: gurgle, as they had more liquid in them than anything. So it was off to O'leary Walker Wines for some late lunching. Many places in the Clare offer food, but from what I saw they really preferred small groups and didn't cater for large numbers of people - generally requiring a booking not just rocking up. We hadn't booked anywhere and O'leary's would be big enough to cope with the eight of us. Plus, Lill said, they were known for their "bubbles". So we arrived, ordered one each of their platters and a few bottles of wine.

view from OLeary Walker Wines

Now I don't know if they had some sort of crisis in the kitchen, but it took over an hour and a half for them to get four platters out to us. We didn't much care except a) we were hungry b) we were drinking on very empty stomachs and c) Lill was sitting in the van waiting for us! (we did invite her to join us but she preferred her own company)

Eventually the platters arrived and while they contained some nice tasting nibbles, they weren't as big as we were expecting for the price. But that said, it was good to eat, and we passed the platters up and down the table so everyone got a bit of everything.

Eventually we ate and left, taking in one more vineyard, Claymore where I bought a very nice bottle of chardonney (or two, ahem), and then picking up another case of the Gewertz from Skillogalee on the way back to the School. Our evening was pretty special, with a full three course meal served on the main, gorgeous dinning room by a personal chef and waiter who did such a grand job of looking after us: very spoilt. Dinner company was sterling and we all had a very relaxing, delicious evening.

Sunday morning we ate, said our goodbyes to Aunt Denise and Uncle Frank (not mine but you know, they were so lovely) and made our way a few meters up the road to the Crabetree Vineyard to begin our wine tasting journey back to the airport in Adelaide.

Crabtree is a boutique vineyard, and by far the most pleasurable of our cellar door visits. Richard Woods, owner and manager of the vineyard, looked after us wonderfully. He has just the right touch of humour and knowledge (in fact he has tons of knowledge) and was warm, welcoming and extremely helpful. Makes a good drop of wine too plus looks after retired show chooks, or turkeys, or whatever those birds were.

Then it was off to Annie's Lane. Super wines and wonderful hosts, we had a blast at our very last Clare Valley winery.

One thing to remember when touring wine country and purchasing wines, is that the vineyards will ship bottles for you so you don't have to limit your spending based on boot space. Most of the vineyards we visited offered this service, and for a moderate fee in some cases, and free when we purchsed by the case in other places. They would even let us stash other vineyard's bottles to make up a dozen to ship, though they all noted they wouldn't replace any broken bottles if they weren't their own. Good to know, and made the shopping all the more invisible!

"You off to the Barossa? The land of the snitz? The Clare is about lamb, the Barossa about the schnitzel. There are very few creatures that have walked this earth that haven't been schnitzel'd in the Barossa." Richard from Crabtree Vineyard

Maggie Beer and the Barossa

A great and wonderful surprise to me was that Maggie Beer's Farm Shop in the Barossa was on our way back to Adelaide! I provide an exclamation point because I am still pleased as punch with this news today as I was squeally excited at the time.

Amazing staff, excellent prices on Maggie's range - I bought a nice olive oil and dukkah, along with a couple of bottles of verjuice. Honestly, I could have bought the entire shop!

I ordered the pheasent terreine for lunch and, because it was going to take 15 minutes to prepare, I was given a pottle of my favourite Maggie Beer pate to tide me over. You know, in case I faded away from starvation in the time it took to get my meal. Delicious deliciousness!

And then we went back to Adelaide, to return the van, to board the plane, to fly back to Melbourne and leave our lovely weekend behind.

It was glorious and lovely and such a wonderful way to spend a Winter weekend. Don't let any of my niggles about vineyards and cellar doors put you off - they're mine and I own them all - just go, relax, and enjoy the stunning beauty of the Clare Valley. It's such an easy trip and so worth it.