Swallow Don’t Spit Chapter 2: The Hunter Valley Wine Region

A while back we visited the Granite Belt wine region in Queensland. At the time we decided that an amusing title for a post about this would be ‘Swallow Don’t Spit’. Sadly, our humour hasn’t matured any, so we’re continuing with the theme. We intend to visit a number of wine regions during our big trip so look out for future chapters in the series as well.

Amuse Bouche

 Our first dalliance with the Hunter Valley came soon after we’d begun our journey into New South Wales. You can read about this in ‘How Aussie Can you Get’. We stopped for two nights in the small town of Denman in the Upper Hunter Valley. This was the first taste of cold nights on our travels, so we needed to wrap up warm in our tent at Denman Van Village. Luckily the days were warm and sunny and we were a short walk from Two Rivers Winery. After tasting their range of wines, we each chose a glass to enjoy with a splendid grazing board. The perfect lunch to enjoy the spectacular views over the vineyard.

We were back in the Hunter Valley proper a couple of weeks later. This time, we were in the centre of the action at The Wine Country Tourist Park just outside of Cessnock, an excellent base and a great site. The managers, Lisa and Paul do a great job of maintaining the park and the camp kitchen was one of the best equipped we’ve found. Nearly 150 wine producers were within a 15 minute drive so we were going to have our work cut out.

Hors d’oeuvres

 Day 1, Jane was driving and Andy tasting. With military precision we’d chosen a selection of wineries, highlighted them on the map and planned out a roughly circular route as a plan of attack. We drove into our stop number one, Domaine de Binet, eagerly anticipating our first Hunter winery. We walked all around, no-one seemed to be at home. The cellar door was locked. Eventually a friendly face appeared but with disappointing news; ‘Sorry we’re closed for winemaking today’. This experience set the scene for the day as we threw our plan out of the window and decided to go with the flow. Our next stop, Gartelmann wines was open and we had a great tasting hosted by Jan, the co-owner. As Andy likes a good Shiraz, Jan recommended we also visit Hart & Hunter. We figured that she knew better than us, so we added it to the list.

Hart & Hunter didn’t disappoint. The cellar door had a deck with beautiful views over the vineyard and the wines were superb. By this time, Andy was feeling a bit sorry that life on the road meant that joining wine clubs was out of the question. Before embarking on our travels, we’d ended our memberships of several clubs as we no longer had an address to receive wines at. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop us leaving with an excellent bottle of their Somerset Vineyard Shiraz.

Another recommendation from Jan at Gartelmann Wines was Gundog Estate which was also superb. From there, they recommended that we shouldn’t go past Piggs Peake and we were glad we didn’t. They were great fun and their humour appealed to us as you can probably tell from the picture of the bottle we couldn’t go away without. They also let Andy try some of the new wines that were still in the barrel.

The final stop on Day 1 was Tyrrell’s which was a nice surprise. We normally try to go to smaller estates to try wines you wouldn’t find in the shops. However, we thought we’d have a change and try a bigger operator. Tyrrell’s is one of the oldest winewakers in the Hunter Valley and you can find their wines across Australia and the world. We wondered if their cellar door might be less personal but we couldn’t have been more wrong. Natalie, who hosted our tasting was really friendly. As well as letting us taste some more great wine, she shared information about her recent visit to the South Australian wine regions. We plan to visit those regions later in our travels so getting some tips on places to visit was a splendid end to the day.

Entrée

 On day 2 it was Andy’s turn to chauffeur and first stop was Red Door Collective for a coffee overlooking the vineyards, followed by some wine tasting. Although Jane loves the taste and smell of red wine, it doesn’t like her. Today was therefore going to be more about the whites. Sure enough, we left RDC with a bottle of their delicious Chardonnay.

Our next stop was at Mistletoe winery. Alongside the vines, Mistletoe has a collection of sculptures which Jane was keen to see. One of the fabulous things about visiting small wineries is that many are family owned. At Mistletoe we were looked after by Gwen, who founded the winery with her husband Ken in 1989. Gwen was ably assisted by her daughter Cassandra, and granddaughter Jessica so we got to meet three generations of Mistletoe women. The wines didn’t disappoint either, especially the Methode Traditionale Sparkling Wine which we couldn’t resist buying. Gwen kindly looked after our purchase whilst we had a wander around the sculpture garden.

It was nearly time for lunch and had noticed that a number of wineries allowed you to have a picnic in their grounds. We chose to visit Catherine Vale wines to take advantage of their picnic table. As we parked outside the cellar door, Wendy, the co-owner joined us on her quad bike. She was about to give a wine tutorial to some of her young workers and she asked if we were happy to share a tasting with them. This was fine by us and it was really interesting to hear another passionate wine producer sharing her knowledge. She also had a really useful wine wheel to help you identify the different flavours you might experience in wine. We took a picture of it for future tastings.

