The Wine Country

Trip Start Aug 17, 2008
Trip End Jun 17, 2009

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Flag of Australia  , South Australia,
Friday, October 24, 2008

Wine, cheese and beautiful scenery are the three elements defining our experience in the South Australian wine country: the Clare and Barossa Valleys.  Our first encounter with a different "world" than the endless desert was in Port Augusta, a small and rather charming port city situated at "Australia's crossroads."  We reached the town at dusk and spent just a night and a few hours next morning there but we got enough time to visit the downtown, the piers and to open an account for free wireless Internet at the public library (in South Australia all public libraries offer free Internet once you open an account - even to tourists) so that we can check emails and talk back home. 
From Port Augusta to Clare Valley are only 130 miles/200 km (almost a walk in the park when compared to the 800 miles/1,200 km we did in the previous two days) so we've decided to pace ourselves and use the smaller country roads instead of the highway.  As we've have started driving, it is hard to imagine the change in scenery as soon as we've reached the Flinders Mountains:  instead of the stony, red desert with puny bushes and rare wildlife that we were used to seeing for more than a week now, we were driving by endless golden wheat fields, green pastures, vineyards and beautiful, green trees.  A picture straight out of Tuscany, we might add.  Instead of passing a God-forgotten gas station every 100 miles or so, now every 10-20 miles we were passing through these cute, little towns with welcoming bakeries, wineries and restaurants, every corner being a photo opportunity.  So, two hundred pictures, four hours, and hundreds of "Wow!"-s later we've finally reached the caravan park in the small town of Clare, the heart of the Clare Valley region. Unfortunately, by that time, all the cellars were already closed so we had to settle for the nearest restaurant/cellar (Salt N Vines) and reward ourselves with a fancy dinner & local wines.  While we were not disappointed by the local wines (excellent the Pauletts Shiraz!), dinner was, again, a big disappointment, despite the restaurant's fancy atmosphere.  L decided to eat healthy (we guess she did not learn her lesson with those salads up North :-)) and ordered haloumi (grilled sheep or goat cheese) and steamed vegetables.  Well, not only she ate healthy, but she also ate little, as the cheese looked, tasted and had the consistency of a sports shoe sole (white with black stripes and so rubbery that even the finest knife on the table required a serious effort to cut the smallest piece).  G's (little) pieces of grilled kangaroo and venison were somewhat more edible but far from getting any culinary prizes.  So here went A$100!  Hey, at least the wine was good, not to mention the walk back to the caravan park under the beautiful Southern sky (the last one free)!  So much for rewarding ourselves!
The next day we've decided to catch up on the lost time and hit as many wineries as we can, by foot.  We are responsible citizens; no drinking and driving, mates!  Being closer to the mountains and having somewhat lower temperatures than the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley is well known for its "colder wines," particularly its Rieslings, and the trail we did that day was one loop that was part of the so-called Riesling trail and we did enjoy the walk as much as we enjoyed the wine tastings.  The trail took us thorough beautiful hills, a forest with blooming trees (the smell of the flowers was really overwhelming and hard to describe) and, of course, to a few wineries.  The first winery where we stopped at (Eldredge Vinyards) was kind of a "mom and pop" business but we tried at least 8 types of wines and also learned from the owner the story behind the classic cork vs. the screw caps that the large majority of the Australian wines use nowadays.  We have not verified the scientific accuracy of the story but here it is, in a nutshell: many Australian wine makers shifted from cork to metal because an increased amount of wine is being contaminated by cork taint, leaving the wine tasting musty and dull. The culprit for this unpleasant phenomenon, which can spoil up to one in 10 bottles, is trichloroanisole (TCA), a compound formed when chlorine used for bleaching the cork reacts with mould already growing in the cork. Apparently, people are incredibly sensitive to the compound and can detect it even at dilutions of parts per trillion.  The problem of tainted corks is thought to be on the up because cork manufacturers are finding it increasingly hard to find supplies of good quality cork to meet demand since more wine than ever is being sold in bottles, rather than in bulk form.  Hope you liked this little story.
Bottom line is, the Australian wine makers, especially the smaller wineries, embraced enthusiastically the screw caps and, since we don't consider ourselves purists or even connoisseurs, we didn't mind the practice as it made it easier for us to open the bottles when living in an RV ;-) Hope you liked the story!
