Just two hours’ drive north of Sydney, the Hunter Valley viticultural region is experiencing a rebirth, as Australian wine continues to enjoy success on the world stage and ambitious young winemakers in the region successfully raise the bar on quality. After falling out of favor over the past 20 years as newer regions—from the Margaret River in Western Australia to McLaren Vale in South Australia—grew in popularity, the region’s winemakers are now winning awards, and its captivating landscape offers a convenient and scenic backdrop for touring.
|The Hunter, which is bordered on the west by the dramatic ridge of the Brokenback Range and on the east by the coastal fringe of the Pacific, has a long winegrowing pedigree. Scotsman James Busby, considered the father of Australian viticulture, started planting vines here in the 1830s. Today, the region is known principally for two main grape varieties: Sémillon and Shiraz. According to Len Evans, MW, eminent Australian wine writer, judge and Hunter Valley winemaker, "There is no other Sémillon that has the flavor, the finesse and the freshness when aged in the bottle [four to 20 years]. When young it can be lovely, dry, crisp, very clean, ideal with oysters and crab. But when it is aged it comes into its glory. Hunter Shiraz is almost as individualistic. Soft and pleasant when young, not too heavy-bodied, it matures into a classic—earthy, leathery, smoky with a depth and intensity of flavor that is unmatched."||
Another Hunter Valley pioneer, Murray Tyrrell, was the first winemaker in Australia to grow Chardonnay commercially. He started with the variety in the 1970s. Today it accounts for 40 percent of the Hunter’s grape production. The Portuguese grape variety, Verdelho, is also grown in many of the region’s vineyards. It produces a pleasing, light white wine popular for quaffing with a summer lunch.
The grapes are grown successfully (the vintages of the 2000s are the best the Hunter has seen in a long while) despite the region’s extremely hot and wet weather. In fact, it is just those extremes that help make the Hunter the ideal Australian wine-touring region for the American enophile. In order to compensate for the vagaries of climate, many wineries bring in grapes from South Australia and other parts of New South Wales, concentrating the opportunities to taste wines from other Australian viticultural areas as well as the Hunter Valley, at numerous boutique and large-scale wineries.
The Hunter is now the country’s most visited wine region, owing a good measure of that popularity to a ballooning of the number of resorts since the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Now there are dining and accommodation options to suit all tastes. And large wine companies such as Beringer Blass are increasing their investments in the region. Many of the larger wineries still bear their original family names, such as Tyrrell’s, Lindemans, Tulloch, Drayton’s and McWilliam’s —indeed several are still family owned—and they continue to evoke a very real sense of the story of Australian wine.
To begin your perfect (and somewhat packed) three-day tour of the Hunter, take the Cessnock exit off the freeway from Sydney and drive through this country town en route to the vineyards. On the other side of town near the Cessnock Airport on Allendale Road is the Vintage Hunter Wine and Visitors Centre. Here you can pick up the very informative Hunter Valley Wine Country Guide. It has the names, phone numbers, addresses and opening hours of all the wineries, accommodations, restaurants and other activities as well as a useful map. The Hunter Valley is actually divided into the Lower Hunter and Upper Hunter—most of the wine touring facilities are grouped around the Pokolbin region of the Lower Hunter.
When arranging accommodation, for top of the line go for Len Evans’ Tower Lodge, a nouveau baronial folly with 12 distinctive luxurious rooms and more than a passing nod to Santa Fe in its stuccoed exterior. For those who would like to mix golf and a spa along with their wine tasting, stay at the Cypress Lakes Resort. Several particularly enticing bed-and-breakfast options include the Carriages Country House, Olives Country House and The Woods. Good mid-range hotels include Peppers Guest House and the Kirketon Park Hotel.
A good place to begin your exploration of the Hunter Valley is the 144-year-old Tyrrell’s Vineyard on Broke Road. The winery’s cellar-door facilities are located in the original 1864 structure with its dirt floor and huge red-rimmed barrels. The Tyrrell family was among the region’s first winemakers.
