You’re going on a wine hunt, and the Hunter Valley has the trophies. A wine trail is always a good idea, and the Hunter Valley, just 2 hours’ drive from Sydney, with its history, temperate climate and perfect terroir, will reward you.
While the Hunter is known for its semillons, chardonnays and shiraz, there is much more there besides, and some new boutique cellar doors make it an exciting place to visit. Then there’s the food. Pin your ears back, and hit the road! If you make it for the Hunter Valley Food and Wine Festival in May and June, please be sure to book well ahead. Wine lovers come here from everywhere!
First up, a base. Pokolbin, right in the heart of the Hunter is ideal. The vineyards and cellar doors are close and Ken and Suzie, who’ve been at Berenbell for 10 years, know the area inside out. For luxury self-contained cottages that will make you sigh with joy, they are great value. There are good restaurants close by and if you fancy a beer or two you’ll be pleased to hear that the Matilda Bay Brewhouse is merely a short stroll away. The wonderfully relaxed Muse Kitchen is a regional European Bistro style place that serves local produce, lovingly prepared.
You may as well start at the top with the “Winery of the Year for 2017”. Jim Chatto, the winemaker, has been winning awards for some time. His Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Cellar Door Aged Semillon 2007 has a raft of golds, and deservedly so. A rich straw green, with room to develop, it’s an outstanding wine. Then there’s the Mountain D Full Bodied Dry Red 2014 which showcases Shiraz, and a Chardonnay made from hand-picked, whole bunch pressed grapes replete with fruit flavours that sing on the palate. With many of the wines only available at the cellar door, this winery is a perfect place to start.
And here’s a tip - if you need a break and relaxing massage after all that wine tasting, the Chateau Elan Spa, is just 11km away and will get you right in a jiffy.
Head up to Tallavera Grove, one of Davis Premium Vineyards, along Mount View Road and sample some outstanding alternative varietals, including a rare Vermentino which is like a complex Sauvignon Blanc. Their Chardonnays deliver superb fruit with a hint of oak, and their Carillion The Crystals Orange Chardonnay is elegant, and well worth cellaring – it’s got years in it yet. (The Orange in the name refers to the area, not the colour!) And the Arbirage, a regional blend of Cabernet Merlot Shiraz, is definitely worth a taste. The Hunter iconic restaurant, Bistro Molines is next door. Robert and Sally Molines are legends of the Hunter food and restaurant community, and oversee one of the best winery restaurants you’ll find anywhere. With superb French inspired décor and food, the bistro sits watching Mount View valley in all its glorious panorama. Bliss!
A new and exciting wine business, Usher Tinkler’s cellar door sits on the road in the original Pokolbin church. Don’t be fooled though by the plain exterior, this is a family run winery that pushes boundaries, and blends traditional and contemporary winemaking practices. Inside, the cellar door is a hymn to local wood, and they showcase their hand made salumis and cheeses made to match their wines. A really different wine and food tasting experience, with solely family vineyard wines, their sustainable platform of nose to tail informs their winemaking. The Nose to Tail label showcases a wonderful range of cruisy, easy drinking wines that will have you trying all varieties – from a zesty white blend of Semillon/Chardonnay to the red and rose which is a strawberry, fruity blend of Shiraz/Merlot.
One of the highest regarded wineries in the Hunter, Brokenwood has spawned a host of Australian wine identities and winemakers. This vineyard is home to the famous Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz, the highly acclaimed ILR Reserve Semillon, and the popular Cricket Pitch Range.Want some history here? You’ve got it. The shiraz vines were planted in what was to have been a graveyard. It was a good move to put in vines rather than bodies as they produce exceptional wines with huge flavour concentration and are highly sought after. Both rated 97 out of 100, their ILR Reserve Hunter Valley Semillon 2011, citrus and honey notes, and their Tallawant Hunter Valley Shiraz 2015, are ‘pure Hunter terroir’. Their single vineyard philosophy has been a driver throughout Brokenwood’s development and the cellar door? Clever and efficient.
