Patrick Smith gets on and off his bike to explore the Clare Valley – the Tuscany of Australia.
A couple of glasses of riesling sit before us on the veranda of the old stone tasting room at Skillogalee, a small, family owned winery near Sevenhill in the Clare Valley. Morning sunshine hits the glasses and throws wobbly golden globes across the table.
Wine, sunshine, an overhanging olive tree and a garden bursting with colour: it's all very Mediterranean. In fact the Clare Valley, with its rolling vineyards, dusty country lanes, charming small towns, stone buildings and quaint cellar doors, has been called the Tuscany of South Australia.
About an hour north of the Barossa wine region, the Clare Valley is actually a series of parallel valleys in the Mount Lofty Ranges. It's higher and cooler than the Barossa and produces some cool-climate wines that are being compared to the best in world.
Riesling is the signature drop here and Skillogalee does a fine one, crisp and delicious and made, like all of Dave and Diana Palmer's wines, only from fruit grown on the estate. Like other winemakers in the region they also produce a number of other white wines, as well as some award-winning reds.
It would be easy to while away a couple of hours here - maybe have a spot of lunch in the restaurant and another glass of wine - but this is just a rest stop; we're cycling the valley's iconic Riesling Trail and our bikes are waiting outside the cellar door.
The mainly flat, 35-kilometre trail runs from Auburn to 10km north of Clare, the valley's regional centre, following a former railway line and passing through the heart of the wine region.
Some people bike the trail and others walk it. You can ride it one way in about 2½ hours - less if you finish at Clare - or it's a nine-hour hike. But why rush? Better to make a day (or even two) of it and enjoy the scenery and hospitality along the way.
And you don't have to tackle the whole trail. You can start your trip from one of several signposted side roads in the towns en route and there are carparks close to the trail at Auburn, Watervale, Sevenhill and Clare.
There are also three loops off the main trail if you prefer a shorter trip - 9km to 16km - without going over the same ground. You might also like to detour off the main trail, as we did to reach Skillogalee, which is on the John Horrocks loop between Penwortham and Sevenhill.
Two of the loops, though - the Father Rogalski, leading to Polish Hill Valley, and Spring Gully, which loops west from Sevenhill to a scenic lookout - are undulating and are recommended for mountain bikes. Trail markers let you know what's in store.
Fittingly, the Riesling Trail begins (or ends if you start at Clare) at Auburn's former railway station, which has been restored and converted into the characterful cellar door (open at weekends) of Mt Horrocks Wines. It's owned and run by New Zealand-born winemaker Stephanie Toole, whose "refined and elegant" wines receive high praise from wine experts.
Another popular spot to prepare for the ride north is on the veranda of The Rising Sun Hotel on Auburn's main street. The hotel is a friendly place with a fine range of Clare Valley wines and some good draught beers for those who've already worked up a thirst.
Heading north, the trail passes through a wide-open landscape of fields and vineyards before it reaches Leasingham and then the little town of Watervale, where some of the very best riesling grapes are grown.
There are lots of interesting cellar doors on and around the trail where you can taste Clare Valley wines and maybe have lunch or a picnic amongst the vines. The valley is home to around 60 wineries, 32 with cellar doors - too many stops for one trip - but one winery in particular is worth a visit both for its wines and its historical value.
From Sevenhill, a short detour on the Father Rogalski Loop brings you to Sevenhill Cellars. It was here, in 1851, that Jesuit priests planted the valley's first vines and began making sacramental wines. They were soon supplying settlers who were busy breaking in land and working in the copper mines and whose thirsts were perhaps less than religious. And so the valley's winemaking template was laid.
Sevenhill Cellars is still run by Jesuit priests and brothers, who make their wines in the same stone winery and cellars that have been in use for more than 160 years. The whole complex is open to visitors, including the very lovely St Aloysius Church and crypt.
Altar wine is now a very small part of the Sevenhill business, and the winery's range of red and white table wines get good reviews (we left with a bottle of the award-winning 2012 Four Buckets rose).
Wine, however, doth not the thirst quench, and a nearby shelter has a freshwater tank where you can fill your water bottle for the ride or walk ahead.
Back at Sevenhill, The Little Red Grape is well worth a stop. It's a new multi-purpose cafe with an excellent bakery onsite, a cellar door showcasing wines from around the region, and a good gift shop.
