Danny Wood is a Kansas City-based Australian journalist who edits Midwest Wine Press, the only publication focusing on the art and business of making wine in the Midwest. He also writes for WineMaker, Feast and Vineyard & Winery Management magazines.
For the wine tourist, Australia’s Hunter Valley offers a high volume of quality wine, top-tier restaurants, a range of accommodations and plenty of entertainment.
The Hunter Valley is Australia’s oldest wine-producing area and best known for its Semillon and Shiraz (Syrah) wines. However, other classic varietals are widely grown, including Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The lesser-known Chambourcin is also a regular sighting on tasting lists.
The Hunter Valley covers a wide area – about 11,000 square miles, or roughly the size of Maryland. Many of the more than 150 wineries are clustered near the character-rich rural towns of Cessnock -- note the giant Aussie pub that dominates the main street -- and Pokolbin.
Wine-growing conditions down under are challenging. But the region is capable of delivering grapes that produce complex, sought-after wines. Heat, drought, humidity and rainfall at harvest time can all cause problems for the region’s vineyards. Mountains in the north and west create the valley that brings in rain-filled clouds from the coast. The cool breezes reduce temperatures and help allow quality grapes to mature. The soils range from the sandy and alluvial suitable for Semillon to volcanic basalt, which is credited with bringing minerality to wines.
The first Hunter Valley vineyards were planted during the opening decades of the 19th century, not long after the East coast of Australia was “discovered” for Europeans by Captain Cook in 1770. Wyndham Estate claims the site of the first commercial Shiraz vineyard in Australia, planted by founder George Wyndham in 1830. Perhaps the best-known winery in the Hunter, Tyrrell’s Wines, has produced since the 1860s and is still owned by the same family.
Like Australia’s bigger cities, the wineries and restaurants in the Hunter have become foodie hubs. From Muse Kitchen at Keith Tullock Winery, with its swordfish, kingfish and separate vegetarian menu, to rustic cuisine in a Tuscan-style village at the Enzo Café, there’s plenty of good nosh to pair with your wines.
If you time your visit right, there’s also world-class entertainment. The annual autumn Opera in the Vineyards event – hosted in October 2016 by Roche Estate – attracts international singers and orchestras who generally perform a hit parade of opera highlights. In November, Bimbagden Estate organizes its annual “A Day on the Green” event where stars like Leonard Cohen, Alicia Keys and John Mellancamp have performed.
Hunter Valley wineries are visitor friendly -- tastings are often free -- and come in a range of shapes and sizes. Small-scale, family-run operations and boutique wineries are situated alongside big guns like Lindeman’s and Tyrrell’s.
We drank an affordable $25 bottle of dry, crisp Semillon with a great lunch at McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant winery. (Unfortunately, the restaurant has since closed.) Semillion is the grape that put the Hunter Valley on the world wine map. If we’d waited 10 years to drink our bottle, its lemon, grassy notes would have developed rich, toasty biscuit flavors. There’s nowhere else in the world where the Semillon grape can age so long and create such unique flavors.
At the highly regarded Lake’s Folly winery, we sampled Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in a modest, rustic tasting room that directly adjoins the winemaking operation. The winery was started by Dr. Max Lake in the 1960s and is regarded as Australia’s first boutique winery. Leading Australian wine aficionados like James Halliday and Oz Clark love the wines; most of them sell out via their mailing list as soon as they are released. The winery has a reputation for reds with great structure and elegance. The better-heeled among us purchased a few bottles of Cabernet at roughly $70 a bottle.
Capercaillie Wines is one of more than 10 wineries that grow the Chambourcin grape, a mainstay of many wineries in Missouri and Virginia. Tina Martyn, the tasting room supervisor, described the aroma of their 2013 vintage as “earthy, barnyard and smoky with deep crimson and purple hues.” On the tongue the fruit was forward and plummy, with some tannins and acid creating a nicely balanced wine of medium body with plenty of mid palate.
For wine tourists arriving in Sydney, the Hunter Valley is the most famous and historic wine region within reach by car – about a two-hour drive to the north. It’s also less than an hour’s drive from the vibrant beachside city of Newcastle. This city is peppered with charming little cafes.
Wineries of Note
Briar Ridge Vineyard and Winery 593 Mount View Road, Mount View NSW 2325, Ph: +61 2 4990 3670 In 2015, chief winemaker, Gwyn Olsen was named the Hunter Valley Wine & Tourism Association’s Rising Star of the Year.
Brokenwood, 401-427 McDonalds Rd Pokolbin, NSW 2320 Ph: +61 2 4998 7559 In his Wine Encyclopedia, together with Lake’s Folly, wine expert, Tom Stevenson rates Brokenwood higher than any other winery in the Hunter Valley. A great place to try a classy Hunter Valley Semillon.
Capercaillie Wines, 4 Londons Road, Lovedale NSW 2325 Ph: +61 2 4990 2904 Makers of a tasty red with a grape well known in the Midwest USA: Chambourcin.
Krinklewood Biodynamic Vineyard, 712 Wollombi Road Broke NSW 2330 Ph: +61 265 791322 In his 2015 Australian Wine Companion, leading Aussie wine writer and connoisseur James Halliday really liked Krinklewood’s 2013 Basket Press Chardonnay.
Lake’s Folly, 2416 Broke Road Pokolbin NSW 2320 Ph: +61 2 4998 7507 The Hunter’s first boutique winery. Classy reds and whites.
McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Wines, 401 Marrowbone Rd, Pokolbin NSW 2320 Ph:+61 2 4998 7505 Another mainstay of the Hunter and a great place to taste Semillon.
Tyrrell’s Wines, 1838 Broke Road Pokolbin NSW 2320 Ph: +61 2 4993 7028 One of Australia’s oldest and most respected wineries and an icon of the Hunter Valley.