The Hunter Valley Wine Region is located around 60km inland from Newcastle, with Pokolbin at the centre. It’s the hottest wine region in Australia and despite the plethora of vineyards and wineries, the area contributes only 3% of the total wine production of Australia. The area had established vines by 1823 and flourished as a wine region from then onwards.
The two predominant varieties that are grown in the area are Semillon and Shiraz. Semillon wines are white, crisp and acidic with some citrus, apple and subtle spice and they get better with age. As the wine oxidises, it changes to a deep yellow colour and develops creamy apricot flavours. Due to the climate of the area, the Shiraz wines are a little different – they almost resemble a Pinot Noir. Shiraz wines used to be known as Hunter River Burgundy but because of France’s copyright on region names (like Champagne), they are back to being Shiraz.
The first winery on our Hunter Valley adventure, it was a great way to get to know the varieties of the region. We tried a young crisp Semillon and compared it to an older Semillon with a distinctly more mature and delicious flavour. Our host was great to chat to and knew a lot about the region.
One of the oldest wineries in the region, Lindemans have been around since 1843. Their cellar door is quite impressive both on the outside and inside, and their entire selection was fantastic. We particularly liked the 2013 Shiraz Reserve 1300 because it wasn’t as dry as most of the other Shiraz wines, and it was full of raspberry and dark cherry flavours.
We had a great tasting session here – the guy who hosted us really knew his stuff – but instead of focusing on Semillon wines, we explored Verdelho. We learnt that Tulloch was the first to use the variety to make a table wine instead of a sweet dessert wine. We dabbled with the reds before getting into the fortified wines. The Limited Release Crème De Vin was absolutely delicious, full of ripe apricot and honey.
Piggs Peake Winery
All of the wines are named after something to do with pigs. The Hogshead Chardonnay was lovely, the Suckling Pig Shiraz was sweet and fruity, and the Little Pig Verdelho Swines Only dessert wine was to die for, but when we were presented with a Shiraz named Kevin, our questioning glances were answered with one sultry word… “Bacon”.
Pepper Tree Wines
This is a fairly young winery, having been established in 1991, and their cellar door operates out of a renovated barn that is simply charming. They do a wonderful NV Tipsy Muscat that is supposed to come with its very own ‘tipsy’ bottle, but they had sold out that day so we missed out on the novelty.
These guys are fairly well known but because they were right next to a cheese factory, we figured we’d check them out. Their cellar door is huge and they have won several international awards for winemaker of the year. Our favourite was the 2007 Bin 9000 Semillon – a gold medal winner that deserves its awards – and the NV Personal Reserve Muscat that had amazing nutty butterscotch and caramelised fig flavours that would not give up.
Offering something a little different to the typical Hunter Valley range, Peterson House likes to add bubbles. We tried most of what they had, each one better than the one before. Their best seller, Pink Blush, was a great bubbly with floral and candied orange tones but what we loved was the Sparkling Botrytis Semillon and Sparkling Fortified Shiraz.
Hunter Beer Co.
What was supposed to be a quiet session with a paddle in the corner turned into an incredible tasting extravaganza when one of the brewers came over for a chat. Not only did we try the four beers on the paddle, but he also brought over samples of his zesty Ginger Beer, sweet Barley Wine, and the Slaked Magpie, which ended up being Dave’s favourite because it was like drinking a chocolate milkshake.
He also told us a great story about how Hefeweizen beers existed in Germany before bananas, so when bananas finally arrived, everyone thought they tasted like beer!
Located at the heart of the Crown Plaza Resort, the Lovedale Brewery offers a paddle of four beers for $9, which is pretty cheap. We got the Lager, Pale Ale, Rye IPA and Porter, and while the Rye IPA was a pleasant surprise with deliciously sweet aromas and a toffee flavour, the crisp and refreshing lager was the clear winner.
Matilda Bay Brewhouse
We broke all the rules at the Brewhouse, choosing our own selection of beers to taste instead of choosing one of their pre-selected paddle options. While Juz favoured the Small Batch Bright Ale, Dave enjoyed the IGP (Itchy Green Pants).
With a massive range of spirits and flavours, there is something for everyone here, but our favourite by far was the honey vodka – it was like having honey on toast. The drinking vessels were very cool too.
The Hunter Cheese Factory
This was one of our favourite cheese tasting experiences. We got a platter for $6.95 to share and it included five cheeses varying from a soft fromage to a creamy blue vein. We loved the Sicilian style feta for its great savoury balance, as well as the Branxton blue brie for the rich earthy and mushroom flavours.
The cheese tasting was free, fast and without any fuss, and before we knew it, we walked out with a tub of herb and garlic fromage frais. This was an easy choice, but if we had more room in our fridge, we would have taken a jar of their labna and marinated goat fetta too.
Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop
Stocking local and imported cheeses, this was our only chance to sample some Hunter Belle cheese, made with Murray’s Beer. The cheeses were odd – they had a strange yeasty flavour – but they were still good. We also got to try some St Agur, a decadent blue cheese from France that costs around $100 a kilo.
Hunter Valley Chocolate Company
While we didn’t really taste any chocolate, there was a counter offering fudge tastings. There was a massive range of flavours, but we loved the Australiana with lemon myrtle and macadamia, as well as the salted peanut caramel.
Hunter Valley Cookies
Located at the Village Shops near the Gardens, this little cookie shop makes huge cookies, and even has an interesting and eclectic collection of cookie jars. We sampled the gluten free Florentine, which was a big, fat disc of chewy deliciousness.
While we were in the Village, we checked out the Tunnel of Beer in the Garden Cellars. The selection of local and international beers was huge and it’s definitely worth having a look.
Set in a swanky old building, the Hotel Cessnock has a few cheap lunch specials. After doing a few wineries in the morning, we stopped for some lunch. Dave got the rump steak and chips for $11 while Juz splashed out on a chicken schnitzel burger and chips for $12. Both were tasty and adequately portioned to keep us going for the rest of the day.
Information & Accommodation
Self-drive tours of the Hunter Valley are fine, but you will need a designated driver. There are so many wine tours available for the area, it would be a shame not to take advantage of someone else driving you and your friends around. Accommodation and wine tour bookings are available at the Hunter Valley YHA.
If you don’t need the comfort of a tidy kitchen and warm bed, there is a rest area north of the region about 5km west of Branxton. It can be a little noisy there though because it’s between the highway and the railway that transports all the coal to Newcastle for export. We didn’t mind because we had friendly neighbours JK and Oona to keep us company!