As a Sydneysider I’m ashamed to admit I’ve found it too easy to ignore the NSW’s Hunter Valley wine region in favour of more exotic, less familiar sounding places. Being just two hours’ drive from my home in Sydney’s northern beaches, I’d visited with friends once or twice in my youth, freely drinking our way through the less-discerning cellar doors, viewing it very much as a cheaper alternative to a weekend’s partying in the big smoke – with far less podium dancing of course. While I’ve outgrown most of my juvenile habits, I’d not been inclined to revisit ‘The Hunter’ until a recent, unexpected journey.
Toes in the water
On a work cruise a couple of years ago, before all this pandemic palava and a travel industry lockdown which outlasted even poor Melbourne’s imprisonment, we overnighted at Newcastle’s cruise port (no I didn’t know they had one either) from where I was ushered onto a day’s shore excursion to the Hunter Valley. After amusing myself at the parading influencers in slo-mo flowing florals and sublimely choreographed hair flicks we arrived at Glandore Estate Wines. It was hot and clay dust clung to my skin and lungs so when winemaker Nick Flanagan welcomed us into an oversized man-shed lined with barrels, instead of a glam tasting room, I thought we’d been chalked up on the ‘not to be taken seriously’ board. Mis-reading his calm, country style aloofness as overly-confident and disinterested I thought ‘here we go – he’ll be as engaging as a leaf blower on Sunday morning’ and spotting his winking portrait branded onto some of the barrels I audibly groaned (albeit secretly thinking they were kinda cool…). How much would I age in the oncoming wine wankery? I begrudgingly accepted a glass of the 2018 Elliot Semillon which I sniffed and sipped politely, mainly to dislodge the dust caking in my airways.
Slapped awake, I tasted it again. What I felt from that moment onwards was a mix of shame and surging excitement. That glass, in fact the entire Glandore Estate range of older and new varietals on offer including really interesting Savagnin and Tempranillo and a divine Late Harvest Semillon, was nothing like I’d anticipated. And neither was our host – a salt-of-the earth winemaker who was highly personable, clearly intelligent and reeking of alchemistic intention. What that crew were taking the utmost care with in producing i.e. growing, hand-picking, basket-pressing and bottling and all the magical elements in between, was the sole catalyst for my decision to reacquaint myself with the Hunter region. Apologies Glandore and Nick – you frikken rock.
Dragging my famously Chardonnay-despising cousin along as driver meant I was able to fully absorb my surroundings and it didn’t take long to realise what special country we were in. As we meandered through craggy scrub over outback hued earth strewn with rocky nubs I inserted a couple of lazy roo’s with my mind’s eye, desperate to complete some kind of cultural stereotype. Not a furry soul to be found in the heat of the day I soothed myself with noting less obvious textures and leaning into the turns of golden grassed expanses where cliff faces suddenly rose then fell away into valleys. Hills sewn into a patchwork suit of vibrant greens, flecked with trickling streams and buttoned down with dams ensured the landscape felt much further away from city centres than I’d imagined it should. A faint yet pungent lingering of historic farm-life and low level cooee of ghosts from vineyards past lurked within the crevices of hand-cut sandstone and stained glass window-panes. Looking beyond the filter of my imagination, and the expected business of wine, I found evidence of modern day artists and innovators drawn in by concept of a tree change located within easy reach of the city lights.
Arriving at Spicers Guesthouse, (formally Peppers Guesthouse) I spotted my first Kangaroo. Alas it was constructed of brushed metal and one of several sibling artworks around the property. The Spicers crew, big on making guests feel welcomed into their ‘home’ promptly handed me a spritely G&T on entering the bar area and any roo-ish disappointment quickly dissipated. Handsomely kitted out with oversized lounges, an open fireplace, antique upright piano and wall to ceiling picture windows I had little choice but to settle into the glowing abundance of natural afternoon light. In my line of sight, a fancy fire pit was being prepared for sunset viewing. Chatting with the newly arrived chef I discover he’d moved his family across the globe from a long stint in large scale international hotel gigs, not only with a desire to return to a more hands-on role but to provide his young kids with an idyllic upbringing. While he shared some exciting secret concepts in development it’s clear he’s already playing comfortably with The Hunter’s natural assets.
