Words by Bronwen Batey

It’s a special wine tasting experience when, as you sip a crisp glass of Semillon, blue gums soaring overhead, the chatter of kookaburras filling the air, you catch sight of a kangaroo darting through a sun-dappled vineyard.

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley
Photo © Hunter Valley Wine & Tourism Association

When I was young, the Hunter Valley in Australia was my home, yet I drove past the vines without noticing them. Returning 25 years later, all I can see now are vines, and what wonderful rows of little beauties they are.

Ahead of the Australian grape harvest, we celebrate the country’s oldest continuous wine region and a must-visit destination, two hours’ drive from Sydney.

The Hunter is one of the world’s most unique and challenging landscapes to grow vines. Its rather ‘unsuitable-for-grape-growing-sub-tropical-climate’ does not give its dynamic wine producers an easy go of it. However it is the Hunter that is revolutionising how wine (and premium styles at that) can be produced against all the tribulations the Aussie bush can muster whilst, at the same time, showcasing wine tourism at its very best.

Here some of the world’s oldest vines produce top Semillon, Chardonnay Pinot Noir and Shiraz. Its shining star is Semillon, and if you’ve never tried the wine of this exciting grape, you’re in for a treat when it’s grown in the Hunter.

With over 150 cellar doors, gastronomic experiences and seasonal festivals to discover, take your time to appreciate this great wine country. Slow down and enjoy its dramatic mountains and hidden valleys, relax to the rhythm of the Aussie outback and sip away at its array of cellar doors.

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley

GRAPE VARIETIES

This is Semillon country, with a supporting cast of Shiraz, Chardonnay and Verdelho.

Semillon’s traditional home of course is Bordeaux, typically made in a sweet style . In the Hunter, the dry style rules with its unoaked crispness, singing with citrus, green apple and grassy notes, whilst the region’s older, bottle-aged Semillons are famous for their full bodied notes of toast, straw, honey and vanilla.

Hunter Shiraz tends to be lighter than its southern cousins, more savoury with brooding dark chocolate and coffee leaning into cherry and spiced plum, whilst its Chardonnay, with less use of oak, ripples with notes of citrus and stone fruits.

Recent vintages have seen a move towards organic, biodynamic and lower alcohol wines (thumbs up considering this is Australia), as well as the introduction of new varieties that embrace impending global warming.

 

THE WINE SCENE

As home to Australia’s first commercial vineyards, I was expecting row after row of big-name wineries in the Hunter. Yes, there are a few big guns here (Tyrrells, McGuigan and Drayton’s to name a few), but the norm is quite different.

Driving 100 miles northwest of Sydney, the mountains ebb and flow into the town of Cessnock with its wide roads and low tin-roofed cottages, leading on to gentle sloping cattle farms, dotted with skyscraper-tall blue gums and symmetrical rows of lush vines.

Having swerved Phylloxera that destroyed most of Europe’s vines in the late 1800s, many of the vines here are old, if not (ironically) old-world, producing some of the country’s most prized wines.

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley

The Hunter has never been an easy place to make wine . Read ‘The Wine Hunter’, a story about the legendary Maurice O’Shea who established the now mighty Mount Pleasant vineyard to gain a glimpse into the hardships of its early pioneers. Australia’s southern states are better suited to grape growing – they are just warmer, drier, with more altitude.

The 120 or so wine producers are bred tough here. It’s too cold, too hot, there’s too much rain, there’s not enough, if it’s not bush fires (as experienced in 2020) it’s major floods (in 2022).

Rising to the challenge, innovative viti-and-vini-masters abound. Today, it’s all about growing hardy varieties, future proofing each vintage and surprising the punters with interesting blends that work hand in hand with nature to champion the fruit.

Split into a number of sub-regions – from Pokolbin and Lovedale to Wolombi Valley and the Upper Hunter – the Hunter is compact enough to visit over a few days, (it takes around 40 minutes to drive north to south). The challenge with so many cellar doors to visit, from old tin roofed heritage cottages to renovated churches, to state-of-the-art wine centres, is which to choose. I had one day to explore so I chose Pokolbin, in the heart of the Hunter.

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley
Photo © Hunter Valley Wine & Tourism Association

WINE AMONGST THE VINES

Setting off early, the morning mist cascading down Brokenback mountain, I visited three cellar doors, each showcasing very different wine experiences.

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley
svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley

For stylish vinophiles: Mount Pleasant

It was in the early 1900s that the family of Maurice O’Shea, one of Australia’s pioneering wine producers purchased this historic property, Today Mount Pleasant is considered one of the country’s great wine estates, home to some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines in Australia, alongside award-winning aged Semillon.

The new cellar door here is all style, grace and passion. While away an afternoon in the huge living room designed with cosy sofas and chairs, low tables and huge cushions, the backdrop the sound of jazz; and choose from a variety of wine tasting options to wash down with a menu of nibbles and sharing plates.

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley
svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley

All the bells and whistles: Brokenwood

Renowned for its ILR Reserve Semillon and single vineyard Graveyard Shiraz, this five-star rated winery and new cellar door is state-of-the-art slick, offering several dining options and tasting experiences.

Prolific winemakers, the team is headed up by Kate Sturgess, and wine tastings are run by the winery team. The whole experience is big and bold, with a backdrop of upbeat music, chatter and laughter, drawing in the crowds with open arms.

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley
svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley

For adventurous sippers: Vinden

Small and unassuming, this cellar door is bohemian chic, welcoming guests with a subtle side of rock ‘n roll. Far from old-school traditional, its second-generation multi-award-winning winemaker, Angus Vinden heads up (literally) his winery and wine bottles, combining heritage with innovation.

From the Semillon made from vines over 100 years old, to white blends where Verdelho and Gewurztraminer can be tasted alongside skin contact Chenin Blanc, the ‘Vinden Headcase’ label is experimental and exciting, showcasing how the Hunter is reinventing itself from one generation to the next.

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley
svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley

WHERE TO STAY

With a range of hotels, self-contained properties and boutique cottages, a number of vineyards also offer accommodation.

voco Kirkton Park Hunter Valley
Where I stayed in Pokolbin (not a PR stay). This heritage style property is modern and stylish with a decent restaurant and bar – relaxed if not a little corporate.

Other notable accommodation options in the Hunter:

svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley
svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns%3D%27http%3A%2F%2Fwww.w3 - Good Wine Hunting in Australia's Hunter Valley
Photo © Hunter Valley Wine & Tourism Association

PIPS & PIECES

Visit during the week or in off-season (ie, not in the Aussie summer) and you’ll find a quieter Hunter with cellar doors that accept walk ins without bookings. Winter in Australia is nothing like our northern winters, temperatures range from 7C to 18C and when the sun is out during the day, it’s more akin to a cool summer’s day in the UK.

Worth noting; Weddings are big in the Hunter, many of the larger hotels focus on gatherings and weddings especially during the warmer months.

Allow a few days to discover the width, breadth and vineyards of this unique wine region, it takes time to meet its trailblazing characters and learn about their unique legacy of creating premium wines. Break your trip up by area, focussing on one sub-region at a time (the vineyards are a quick skip and jump from each other, perfect for visitors and kangaroos alike).

www.winecountry.com.au

 

HUNTER VALLEY WINE STOCKISTS IN THE UK