Australia’s Hunter Valley, which is located about a two hours’ drive north of Sydney, is the country’s most popular wine region, with more than two million visitors each year. The valley has approximately 140 vineyards, most of which do not sell in wine or liquor stores. For the most part, these wineries are family-owned properties, and their bottles are only available at the cellar door or through wine clubs, guaranteeing a unique experience for visitors and vintages that can’t be purchased anywhere else. The valley is also the oldest continually producing wine region in Australia, and its history, from convict days to modern times, mirrors the country at large.
After our first night in Sydney, our group met up with Steve Thomas of Boutique Tours Australia and set off to spend a few days in the valley. Steve pointed out local sights along the way (a small bridge across a river was built by a construction team from New York, so they named the area Brooklyn. Turns out, there are two Brooklyn Bridges in the world. Who knew?), and gave a very informative (and often, very funny) running commentary on local history and culture.
Our first stop in the valley was Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard, which dates back to 1866 and has terrific views of the countryside. Peter Woods, operations manager of the winery, let us sample several bottles while we enjoyed an al fresco lunch from the nearby Smelly Cheese Shop. If you can get some real honeycomb, try it on a cracker with a tangy blue cheese. It’s bliss.
Also good to know: The Hunter Valley is famous for its Semillon wines, so encourage your clients to try some vertical tastings of different vintages, or, for example, to compare a Semillon, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Gris. Also, warn your clients in advance that most wines in Australia are now bottled with a screwcap top rather than cork. It looks decidedly less elegant, but the winemakers insist that it preserves the wine much better than the natural option.
After lunch and innumerable wine samples (the more samples we tried, the harder it was to remember how many we’d sipped), we toured the inner parts of the winery, learning how wine goes from grapes on the vine to a vintage in the bottle. (It’s a very long and complicated process that involves temperature control, yeast monitoring and lots of time.) Your serious oenophile clients will definitely want to see how wine gets made, and smaller vineyards such as Audrey Wilkinson are a perfect place to get one-on-one instruction.
From Audrey Wilkinson, we drove down the road to Tyrrell’s Wines, another historic vineyard in the valley where we tasted a 1999 Semillon that they have recently age-released. It was delicious, although by this point, I was hitting my limit in terms of wine. Some nice details at the winery include the original buildings from the 1860s that make a powerful, if silent, statement about how rough early life in the valley was, and how strong those early developers had to be.
For pre-dinner drinks (by which point, I was sipping diet Coke), we stopped by Tempus Two, a decidedly post-modern strip-mall-esque collection of high-end dining and drinking options. The Goldfish Bar has a lot of funky cocktails and, naturally, a great wine selection, and there is also plenty of outdoor seating for al fresco dining. For dinner, we went to Bistro Molines, a hilltop restaurant with killer views of the valley—and an amazing wine selection. A cool touch: The labels on the bottles are made of pewter or copper, and make for wonderful objects d’art in their own right.
Our accommodations for the evening were in the Cypress Lakes Resort, a large property that includes several golf courses and swimming pools. The hotel is apparently very popular with families, and the two-bedroom villas are a good pick for groups of up to four.
|Beer tasting at the Hunter Resort|
The next morning, we started out at Hunter Resort, a winery that doubles as a brewery and offers classes as well as wine and beer tastings. The ginger beer is really delicious. If your clients are getting wined-out, the resort offers a very different experience, and is a great option for a break.
The Wyndham Estate is the Valley’s oldest-working winery, dating back to 1831. It offers several notable vintages as well as some nice historic aspects. While the ruins of George Wyndham’s old house are at once beautiful and heartbreaking, operations manager Stephen Guilbaud-Oulton said that they are raising funds for a restoration. The estate is also working to repair the Hunter River, which has been severely damaged by deforestation and other environmental problems. The hillside leading down to the mostly dry river is dotted with new saplings that, with luck, will bring the water back to its former state…in about 100 years or so. The estate is a popular choice for outdoor weddings—we saw chairs all set up overlooking the valley, and it’s hard to imagine a prettier spot for tying the knot.
We stayed at the estate for lunch, and sampled chef Andy Wright’s cuisine at Olive Tree Restaurant. The menu is deceptively simple, with no more than three ingredients per dish, but the food is fresh, locally sourced where possible and absolutely delicious. (The steak, served rare with an herbed butter, was especially rich, but the chicken and chorizo is also a wonderful option.)
|Hunter Valley Gardens|
Taking a break from wine, we spent a nice hour wandering around the Hunter Valley Gardens, a collection of themed gardens that are ideal for weddings or for family outings. While the elaborate Victorian Rose Garden was gorgeous and the Formal Garden was very impressive, we were utterly charmed by the Storybook Garden, which has sculptures of fairy tale characters for children to examine.
For dinner, we went for tapas at Verandah Restaurant, where groups can pick out several options and sample small bites of lots of dishes. (Lots of seafood options, and my companions raved about the pork belly.) Tell your clients to save room for desert: The chocolate-and-chili soufflé was divine.
After checking out of Cypress Lakes the next morning, we toured Tower Lodge, a 12-room Relais & Chateaux property in the Valley that must be seen to be believed. General manager Andreas Breitfuss took us down to the hotel’s subterranean restaurant, Nine, which is only open on weekends for a dedicated degustation menu. Nice touch: While the restaurant is available for locals, several seats are left open for last-minute guest dining. Breitfuss mentioned that the hotel will be doubling in size in the next few years, but will stop at 24 rooms (guaranteeing that there are never more than 50 guests who need his attention.)
|A deluxe room at the Tower Lodge|
We stopped by Brokenwood Wines for a tour of their bottling operations and a private wine tasting with operations manager Grant Radford. If your clients are real oenophiles, encourage them to shell get the 2007 Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz—it’s not light on the wallet, but it was one of the best wines we tried all weekend.
To wrap up the tour, we explored Tuscany Wine Estate Resort, a newer property with great views over the neighboring vineyards and a casual pet policy. The rolling hills and fields are great for dog-walking. We had lunch at the hotel’s Mill Restaurant, with some wonderful seafood creations and a delicious Sangiovese. It was a marathon of wining and dining but, for oenophiles and gourmands, the Hunter Valley is a real must-visit.