Eremo, the in-house modern Italian restaurant offering, like the bar area, is superbly fitted out, sleek lines softened by plush furnishings. The tone is further set by savvy use of light making evenings feel so very distanced from the fresh-faced breakfast service despite operating in the same space.
After admiring a glass-encased wall of wine that features some incredible Italian imports alongside beloved high achieving Hunter wines we slunk down into comfortable banquettes to savour the Avido set menu at $98. Authentically Italian in generosity, if not across every aspect of the creative menu, the meal starts strongly by covering the table with starters of Wagyu Bresaola, caramelised figs with creamy Stracciatella and fig balsamic, meaty olives, grilled scallops in the shell with nduja cream and house-baked focaccia.
Tender pasta followed. We chose the arrow squid with squid ink linguine and trout roe and the potato gnocchi with Gorgonzola, walnut and Red Love apple. Then mains – in my case a beautifully cooked Magra lamb with its juices, tapenade, roast baby eggplant and tomato. We were more than full but Dolce is not to be resisted so we shared the Baked organic chocolate and salted caramel tart with hazelnut ice cream and the Blood orange panacotta with quince, strawberry sorbet and crumbled amaretti. It was impossible to pick just one with several glasses of beautifully paired wine in the tank. A high-ceilinged, private dining room with views for days looked just the ticket for special occasions – or some very serious wine appreciation.
We retired to our rooms which were compact but tastefully decorated in muted, relaxing tones and dreamy beds and after a great sleep we opted for an outdoor breakfast table where, over several cappuccino, we were treated to a drifting ensemble of hot air balloons and a duckling convoy begging for toast scraps.
A moment in Morpeth
An early morning side trip, just 40 mins drive north-east, introduced us to a village significantly larger and busier than expected. Based on local gossip I imagined Morpeth Sourdough, at the historic Arnott bakehouse to be the only building standing. Fortunately, that’s not the case or we’d have been even more disappointed that it was closed on the day we chose to visit. We’ll be back for their Sourdough making classes run by Stephen Arnott (yes, it’s still in the family).
Running parallel to the Hunter River, the Swan Street main strip is lined with structures from the 1800’s – now predominantly repurposed as cafes, galleries and upmarket fashion boutiques. I highly recommend a visit to The Hunter Collection which showcases hand-crafted goods made by members of the local community, including a diverse selection of art, jewellery, clothing, toys and really cute kid’s clothes, accessories, candles, books and preserves.
There’s plenty of tourist-geared trinkets, jams and old fashioned lollies to be had but my tip for sweet souvenirs would be the simple bars of rich, smooth goodness at the smaller outpost of Donarch Fine Chocolate located on the ground level of the charming Bronte Boutique hotel (another one for the next time list!)
Mid morning, at Boydells cellar door we shared mousse-light duck liver parfait with shiraz and pear paste and housemade pickles over a short and very civilised tasting. Peeking into their handsome restaurant space I wish we’d booked lunch!
Word on the street is that Morpeth wood-fired pizza and Indian joint (yes that’s one place) is the go-to for a casual dinner, and pub grub at The Commercial Hotel is popular too. For coffee head to Common Grounds.
On route further inland we stopped for refreshments at Muse Kitchen (not to be confused with Restaurant Muse) a white-washed contemporary French Bistro located in a cottage within the Keith Tulloch winery complex. Sitting in the sunshine with a fishbowl sized goblet of summer spritz thoughts of covid past washed away, had I known we’d soon re-enter NSW’s longest lockdown yet, I might have had seconds… or did I?
Adjacent to the restaurant you’ll find Cocao Nib – a fabulous chocolaterie lined with a rainbow selection of hand-crafted and stunningly decorated truffles and filled bars in flavours like Yuzu Cheescake, Viennese Coffee, Vanilla Honey Bourbon an Splice. Rocky Road comes in various guises based on housemade marshmallow and thin blocks come in all shades of chocolate including a caramelised white chocolate version with spiced pecans. Praline turtles, pretty chocolate bark, nut brittle (don’t miss the macadamia butter crunch enrobed with dark chocolate), buttery salted caramels and crunchy nut clusters are all wrapped for gifting. A few convenient tables are available for deliberating over coffee and a range of equally mouthwatering desserts.
