Welcome To The Hunter Valley – Part 1
When Hunter Valley Tourism announced they were on the hunt for three Ambassador Bloggers to report about some of the finds in the wine growing region that is a mere 45 minutes by car from my front gate, I entered. If I die not winning another competition in my life, I will die happy. Joining me in the onerous task of drinking loads of wine and eating ourselves stupid over three weekend throughout the year is Lisa Perkovic (www.lisaperkovic.com.au) and Billy Law (www.atablefortwo.com.au). They’ve already reported on their first weekends here and here. Sucks to be us, hey?
It’s a funny thing about having something truly amazing right near to where you live and never visiting. I remember meeting many Londoners who’d never set foot in France or Scotland. “But it’s two hours away”, I would state stunned. “One day”, was their usual response. I guess it’s easy to be complacent when something’s so close, but being a Sydney ex-pat whose keen to discover all that’s great about my hometown, I’ve visited the Hunter Valley a few times over the last two years. But there’s still so much I’ve never seen. Friends tell me of wineries, restaurants, views and things to do that I never even knew existed. Our first weekend away afforded the opportunity to have some more Hunter Valley secrets revealed.
The first port of call was the sleek accommodation at Tonic Hotel, nestled in the Lovedale region of the Hunter Valley – a place I’d never detoured to on previous trips. Shame for me, because it’s a beautiful and relatively quiet spot filled with some excellent wineries and other secrets (to be revealed in Part 2). The drive up to our one of four modern duplex cottages on the vast property involves crossing a small weir (it has been raining all week) and I instantly leave my troubles at the gate and snake up the drive. Everything, from the slippers and robes to the bathroom that is bigger than my own bedroom at home define relaxed luxury. Breakfast is neatly serviceable from our own kitchenette. Aesop products the ready to indulge. It was unfortunate that the weekend we arrived it was still bucketing with rain, otherwise we would have taken advantage of the pool and pool house. Instead we laid out on the bed and watched a mob of kangaroos survey the hillside while nibbling on grass right out the front of our verandah. Yeah, this gig is going to be real tough.
Killing some time leading up to our dinner reservation we read a local magazine to discover my mug in a feature article on unique experiences in the Hunter Valley and those about to experience them. He!
Dinner was booked for us at Leaves and Fishes a short drive away. Whilst warm, it was pouring with rain so it was great to leave our our umbrellas at the door and sit out on the covered verandah and feel as if we’d be transported to Thailand during the rainy season. You see, Leaves and Fishes is not just a restaurant but also a fish farm and a deck places you right out over one of the dams from which you can feed the fish stale bread. It’s intimate, beautifully decorated and the food! Oh my goodness.
Never one to go past pork belly whenever it is on a menu I order Leave and Fishes’ version with papaya, chilli and lime. It does not disappoint. A glass of Allandale Pinot Noir (whose winery is located a hop, skip and a jump away) rounds out the meal nicely.
Dean is partial to soft shell crab whenever it is on the menu. It was accompanied with a Thai flavoured salad. The dressing, sitting like a little moat around the crab meant we (yes, I had some too!) could still taste the gentle flavour of the crab and follow with a crunchy crab leg drenched in a wonderful mouth-tingling taste of a beautifully balanced dressing.
Mains had Dean going for the crispy skinned duck with steamed asparagus, confit potato and ginger butter. To my mind it’s hard to go wrong with crispy-skinned / confit anything. I went with crispy whole fish (baby barramundi) with ginger, pea sprout salad and seared greens. Like a tasty, edible version of a petrified fossil my buggy-eyed whole fish is sublime. I didn’t eat my greens (eep!) as the fish and salad were more than enough and I knew dessert was coming up.
As a general rule I am a two courses kinda gal, but I am going all out here. Time to loosen the belt as the old saying goes. Chocolate fondant, cookies and cream gelato w honeycomb for him. Vanilla creme brulee w pistachio wafer and fresh nectarine and berries for her. Around 15 minutes before heading into food coma territory, we depart the cozy surrounds of Leaves and Fishes in exchange for the comforts of Tonic Hotel. You’re really feeling for us right about now, I’m sure.
