Head for the Hunter
The Hunter Valley gets its name from Captain John Hunter who was Governor of the British colony in New South Wales at the time (1797). The region had been occupied by Aboriginal tribes at least 30,000 years before European settlement. The sprawling valley extends from 120 km to 310 km north of Sydney. It’s an easy two hour drive from Sydney giving weekend access to Sydney-siders wishing to change the fast pace of city life for tranquil, verdant countryside. Coal mining, wine growing and tourism fuel the economic growth of the region.
The Hunter Valley is Australia’s oldest wine region. In 1823 there were eight hectares of grapevines grown by George Wyndham of Dalwood, William Kelman at Kirkton and James King of Singleton. James Busby took a collection of grapevine cuttings from Spain and France to Australia in 1824. Busby, who is regarded as the “father” of both the Australian and New Zealand wine industries took vine cuttings to New Zealand in 1832 and planted a vineyard there.
War and the Great Depression forced a decline in vineyards until more prosperous times in the early sixties when there was an explosion of boutique wineries in the Hunter, often started as grand hobbies by wealthy Sydney residents.
Since then the Hunter Valley has never looked back. The high volume of local and overseas visitors has encouraged and sustained high quality restaurants and accommodation to meet all budgets. The Hunter Valley ranks with California’s Napa Valley as one of the most visitor-friendly wine regions I know. It’s easy to find your way around and the wineries are very welcoming – many have winery tours with private accommodation and restaurants.
It’s a thriving, vibrant region offering cooking and wine schools; art galleries and studios; breweries and distilleries; historic villages and museums; local markets; horse riding; golf; gardens and a host of adventure activities.
There are now 150 wineries in the region. I’ve chosen my top ten based on wine quality as much as cellar door experience. They range from very traditional to cutting edge modern. You’ll discover a host of new and exciting flavours together with the sort of warmth and enthusiasm that will bring you back for more.
WHEN TO GO
January is the hottest month with an average daily maximum of 30oC and a minimum average of 17.6 oC. You will see some vintage action from December to February although that busy time can limit winery tours. It is great to experience the vintage buzz and sample wine from a previous year when they are picking grapes around you. This is the Hunter’s wettest season.
(March to May) is the most beautiful season in the vineyards as the leaves change from green to yellow and gold. Expect a 10 oC drop in temperature from summer and drier conditions toward the latter part of Autumn.
(June to August) The driest and coolest season produces temperatures with an average high of around 19 oC. The vines are bare but have a stark beauty. A good time to go if you like hearty food and log fires.
(September to November) My favourite vineyard season. A time of hope and excitement as the young buds burst forth. Relatively low rainfall and rising temperatures to an average high of 27 oC in November.
The Hunter Valley caters for all tastes and budget. My favourite restaurants all have links to wineries and are at the upper end of the range. Bistro Molines is a “must visit” restaurant with top-of-the-world views and European-influenced food to match. It is part of the Tallavera Grove vineyard (tastings) and offers upscale accommodation. Muse Kitchen serves delicious seasonal food adjacent to the excellent Keith Tulloch winery (tastings). Don’t confuse it with the also excellent Muse Kitchen at Hungerford Hill winery (tastings) – they are part of the same group and share the same website address (www.musedining.com.au). Show piece winery, Pepper Tree Wines (tastings), is a short stroll from restaurant Circa 1876 where you will experience modern Australian style cuisine with a French influence.
From cheap as chips backpacker accommodation to upscale resorts, the Hunter Valley has it all. The modern, comfortable Crown Plaza at Lovedale is a new and very stylish addition to the region with every luxury you’d expect of a world-class resort. Cypress Lakes Golf & Country Club in Pokolbin is handy to wine action in a beautiful setting … and has a golf course. Hunter Valley Gardens boasts 10 themed gardens in 24-hectares of grounds with eight kilometres of walking paths … all that and comfortable motel-like accommodation.
TOP TEN “MUST VISIT” WINERIES
- Website: www.audreywilkinson.com.au
- Top Wine: Audrey Wilkinson Museum Reserve Semillon 2006 – $100 (tastings)
After two other winemaking ventures in Australia the Wilkinson family purchased the current site in 1866. A stylish cellar door (voted one of Top 10 Cellar Doors in Australia by Gourmet Traveller Wine) features a wine museum that visitors can tour at their leisure at no charge. Designated drivers might be interested to learn that the winery offers accommodation at two guest cottages, both nestled in vineyards with views across the Hunter and to the nearby Brokenback Ranges.