Continuing west along Cessnock Road we pivoted south onto Wollombi Road towards Broke -where we pulled up on spotting a bathtub hanging by a crane from a rusty old farm vehichle. Behind a hand-scrawled sign reading SOAP, was a much smaller signage for BARE Nature’skin – owned by gorgeous, dreadlocked- waif (I’m pretty sure she’s a fairy princess..) Michelle Waite, situated on the family run River Flats Estate olive farm. The store itself, in a small tin shed hut was wrapped with a shady deck we could have reclined on for days admiring baskets of pecans and fragrant limes and stunning reclaimed mirrors. Inside was a treasure trove of handmade natural skincare products, candles, bath salts and divine organic soap, lovingly handmade by Michelle who cleverly utilises local products including grape skins. Beautifully presented in the most natural way you couldn’t help but want to fondle every textural item however, it was so abundantly stocked that I dreaded taking a clumsy turn for fear of ending up central in an essential oil soaked Jenga collapse. To make choice even more overwhelming,alternate walls are lined with Michelle’s mum Marian’s own olives, olive oil and other olive products, housemade jams, jellies and preserves born of their own fruit trees plus other lovely gifting goodies such as ceramics by neighbouring artist friends. I’m still drizzling their caramelised rose vinegar over everything including bacon and eggs. They also host occasional weekend workshops with Herbalist Pat Collins who’ll show you how to transform herbs, wild weeds and other natural ingredients into your own take home first aid kit , skincare products and more.
It turned out that the entrepreneurial duo also operate 3 neat holiday houses on the property – excellent for a large family or friends gathering – the largest sleeping upto 10. I’d stay just to witness their suckling piglets or to feed the pet goats (yes they are milked for soap..). Any excuse to join these generous, earthy women for a cuppa.
They’re super proud to share how the area is developing, not just as wine country but as something more layered. They point out the sculpture walk and art gallery in the grounds of Winmark Wines as a must do and tell us to come back when their neighbouring Krinklewood Biodynamic Winery has finished constructing their mineral bathhouse accommodations. Precious hints I greedily noted down, not just because I was already a little bit in love with these two but because I knew we simply didn’t have enough time for it all this trip.
Cosying up with Audrey
Although reluctant to leave we pressed on towards our afternoon wine tasting at Audrey Wilkinson Wines known not only for very fine wine but for their incredibly picturesque vineyards. Audrey, so you know, was a bloke.
For something a little different I’d booked a private tasting for the fortified and cheese matching– a really fun sampling held within their heritage listed property with the inclusion of three stickies direct from the barrel which we also sampled with milk, dark and white chocolate. I’ve found fortified wine too sweet to drink with dessert, a rather indulgent concept popular in the 80’s, so I serve it with a good pate or terrine but cheese is perhaps a more natural mate with it’s wider range of funky, creamy, nutty or buttery characters marrying beautifully with the rich, dried-fruit expression of many fortifieds. Our tasting host Jo, was an incredibly passionate young woman who was well versed, not only on the wines we were tasting, but also the vineyard, the soil and the winemaking process and clearly in awe of their chief winemaker Xanthe Hatcher (not a bloke) and her exemplary wines.
We commented on Jo’s patient, friendly presentation manner and she thanked us explaining that Audrey Wilkinson wines are dedicated to ensuring the tasting experience is truly enjoyable – no matter what level of wine knowledge you have. Their worst nightmare would be to present as dry or uninspiring or for anyone to feel intimidated, but they are also savvy enough to read people and adapt information according to the customer’s needs or desires. Top-down wine culture at its best shines throughout their business, not just through the fantastic wines. Feeling romantic? Order one of their picnic baskets, grab a bottle of Audrey’s cracking sparkling then perch yourself in front of THAT view which rolls all the way into the ranges.
Making multiple tastings all too accessible are several private cottage-style accommodations and if you ever dreamt of owning your own remote hilltop farmhouse then you’ll dig Mulberry Cottage, the largest available. There’s dancing room for 8 in the 4 large bedrooms with ensuites, covered entertaining deck and large L-shaped open living/dining/kitchen area. The fridge was kindly stocked for us with local eggs, sausages, bacon, juice and other breakfast fixings. Except for intermittent birdcall, it was eerily quiet, and perfect for a restful escape. We spent the afternoon drinking in the sunset, and a bottle of their sauvignon blanc which was kindly left as a welcome gift. I’m not generally a fan of the ‘savvy B’ but this… oh my. Add that to your shopping basket too!
