There’s this thing about the Clare Valley. It is first and foremost associated with being all about Riesling.
Of course, there’s more, like great Cabernet and Shiraz, and for those with more intricate knowledge, serious historic references to a few key producers and iconic vineyards.
But in mainstream consumer land, Clare and Riesling are it. And there’s nothing wrong with that; they do very, very well together.
You might even have heard of the two special, sub-regional iterations of Clare Riesling, Watervale and Polish Hill River, which often appear differentiated on the labels of producers who offer wines grown in and around both districts.
A little geography work here helps: apart from the wider and open plains out Polish Hill River way to the east, and Auburn’s more rolling hillsides in the south, much of the region is actually not just one valley but many smaller ones, creeks trickling through the bases, timbered ridges marking the higher lines.
It’s in one of these sub-valleys that we head today, veering west off the Main North Road between the hamlets of Penwortham and Sevenhill.
Here you’ll find the vineyard and cellar-door homes of Kilikanoon, Penna Lane, Mitchell Wines, Jeanneret Wines and Clare Valley Brewing, Eldredge – a bit further out past the Spring Gully Conservation Park – and the much-adored Skillogalee.
There’s a lot to love about all of them, though Skillogalee holds a special place here and in the wider region. Its old stone cottage has a long history, including being home to the first winery restaurant in the region established by Di and Dave Palmer in 1989, and possibly the quaintest old-fash cellar door you’ll ever step into. (They retired from the business in 2021, selling it to high-tech investor and consultant Simon Clausen and family – more about that later.)
That name – Skillogalee – rolls with a romantic lilt that deserves a little history-meets-geography lesson on its own. The story goes that Clare Valley pioneer explorer John Horrocks, who settled in Penwortham in the early 1840s but also led expeditions north into the Flinders Ranges, suffered such tough conditions on one trip that he and his party were forced to survive on a thin gruel likely made from grass seeds and water which was called “skillogalee” or “skilly”, an old Celtic word. When he returned to Penwortham, he named a nearby creek “Skillogalee”. It flows east of the old cottage, and the name has remained forever attached to the vineyard and winery, while the specific area is lovingly known as the Skilly Valley.
Such a past, and the winemaking history that has followed since the first grazing property was planted to vines by Spencer and Margaret George in the early 1970s, passing to the Palmers in 1989, is ever-present in the mind of Simon Clausen and family.
Born and bred in South Australia, the Swiss-based tech-business investor and consultant has fond childhood memories of the Clare district, where his parents had a property. Feeling an increased disconnection from “home” during COVID, he was keen to find a regeneration project to get his teeth into, and as a wine lover he started looking in that direction.
“By luck and chance, Skillogalee came onto the market. Lisa my sister and I had many conversations – it made a lot of sense to us,” Clausen recalls.
“It was ready for some re-invigoration across its parts, the more social side of things and distribution, and stylistically things have changed a lot towards lighter and brighter wines with less oak.”
A major decision about who would fulfil the role of winemaker was next on the agenda. Kerri Thompson was already connected, having worked there with the Palmers as well as making her own Wines By KT out of the same facility.
“We were blessed that KT was there,” Clausen says. “She was cautious and rightly so. I explained my vision – it’s evolution not revolution. And our visions aligned.”
Clausen is fully aware of the legacy he has taken on as he moves forward with architects on new kitchen and dining room additions, as well as the more direct wine business needs such as new label and branding designs, plus ongoing vineyard and winery improvements. In the future, more accommodation and tourism-focused facilities may also be on the cards.
“There’s such a responsibility here with the Skillogalee name – the legacy is so strong,” he says. “Many people have memories there, and I don’t take the responsibility lightly. But we also have to evolve.”
One of the first steps in the wine portfolio to do just that is a trio of small-batch wines to come out of Skillogalee estate vineyards, crafted from remnants of past grafting programs that didn’t take, leaving random Malbec, Grenache and Cabernet Franc vines within blocks of other more established varieties.
It’s a first step to breathe new energy into the estate while tapping into its rich past, Kerri Thompson says.
“We’ve been calling them the survival vines, because a lot of them have sort of come back naturally. We just picked the eyes across the vineyard of all those rogue vines, and, you know, it’s part of the whole story here,” KT says.
“It’s important to go to market with some new wines and then the evolution can continue in the background. It’s not obviously going to be what Skillogalee is going to hang its hat on, but it is an opportunity to just draw a line in the sand and say there is new stuff happening.”
While Thompson is now immersing herself more deeply into the new era of Skillogalee, and understanding more about the intricacies of the Skilly Valley and its wine styles, she also continues her individual winemaking identity with contemporary expressions of classic and more progressive varieties and blends via her own Wines by KT brand.
Her Rieslings, in several iterations, are celebrated, while her red portfolio also includes Grenache and Cabernet Franc sourced from other vineyards in the region, allowing her to differentiate the styles between Skillogalee and KT wines.
Her own red portfolio also includes an Iberian blend, the Tinta, with Tempranillo, Graciano and Garnacha (aka Grenache), as well as low-sulphur Shiraz/Cabernet and Tempranillo combo known as Pazzo. KT tends to work with wild ferments and minimal-intervention winemaking, preferring savoury, textural and European styling; thought-provoking yet in a fun, modern package.