Back to the winery, in the end we settled for this superb late-harvest Riesling that we have enjoyed thoroughly on the patio, next to the winery's pond (see pic).  It was really, really quiet and beautiful, one of those memories you store and treasure for the rest of your life.  After about an hour we've left with heavy heart (hey, that's why we call ourselves "travelers;" because we have to travel :-)  Five miles/8 km and 2 hours later we stopped for lunch at another winery - Skillogalee - where we got another bottle of Riesling but this time with some (relatively decent) food. After another hour of walking we got to our last winery for the day but, to our disappointment, this one was open only during weekends. So, without any refueling, we did the one more hour of walking and got back to the caravan park really tired but quite satisfied overall.  Caring to look on the Clare Valley tourist information brochure- mind you, after the walk; good planning, G! - we've realized that this loop was about 12 miles/18 km long.  No wonder that L could not get out of the chair for a while after getting "home!"
The next day we spent a few hours in Clare's "downtown," a street with really cute shops and cafes and then we drove to our next stop, the Shiraz country, Barossa Valley.  The first stop (read winery) after we've left the van in the RV park was The Tanunda Chateau cellar, a couple of km down the road from where we were staying.  At the Tanuanda Chateau we've tested some amazing Shiraz, one of them in particular, a well-known prize winner, was unimaginably powerful; as G put it, felt like a "flavor bomb exploding in your mouth" (don't ask what a flavor bomb is.  We have no idea either but alcohol seems to be very beneficial to coming up with this kind of linguistic innovations :-))  We went for a more subtle Shiraz though, paired with a fantastic cheese platter, probably the best Australian gastronomic experience so far (after the buffet from Alice Springs though).  Anyway, we took another hour or so to enjoy the wine, the cheese platter and the beautiful garden and, at the end, we feeling really happy.  Since all wines here seem to have 15% alcohol and up, you can imagine that our walk back to the RV was a quite joyful one and, luckily, G managed not to sing out (loudly) on the street ;-)
In the morning, we started another 8 km hike during which we hit two open wineries and two closed ones and had lunch with a wonderful view of the Valley (see pic).  On our way back, we stopped in a beautiful meadow full of lilies (evocatively named "The Lily Farm") to admire the flowers, but we did not get to stay there too long.  L managed to get a bee in her hair (don't ask how; she just did) and, as you can imagine, when we've finally succeeded getting it out of her hair the bee was in a rather belligerent mood, so we had to "run for our lives" waiving a rain coat to keep the "little monster" away.  Undisturbed, the bee followed us valiantly for about 1/4 km when a supremely skillful karate hit from G sent her into the grass.  By the time she must have come back to her senses we were out of her range laughing ourselves to tears on how a tiny insect got two grown up Homo sapiens (well, kind of sapiens) to run like crazy. Too bad G was busy fencing with the bee because this would have made a great picture/video!  So, this little adventure concluded another sybaritic day of drinks, food and beautiful scenery and, to our regret, our adventure in the wine country.
One general comment before moving on: we really liked that at every wine tasting we've been at in these parts one didn't have to be a connoisseur (which we're definitely not) to feel welcomed and have a pleasant interaction with the people.  Generally, the Australians we've met here were very friendly and casual and we heard all kinds of great stories from them.  We will not detail all the wines we have enjoyed thoroughly here but, if you are really interested, G has a nice collection of photo shots of their labels.  For Clare Valley we would definitely recommend The Eldredge Vineyards for the fantastic setting (and, of course, the wine!) and for Barossa The Chateau Tanunda (for the wine, the cheese platter and the garden - don't miss the platter though) and The Barossa Vines (mainly for the fantastic view of the Valley).  We're sure there must be better vineyards out there but, from the limited number that we've tried, these are our picks.
The next morning we prepared the van for returning it to the rental company.  Cramped as it might have felt, it was hard to say good-bye to the only home we've had for the past 3 weeks.  It is interesting how much people crave the resemblance of an established home when they are away but a more detailed discussion on this subject is warranted for a future entry. The trip to Adelaide was uneventful, only more beautiful hills and more wineries (this time we stayed away from any wine).  Stay tuned!
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