Living in Australia for a few years left a lasting imprint in me. I still find myself craving certain aspects of the land Down Under: its vast expanse of space, the clearest blue skies, its laid-back attitude, the abundance of huge vegetables and fresh produce, and its idyllic wine regions.
In Adelaide, I had easy access on weekends to three wine regions. But it was on a recent visit to friends in Sydney that I discovered Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest wine producing region that dates back to the early 1830s when James Busby, an amateur viticulturist, returned from Europe and South Africa with cuttings from over 500 vineyards.
Today, Hunter Valley has over 140 wineries, although the region is known for its Semillon and Shiraz. With wine tourism in full swing, expect good food and a choice of more than 65 restaurants.
My friends Ange and Mike Bulan were my kind hosts. Although I was loathe to impose on them a 219-km drive from Sydney to Hunter Valley, the husband-and-wife duo happily indulged this foodie.
“You love food and wine. We have to take you there,” insisted Ange who wanted to show me what has also become their favor ite haunt. There are five wine and food trails to choose from, although most of their favorites were located in the southern area of Pokolbin.
First Stop: Brokenwood Winery
This winery was started in 1970 by three Sydney-based lawyers who planted Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in what was intended as a cricket field. A bit of trivia: The three hobbyists had no viticulture know-how, but found success nonetheless. So profitable was the venture that, over the years, they acquired other partners and the property next door.
The local planners had designated the area as a cemetery, but it was never used for this original purpose. Instead, the lawyers-turned-winemakers planted more shiraz and cabernet sauvignon grapes.
Our favorite was the Brokenwood 2012 Late Picked Hunter Valley Semillon for its delightful sweet notes. Late harvest grapes are left in the vine to ripen longer than usual, resulting in a sweeter wine.
Just how do you better appreciate wine, I asked a friend who once worked with leading vineyard operator and winemaker Robert Mondavi. Her answer was simple and sensible: “The more you taste, the more you learn what you like.”
Second Stop: McGuigan Winery
Three-time winner of International Winemaker of the Year in 2009, 2011 and 2012 at the International Wine & Spirit Competition, the winery has three black wine barrels to boldly announce this honor. No other winery in the world has achieved this honor, three times in four years. The winery crushes 3,000 tons of grapes a year. Compared to Brokenwood’s quaint and intimate wine-tasting experience, the cellar door here is much busier, with larger groups, and wine stewards attending to more guests.
Don’t miss the Hunter Valley Cheese company next door. There is a daily cheese tasting for AU$7.50, but which requires bookings. Feel free to stop by as they offer samples, and a talk on cheese—free admission!—at 11 a.m. daily.
Ange and I instantly fell in love with the Hunter Gold Washed Rind. All cheeses are manufactured on-site, with no preservatives, using traditional cheese-making recipes. The quaint shop has cheeses, crackers, fig jams, and all the ingredients needed to make a perfect picnic.
Third Stop: Cafe Enzo
Thanks to the advice of some wine attendants, we headed to Cafe Enzo, set in a sandstone village, for lunch. Pepper Creek has a collection of stores: an antique shop, the Australian Alpaca Barn, David Hook Wines, and this fully booked Italian restaurant. But one hardly notices the wait, as there is so much to see: the antique open fireplace and a gallery featuring modern paintings of local artists.
We feasted on the char-grilled pork cutlet, parsnip puree with a pear and walnut salad, and linguini with tiger prawns, fresh chili, baby tomatoes, and chorizo in a lemon butter sauce. We could not resist the thick-cut fries with aioli. With the superior quality of the fresh produce, the chefs have prepared simple recipes to showcase their flavors.
While it can be tempting to have a siesta after all the wining and dining, one can instead take a walk in the gardens and the creek to burn off the calories. Here, you are bound to bump into brides posing for pre-nup or wedding photos. I later learned there is a small sandstone chapel set amidst the vines, as well as a Barrel Room perfect for receptions. The setting mimics the European countryside. Look out too for trees with pink peppercorns dangling from them, which is probably behind the name, Pepper Creek.
Fourth Stop: Tempus Two
You can’t miss the Tempus Two at the corner of Broke and Mc Donalds Road. The sleek and modern lines create a distinctly striking presence for this cellar door amidst Hunter Valley’s vineyards. Fronting Tempus Two’s cellar door is an amphitheater often used as setting for Pokolbin’s music and events during the warmer months. There are a number of restaurants next to Tempus Two including Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop.
Smelly Cheese offers an enormous selection of cheeses, from roquefort from France, gouda from Holland, gruyere from Switzerland and red leicester from England. If you fancy blue mold, white mold, feta, fresh curd, hard, stretched curd or cooking cheeses, this smelly shop has it all. But they also carry hard-to-find Australian cheeses from King Island, Margaret River and Gippsland. As if that’s not enough temptation for any lactose-intolerant person, they also have the Hunter Valley Gelato Company selling traditional Italian gelato within the premises.
Fifth Stop: Hunter Valley Chocolate Company
Chocoholics, beware! This shop’s got everything chocolate-y here. Using the finest Belgian couverture (very high quality chocolates with up to 40 percent cocoa butter), chocolate makers here marry chili, coffee, nuts, dried fruits, and candy with the primary ingredient.
But what pricked my interest the most was a package of dried chocolate pasta. Instructions said boil the pasta and serve hot with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Hmmmm…
All the chocolate bonbons are handmade. Go ahead, give in and treat yourself to gigantic strawberries dipped in the chocolate fountain.
Definitely a sweet ending to a perfect day. •
For more delicious moments in food and travel, LIKE Maida’s Facebook page/maidastouch and her blog, www.themaidastouch.blogspot.com to follow her adventures.
Wine-tasting for Beginners
How do you choose which wine to give as gifts, or to bring to that potluck party? How do you tell if a wine is good or just a notch above soda drinks?
Here are a few wine-tasting basics to better appreciate your purchase:
LOOK. Pour wine into a glass. Check for color and clarity. Is it maroon, ruby, brick red or purple for the reds? Or light green, amber, golden or pale yellow? Is it dark? Older wines have darker hues. Are there sediments?
SMELL. You’ve seen experts swirl their glasses. While it looks fancy, swirling for about 10 seconds also helps vaporize the alcohol. It also releases the wine’s natural aromas. Sniff the wine to smell. Do you get berry, citrus, vanilla, grassy, or floral notes?
TASTE. Take a small sip, and roll the wine around your mouth. This will let you fully appreciate its flavors.
Remember, the more you taste, the more you know what you like! Note your favorites, and give them to friends as gifts.