We continued the cheese and wine theme well into the evening, gathering a wide variety of Australian and international cheese, pate, crackers and accoutrement from the thoroughly chockers cheese room at nearby Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop at the edge of Roche Estate. Don’t miss it for picnics or if you’re holidaying in a place with a kitchen. Take an esky if you’re stocking up for home.
While in the vicinity check out M&J Becker Wines a few doors down in a chilled out, contemporary tasting space of polished concrete and racing green tile work with plenty of barrels and redwood finishes warming the space nicely. This family-run winery strongly believes in minimal intervention, resulting in some quirky wild fermented, preservative-free little numbers full of character and complexity. Only dropping in for a peek I didn’t taste everything I wanted to but I was particularly enamoured by their fun and funky variations on fizz – a delicious Prosecco, slightly cloudy Pet Nat and a Piquette – a low alcohol, spritzy number made from adding water to grape pressings and fermenting it before topping up with some fresh grape juice – like a refreshing cider/sparkling hybrid. Again, the young guy behind the counter was super lovely. Gently spoken but well versed and assertive in the nicest possibly was, he was absolutely invested in showing us a good time and clearly excited by the product he was selling. If a formal tasting isn’t your thing this is a top spot for kicking back in a lounge chair with a glass or two. I’ll be ordering a cheese plate next time and bunkering down for the full experience.
The following night we ate at EXP Restaurant keen to sample chef Frank Fawkner’s menu – or as their website puts it – his EXP.ression of Australian cuisine. I knew little about the eater except that chef had worked at the much-celebrated Muse. Although the restaurant has been open since 2015 and the food demonstrates superb polish, there’s still the excitement and vigour of something on the verge of bursting onto stage. The style of cuisine and mix of flavours suggests a naturally very curious mind, always seeking the new. I imagine that even after a long night at the pass, serving up already superb grub, Frank is hungrily researching new native ingredients, and busily experimenting with ideas and methods. He clearly doesn’t mind taking small risks in order to surprise the palate and they pay off over and over.
The eatery is small enough to double as an intimate cocktail bar so it was only appropriate to commence the evening with one of their cleverly crafted drinks – a smoky but refreshing citrus number, which set the tone for an evening of exemplary food from a chef with a great capacity for re-interpretation and technique. All senses were well-catered for over a dinner consisting of 8 small courses. Things started simply with a perfect puree of sweet pumpkin topped with soft Jersey milk feta, basil oil, fried pepitas and marigold petals. Things swiftly changed in pace with the arrival of pristine Mooloolaba Sea scallops lightly cloaked with house-made satay sauce, garnished with refreshing cucamelon (Spanish cucumber) and slightly salty, sour chickpea cress (which looks strangely similar to Kinome ( sansho leaf) but tastes nothing like it ) – a zippy little kickstart.
The next course featured a trio of dishes, including chicken and eggs sourced from uber-local ‘Little Hill Farm’. It was a deep dive into a luxe, lickable plate of succulent chicken slivers in a sublime jus, accompanied by an eggyolk cured in red wine and soy. I’m not sure if it was meant to but it took me straight back to some of my favourite yakitori joints in Japan – think chochin (for those who know) or a really lush tsukune with pristine raw yolk for dipping. I was lost in this for a moment or two. Next to it, a small plate showcased a neat wedge of slow-cooked cabbage, another highlight with intense Mushroom puree an XO made with black garlic cooked over very low heat for 6 weeks until it was rendered jelly-like. The housemade duck-ham and macadamia paste on wholesome sourdough crumpet formed a 3rd equally deliciously lush component.
The housemade sourdough and a generous block of cultured butter topped with pepperberry salt arrived with perfect timing. Slices of Hiramasa cooked over hot charcoal were served with biquinho peppers in tomato vinegar with fennel oil and a house-made sour cream. Next, a melting strip of Brinnie Beef karubi was garnished with baby oyster mushrooms, nasturtium leaves and wasabi emulsion. Perfection. I almost wanted it to stop there – but beside it was a crisp, fragile pastry shell, sitting on its lonesome – winking in my direction. The texture reminded me of India’s deep fried pani puri snacks, but these contained wagyu tartare with a mint and shallot dressing and peanut praline. It was eaten as a single mouthful and exploded in a way that satisfied all senses.
