Hunter Valley is basically heaven. Miles of rolling hills and beautiful countryside, and towns dedicated to getting you drunk on good wine. Really good wine.
The area is the smallest of all Australia’s wine-making regions, but because of its natural beauty and proximity to Sydney it’s one of the most popular for both Aussies and tourists alike. There are over 150 wine producers spread across a few small towns with a handful of restaurants and independent food merchants thrown in for good measure.
All of the wineries hold “Cellar Door” tastings where you are encouraged to pop-in, try samples of their signature wines, chat to the lovely staff and then leave with a few bottles which have been sold to you at the lowest price available. Sounds too good to be true! How many samples you’re given generally depends on how well you get on with the staff and how busy they are when you visit. I’ve heard stories of crowded summer Saturdays where each Cellar Door is packed with visitors all limited to three small samples each (and occasionally charged a tasting fee if they don’t buy anything afterwards). Maybe we were just lucky, but by choosing to visit on an off-season Tuesday afternoon we were often the only customers in each place and the staff seemed more than happy to spend an hour refilling our glasses and sharing their knowledge of the Australian wine industry.
There are many hotels in the area but we chose the Mercure Pokolbin purely for location, a decision we definitely weren’t disappointed by. The room was lovely – if a little old fashioned – and had a small balcony to catch the sun, but most importantly we were within easy walking distance to a selection of the best wineries.
After check-in we headed straight next door to visit our neighbour, McGuigan, through a handy little walkway.
We kicked off the tasting process and picked a few interesting looking wines of the list. Although McGuigan wines are very popular back in the UK, the stuff produced in Hunter Valley is in such a small batch it isn’t sold anywhere else, so the bottles we were trying were pretty unique.
After McGuigan we headed next door again (told you the Mercure hotel was a good location!) and into Brokenwood. Same process: we were welcomed and shown a list of the wines on offer except this time we weren’t asked to select which we wanted to try – we were given a glass of every single wine! Starting with whites, we then worked through the full range of reds and finished on a beautiful dessert wine named “Sticky Wicket”. It was a brilliant way to spend an hour or so, our host was so friendly and knowledgeable without pretentiousness or wine-snobbery. The highlight of Brokenwood was definitely the Semillon (a unique dry white that Hunter Valley is famous for producing) so we left with a chilled bottle to enjoy back at the hotel.
In need some sustenance to soak up the afternoon’s alcohol we followed our noses across the road (and a field) to the Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop.
We picked up the most amazingly stinky truffle brie and a few other goodies, and settled in for a lazy picnic on our hotel balcony just as the sun was going down.
The next morning I chose the nearby Epicure Cafe for a late breakfast, and like everywhere else in Hunter we had the place to ourselves.
It’s attached to the Small Winemakers Centre so although we hadn’t planned on doing any more tastings when we popped in after eating we couldn’t help it! We got hooked in once again by lovely chatty staff who convinced us that drinking at 11am is perfectly acceptable in Australia. As the name suggests, they stock wines from a range of smaller independent producers that you wouldn’t necessarily find elsewhere such as The Little Wine Company and Thomas Wines.
The final two winery’s we visited were a little further away (a short drive rather than a stumble across the road) but had both been recommended to us for their views. First up was Tyrell’s which is one of the oldest in the region – they’ve been family owned and run since 1858. It was significantly busier and more “touristy” that anywhere else we visited given the size of the place that’s understandable. If we’d been more organised I would have loved to do the full winery tour here but having a wander around the grounds instead was probably a better way to start the day.
Aubrey Wilkinson was our last stop, and one I’m so glad we made. More beautiful vineyard views stretching out for miles and extremely knowledgable staff who knew their wines inside out. I think we learned more here than at any other cellar door.
Just as we were leaving Audrey Wilkinson and taking one last look out at the view Martin spotted something in the distance – kangaroos!
My first ever sighting of kangaroos! Although they were still pretty far away I’d much rather see them in the wild like this than in a zoo or wildlife centre. For me it was the perfect ending to an amazing few days in Hunter Valley.