Midweek wine tasting in the Hunter Valley
Mr T: “ I have a couple of free days this week and I need to do some flying practise. Where do you want to go?”
Me: “ Mmmmm… Hunter Valley? It is only a 30mn flight from Sydney, we could spend 2 nights wine tasting and relaxing.”
48 hours later, we find ourselves flying north landing at Cessnock airport, met by my girlfriend Elaine who drove down from the Central Coast. Our friendship goes back 25 years or more, and neither of us think it odd to take off at such short notice. Hence she enthusiastically answered my impromptu call to join us for a day, as she always does when a food excursion is involved and she happened to be free!
The Hunter Valley is the oldest wine region in Australia, with first vineyards planted in the early 1800’s, some still in production today. Its proximity to Sydney and the 150 cellar doors open for wine tasting makes it also the most visited wine growing area, though in our case, we‘ve only ever been once, back in the late 1980’s. These were the days when Tyrrell’s “Long Flat Red” was our house wine and oaky chardonnay was the white wine of choice.
Then we moved to the tropics, went sailing, had kids and travelled a bit. Our taste in wine shifted to lighter styles like sauvignon blanc or pinot noir, varieties more suited to cold climate.
It is only since our return to Sydney that I have regained an interest in Hunter Valley wines, partly thanks to Elaine, who is a huge fan of the region. I recently told her that I was not keen on the heavy chardonnay any longer and was yet to find a Hunter’s wine that I like. She has since made it a mission to convert me and gladly offered to be our tour guide, taking us to her favourite vineyards.
So, after checking in at our accomodation, we drive to Keith Tulloch Wine. It is a small family owned vineyard, winery and cellar door estate which produces one of the best semillons and shiraz, according to our friend. Being early in the week, we pretty much have the tasting lounge to ourselves, overlooking the vines and the Brokenback Range and allowing us to take in the atmosphere. There is a fee of $5 per person to taste the 8 current release wines on offer ( $25 per person for the premium selection ) which is refundable on purchase. We start with the light 2017 Semillon, followed by 2017 Chardonnay, 2017 PERDIEM Pinot Gris, 2017 PERDIEM Off-dry Semillon, then move on to the 2017 Rose, 2016 Shiraz Viognier, 2016 Forres Blend and 2014 The Kester Shiraz. I am by no means a wine expert so will spare you the description of each wine. Though I do enjoy educating my palate and tasting different styles, I believe that the best wine is the one you enjoy drinking at the time. And while I try to find adequate words to express appreciation ( or lack thereof ), Mr T is generally more direct with his verdict, proclaiming “ this is good” or “ not this one”. I am surprised how light and easy to drink the Chardonnay is, and we debate for a while wether the Shiraz is suitable for a BBQ ( Elaine thinks it is, I would rather have it with a roast ). In the end, I order a case to be delivered at home, conveniently leaving us free to walk up to the next vineyard.
Elaine had planned to introduce us to her favourite Chardonnay from Scarborough Wine Co. just across the road from Keith Tulloch’s, but they are closed on Tuesdays. Luckily, her next favourite, Thomas Wines is a few hundred meters up the road and it only takes a few minutes to wander up.
Thomas Wines is located within the Estate Tuscany, a popular wedding destination and home of the Brokenback Bar. We actually decide to stop for a snack at the bar, as we’re feeling peckish (breakfast was a long time ago!) and don’t want to do our next tasting on an empty stomach. Mr T is doing the ordering and his idea of a snack is a charcuterie board and a cheese board, “just to tie us over until dinner!” It is indeed a lovely collection of local produce including cured meats, terrines and yummy cheeses. We must have been hungry after all because we manage to finish both boards.
As often happens with Mr T when wine tasting, he tires of wine and prefers a refreshing lager. Fortunately for him, there is the Matilday Bay Brewhouse across the road, so while we girls make our way to Thomas Wines after lunch, he waves us goodbye with a “ I’ll be waiting at the pub!”
Originally from MacLaren Vale, South Australia, Andrew Thomas set out to specialise in producing Semillon and Shiraz, the signature varieties of the Hunter Valley. The tasting room is bright and spacious, the lady in attendance very knowledgeable and friendly, and once again we are the only people there. Thomas Wines produces 6 Semillon wines and one Two of a Kind Semillon Sauvignon Blanc. I think I am acquiring a taste for Semillon, even the hint of Sauvignon Blanc now tastes odd.
After all this thirsty work, we collect Terry who had a beer tasting of his own and return to the hotel for a dip in the pool ( it’s early autumn and the weather is stifling hot, but there is weather change coming, we’re told …)
We are staying at the Crown Plaza. The last time we visited the Hunter, I had chosen a quaint Bed and Breakfast up in the hills. I enjoyed the company and the sweet attention to details ( I still remember being served an afternoon snack of dates filled with blue cheese and a glass of chilled sparkling in the garden…a treat back in these days!) but Mr T was not keen on sharing bathroom facilities and doing small talk with strangers. That was years ago and I have learned since, privacy and convenience matter more than anything else. The Crowne Plaza fits the bill perfectly: the rooms are big-hotel corporate style, fairly standard, there is a bar, a restaurant on-site and most importantly, it is within a 5 minute walk from the airport. That alone makes it the perfect choice for us, considering that we can park the plane across the road at Cessnock airport and walk across to the hotel.
There are 2 types of accomodation: twin rooms in the main building or villas scattered around the grounds. Elaine is staying in the main building, which is more convenient to access the resort facilities, while we booked a villa guest room supposed to be quieter and generally offering more privacy. Because of an issue with the room I originally booked, we are upgraded to a one bedroom villa, giving us even more space and privacy!
Dinner is at Redsalt, the resort signature’s restaurant. It is a large space where buffet breakfast is also served, but only a section of the restaurant is open for dinner. The a-la-carte menu features fresh local produce and wines as you would expect.
For entrees, Elaine and I decide to share a salad of Roasted Genoa fig salad. I am not a fond of figs myself so I let Elaine have my share, but really enjoy the mix of artichoke, chili labna, quinoa, pumpkin and kale that comes with the figs.
Terry, follows the waitress’ recommendation and orders the night’s special: smoked Wallis Lake rock oysters on ricotta and crispy toasts. I thought it was quite a delicate dish, not overly smokey.
Our choice of mains pretty much reflects the personalities around the table:
Elaine always orders fish or chicken so, unsurprisingly she goes for the roasted King fish with carrot puree, grilled asparagus, preserved lemon and tarragon dressing. I tell her it is a safe dish, she replies “there was no chicken option on the menu!”
Mr T takes 2 minutes to decide on the “man’s meal”, grass fed sirloin served with chips, snow peas, watercress salad and pepper jus.
As usual, I pick the one dish that I know I’d never cook at home, which is the Dukkah crusted Kangaroo filet with beetroot mash, braised silverbeet and agro dolce sauce. “ I knew you’d order the kangaroo” says Elaine. We all enjoy our meals, though Mr T is a little disappointed with the size of his steak and makes up for it by ordering a side of cauliflower gratin.
I wish we had enough room for dessert, but I think the wine is catching up with us and all we can think of is dropping into bed. We bid our friend goodnight, envious of her staying down the corridor in the main building and waddle out in the dark to our villa. Sleep will come easy tonight.