There’s no complaining when your husband decides to surprise you with a last minute anniversary getaway. You take five seconds to throw some clothes together, bolt for the car and buckle your seatbelt soon as you can… before he changes his mind!
I am a fresh off the boat migrant or rather one leg still on the boat type! Having moved to Sydney from New Delhi slightly short of a year ago this was my very first semi – holiday (semi for its ephemeral length of 2 nights)!
We decided to take the M1 and the drive was perfect in one incredibly important way – clocking in at two hours 45 minutes it was mercifully short and therefore comfortable.
I feel there’s something truly special about wine country. But, Truth be told, I don’t know my cabernet from my merlot, yet I’m a sucker for the weekend mellow haze that allows me to feel a deep benevolence for all living beings! Wine land is also a much-needed haven from all the pressures that come with city life. Wine tasting however isn’t all there is to do at Hunter Valley. This beautiful territory plays host to many a concert, stunning golf courses, hot air balloon rides and world-class restaurants.
We reached the The Hunter Valley Retreat in Quorrobolong late afternoon on a Friday. This property spread over 200 acres of beautiful bush land at the foot of the stunning Watgan Mountains, is best described as a hidden gem. Having booked ourselves a charming one-bed cottage with its own porch, kitchenette and living area, we were pleasantly surprised to find out the accommodation was even better than the few pictures we saw online.
With an entire evening ahead we thought it would be best to dump our bags and drive into Cessnock. Only fifteen minutes from the Retreat, this little township is as quaint as it is delightful. Dotted with fabulous bakeries serving melt in your mouth fare (a big shout out to Exquisite Cakes!), restaurants (Gourmet Pizzas take a bow), plenty of breweries and an unusually large number of hair salons, Cessnock is vibrant and wears its unique heritage with sass.
Saturday morning dawned on us with the promise of a sunny day. Arriving dot on time, Vineyard Shuttle Services did not disappoint, at 75 bucks a head, we got a lovely little van, our super enthusiastic driver Ian, a full-day wine tour and the opportunity to make new friends. As we continued to pick up our fellow wine enthusiasts we got a sneak peak into many a stunning property. We hadn’t even reached our first vineyard and were already falling in love.
Our first stop of the day was family-owned GEMELLI in Pokolbin. There is seven acres under vine at this breath taking estate growing the Chardonnay, Muscat and Merlot grape. Our table had the most ravishing setting out in the open under a bewitching tree right in the heart of the estate. The owner fed us plenty of wine trivia while we tasted the produce.
The estate also had an art gallery with acrylics by the talented Phillipa Cullen, who makes paintings bright and chirpy enough to lift one from the dead! The start was sublime and we couldn’t wait to discover what lay ahead.
VINDEN ESTATE came next, established in 1990 by Guy and Sandra Vinden. It was more than 25 acres of premium vineyard paradise with views to the Brokenback Ranges, surrounding vineyards and olive groves. It is the only vineyard in the region that grows the rare Alicante Bouschet apart from Shiraz and Merlot. Having taken out a few moments to admire the sheer magnificence of the setting our group made its way to the Cellar Door for tasting number two.
The Vinden Headcase Charmless Man emerged quickly as the unequivocal winner. Simply superb this light and delicious wine with the most fun name ever is a blend of Pinot Noir and Alicante Bouschet.
Our next station was the illustrious and widely acclaimed DRAYTON’S. The Drayton family goes back a long way in wine making, we’re looking at over a 160 years of expertise in producing wines of outstanding quality and distinction. They also have a restaurant on the estate called The Log Press Cafe where we had a quick, very palatable bite before proceeding towards the tasting.
The Log Press Old Tawny Port matured in oak casks, tawny brown in colour, with a hint of olive was the unanimous champion here. Part of their fortified wine collection and made from a blend of aged tawny port wines it was nutty and light bodied with a smooth finish. At 18.5% alcohol content it was also pretty potent.
We approached WYNWOOD ESTATE our next port of disembarkation with wobbly steps and in a mild stupor, the spirits were high however and the giggles constant. On encountering the irresistible beauty of our environment we were instantly alerted to the opportunity of fun photo ops and just like that everyone was wide-awake again.
Wynwood is the Hunter Valley’s newest wine label, it also has a lovely little museum on site that is totally worth spending an extra ten minutes on. The prize winner for this tasting had to be the Limited Release Cabernet Blend made from the Barossa fruit. Substantially fuller in weight and palate it would be easy to go through a whole bottle!
McGUIGAN WINES has been crowned International Winemaker of the Year at the prestigious International Wine & Spirits Competition(IWSC) a record 4 times! A relevant if slightly intimidating piece of knowledge for us lesser and by now, shamelessly drunk mortals. McGuigan Cellar Select Rose completely stole my heart. It was smooth from the word go and the berry flavours were complimented by a muscat like character. With the wine tasting finally done with we congratulated each other on still being able to stand and happily looked forward to the cheese and chocolate that was to follow!
Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese is the go-to place for those who want to stuff their faces with local, Australian, imported cheeses and spreads plus the most delicious gelato made on site! We picked up a glorious sundried tomato feta, some herb and garlic spread and demolished both within days of our return! The Chocolate & Fudge Factory next door was also equally delightful with a never ending display of handmade chocolate and fudge to choose from. We were spoilt for choice.
Fully spent and utterly smug about our day of gluttonous indulgences, we said our goodbyes with promises to keep in touch and were ferried back to our hotel just in time for the view of a heavenly sunset from our porch.
The drive back to Sydney the next morning was unusually quiet and introspective. To quote French novelist Gustave Flaubert: Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
The Hunter region is replete with lush meadows and vineyards, vivid blue skies, kangaroos and stud farms teeming with galloping thoroughbreds, all playing their roles in underlining one simple fact – This was only the beginning of what was going to be a very long and loyal love affair with the Hunter Valley.