A pre-dessert of refreshing buttermilk, verjus and fingerlime sorbet with torched lemon myrtle meringue slipped down all too easily before we spooned our way through a comforting baked oatmeal frangipane with honeyed vinegar curd and strawberry gum sabayon. Again, we were more than done, however… the optional 3rd dessert– a mini ‘magnum’ type ice cream on a stick flavoured with native gumbi gumbi herb (reported to aid viral conditions…ahem) and Davidson plum, coated with white chocolate was too hard to resist. Oh – just go!
PS. Then return for a late breakfast the next morning at adjacent Fawk Foods Kitchen and Bakery for awesome breakfasts (actually it’s an all-day menu) and take out goodies like milk buns, sourdough crumpets, canelé and brownies. The menu has every brekkie item you could possibly wish to find when nursing a hangover.. or not. I predictably ordered the Eggs Benny and was not disappointed, the coffee was also on point and the staff lovely. Do not miss their famous hashbrown. I’ve made a note to come back for Fawk’s Breakfast Roll – Triple smoked bacon, fried egg, chipotle glaze, cheese, aioli, rocket on a milk bun. Shut up.
Punch Drunk Love
Bleary-eyed on waking I stumbled towards the coffee machine and noticed three shadowy figures emerging from deep within the cool morning mist. Each of them answered to the name of Joey – making my day before it had even begun and rejuvenating me for my hardcore wine tasting mission.
Lisa McGuigan Wines daring ‘downtown’ venture in the Pokolbin Village complex (close neighbours with EXP.) presents more like a couture house decorated by diamond-studded punks dressed in chainmail and gothic crosses. Even some of the bottles wear chastity belts. It’s sassy, edgy and commands a visit for the space alone – but you’d be a fool not to sit and sample the tight little list including her handsomely bodied Spartacus Shiraz. Don’t miss the funfair mirrors on route to the restroom. I’ve never met Lisa but I reckon she’d be a lot of fun.. with a clearly wicked sense of humour and a flair for the dramatic!
At the absolute opposite end of the spectrum was a visit to Tyrrell’s Wines, perhaps the best known of the historic Hunter Valley vineyards and true pioneers. To be honest I was expecting a slightly stuffy, old-school environment but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Again… Super friendly, extraordinarily educated staff walked us through the vineyards, sharing a swathe of fascinating facts and tales. Adding texture, we met several of them strolling through the grounds going about their day, only too happy to stop and say hello. The original buildings presented like museums and the barrel rooms were infused with an indescribable energy. I was honoured to taste some of their top estate wines – not just because of their long-established reputation for producing some of Australia’s best gear but because our host was so very generous with his time and immeasurably patient answering our very many questions – some of them a little abstract.
Inside the original Tyrrell family homestead, we sat around the old dining room’s polished wooden table surrounded by antique furnishings, old photos and a framed family tree. Everything within sight was a little slice of history. Noting the unevenness and size of the original door frames and varying ceiling heights I couldn’t help but consider the lives, loves, loss and conversations which might have occurred on the premises. ‘Is it haunted?’ my cousin Julie and I asked in tandem. We were thrilled to learn that it’s generally considered to be so. Although our host was quick to point out that he’d never seen anything himself but had heard many emphatic stories. Be it protective ancestors and the sublime location or sheer hard work and determination– there’s something more than just fine wine in the waters here. Make it a priority to touch base with some serious Hunter Valley History via one of their guided tours or tastings. Preferably both!
