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The Hunter Valley
by Staff
Magazine Issue: AUS/NZ Issue Two

OLD DOGS, NEW TRICKS

The Hunter's been turning it on for tourists since the first adventurers stepped off the boat with nothing but vine cuttings and dreams a couple of hundred years ago. Now, sitting next to Australia's largest city, it has a whole new breed of tourists coming through. And as Andrea Frost discovers, there's a lot more than good terroir to make you wanna go there.

Photography: Alex Aslangul

At first I didn't get it. As we barreled into Australia's oldest wine region, the humidity of January hung like a hot fog around the car and the propelling tunes of the Chemical Brothers that powered us along the freeway minutes ago, felt plain stupid. Like an angry teenager in church, they were too new against all this history.

We continued down a skinnyish, windy road that's dotted with sorry-looking truck stops that were once promised a greatness and wealth that just never showed up. Our side windows filled with a spread of native Australian trees making hazy images of convicts easy to picture.

Then we hit Cessnock, the town that funnels you into the thick of the wineries and I got it a bit more. Golf courses freshened up dull landscapes, resorts replaced truck stops and a general smattering of beautiful things began to catch my eye.

Then I saw it: pennies dropped all over the shop, standouts stood out and blind eyes saw why this place has the pull it does. Get in the car and drive, you'll see it too.

Car mirrors fill with postcard photos and the chunky hills morph up out of the ground till you're sunk in a valley cupped in the palms of the stunning ranges. Stand at Tyrells winery and look up at the Brokenback ranges filling the sky and your impressions; drive along dirt roads to dinky little cellar doors; stand on the hill at the Audrey Wilkinson site and wonder about everything as the wind whips through the original winery. You can see the history while enjoying everything that's new and exciting in the valley.

A bunch of old dogs with some fancy new tricks.

WINE

When you pull off the highway that literally cuts through Australia, there's nothing that jumps up and says, this here is some good winemaking country. I mean, why did James Busby, the Scottish bloke who's thought to have kick-started the wine industry in Oz, and his mates pick this bit? Why, when you get off a ship a good few hundred clicks away with nothing but bollocks, a few scurvy infested wenches, foot-rot, vine cuttings from Europe and rumours of good terroir, do you pick the Hunter?

It's like the tropics of wine regions - hot, wet and humid. Although a lot of varieties have been tried and tested in the Hunter, its specialty leans toward the whites, particularly semillon and chardonnay. The top drops of red are cabernet sauvignon and shiraz although merlot and pinot noir are both abundant and producing high quality wines. The Hunter seems to produce a certain breed of wines too - when you learn to pick the signs, the wine reeks with Hunter characteristics. Like a true local, born and bred.

The breadth of wineries in the Hunter is a top indication of the old school mixing it up with the new. There're those big name wineries like Tyrell's, Lindeman's, McGuigan's and Rosemount that've helped carve out the Hunter as a wine region in all its traditional glory. There're also the smaller punch-packing players of the Valley like Pepper Tree, Tempus Two, The Margan Family, Piggs Peake and Brokenwood all making great wine and well worth visiting.

EATING

You've got to remind yourself at times that in all its glamour and prosperity, the Hunter Valley is actually made up of country towns. It's where the old buildings have quietly looked on as the pace changed around their foundations. It's where the simple, sound and satisfying places to eat are mixed with the super glamorous Mod Oz's that cater to the tourists, international guests and winemakers who, having spent a vintage or two abroad, now require newer, more exotic tastes.

You can see and enjoy all these eating needs in the Hunter Valley and there are many. From the stunning design and sensational food of Esca Bimbadgen to the simplicity of a steak from the grill at the Oak Brasserie in Cessnock to the locally produced cheese of the Hunter Valley Cheese Co, the choice is there, all you have to do is make it.

FANCY A PINT?

As necessary as the Post Office, as traditional as the Hunter's winemaking techniques and as unpretentious as the work that's carried out in the surrounding vineyards, is the local pub. The Royal Oak and the Cessnock Hotel who have been pulling beers for the locals since Adam was a boy, carry on the tradition with as much gusto as ever. Harrigans Irish pub opened more recently and, although it looks more New Expensive Housing Estate than it does Rustic Pub from Old Dublin Town, it's still hugely popular with the locals in the area, particularly those after a selection of dark, brooding, frothy stouts and ales from the old country. There's also a littering of country clubs and 19th holes for you to neck a couple of cold ones in. Wherever, there's enough sources to wet your whistle with a cleansing ale in the Hunter.

STAY A WHILE

Really, I'd lose your attention if I even tried to cover all the places to stay in the Hunter. There's everything from eco lodges set in the bush, lodges among the vineyards, self contained luxury, glam hotels and resorts that provide so much you really needn't leave. Not to mention the string of B&B's dotted throughout the area.

If you're heading there with a group, self-contained numbers like The Woods at Pokolbin are an ideal way to split the costs and team up the fun. But sure, different travellers have different needs and you may be with someone who has about as much interest in wine as you do in golf. That's where places like Cypress Lakes will keep the peace with you and your weird golfing mates - a five star golf resort with health spa and facilities. Right then, still with me? In the thick of it is Hunter Valley Gardens Lodge which slots in next door to the Hunter Valley Cheese Co. and McGuigan's winery. I mean, if you didn't want to leave the block … hey it's just a thought. There's also the Valley Vineyard Tourist Park or Harrigans Irish pub if you've got some backpacking types you wanna send to the area. Of course, there's the Royal Oak in Cessnock that has rooms available for less than you'd pay for a meal and you even get a front bar and a pool table on premise. For those with kiddies to think about and no luck with getting the in-laws as babysitters, the Hunter Resort has a lot to offer on site in terms of activities, including winery tours and school, trail rides and a pool. You can live as large as you want in the Hunter, but you don't have to.

TO DO

One of the interesting things about the Hunter is the way many places have extended the average winery tour into a tutored tasting or food and wine matching class. I reckon it's a top way to learn a little for next time, have the opportunity to ask questions and get to know more about the region you're visiting. For those who need a little nudge in the wine education stakes, there's the Ultimate Indulgence at Lindeman's, the Wine School at the Hunter Resort and the Rothbury Estate's From The Grape to the Glass.

Lodged between mountains, many of the other activities available in the Hunter seem like high energy, old fashioned ways of trying to escape. Make like a Pepsi Max commercial and take any number of the out-and-about tours in the area. There're horse riding tours, tandem skydiving, hot air ballooning and mountain biking tours through the vineyards.

And where there's tourism and money, golf seems to follow as it has done in the Hunter. The Great White fella is currently designing 18 very expensive holes at Pokolbin within tee-off distance of Bimbadgen Estate. Existing golf courses already include Cypress Lakes golf and country club, the Hunter Valley Golf and country club and the Oaks Golf and country club.

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