Most people picture kangaroos, the Sydney Opera House, the vast Outback, and the first fireworks of the new year over Sydney Harbor when they think of Australia. But the “Land Down Under” is also well-known for its wine, producing over one billion liters each year. Australia’s most famous wine regions include Barossa Valley, Margaret River, Coonawarra, and the Hunter Valley.
Australia sprawls for hundreds of miles, and unless you fly from region to region, it would be difficult and time-consuming to wine taste your way through the country. Fortunately, most visitors start their trip in Sydney, and Hunter Valley is just a 2-hour drive from the city. Australia’s oldest wine region, Hunter Valley, or “the Hunter,” as locals call it, is famous for its Shiraz and Chardonnay. Home to 150 cellar doors, the Hunter makes a popular destination for Sydneysiders and international wine lovers alike.
And where there’s good wine, plenty of gourmet cuisine abounds. Hunter’s well-known food and wine trail features 60 tempting restaurants. The region also offers boutique shops, the acclaimed Hunter Valley Gardens, and nearly 200 places to stay. Here’s a list of my favorite places to taste, eat, and stay.
Where to Taste in Hunter Valley
Leogate Estate Wines
Leogate, a five-star winery, prides itself on providing a luxurious cellar door and tasting room experience. And I can verify that it does indeed fulfill that promise. Built as a centerpiece in the middle of the original Brokenback Vineyard, the cellar door is housed in a white-columned cloistered facility. Its restaurant features regional flavors, textures, and innovative dishes that pair nicely with their premium wines.
The 2015 Vicki’s Choice Reserve Chardonnay displays the complexity of fruit and oak with elegant peach flavors, complemented by a soft and creamy finish.
The estate’s motto should be “come fly with me” from the popular Frank Sinatra tune. That’s because Leogate supplies Shiraz to Qantas First and Business class cabins on international flights. If you fly into the Hunter Valley, make arrangements with Skyline Aviation Group at the Lake Macquarie Airport. Their helicopter delivers visitors directly to lunch and wine tours in the region, including landing on the grassy expanse of the lawn at the Leogate Estate.
Tamburlaine Organic Wines
By embracing a modern-day organic approach to winemaking, Tamburlaine gained a reputation as an innovative vintner without compromising wine quality. Tamburlaine’s enthusiasm for experimenting with sustainable viticulture and wine-making practices is the driving force behind its success. It produces brilliant wine that exudes both body and soul.
If you want to see organic wine made from the ground up, take the tour that goes behind the scenes of one of Australia’s largest organic wine producers. Tamburlaine’s “Tour and Taste” experience gives you a guided glimpse into the wonderful world of wine growing. It includes a short stroll down to the estate vineyard and a peek inside the aroma-scented barrel hall. The tour follows with a wander through the winery where you may even get to taste some wine from the tank. The tour finishes with a structured wine tasting experience back at the cellar door. Tours cost $65 per couple and include a complimentary bottle of wine.
The 2018 Wine Lover’s Grenache, Shiraz, Malbec (GSM) is a gold medal winning blend that offers aromas of blackberry, dark plum, and cherry, and a generous dark berry on the palate complemented by a touch of spice and gentle tannins.
Scarborough Wine Company
One of the leading names in quality Hunter Valley wine, Scarborough specializes in Chardonnay. You’ll be wooed by the distinctly regional wines and sweeping views. The bright modern cellar door offers a relaxed, seated tasting with a complimentary cheese platter. For the Scarborough family, it’s not just winemaking; it’s a way of life that they generously share with visitors.
The Yellow Label Chardonnay (not to be confused with Yellow Tail Chardonnay) is their flagship wine. The 2016 vintage tastes rich and generous, with opulent fruit and cashew-like complexity, but it was the 2013 Yellow Label Chardonnay from their museum collection that caught my attention. With notes of pear, peach, and biscuit and a soft, round finish, this classic chardonnay proves that a well-made white wine can indeed age for several years.
Awarded International Winemaker of the Year four times and International White Wine Maker of the Year three times, McGuigan is a must-visit destination in Hunter Valley. You can enjoy a tour of their museum and cellar door-only wines in the recently refurbished tasting rooms. “Come on in” is their visitor friendly expression inviting you to sample an offering of 11 whites, 17 reds, plus several “sticky” dessert styles.
The Bin 9000 Semillon 2018 is a good example of dry white wine with classic Hunter Valley characteristics, restrained yet with acidity and lemon flavors, renowned for aging well.
A sharp contrast to many of the larger, contemporary, opulent cellar doors of the Hunter Valley, Piggs Peake is, well, just different. A weathered life-size copper pig greets visitors at the entrance to this boutique winery. Surrounded by cardboard cases of wine stacked against walls, giant chalkboards, winemaking equipment, and makeshift counters, the cellar door sits in the middle of the winery’s production operation. This place has real character, but the wine is outstanding and well worth a stop, especially if you’re looking for classic wines, unusual varietals, or something you’ve never tasted before.
The 2017 House of Sticks Shiraz, a soft but delicious, varietal is one of the most popular wines. The Big Pig is the winery’s biggest Shiraz, fermented in newer oak, with higher alcohol. It is medium-bodied, showing red and dark berries, spices, and a great deal of tannin, and should age well. We were fortunate to taste with the owner and winemaker, Steve, and his faithful sheepdog.
Where to Eat in Hunter Valley
Located in a historic cottage on a tree-lined driveway of Roscrea Estate, Circa 1876 offers modern Australian cuisine. With food supplied from its organic garden, paired with premium Hunter Valley wines, guests can enjoy fine dining in the eclectic charm of this popular restaurant. Choose from a two-course, three-course or five-course chef’s tasting menu to suit your appetite and palate.
Smelly Cheese Shop
Pack a picnic lunch for your wine tasting excursion with a visit to the Smelly Cheese Shop. Located in the Roche Estate complex, the Smelly Cheese Shop sells a range of pungent fromage. But it also offers a wide variety of milder, gourmet cheeses, deli meats, olives, and more than 200 flavors of gelato. Guests can choose to dine in or take out antipasto platters, pizza, wraps, and burgers.
Also located in the Roche Estate complex, Oishii offers casual Asian fare with indoor and outdoor seating. California rolls, prawn tempura, and the oh-so-spicy Thai beef salad, are popular with diners.
Where to Stay
Oaks Cypress Lakes Resort
Positioned among sweeping vineyards, rolling golf greens, and the spectacular Broken Back Mountain Range, Oaks Cypress Lakes Resort provides a destination of choice in the Hunter Valley wine region. You can stay, play and indulge in an enticing meal at one of their award-winning restaurants or enjoy panoramic views over the valley while you challenge their championship golf course. Cool off in the swimming pool while overlooking dramatic views of the lakeside, or sample some of Australia’s finest wine varieties in their cocktail lounge and clubhouse. You may even see a kangaroo or two hopping about outside your one, two- or three-bedroom villa. Want to try hot air ballooning while you’re in the Hunter? Oaks Cypress can supply that as well with their own hot air balloon.
For more on planning your trip, visit WineCountry.com.au
This story was co-written with Gary Baker.