- Website: www.brokenwood.com.au
- Top Wine: Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard, Hunter Valley Shiraz 2011 (tastings)
Established in 1970 by a group of Sydney wine enthusiasts including James Halliday and Len Evans. I have such a high opinion of this winery and its wines that I don’t visit Brokenwood, I make a pilgrimage to it. The winery’s mission statement is “to make great wine and have fun”. In addition to their range of local wines in high-performing Hunter styles Brokenwood makes multi-region blend wines from premium regions throughout Australia. A “must visit” for serious wine lovers.
- Pronunciation: de uli ~ iss
- Website: www.dewine.com.au
- Top Wine: De Iuliis Shiraz Touriga Nacional 2013 – $40 (tastings)
“One of the hardest names to say in the Australian wine industry, but also one of the best” claims Michael De Iuliis, winemaker of this this exciting, award-winning winery. Unlike many producers De Iuliis only makes Hunter Valley wine (“wines of distinction from individual paddocks”). The winery crushes around 100 tonnes of grapes from 15-hectares of vineyard – giving an impressively low average yield to produce wines with more concentrated flavours.
- Website: www.keithtullochwine.com.au
- Top Wine: Keith Tulloch The Doctor Shiraz 2011 – $120 (tastings)
Keith and Amanda Tulloch gained the inspiration to start their winery in 1997 after visiting France’s Rhone Valley. Keith is a fourth generation Hunter Valley winemaker with winemaking roots going back three centuries. You pay $5 for a seated tutored tasting of currently available wines. The tasting fee is redeemable on wine purchases. This is a classy winery making very classy wine.
MCWILLIAMS MOUNT PLEASANT
- Website: www.mountpleasantwines.com.au
- Top Wine: Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2007 – $24 (tastings)
Established in 1880 by English immigrant, Charles King, and purchased in 1921 by legendary Australian winemaker, Maurice O’Shea. McWilliams purchased a share of the winery in 1932, buying it outright nine few years later but retaining O’Shea as chief winemaker. This famous winery is worth visiting just to taste its range of truly excellent wines which can be tasted at the award-winning cellar door or enjoyed with modern Australian cuisine at Elizabeth’s restaurant.
PEPPER TREE WINES
- Website: www.peppertreewines.com.au
- Top Wine: Pepper Tree Wines Alluvius Semillon 2014 – $35 (tastings)
Founded in 1991 this quality-focused winery offers stylish accommodation at Peppers Convent Guesthouse and a fine dining experience at Circa 1876 restaurant. In addition to making wines from its own Hunter Valley vineyards Pepper Tree Wines also produces wines from its vineyards in Orange, Coonawarra and Wrattonbully offering visitors a wide range of different styles. They also offer a good cup of hand roasted coffee thanks to the recent arrival of Contango Espresso-Roasters.
The Tinkler family have been in the Hunter Valley for over 100 years and now have 35 hectares of vineyards in several sites around Pokolbin. They are a Hunter Valley wine specialist that in addition to Semillon and Shiraz make Verdelho, Chardonnay, Merlot, a Muscat/Traminer blend called Volcanic Ash and a fortified Muscat. Their colourful hardwood cellar door provides a chance to meet the family, taste their wines and buy a range of home-grown, hand-picked produce from their property.
- Website: www.towerestate.com.au
- Top Wine: Tower Estate Coombe Rise Hunter Valley Semillon 2011 – $65 (tastings)
Tower Estate is a one-stop cellar door in Pokolbin offering a wide range of wine styles from the Hunter Valley as well as many other Australian wine regions including the Adelaide Hills, Macedon Ranges, Clare Valley, Coonawarra, Barossa Valley and even Tasmania. It provides a useful tonic for anyone beginning to tire of the Hunter Valley styles and an education for visiting Kiwis who want to see how the local wines compare to those from other parts of Australia. They offer luxurious accommodation and an underground restaurant in their original wine cellar.
- Website: www.tullochwines.com
- Top Wine: Tulloch Limited Release Julia Semillon 2014 – $30 (tastings)
Tulloch first made wine in 1895 and by the 1920’s was the largest winemaker in the Hunter Valley. The family sold it in 1969 and a family member, Jay Tulloch, bought it back in 2001. This is one of the Hunter’s leading quality wine producers. You can taste all of their Hunter Valley wines at a stylish cellar door including their Exclusive Cellar Door Only and Limited Release ranges of wines.
Put this iconic winery at the top of your “must visit” list. Owned by the Tyrrell’s family since 1858 with extensive vineyards in some of the best sites in the Hunter Valley as well as in Heathcote (Central Victoria) and the Limestone Coast in South Australia. Visitors to the cellar door can tour the winery for a fee of $5 per person. It’s like stepping back in time by 150 years. The barrel cellar could easily be mistaken for a museum when in fact it’s part of a working winery. I’m a huge fan of Tyrrells’ wines particularly their Semillon and Chardonnay although the reds can also be outstanding.
First published in KiaOra Magazine – Jul 2015.