It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m sipping Chardonnay in a sun-dappled courtyard in the Hunter Valley, about 200km outside Sydney. Technically, I should be at my desk frantically knocking things off my to-do list, and right now, I’m feeling a tiny bit guilty, but then, my host, Matt Cameron-Smith of AAT Kings tells us the story of a gentleman he met on a trip to Tasmania who had recently lost his wife. They’d always planned to go to Tassie together but she had died before it happened. He took the trip in her memory and he was travelling with a picture of her so he felt as if she was on the journey with him. Yep, there was something in my eye at this point too – but, then Matt said something ever more profound… ‘Often the last bucket list item Australian travellers tick off is our own backyard…but we should put it on the to-do list rather than the bucket list because one day it’s going to be too late.’ Visiting the Hunter had always been on my ‘life to do list’ but I’d never managed to get here – until now. Suddenly, I wasn’t skiving, I was ticking off something off my to do list – just not the work bit. Guilt assuaged.
The reason I’d never been to the Hunter Valley was working out how to get there without driving. I’m a pretty independent traveller so organised day trips aren’t normally my thing – but for some experiences, it really is the best way to travel – and going somewhere you’re going to be sipping on wine and eating your own body weight in cheese, olives and delicious desserts for a few hours, feels very much like one of those experiences.
Not knowing exactly where I was going also gave a lovely sense of freedom. I knew we were visiting three wineries, but what, where and how – no clue. As I settled on the comfy AAT Kings Coach – complete with wi-fi, toilet and the perfect view of all we were speeding past – I was quite looking forward to my mystery tour.
Roughly two and half hours after leaving Sydney, passing spectacular water views over the Hawkesbury and mobs of kangaroos lounging about in fields on the way, we pull into our first stop, the Tintilla Estate in Pokolbin, a family winery located in a small beige building that wouldn’t look out of place if you plonked it in Tuscany.
The winery opened in 1994 but brother’s James and John Lusby regale us with tales of a grape-related pedigree in the Hunter Valley as long as their beards. Here I also learn that the Hunter is particularly known for its Semillon grapes and so, we start with three wines using them – a sparkling apple-like Spritzanti, a young, light 2018 and a 2010 aged-Semillon that has something referred to as ‘flinty minerality’ on its tasting notes – no, I don’t know what that means either but it was very nice.
Accompanying the wine is a tray of fat, plump olives. There’s a long history in winemaking of vines and olives being planted together and Tintilla is big on keeping up the tradition. As well as lines of vines, the property also contains an olive grove producing three different types of olives and a variety of olive oils. They also make Verjus. Made from the juice of unripe wine grapes, it makes a great slightly tart salad dressing – or, if you’re getting adventurous, try adding it to sparkling water.
After about an hour of olives and vino, scoffed and sipped, it’s time to move on – to Bimbadgen. Here we try more wines, including a particularly good sparkling white overlooking their vast green lawn. This is often home to concerts by stars like Elton John, but the star here today is the menu at restaurant Esca Bimbadgen. Chef Nick Samaras uses local produce to create an innovative paddock to plate menu that has everyone snapping pics. There’s a Green Pea Risotto Cake accompanied with a white chocolate emulsion that makes the veggies at our table slightly nervous until it arrives offering a wonderful creaminess with no Milky Bar taste in sight. The Porcini and Rosemary Braised Rabbit with gnocchi is a thick, creamy stew that matches it’s suggested 2017 Chardonnay perfectly. The best bit though is dessert – a deconstructed rhubarb crumble using hazlenuts and marshmallows that was almost too pretty to eat….I said almost!
It’s now 2pm and time to move onto our last winery – Leogate. Overlooked by the towering Broken Back mountains, it’s all pillars fountains and crystal chandeliers and reminds me of Southfork, the mansion in the TV show, Dallas. Despite their classy surroundings, this is a winery that likes to have fun. Not only is the whole vineyard so named because the ornate gates at the front of the property have lions on them, they have a wine range made from grapes brought it from nearby Mudgee which they call it The Gatecrasher.
While the sandy soil of the Hunter works well for Semillon, volcanic soil elsewhere in the Valley produces good red wines, particularly Shiraz. If you’ve been lucky enough to partake on a glass of red in Qantas’ business or first class you’ve probably already tried a Leogate wine – their Brokenback Shiraz is served in Business, The Basin Shiraz in First Class – but trust me, it’ll taste better on land. The dry air of a plane alters your sense of smell and taste by about 30 percent – on land you’ll get far more of the fruity Shiraz flavour.
At 3.30 it’s time to head back to Sydney – full of red, white, fizz and rhubarb. Tastebuds happy, to-do list well and truly ticked – and someone else driving me home. Perfect.
AAT Kings offers trips to the Hunter Valley for the day and as part of their longer holidays in the NSW region. This trip combined a little of both. See what’s on offer for your itinerary at their website. All three wineries are also open to the public travelling independently too.
The Carousel would like to thank Helen Foster for her story. Helen Foster is a travel journalist and runs the travel blog Destination>Differentville, which tries to find the more unusual, quirky sights in a destination.