"The Hunter has gone through so many changes, even in my lifetime," says CEO Bruce Tyrrell. "It is a completely different place from when I used to ride my horse to school. In 1967 there were only seven wineries. My father started cellar-door wine tourism back then and established it as the best way to sell wine."
The well-informed staff lead thorough tastings of Tyrrell’s extensive portfolio, which includes vineyards all over Australia. Be sure to try the 1995 VHT Sémillon from the Hunter Valley and the Rufus Stone Heathcote Shiraz from Victoria. Perhaps the best winery tours in the valley are offered here beginning at 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
If you drive in from Sydney in the morning, stop at Café Enzo at Lowe Family vineyards for a quick lunch before going to Tyrrell’s. It is a good choice for pastas, salads, focaccias and excellent coffee, which can be enjoyed next to a fountain in a picturesque courtyard. Make time to browse in Peppertree Antiques nearby. For a more substantial meal, relax in the leafy indoor garden at The Cellar Restaurant.
After the tour at Tyrrell’s, return to the intersection of Broke and McDonalds roads, the Hunter’s epicenter, which is ignominiously called Kosovo Corner after its dubious vacation-hut architecture. At the nearby McGuigan empire headquarters, check out the Hunter Valley Cheese Company. You’ll find a delectable range of European-style washed-rind and white-mold cheeses made from rich Hunter Valley milk. Don’t miss the Branxton Brie and Hunter Valley Gold. A selection of local olives and olive oil, mustards, preserves and honey, as well as cold cuts and breads, are also available for picnic lunches.
Just around the corner on McDonalds Road is Brokenwood Wines. Many of its wines have achieved cult status under the guidance of master winemaker Iain Riggs. Look for the Graveyard Shiraz, which is ranked almost as high as Penfold’s Grange Hermitage. The Graveyard comes from low-yielding vines on a block of poor soil near the winery that was originally designated but never used as the Pokolbin town cemetery. Be sure to also taste Brokenwood Sémillon. The 2000 vintage was voted the Penguin Good Australian Wine Guide Wine of the Year. Try the 1994 vintage, too, for a distinctively Hunter-style Sémillon that has several years of aging potential.
Continue down McDonalds Road to Lindemans Winery, now part of the massive Southcorp Wine. Lindemans has achieved quite a reputation in the U.S. with its Bin 65 Chardonnay, which is consistently listed as one of the country’s top-selling whites. The cellar-door facility offers an interesting wine museum plus the opportunity to taste Lindemans wines from all over Australia.
If you have time, turn onto De Beyers Road to taste some terrific Shiraz at the boutique Thalgara Estate Winery, which is located in a renovated dairy.
Book a dinner at Robert’s, an antique-filled country restaurant in the 1876 Pepper Tree cottage. It offers delectable yet simple French fare prepared with the freshest local ingredients. The knowledgeable staff can guide you through the extensive Hunter Valley wine list, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Start the next day at dawn with a balloon ride over the vineyards (see box). After touching down, continue with a self-guided tour (open from 10:30 a.m. Mondays through Fridays) of the English gardens at the boutique Constable and Hershon Vineyards. Afterward, venture over to the nearby Scarborough Wine Company. The vineyard is planted on one of the few patches of terra rossa soil in the Hunter. The cellar-door staff offer tastings of premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at tables with a commanding view of the valley. If there’s time before lunch, stop at the Moorebank Private Vineyard Estate, which emphasizes organic farming for their estate wines and specialty goods.
Lunch at Esca restaurant, located above the winery at the Spanish mission-styled Bimbadgen Estate, with a view of the vineyards reminiscent of Californian wine country. The food, however, is distinctively ModOz (modern Australian), emphasizing char-broiled meats and fish served with exotic condiments.
If you want a simpler meal, try Blaxlands Restaurant on Broke Road. It features an all-day, bistro-style menu. The Boutique Wine Centre is also located here. Try the award-winning Glenguin and Meerea Park labels.
