Good Hunting – Exploring the Hunter Valley
I packed up the car for a two day adventure to Australia’s oldest wine region, the Hunter Valley. A couple of hours from Sydney and just over an hour from Newcastle airport, the Hunter dates back to the 1820s.
Today the region boasts a diverse range of varieties and winemaking styles, yet the character and history that built the Hunter can still be seen in many of its original custodians.
James Busby brought 500 cuttings with him from Europe in 1824, and over the ensuing years, established the region. How’s this for a roll call: Dr Henry Lindeman arrived in 1843, followed soon after by the Draytons (1853), Tyrrells (1858) and Tullochs (1895) – all revered names who are still making great wine. Today, there are 150+ wineries plying their trade in the region.
Typically characterised by a warm maritime and sub-tropical climate, it seems climate change has caught up with the region. Iain Riggs, Managing Director of Brokenwood Wines, recounts vintage finishing up at the end of March thirty-two years ago. Fast forward to the present and vintage 2018 was all washed up by the end of February, aided by pallets of Peroni (they buy Peroni to assist in the completion of vintage at Brokenwood - apparently it takes a lot of beer to make good wine).
Warm days are a constant during the summer months, (with average temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius). Early migrant settlers named the area Pokolbin, which roughly translates to Hell Hole, such was the heat they experienced. Sitting in the shadows of the Brokenback Range though, cool nights counterbalance the warm days making conditions ideal for grape growing.
Soils play a significant role in the development of great wines and the Hunter is no different. Semillon is citrusy with crisp acidity off sandy and alluvial soils and deliciously medium bodied shiraz often comes from loam soils. But one of the star performers, and one which doesn’t get as much recognition as it should, is the modern and fruit driven chardonnays that many producers handle so well here. The Hunter can thank the great Murray Tyrrell for starting this trend.
Here’s how to spend a weekend in the Hunter
1000 - Head to the picturesque little pocket of the Hunna (local dialect) known as Mt View. Here you’ll find some of the best views of the valley. Drop in to Briar Ridge whose wines are made by the effervescent Gwyn Olsen. Her Dairy Hill semillon, chardonnay and shiraz all make the heart skip a beat.
1100 – Head up the hill to Tallavera Grove to taste some alternate varieties that are making some serious headway in the region. Check out their vermentino, verduzzo and a cheeky field blend to stretch your curiosity a bit further. If red is your thing, give the sagrantino and aglianico a go. Once you’re done, spin around from the tasting bench and head through the doors Bistro Molines for lunch. It’s one of the best restaurants in the valley.
1400 – After a well-earned long lunch, jump in the car and drive ten minutes up the track to McDonalds Road arriving at Gundog Estate. One of the newbies in town, this well-presented cellar door is matched by clever wines. Matt Burton’s single vineyard wines tease out great fruit from excellent sites enabling you to compare and contrast different pockets of the valley. Well worth it.
1500 – Head out the door from Gundog and take 40 steps across the car park to Usher Tinkler’s Cellar and Salumi. A restored church, this is a heavenly experience no less. There’s such a relaxed vibe with knowledgeable staff who are keen to please without the wankery. Check out the shiraz pinot blend and the Reserve chardonnay while sitting back with a charcuterie board. **Note – you may need to book a spot here in advance. It’s very popular (for very good reason).
1600 – Hang out a little longer at Usher’s, or, buy a little extra meat and cheese to enjoy at your accommodation with a special bottle you may have picked up along the way. Or, nip back up the road to Mount Pleasant for a quick look at some history and beautifully crafted wines. It helped put the Hunter on the map courtesy of legend Maurice O’Shea. The cellar door closes at five, the future is in your hands.
700 – Exercise lovers, your challenge awaits. Park at Tinkler’s Wines on Pokolbin Mountain Road. Follow the windy and steady incline of this road all the way to the top. Walk or run. The round trip can take an hour or two depending on your fitness.
1030 – David Hook Wines is the first stop. There’s a coffee shop right next door, too. Well-made wines and some alternate varieties that are well worth a look.
1130 – Two minutes up the road, swing left into De Iuliis – the hardest name to say, but some of the easiest wines to drink. Say ‘de uli~iss’. Killer semillon for 18 bucks. Great for the pool - I speak from experience. Mike makes a shiraz touriga blend too which is a standout on top of some superb chardonnay and shiraz.
1230 – You’re on tour. You deserve indulgences, right? Turn left out of the De Iuliis gate and drive for 15 minutes to Margan Wines. Excellent food in the restaurant is accompanied by clever winemaking in the cellar door. Andrew Margan has been a pioneer with alternate varieties in the region. Check his refreshing albarino, the Hunter’s first planting of barbera, or the shiraz mourvedre blend. Margan also make their own vermouth – this was pure selfishness really, they wanted to drink more negronis.
1430 – Two long lunches in two days. This is living! Head back fifteen minutes on Broke Road and turn left into Hermitage Road. Thomas Wines is the destination. Thommo specialises in semillon and shiraz and his deft touch is clear. Immerse yourself in his renowned Braemore semillon plus his Sweetwater and Kiss shiraz. It was awarded the 2017 Cellar Door of the year for good reason.
1530 – One more for the win? Five minutes away back on Broke Road is Tyrrells Wines. Their range and quality speaks for itself. Sneak out the back and check out the old winery – dirt floor and all. History all the way back to 1858. The staff will guide your taste buds and you may even get a peek at some of their flagship wines.
1630 – After a busy couple of days, a G&T at the Goldfish Bar at Roche Estate is a cleansing way to close out the cellar door hopping before having a lazy night in or indulging one more time at The Cellar Restaurant or Muse.
To read more of Steve’s work, check out Q Wine Reviews!