Yesterday (Thursday) I spent in the Clare Valley. The Clare is about 70 miles north of Adelaide, and is the northernmost wine growing region in South Australia. It's best known for Riesling.
On the way into Clare (the village) to find a motel, I stopped in at Jim Barry. I'd heard of them before - The Armagh is their superpremium Shiraz, and it goes for about A$140 a bottle. It was raining like crazy when we pulled into their parking lot, and the tasting room was small, wood-panelled, cozy, and inviting. The woman manning the shop showed up in a bit, smiled, and apologized that she was filling in for the regular staff (she normally works in the back office). Their riesling was decent and pretty inexpensive at around $15, but nothing spectacular. However, they had a 6-pack of rieslings, one from every six years starting with 1991, for a mere A$90, which seemed like a great deal - I could hardly pass up on the offer, but the car is just too full of wine right now, and I won't be able to drink it all before I left the country. They also had 6-packs of a 1998 riesling for A$20 (not a typo) - but they warned us that maybe only 3 or 4 of the bottles would be OK to drink. Pretty cool! I'm always impressed by tasting rooms that have a lot of wacky or older stuff you can't buy any other way. We did buy one bottle of the 1995 McRae Wood cabernet malbec for A$20 - an absolute steal. Had it with dinner last night - smooth, silky, wonderful. Only available at the cellar door though. The other McRae Wood wines struck me as OK but nothing really special; the only other standout was an A$12 botrytised riesling that was very tasty indeed, and great value for money. Dan bought a bottle; he's mad for stickies.
I then checked in to the Clare Central Motel (queen size room with continental breakfast, A$95), and decided to head all the way down the valley to Grosset. Jeffrey Grosset is basically Lord God King of Aussie Riesling, and his 2002 Watervale riesling is what I had for my birthday this year - lovely stuff, expensive at A$28 but worth every cent. I figured it'd be good to start there, buy the Polish Hill riesling (A$32 - even better than the Watervale, almost enough to make me burst into tears), try the Gaia (A$48 - the best Bordeaux style red I've had in Australia; I bought a bottle to cellar until 2010 or so), and (most importantly) get some tips on where else to go. I figured it'd be a good idea to go to the winery you know and love, and ask them for directions to the next stop.
[As an aside, the 2000 Gaia was sold out in Stelvin, so I had to settle for cork. Apparently only 30% was bottled in Stelvin, and they couldn't fill all orders for it, so they'll probably go all-Stelvin with the 2001.]
Grosset directed us to Mitchell, a few miles back towards Clare up some very twisty little roads off to the west. Now, I had never heard of these folks, and it's my great loss that I hadn't. In short, Mitchell get it more than anyone else I'd been to so far. Their 2001 Watervale riesling (Watervale is a very small area of the Clare Valley) was absolutely phenomenal. Not as jaw-dropping as the Grosset but wonderful and not quite so pricey - only A$18 a pop. I didn't try their semillon, but I did try their cellar door only late harvest riesling, which was absolutely lovely - sweet, sure, but not overly so, and perfect if you don't like bone dry rieslings. Seumas, this wine would probably make your day. From there, it was on to their grenache (wonderful, not 100% grenache, I think, which made it especially interesting), their shiraz (under Stelvin, interestingly enough; Dan bought one at $18), which was probably the best shiraz I'd had under A$20 at the time, and finally their botrytised semillon, which was absolutely lovely. Very much like a low end Sauternes, and I suspect much better if you could just leave it in the cellar for a few years.
The woman who poured the wines for us was a blast - very friendly, knowledgeable about how everything was produced, and kind. Yay for Mitchell.