Across the road is the Rothbury Estate, once the bastion of Australian wine personality Len Evans and now owned by wine giant Beringer Blass. The Great Cask Hall is a stunning sight and the tasting room offers Beringer Blass wines from all over Australia. Len Evans’ new venture, Tower Estate, is just down Broke Road, and should be of particular interest to visitors from the U.S. because Evans and Dan Dineen are making small quantities of varietal wines that reflect Australia’s diverse winegrowing regions. There is Sémillon, Verdelho, Shiraz and Chardonnay from the Hunter, Cabernet Sauvignon from the Coonawarra, Riesling from Clare, Shiraz from the Barossa and Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills.
Continuing the garden theme of earlier in the day, the Pepper Tree cellar door, just down the lane from Tower, offers a beautiful country garden setting and a range of wines from several regions. One last stop should be Lakes Folly, which was established on another rare patch of terra rossa soil in the early ’60s as the first of the Hunter Valley boutique wineries. Rodney Kempe makes the two wines—Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon blend—from grapes picked by hand. The reds are fermented in open vats, aged in oak from a single French barrel maker and then released at the cellar door each April.
|Continuing the garden theme of earlier in the day, the Pepper Tree cellar door, just down the lane from Tower, offers a beautiful country garden setting and a range of wines from several regions. One last stop should be Lakes Folly, which was established on another rare patch of terra rossa soil in the early ’60s as the first of the Hunter Valley boutique wineries. Rodney Kempe makes the two wines—Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon blend—from grapes picked by hand. The reds are fermented in open vats, aged in oak from a single French barrel maker and then released at the cellar door each April.||
Up close and personal with grapes at Brokenwood
For dinner, try Number One Broke Road for a blend of New Age French and Asian cuisine. The restaurant/winery is intended to look like a wine barrel, but newcomers would be forgiven if they thought it resembled a spaceship on steroids. As an alternative, try Seasons. It is run by Darren Ho and is located in the Hunter Valley Gardens resort.
On your final day in the Hunter, join a bicycle or horse-and-buggy tour (see box) of some of the larger wineries, or explore some smaller out-of-the-way wineries by car in the Hunter’s distinctive subregions. If you choose the latter, drive to the rich, red limestone soils of the hilly Mount View region west of Cessnock. Here Petersons Wines and Briar Ridge offer some exceptional boutique bottlings, some of which have won awards. Compare the Hand-Picked Chardonnay with the Classic Chardonnay at Briar Ridge. At nearby tiny Jackson’s Hill Vineyard, don’t stop at their 100 percent Cabernet Francs; the estate-grown olives, olive oil and handmade chocolates are also distinct pleasures.
|The McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Estate is also nearby. It is well worth the effort to get there in time for their informative 11 a.m. daily tour. Part of the largest family-owned winery in Australia, Mount Pleasant offers some Hunter classics, such as the Elizabeth Sémillon, the Maurice O’Shea Chardonnay and the single-vineyard Rosehill Shiraz. Stay on for lunch to sample the simple bistro food or an Australian tasting plate complete with kangaroo and emu.||
|Another worthwhile lunch spot is the Crocodile Café at the Wandin Valley Estate in the Lovedale subregion. The winery is perched on the summit of a rise in the diminutive Molly Morgan Range. There’s even a cricket pitch and spectator pavilion here. On the way back to the center of the Hunter Valley, stop at Allendale Winery to taste its full-bodied Chardonnay and enjoy the views across to the Brokenback Range. Nearby, the Capercaillie Wine Company offers some interesting Sémillon as well as a gallery that shows paintings, ceramics, glassware, jewelry and textiles.|
Finish up your three days of wine tasting with a whimsical meal at Shakey Tables. The Scottish chef/artist creates intriguing dishes such as confit of hare and a rose dessert with Persian fairy floss; he’s also responsible for the art displayed all over the restaurant.
If you feel like a change of scenery before heading back to Sydney, drive east to the coast at Port Stephens, a sleepy coastal resort that offers some spectacular beaches and local fauna, ranging from koalas to 80 resident bottlenose dolphins. Activities include swimming, surfing, bush walking, kayaking, whale watching, swimming with the dolphins, golfing and fishing. The detour is well worth the extra hour’s drive back to Sydney.
Sound like too much? You’ll have plenty of time to rest on the plane home.