From Sevenhill the trail slopes gently down towards Clare, passing the Clare Valley Information Centre on the edge of town.
Clare has a number of good cafes and restaurants (look out for the "Clare Valley Cuisine" logo indicating locally grown or made produce) and all kinds of accommodation, from holiday park to resorts and some charming B&Bs and country cottages.
End your trip here as we did or continue on along the new 10km trail extension over Farrell Flat to Burra Road Bridge, through White Hut and on to Barinia Road, where it joins the Mawson Trail, an epic, 800km-long ride that crosses the Mount Lofty and Finders ranges.
A day on the Riesling Trail gives a great snapshot of the Clare Valley's many charms, but unless you have lots of time and very strong legs you need a car to see all the region has to offer: out-of-the-way villages and wineries, parks and scenic lookouts, remnants of a mining past and stately homes like Martindale Hall (think Picnic At Hanging Rock).
Burra, for example, about 40km from Clare, has really changed little from its days as a copper-mining hub in the 19th century. The old pubs, the miners' cottages and the stone towers of the aptly named Monster Mine, are all still there. The best way to explore the town is to buy a Burra Heritage Passport (available from the Visitor Information Centre). This comes with a key to eight locked historic sites and a guide book with the histories of 50 other significant buildings, plus free entry to Burra's three museums.
Wine, food, heritage, scenery, sunshine - and a leisurely workout on the Riesling Trail; for my money the Clare Valley is one of Australia's hidden jewels. I'll drink to that.
South Australia Top 10
1. Wine Tasting
The great majority of wineries in the Clare Valley are small-scale boutique producers, some dating back to the 1850s. Cellar doors are generally open between 10am and 5pm on weekends and most weekdays, but it's best to check before
2. Cycle the Riesling Trail
Hire a bike and cycle the scenic Riesling Trail that links local towns, passing restaurants, cafes and cellar doors. Cycle it in under three hours or complete it in stages. Three loop trails return you to your starting point, without having to backtrack.
Each year in May local wineries open their doors to the public and offer tastings of their wines accompanied by gourmet food and fantastic live entertainment.
Discover the historic township of Burra with the Burra Heritage Passport. The passport gives you entry to the Burra Mine including the lookout, police lockup and stables, brewery cellars, miners dugouts and more. Discover the 11km heritage trail and 49 historic sites at your leisure.
5. Art and Craft Galleries
Enjoy the finest art and crafts at galleries in Clare, Blyth, Watervale and Armagh. Many also sell local produce, such as olive oils, jams and preserves. Spend a leisurely Saturday or Sunday meandering through markets which are held throughout the region, selling fresh local food, wine and art.
Make sure you visit the museum at Martindale Hall. Built in 1879, this Georgian style mansion is classified by the National and State Heritage Branch and the National Trust. Stay overnight in this living museum, surrounded by nineteenth century art, furniture and hunting relics.
Set amongst vineyards, woodlands, lakes and creeks, the Clare Golf Club is a great place to enjoy a round of golf with the locals. It provides stunning scenery and the unique chance to observe kangaroos as you wait between shots.
8. Evilo Estate
Stop in and meet Debbie and Giulio at Evilo Estate. Wander through their extensive garden and taste their delicious hand harvested and pressed olives, jams, chutneys and vino cotto. Open Friday - Monday 10am - 3.30pm.
Looking for somewhere special to stay in the Clare Valley? Thorn Park By the Vines is a luxury boutique B&B surrounded by vines and utterly relaxing. Allow owners Michael and David to cook you a delicious meal matched with superb local wines as you spot kangaroos hopping through the vines.
10. Visit the Flinders Ranges and Outback
From the Clare Valley you're just a three-hour drive from the spectacular Flinders Ranges and Outback. Home to vast open spaces, towering rock walls, spectacular gorges, abundant wildlife and Aboriginal culture and rock art.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: The Clare Valley is a 90-minute drive from Adelaide. Fly Air New Zealand non-stop to Adelaide from Auckland, via Auckland from all other Air New Zealand domestic airports or via Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with our Alliance partner Virgin Australia.
Best time to travel: Spring and autumn, or visit in winter and relax in front of a roaring fire at one of the many cellar doors.
Plan your itinerary at: southaustralia.co.nz.
For more information visit: myaustraliapassion.co.nz.