Ever since the summer of 1866 when a man with the unforgettable name of Audrey harvested his first wine crops, the picturesque valley in the Hunter region of New South Wales has been gilded the poetic name “wine country”. As the decades passed and the grapes fattened, the once quaint village has ripened into a thriving tourist community. As home to some of Australia’s most refined wines, it made sense to add cheese and olives to the platter and today, the fresh produce grown and crafted in the Hunter creates one of the best-loved and full-bellied weekend getaways. We’d rather call it the happy valley.
A relaxed two and a half hour drive north of Sydney meandering through grassy hilltops, vineyards and dairy farms, the Hunter Valley has more bed and breakfasts than cellar doors. A good thing too, because an overnight stay in a fluffy king-sized bed after a few generous splashes of homegrown wine is as highly prized as a 2014 merlot. By weight of character, if the Hunter Valley was New York, then the central parish of Pokolbin would be SOHO. Full of corporate escapees turned foodies and families who have grown up on the land, it’s a stylish blend of contemporary providores, locally grown produce and down to earth hospitality. There are more than 160 wineries, 65 restaurants and 180 places to stay, so we’ve put together our tour guide to give you your best Hunter Valley weekend getaway.
Breathe. Take it slow. Savour the taste. Appreciating a good wine with a “less is more” sentiment is a great way to approach your time in the Hunter. With two full days at your disposal, you can explore Polkobin staying just one night but ideally, two will give you more time to unwind and a second chance to enjoy the wholesome generous breakfasts. Pokolbin is home to world-renowned hotel brands and family-run boutique bed and breakfasts. Adjacent to many of the wineries and coupled with chocolate factories and fresh food growers, the views are spectacular and the treats plenty. If its bright lights and a resort holiday you’re after, you’d head to Sydney, rather the provincial if not plentiful township of Pokolbin. Think Air BNB, bed and breakfasts and smaller lodge accommodations for a warm welcome and home away from home.
Known for varietals such as Semillon and Shiraz, the Hunter region treasures numerous wineries including Roche Estate, Lindemans, Hope and Mount Pleasant among its more well-known names. But as you’re ambling along a country road and looking out at the patchwork of vineyards criss-crossing the hillside, there are many smaller. more intimate cellar doors with stories to tell and aperitifs to sample. Most wineries allow you to taste 6 of their wines from Chardonnay, Shiraz to a sweeter Moscato for $5 per head, often reimbursed if you purchase a bottle. In 2 days, you’ll have to pick carefully as it’s advised to do no more than 3-4 wineries a day. One of the easiest ways is to jump on a wine tour. Two Fat Blokes will take you on a half or a full day tour of their favourite wineries (which changes every tour) and finish up at their lip-smackingly delicious cheese shop where they’ll match a cheese for every wine sampled. It’s a fun bus ride for around 10 people, their commentary is cheerful and back at the ranch, their halloumi fries are the next best thing to come out of wine country.
Its the generosity of the Hunter that can make it tricky to know where to start; everything is so good and apart from satisfying your food cravings, there’s much to do and see. Just opposite Roche Estate (which used to be Tempus Two and who have fortunately retained a cellar door) is The Hunter Valley Gardens. Created by the Roche family in 1999, the sprawling acreage of the gardens is more like a nature lovers theme park. The garden features 10 themed display gardens from a childlike nursery rhyme garden to Chinese pergola with cherry blossoms, an Italian Grotto and evergreen English border garden missing only Mr Darcy. During winter and Christmas, there are spectacular light shows and holiday entertainment for the kids, but for grown ups all year round, a walk or mini train ride through the rambling garden scenery is like being a part of a landscaped mural. From here, it’s only a 5-minute walk to the serenely set out market village with a gorgeous selection of locally made wares and produce. From vibrant handwoven alpaca wooden capes, chilli liqueurs, honeypots and handmade chocolates, you’ll pick up some gorgeous local collectables.
There’s both a decadence and simplicity to the Hunter Valley, a romance experienced magnificently from the lofty heights of a balloon ride. The big open sky, rolling countryside, the earthiness of fruit picking plus the piles of fresh produce on offer at modish cafes, make the region so vastly distinct as a weekend getaway. It’s kind of a collision of natural beauty, modern food favourites and the age-old recipe written for the love of wine-making. So, back to a man named Audrey and the Wilkinson Winery, one of the oldest and most elegant, with sweeping views of the valleys that must make it to your list of stops for day 2. It’s enchanting history and sincere dedication to the craft, create one of the most wholesome and gentle tasting wines and a beautiful way to round off the weekend.