Right in Pokolbin, with almost 50 wines available to taste, you will definitely find something you love! They stock wines from 26 of the best Hunter winemakers, so if you’re looking for something a little different, you’ll find it here. Ian Little’s Llamas in Pyjamas 2015 Malbec is a standout, with a beautiful fruity finish, and Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon is a Hunter benchmark for this grape style. You can book for a cheese and wine tasting, or for private groups, there’s the Icon Lounge. Perfect.
Head left onto Broke Road, away from the tourist hub, and Tyrrell’s Wines, a family winery since 1858 will come into view. With award winning, iconic Hunter wines, the company also launched the first Hunter Valley Fine Foods Markets in 2017, driving the natural pairing of superb local produce with fine wine. Their cellar door is exceptional – you’ll see the old oak vats and red cellar still in operation, and the original iron bark hut that Edward Tyrrell lived in. Their Hunter Heroes range is amazing – verdelho, semillon, chardonnay and shiraz – and they are all 100% Hunter Valley. You will definitely want to go back for more. Their Vat Series will cellar well, and their Vat 1 Semillon, 2005 is acknowledged as one of the best Semillons ever made. Their Cellar Door experience is slick and professional and the daily wine tour (10.30am) is well worth doing.
Driving out onto Hermitage Road, you’ll find Thomas Wines, another award winning Cellar Door. This winery produced its first vintage in 1997 and winemaker Andrew Thomas has an incredible attention to detail with his winemaking approach. He won the 2014 Hunter Valley Winemaker of the Year (which he had previously won in 2008). He now makes individual vineyard wines, and his Braemore Individual Vineyard Hunter Valley Semillon 2016 is limey, citrusy and grassy in perfect balance. His shiraz is a great example of Hunter reds, and will cellar well.
A little drive out of Broke, Margan produces some of the best wines in the Hunter, and Andrew Margan not only presides over a spectacular award winning winery but a restaurant as well. Their medal winning vermouths and trophy winning Ripasso are must tries. These are incredibly well priced estate wines, and when Andrew was named Hunter Valley Viticulturist of the Year in 2015, no one was surprised. He imported the first Albarino vines to Australia, and some even say he can predict the weather! Furthermore he has put his second degree in environmental health to good use and has overseen the emergence of Margan Wines Environmental Sustainability Programme that has evolved into Margan being the most accredited environmentally sustainable winery in the Hunter Valley.
If you are visiting you must stay for lunch as they are serious about sustainability here too. They build their menus around what they harvest from their one acre, hand tended garden and orchard to maintain a truly seasonal focus. They also have their own olive trees, free range chickens, honey and even raise their own lambs.
Back on Broke Road, a new and spectacular addition to the Hunter cellar door family is Tempus Two, owned by the Roche Family. The architecture is incredible – the brief? “A modern interpretation of the simple country shed”. The architect delivered. While they have private tastings if you wish, they can also cater for groups of up to 30 – this is serious terroir tasting. And don’t miss the Meerea Park wines while you’re here. Rhys and Garth Eather, from a long line of Hunter wine forebears, are creating spectacular wines that have garnered international attention. The Aged Release Alexander Munro Individual Vineyard Hunter Valley Shiraz, 2007, at 97 points is a must and it will cellar until 2037. But at $120 it isn’t cheap. Then again, who’s counting? Enjoy!
Back at base, Pokolbin can boast a general store, the ‘Smelly Cheese Shop’, a gift shop, the Chocolate and Jam company, and a bottle shop. The village, as locals call it, is worth a visit.
Then there’s Circa 1876. With its spectacular wooden beamed interior lit with crystal chandeliers it is currently one of the best fine dining experiences in the Hunter Valley. Their tasting menus are inventive, exciting, and use produce fresh from the garden, just outside. Farm to fork? Absolutely.