Her own winemaking direction most likely will start to influence future Skillogalee releases as her understanding of the Skilly Valley and its impact on the estate’s terroir influences the new era of wines. Improvements now underway in ecological vineyard management will only enhance that knowledge.
For the Rieslings, her reading of the style there points the Skillogalee versions towards a pretty, herbal-like character, more in the jasmine line rather than the concentrated lemon or orange blossom of the Watervale area where her own KT versions stem from. The Skilly fruit ripens later, she notes, and has finer detail.
The new Skilly small-batch set also show a brightness of fruit in a succulent frame. The red-wine traditions there are changing as Thompson becomes more confident in the evolutionary process.
“I’ve realised that there’s a great thing to be celebrated here,” she says. “And, you know, my business is my own personality, [and] Skillogalee has its own personality.
“As the changes begin to come through with Skillogalee, certainly in the reds, I kind of think that the market will be right in that space anyway.
“I’ve always wanted to be celebrating the specific sites I work with, and now working with the Skilly vineyards as well as the others for my own wines gives me a greater understanding of all of them.”
Skillogalee Riesling 2022
Clare Valley / 12.5% / $30
From the Skilly Valley blocks, showing the district’s own stylistic characters that display a pretty fragrance, more suggestive of honeysuckle and jasmine rather than citrus orchard blossom. The palate has all the expected zing of the variety, yet also has a delicate flavour sense to it, not simply hardcore lime but leaf and floral aromatics intertwined. It’s most fascinating to see this site and district-driven personality. There’s also a next-level, peak style called Trevarrick Riesling ($55) from gnarly old vines delivering fragrant lavender top notes with cut lemon/lime zing and minerally pithiness – mouth-wateringly delicious.
KT 5452 Riesling 2022
Clare Valley / 12.5% / $29
Kerri Thompson’s postcode range brings together a range of family-grown vineyards that fulfil the winemaker’s reputation as one of the Clare region’s finest Riesling purveyors. Attractive citrus fruit and blossom with thrilling tang and tightness balanced with delicious fruit ripeness that softens out the palate’s natural acidity drive, finishing with lingering lemon flavours. Bang on with maximum Riesling pleasures. The KT range also includes a wild-ferment Melva Riesling 2022 ($34), which adds a quince and spice-like flavour sense and citrus-pith texture as a contrasting variation. And also a Peglidis Vineyard Watervale Riesling ($38) from KT’s beloved Watervale district, which has a core drive and energy about it, powerful yet finessed and elegant.
Skilly Shiraz 2021
Clare Valley / 13.5% / $20
A lighter and brighter style from start to finish, crimson to purple in colour, mulberry crush aromas and flavours from nose to palate, juicy, crunchy fruit as you sip, a soft grip to the texturals and mouthfeel, salivating in the finish. Lovely, modern, attractive easy-drinking Shiraz. And terrific value.
Skillogalee Cabernet Sauvignon 2021
Clare Valley / 14.5% / $35
Cabernet is much loved from the region and for good reason, as this wine proves. Vibrant dark purple colour, mulberry to blackberry squished fruit to first tempt the senses, a little waft of rock dust as well. All very Cabernet familiar, with that minerally textural element transferring to fine-coating tannins in the mouth, the fruit staying true and long, some leaf and pepperiness tuning in as well. Everything works evenly and varietally on song. And it’s so lovely to simply drink it all in.
Skillogalee Small Batch Cabernet Franc 2022
Clare Valley / 14% / $55
One of three in a new “Small Batch Series” that has garnered remnant vines around the estate’s blocks for tiny production runs. A labour of love and an honouring of Skillogaee’s history. This Cab-Franc has an attractive varietal fruit sense, reddish to crimson berries, a minerally rock-dust note, and juicy drinkability, offset with a faint palate-bitters feel that generates a thirst-quenching, moreish finish. In other words: pour another glass, please.
KT Cabernet Franc 2022
Clare Valley / 13.5% / $35
Sourced from a grower vineyard in the Penwortham township area, which no doubt drives this wine’s individuality while winemaker Kerri Thompson brings out a heap of deeper characters as well. A Cabernet family fragrance greets you to begin, fruits-of-the-forest aromas, leafiness, herbals – almost towards a suggestion of green pepper. It has a savoury feel over and above the fruits, with a note of peat, trodden bush understory, and mid-strength black tea tannins to finish. Bring on the wintry lamb shanks.
Tinta by KT 2022
Clare Valley / 13.4% / $35
Fulfilling her love of Euro-styling, this Tempranillo/Graciano/Garnacha blend is not something you see much of out of the Clare region. It’s crafted with plenty of life-force in the palate, quite savoury and almost meaty in its flavour statements. Sited primarily for a table with a huge bowl of braised beef, lamb or pork, spiced up, the winter fire blazing away in the corner.
This story was originally published by Solstice Media via @indaily and its not-for-profit arts and cultural journalism masthead @inreviewau