Interestingly, two of the workers were from France, but as we know, they don’t really understand wine over there. They were working on the ‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’ scheme so Wendy affectionately called them her WWOOFers.

After lunch Jane managed to fit in a couple more tastings at Tinkler wines and Hanging Tree. The latter was conveniently located near our campsite so we decided to call it a day and head back to our tent.

Main Course

 Our third day of tasting gave us both the chance to try the wines. We’d booked a driver with Hunter Private Tours and Denise arrived promptly at 10 to escort us. We let her know the wineries we’d visited already but with 150 wineries in the region there were plenty more to see. Denise deliberately took us to Scarborough wines first of all. They offer three different tastings, all of which are quite structured. You may not be surprised to discover that we chose the ‘Get Obsessive’ tasting which included 13 wines. This was a charged tasting but at $5 per person we were also provided with a generous cheese board so we felt it was pretty good value.

Scarborough Wines Hunter Valley

Palate Cleanser 1

Historically, Australian wineries provided free tastings and they received a tax exemption to reflect this. This exemption no longer exists so many wineries have started to charge a small fee, typically $5. This charge is often refunded if you make a purchase, so it seems perfectly reasonable to us.

The tasting at Scarborough turned out to be one of our favourites. The structure really helped understand the wine and we put our wine wheel from Catherine Vale to good use. A bottle of Pinot Noir and one of Shiraz were added to our growing Hunter Valley collection.

From Scarborough we continued to Bimbadgen, a slightly larger winery which holds concerts as well as growing grapes. We noted that some of the bands we’ve seen live have played in Bimbadgen including; The Living End, SpiderBait and Dan Sultan. Amy was our host as we sampled the Semillon and Shiraz wines for which The Hunter Valley is most famous.

We had specifically let Denise know that we wanted to visit the Small Winemakers Centre. The centre has recently been re-branded as Wine House Hunter Valley. However, the purpose remains the same, to showcase the wines of the Hunter Valley. They also provide a cellar door for some wineries that may too small to have their own. Neil, a New Zealander by birth and an ex butler looked after us. Our stand out tasting here was the Little Wine Company ten year old tawny port. We knew this would be welcome on cold nights in the tent, and even though we were starting to get a bit worried about room in the jeep for our purchases, a bottle left with us.

Palate Cleanser 2

You will often find roses grown near vines, particularly at the end of the rows. This is because they act as an early warning system, like the canary in the mine. Fungus will attack roses first. If the roses are suffering the winemaker knows it is time to take action to protect the vines.

Vine early warning system

Before lunch, Denise took us to Pokolbin estate, the only vineyard in The Hunter Valley to grow Riesling. Like us, you might be familiar with the sweet Riesling popular a few years ago. We were never a fan, but we’ve enjoyed the dryer Rieslings that we’ve tried more recently. We tasted a variety of their wines of different ages and it was surprising how different they tasted as the wine aged. Riesling is quite unusual in being a white grape that cellars well. Unfortunately, we’re not really in a position to keep wine any more. That didn’t stop us buying one of their younger vintages with the intention of consuming it before too long.

Denise had booked us lunch at Baume, a restaurant at Ben Ean, cellar door part of the Lindeman estate. We were able to try a few of the wines to choose a glass to go with our lunch, Jane settling on a Zinfandel Rose, and Andy, a Limestone Ridge Shiraz. Both went very well with the excellent and authentic Italian pizza.

Despite a fairly late lunch we still had time for two more winery visits. At McLeish Estate we enjoyed hearing about the Scottish heritage of the owners and left with a bottle of Auld Killie named after Kilmarnock. Our final visit was to the oldest winery in The Hunter Valley, Audrey Wilkinson. We looked around their fascinating museum telling the story of the wine industry in the Hunter.

We’d had a fabulous three days finding out about the wines of the Hunter Valley. Especially memorable was our final day where neither of us had to drive. We’re happy to recommend Denise and Hunter Private Tours if you visit the region.

Dessert

 In case 150 wineries aren’t enough to keep you occupied there’s plenty more to see and do in the Hunter Valley. For example; Hunter Valley Gardens are the biggest display gardens in the Southern Hemisphere. A great starting point for a visit is the Tourist Information Centre where the helpful staff can answer all of your questions. If wine isn’t for you, there’s a number of craft breweries. One of these, Potters was just across the road from our camp site. In the interests of research, on the day Andy hadn’t been drinking wine, he thought that we should check out their offering. The food was fairly average pub grub but they had an interesting range of beers including some dark ales so it is worth a visit.

We had a super time in the Hunter Valley. As is the case in most wine districts, the scenery is beautiful. There’s enough choice to suit most palates and our lack of discipline meant we nearly had to throw out some of our clothes to make way for the wine we bought. Most importantly, there was plenty of swallowing and no spitting.

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