The next day, awaking refreshed from a the first sleep I wasn’t awoken multiple times with little people’s requests for refreshments, loo chaperoning or nightmare therapy, we have a light breakfast knowing we’ve a big lunch ahead of us. This morning we are on a wine trail adventure. Brokenwood at Pokolbin, a mere 15 minutes away by car, is our first stop. Now, I’d been to Brokenwood before, but not Brokenwood proper. There’s a big cellar door location not far up the road, the one I’ve been to, which offers tasting for larger groups. This smaller entrance is actual Brokenwood HQ, where all the wine is produced. It has an intimate cellar door with Brokenwood artifacts such as wine labels and bottles of vintages past. The ‘Cellar Door Cru’ are very friendly and it’s not long before Head Winemaker Simon Steele is taking time out his busy schedule (they are still picking and fermenting during our visit) to show us the inner workings of the vineyard.
Simon Steele checks out progress.
Nearly blew my own head off getting in too early to have a whiff of fermenting grapes. Whoah!
Simon spent his first vintage at Brokenwood, in the exact opposite of weather conditions than what’s on offer right now. In 2003 it was hot and dry. He then went on to complete his Oenology degree at Adelaide University. He has worked in the Adelaide Hills, Clare, Margaret River, McLaren Vale and held winemaking roles at Shadowfax, M. Chapoutier Victoria and in Spain. His attitude to wine making appears to be very democratic, giving staff the opportunity to experiment. His outlook is so refreshing. Beside the enormous vats of fermenting grapes, there are smaller vats in which the same grapes have been treated a little differently – experiments to see if a hunch will pay off. We are offered samples of grapes at various stages of fermentation. I struggle to appear like I know what I am doing with the end product, let along grapes half-way though the process, so I try to take the vastly different taste in my stride. I don’t think I was too successful. It’s not long before we are at the pointy end of the tour with glasses lined up for wine tasting proper.
The Hunter Valley is renowned for its Semillon and I’ve partaken in a glass or two of Brokenwood Sem in the past. But the Forest Edge Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc is a revelation. My personal favourites are light reds, so I was thrilled to learn that Brokenwood also offer a stunning Sangiovese, which is actually produced in Victoria’s Beechworth region. We depart with a split dozen of the Sauvignon Blanc and Sangiovese. Our wine pigeon holes at home will finally have some company!
Next we head cross-Valley, north towards the Hunter River and the location of the region’s first vineyard, Wyndham Estate. The leisurely 45-minute drive sees us pass dozens of wineries and cellar doors which lessen in frequency the further we travel. Once we cross the New England Highway the landscape changes from mainly bush to paddocks. It’s a surprising contrast and illustrates the growth and concentration of wineries from this first location next to the Hunter River in Dalwood when transport was so reliant on the River to more recent concentration further south in Pokolbin and surrounds when transport options over land opened up the valley. Its isolation certainly provides a point of difference and the location beside the currently swollen Hunter River is stunning.
The Estate is home to a grassed amphitheatre that has played host to Shirley Bassey and Ray Charles. The original homestead of pioneering George Wyndham built in 1830, located in one corner of the vast property, is now owned by the National Trust. The building that houses The Olive Tree Restaurant, cellar door and winery was built in 1904 and incorporates sandstone blocks from the original winery built in the mid 19th century. A trophy cabinet displays a silver cup awarded to Wyndham Estate in 1869. The tracks on the floor at the entrance to the Cellar Door mark the passage of the old wine press. This is history, people!
A well-serviced picnic area beside the riverbank is a great location if you are interested in self-catering, something I’ve not seen done at any wineries in Pokolbin (though I am sure someone’s got it covered) and it’s a great option if you have children. Alternatively there’s The Olive Tree Restaurant, which is the reason we are here. You might remember head Chef Andy Wright cooked the paella at the ABC1233 lunch that I was lucky enough to be invited to last year.
We make the rookie mistake of telling Chef Andy we are happy for him to choose for us. So. Much. Food. My usual practice of two-courses more than doubles for this lunch. The worst part? The food was so good, we had no choice but to give it a solid go. I know, poor us.
First up we are served a shared platter of something I do not eat enough of when in season, fresh figs, on this occasion accompanied by beautifully cured strips of prosciutto. Complimentary olives left us with something to graze over while the next entree made its way to the table, buffalo mozzarealla with truss tomatoes, basil and white anchovies. It’s been too long since I’ve enjoyed proper anchovies, and fresh buffalo mozzarella for that matter. Oh, how I’ve missed them!