Most Aussies of a certain age will have bowled over a bottle of two of Brokenwood Cricket Pitch in their time and this well-loved winery has seen its fair share of visitors. They’ve recently put a spin on things with a thoroughly modern revamp of the original premises, offering several intimate and tailored experiences across a variety of private and public spaces. Ushered into a glass-walled room with two other couples I was instantly impressed by the formally dressed table and fell straight into dinner party mode. I’ll admit to being a little sceptical about the food quality living up to that of the wine when I signed up for the matching featuring savoury and dessert canapes. Once again, I’d gotten ahead of myself. What an absolutely fabulous way to try both their highly quaffable wines and their higher-end gear whilst planning the menu and wine matches for your next gathering at home! Or you could just head to Brokenwood with your mates instead – the food was delicious and perfectly married to the select wines on offer. The kitchen easily provided excellent alternatives for those with special dietary requirements too. This all points to me checking out the actual restaurant next trip.. Adding it to the list. We walked it off with a stroll through the barrels, and the handsome new space including a peek into the exhibition being held at their sleek gallery space. There’s something for everyone here. And so much more on offer than ye old and trusty cricket pitch – get down with Brokenwood for some very pleasant drinking.
Usher Tinkler wines are named after the young winemaker who’s keeping it all in the family with Tinkler wines. His work shows youthful vibrancy across the board. Much of what we tasted here were unashamedly flirty young wines, with very decent bone structure – setting them up to age beautifully. The Usher Tinkler crew must have seen the same potential in the old church we were drinking in when they transformed it into a cellar door tasting venue. I absolutely loved their clever Nose to Tail series labels – a kind of colour by numbers guide to food and wine pairing – chook, cow, pig etc. A considered selection of cheese and salumi, sliced to order is accompanied by fresh fruit, honeycomb, crackers, and moreish caramelised nuts. You’ll want to take your time here – especially in the afternoon glow.
How different could two Spicers retreats within 12 minutes’ drive be? Quite – as it turns out! And yet also familiar. Our room at Spicers Vineyard Estate was apartment style with a huge spa bathroom and comfortable lounge area with open fireplace for winter. A neat kitchenette leads to one of two small outdoor areas through French doors with comfortable patio furniture set up for grabbing sun or shade depending on the season. I could have nestled in for a week soaking in the peaceful surroundings by the pretty vineyard, protected by enormous gumtrees, dipping into the pool occasionally and pampering myself at poolside Spa Anise.
With just one night to enjoy the space we happily handed ourselves over to the nurturing team who couldn’t have been more friendly or available – except Crackle, the pet pig, who scuffles around the property to the jiggle or her own bell. Sadly she was a no-show during a tour of the impressive veggie garden which services the dining room.
Restaurant Botanica, a two-minute walk from the accommodations, transforms into a warmly inviting, twinkling fairyland at twilight. Central is a dreamy spirits table tiered like a wedding cake and the cocktails are equally fabulous! The compact wine room carries an impressive collection which, in the hands of the clever sommelier, will be sublimely matched to your meal of inventive French-oz bistro fare, plated with aplomb. It’s the kind of place you can drop in for some pate and nibbles or top-notch steak – or stay for the whole shebang.
Looking back, Spicers Guesthouse had a definite buzz with comfortable interior shared spaces like the gorgeous bar you could read in all day if you wanted to – making it perfect for quick getaways be them romantic, or with mates, on your own, or for special food/wine events. Spicers Vineyard is more about total relaxation and pampering. Having said that, groups can book out the entire Spicers Vineyards for private celebrations or occasions too and weddings seem popular at both properties – and with good reason. Gorgeous, versatile properties you can make your own.
Leave wanting more
We didn’t make it to several places as we ran out of time (I can hear the violins from here) – but suggest you head to the Hunter as soon as you can and report back please! Feel free to add your suggestions below.
Apart from what’s been mentioned above please check out:
Leaves and Fishes for seafood and homewares… I know, strange description but it looks cool and apparently the food is great, and that’s all I know!
At Restaurant Botanica, we enjoyed tasting AT’s Vineyard selection 2020 Synergy Semillon and Vinden’s 2019 Somerset vineyard Fountain Head Shiraz … oh my. Really intrigued by what else these guys are doing – save a spot at the tasting counter for me because I think I might have found some new favourites.
Ok, so we did squeeze in one final boozy stop on the homewards journey. I was only supposed to stick my head into Hunter Distillery, but got caught up in a long and very entertaining tasting, as you do, and left with the makings of a small cocktail bar …. Various Gins, Honey Vodka, Rose liqueur.. just in time for a covid breakout party!
Please get out amongst it people, our regional areas, as well as our cities need your love.