A range of tasty olive oils on offer at Tintilla Estate
Put aside at least one of the Ten Commandments on your visit to the Hunter Valley. Yes, Moses would have been disgusted with all this gluttony, not to mention the occasional sloth. For there is something slightly decadent and disgusting about gutsing yourself with wine, cheese, chocolate and other gourmet delicacies.
The Ten Commandments aside, weight loss and aspirations to health are not something to pursue on your visit here.
Onsite cafe at Keith Tulloch Wine.
The Hunter Valley region is a wine and food gourmet's paradise and it promotes itself on this basis. With over 120 wineries including big name wine companies like Tyrell's, Wyndham Estate, Lindemans and Keith Tulloch as well as small boutique wine producers, you won't be short of choice. Not only wine, but delicious olives, olive oils, chocolates, cheeses, pickles and other gourmet foods are on offer for sample.
Vegans, health fanatics and anyone avoiding fats and alcohol, probably won't find this appealing, but die-hard foodies, wine-lovers and hedonists will be in their element. However, this is not about the quick scull, but tasting every morsel and wash of wine ever so slowly.
There is something decidedly romantic about drinking wine that has been produced from the very earth you are gazing upon, or in tasting olives or oils that have sprung from the harvest of the nearby groves. This is an experience I can't recommend enough and brings to mind activities like picking your own berries or buying roadside eggs or apples – also very romantic in my mind. In this day and age of the mega supermarkets with their monopoly over what we eat, it is an experience that is all too rare and unique. You will pay far more for the produce than the supermarket price – a small jar of olives cost us $10, while a small bottle of olive oil cost about $15, but that's how it goes. I will also concede that the cold-pressed oil of the virtuous olive has many health benefits over most of the chemically extracted oils on offer at the supermarket.
Sampling the produce on location is romantic
The Hunter Valley Region is actually quite an extensive area covering eleven local government areas. The main wine country is located within the Cessnock and Singleton local government areas. The wineries centre around the little Lower Hunter towns of Pokolbin, the Broke Fordwich Wine Region and Wollombi Valley, with Pokolbin considered the heart of wine country and the main location of tourist accommodation. Pokolbin is about 160km North of Sydney and will take you a bit over 2 hours of driving. There are two routes from Sydney - a more scenic drive and the most direct route. For specific driving instructions click on this link
. Other options include joining a bus tour, taking a coach or the train or flying - yes there is an airport at Cessnock. For more information on all of these click on this link to the Hunter Valley Website
Options for seeing the vineyards
Vista's of grape vines in winter at Pokolbin.
Options for getting about and sampling the produce of the vineyards and local producers include the following:
Guided tours take the decision-making out of your hands – a thing that can lead to stress on holidays when people wish to escape all that. Relax and let someone else take the reins. On the downside, you lose control over where you go and how long you stay. On the upside, you can get drunk on these more sophisticated versions of the booze bus without having to worry about losing your license.
To read more about the extensive options for wine touring, click here on the official Hunter Valley website
. Below is a summary of what's on offer.
Horse Drawn Carriage Tour:
A lovely way to see the Hunter. A couple I know well who went on this tour complained to me that they weren't happy with some of the wineries they were taken to, the chief complaint being about the 'tightness' of some winery hosts. Still, a great option for something different, a bit of romance and nostalgia of a slower era or something for the kids.
Some people like groups, some don't. Great for a bunch of friends, but not so much for a couple wanting 'private' time. You can hop on a tour from Sydney or from within the Hunter itself. There are coach tours that can cater to both large or small groups.
There are a range of operators that can provide a tour of your choice, or at least with a combination of your input and their suggestions. Choose from a 4WD, stretch limo, cadillac, mini-bus or small car experience.
The best thing about this is that you can choose where you go and how long you wish to stay. Someone will need to stay sober though.
What's on offer
On self-guided wine tours - look for the open signs, like this one.
In the Hunter Valley you can sample olives, olive oils, dukkahs, vinegars, tapenades, jams, relishes, chocolate, fudge, cheese, boutique beers, smokehouse goods and, of course, a stack of wine.
To indulge in the above, check out the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company, Australian Regional Food Store and Cafe, Hunter Valley Cheese Factory, Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop, Pukara Estate Olive Oils and Vinegars, Hunter Olive Centre, Pokolbin Village, Hunter Distillery and Bluetongue Brewery Cafe. This is only a sample of the places you can visit to feed your desire for exquisite tastes. Just don't blame me for the pimples and constipation.
Local produce at Tintilla Estate, Pokolbin - the wasabi olive oil gets my vote.
Sensuous scenes of the vineyards and rolling hills will please the other senses and enhance the experience of that Shiraz rolling pleasantly down your palate. To walk off all that indulgence you won't be short of things to do in the Hunter, ranging from a walk over the extensive Hunter Valley Garden, horse-riding, cycling or hot-air ballooning.
Wine and Food Tasting Etiquette and Ethics
Enjoy a sampling of about 10 wines for $5 on the verandah at Keith Tulloch Wine, Pokolbin.
I've often pondered the etiquette of trying before buying when it comes to food and wine tastings. If you are not intending on buying anything, it's probably not polite to go overboard on your test tastings. Many wineries commonly charge $5-$20 per person for you to partake of a wide selection of their wines. This gets around the whole issue of 'how much is polite' and ultimately makes for a more comfortable experience.
While the Hunter Valley is a pretty piece of Australia, it has a subtle dark side, which I would call pretentiousness to class. There is definitely a snobbery to wine tasting and a vanity to the promotion of consuming ultra-expensive food substances while many in our world can't put a meal on the table. But, don't let me put you off. I had a fine time in wine country. So will you. Just don't be tempted like I was to giggle over the waiter's description of the wine as 'a strawberry and peach bouquet with a floral lemon aftertaste."
Cheers! Wine tasting at Keith Tulloch Wine. Taste the floral undercurrents of that peach and strawberry bouquet.
Dining out is another way to sample the excellent food and wine of the area. Some wineries even boast their own café's and restaurants. Food in the Hunter Valley is world class. The Keith Tulloch red wine blend (only produced every so often) and the amazing Rhubarb Violet Crumble at The Mill Restaurant
was both the best wine and dessert I've ever consumed. Be warned – nothing comes cheap here and there's a price to pay for all that delightful food and drink, and I'm not talking just your waistline here.
Many Hunter Valley restaurants (like the Mill) also feature a live log fire in winter and top-notch hospitality service, which adds to the whole experience.
Crusty bread, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, dukka and wine at the Mill Restaurant, Pokolbin. Dining out doesn't get much better.
Be sure to book your restaurant place in advance – I had to ring around for quite some time on a recent Saturday night to find someplace that wasn't booked out. As the sixth most popular tourist destination in Australia, there is plenty of competition for a table place.
Enjoy the Hunter Valley - and if you make it, have a drink on me.
The beautiful Brokenback Mountain range hovers in the background of the Pokolbin wineries.