While the main meal is being prepared, we score a tasting bowl filled with grilled Crystal Bay prawns, crispy cubes of pancetta, punchy chilli and even punchier preserved lemon. Try this at home people! It is sensational.
At the point when we’re wondering just how big the mains will be, out comes a bowl of roasted kipfler potatoes with garlic and rosemary and a platter of watercress, frisee lettuce, rocket, red cabbage, capers, peas, Parmesan and radish dressed with verjuice. The glory went to the Tajima Wagyu 8+ sirloin steaks (plural!) crowned with a disc of melting caper butter. Our table is now jam-packed with mis-matched vintage crockery and cutlery alongside glasses of Wyndham Show Reserve Shiraz. It’s as if we have returned to Nonna’s house and she’s taken it upon herself to fatten us up. I don’t know if this is what they mean by Slow Food, but that’s exactly how this meal is eaten. And it is fantastico.
We sit back for a good half an hour before deciding to share a dessert, you know, just because. Roast honey with local figs (double hurruh) with olive oil and Sauterne cake and vanilla ice cream. We had to be rolled out of the restaurant at this point, but not before detouring via the cellar door to secure a sneaky couple of whites.
Lovedale is surprisingly close to Wyndham so it’s not long before Dean and I are lying like starfish on the bed back at Tonic Hotel wondering how on Earth we are going to fit in dinner. Food induced coma? Does a two hour nap count?
Awake from our slumber we hot foot it to The Legends Grill at The Vintage. I’ve never partial to golf itself, but ever since Karate Kid I am quite fond of a country clubs and The Vintage is about as close to country club as we get in Australia. There’s elegant homes bordering the 18-hole golf course and and luxury accommodation by way of Chateau Elan which also has a fancy day spa.
But we are here for the wood-panelled and Chesterfield lounge filled Club House and its adjoining restaurant The Legends Grill. Now, what golf club wouldn’t be a golf club without a restaurant that favours a steak? Oh, and some lobster, scallops, pork belly and barramundi too…
And then there was dessert (buttermilk panncotta with peach compote, raspberry sorbet and champagne jelly).
I’m still not sure how we managed to fit through the door on the way out.
Needless to say we slept like logs (again) and woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Breakfast was out of the question….but wine tasting was not. We headed to Gartelman’s not far from where we were staying. This winery is the perfect example of what Lovedale does so well. Independent wine makers who provide their own distinct take on cellar door operations. Most people ask Jorg Gartelmann if he’s a Collingwood man, going by his wine’s mascot the magpie, but no. It seems the magpies seem to love hanging about this part of the valley and are valuable allies for Jorge as they scare away other birds that would make a meal from the grapes growing on the surrounding vines and eat grubs and moths that might also cause a headache for viticulturalists. They also have a distinctive song that any Australian would regard with fondness.
Jorge takes us through their offering, including The Benjamin Semillon, Verdelho and Chardonnay before we get on to the red. The Diedrich Shiraz is names after Jorge’s grandfather and has won numerous gold medals. The years it didn’t win a medal was probably the times it wasn’t make because the fruit wasn’t considered good enough to try.
With a half dozen bottles of wine in the boot, we make our way around the block to Sabor in the Hunter, a dessert bar offering, what we were soon to discover, the most incredible Portuguese chocolate mousses and handmade chocolates. We decided breakfast was in order so naturally bypassed the croissants and chose a chocolate mousse tasting plate, including traditional, hazelnut, orange chocolate and mocha. It’s easy to understand why they are award-winning.
We make sure the babysitter is looked after with a box of handmade chocolates as we bid farewell to the Hunter Valley. It’s been an extraordinary weekend, filled with So. Much. Food. and lots of great memories.
251 Talga Rd, Lovedale
+61 2 4930 7022
Leaves and Fishes
737 Lovedale Rd, Lovedale
+ 61 2 4930 7400
401-427 McDonalds Rd, Pokolbin
+61 2 4998 7559
700 Dalwood Rd, Dalwood
+61 2 4938 3444
The Olive Tree Restaurant
at Wyndham Estate
700 Dalwood Rd, Dalwood
+61 2 49381831
The Legends Grill
at The Vintage Golf Club
Vintage Drive, Rothbury
+61 2 4998 2213
701 Lovedale Rd, Lovedale
+61 2 4930 7113
Sabor In The Hunter
319 Wilderness Rd, Lovedale
1300 958 850