Next stop on the list was Pikes, which is right next door to the Polish Hill church (Polish Hill, like Watervale, is a tiny area in the Clare Valley). I was a little bummed that they didn't have sangiovese open to pour for us, but they did offer to open the last remaining bottle so that I could have a taste. Their wines were uniformly good, but not really to my taste; the riesling was fine but just... a little flabby, I guess. Dan took a shine to their grenache shiraz mataro blend, which I felt was good but not as good as other Rhône blends, eg the Rosemount GSM. Still, at A$18, pretty good for what you paid. Their shiraz was okay, nothing special; the cabernet was fine, too, but it's really getting to the point where if it isn't absolutely wonderful or a great value, I don't want to buy it.
Next stop: Sevenhill. This is the oldest winery in the region, and a Jesuit one at that. The tasting room was woefully understaffed - just one dorky guy in a blue chambray shirt finishing up a A$700 order with a couple of seniors when we got in there. It took him a long time to get around to us. Their riesling was good, but too sweet for me; the only real flaw was that Mr Tasting Guy would not shut the fuck up while I was tasting it. I really hate it when the staff starts yakking endlessly about how you're about to experience lifted grapefruit (wha?) and citrussy, minerally flavours (well, yeah, but...). I really hate it because sometimes you actually start tasting what they're talking about, which feels like cheating to me. Anyhow, most of their stuff was pretty ordinary; the whites were too sweet, but the reds were actually surprisingly good. They had a Bordeaux blend (everything except petit verdot!) for less than A$20 that I would definitely have bought if I could've taken it directly home; cellar it for a decade and boom! you'd be in wino heaven. But, again, I'm trying to keep the purchases down to the truly phenomenal or collectable. They had a shiraz touraga malbec that was good but bizarre (it smelled like a Tandy leather moccasin kit), and a shiraz malbec that was surprisingly good for only A$14; Dan bought a bottle of that. (It'll be a perfect wine for a bistro BYO meal.) All in all, it seems that their major market are seniors with a sweet tooth; they sell lots of cheap port and sherry in plain liter bottles, and while we were there the grey nomads just kept on showing up and buying it buy the case. Still, if you're in the area and have lots of trunk space, the Bordeaux blend (sorry, can't remember what they call it) is worth the money any day of the week.
Let's see... what was next? Ah, that's right. Leasingham. Time was, it was a family winery; now, it's a part of BRL Hardy or Sousecorpse or one of the biggies. Whoever owns Houghton (they had lots of 187 mL bottles of Houghton white burgundy for sale). (In fact, I'm starting to think that any winery that has 187 mL bottle of anything for sale must be part of a huge corporation). Now, I'm partial to Leasingham, corporate heinousness notwithstanding. Their riesling was OK, but they had a 1997 reserve riesling available that was really delicious. I bought one; I think it was about A$20. I also blew A$8 on a half bottle of the 1998 cabernet malbec (hey, I wanted to taste it, and A$8 is not that much money). Sadly, you couldn't taste their top shelf wines (the Classic Clare range) - again, a real down side to the big corporate wineries. Still, the tasting room was pretty cool, with friendly staff - if you could just ignore the stupid wine lifestyle marketing claptrap all over the place. (No, I do not want a Polarfleece jumper with the winery logo on it.)
Finally, last stop of the day was Knappstein. Apparently founded by some guy named Knappstein who used to work for Leasingham pre-corporate takeover, it's now an independently owned company without the guy named Knappstein. Or something. I got a little confused because I stopped spitting at this point in the day (our motel was right next door). I liked everything I tried here, which was a real problem as I wound up buying six bottles. The 2002 riesling was steely and dry, just the way I like it; they also had a 1995 cellar release riesling that was starting to do that heavenly stinky gasoline thing on the nose; the sparkling (méthode traditionelle, no less) riesling was a fun diversion at A$12 a bottle, a surprisingly dry and spicy gewürztraminer, and then their Enterprise cabernet. OK, it was A$38, which is a good chunk of change, but I thought it was absolutely lovely. I believe it's about 3% malbec hiding in there, which really does the trick in terms of making it stand out from the rest.
From there, we staggered back to the motel and had a nap before dinner.