Eat Drink Hunter Valley

Top six tips for eating and drinking well in the Hunter Valley.

Mmmm, wine and food. Always gets my attention. The Hunter Valley is about a two and a half hour drive from Sydney and is a well known vineyard area, although historically not one of my favourite ones (I’m not a fan of the region’s most famous wine, Semillon, and I find the average Hunter shiraz a bit green, but that’s just me). Australia is blessed with many amazing wine making areas (and wine makers), enough for everyone to have their own favourites. One advantage the Hunter Valley does have is that it is the closest winemaking area to Sydney, and is a popular day-trip or weekender destination.

So when I am invited along on a long weekend with friends who happen to have great taste in food and wine, I answer with a very quick & resounding “Yes”. After three days and nights of sampling some of the best of the Hunter, here are my tips:

  1. What goes really well with wine? Cheese! The Smelly Cheese Shop at 188 Broke Rd, Pokolbin is a ‘must visit’.  Not just for your cheese supplies, it also has a large and tempting range of other delicatessen items, an amazing range of gelato flavours, and a barista making you a fresh cup of coffee. Stock up for a picnic lunch or a dinner at your accommodation. This comes in particularly handy if you are planning to cook dinner in, and the entire neighbourhood has a power cut from 6:30pm for about 3 hours – with an endless supply of wine and good cheeses, plus a roaring fireplace, this becomes a positive, not a negative. (yep, that really happened).
  2. Brokenwood Vineyard is a Hunter Valley icon, with a very friendly and professional cellar door.  They are also a stand out exception to my “shiraz is too green” rule for the Hunter – Brokenwood make a wonderful range of sophisticated, well balanced shiraz, including their flagship Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz (94 points Robert Parker for the enthusiasts out there). If there is a group of you, and you want to taste some of their top end wines, phone ahead and book into the private tasting room and get the special treatment. One new tip I picked up there was that in winter, the staff liked to drink the Tawny (can’t call it port any more) warmed up – 20 seconds in the microwave in a small glass will do it, perfect when there is a frost settling in overnight. Oh, and Brokenwood is just across the road and about 20 metres down from the Smelly Cheese shop – very convenient.
  3. I don’t know if he is there all the time but there was a man with a market garden stall outside the petrol station on the outskirts of Cessnock (on Wine Country Drive), we stocked up on boxes of fantastic in-season mandarins, tomatoes, and apples. (Good for the one token healthy thing for the weekend).
  4. On the way into Cessnock is a garden centre called Simply D’vine, with a sign boasting “best coffee in the Hunter Valley”. This is not an idle boast, and you don’t need to take my word for it, as every local we talked to agreed strongly with this hypothesis. The garden centre is fun to visit and has a variety of market stalls and shops inside as well, but the real gem is the cafe, also called Simply D’vine. Open for breakfast and lunch, the quality of the food is outstanding. Between us we sampled a plate of Parfait Liver on brioche toast with a beetroot relish, and the creamiest mushrooms on toast with soft boiled eggs – the aroma had us salivating for many minutes before the dish arrived. Spoiler alert – get into this place soon, it can only be a matter of time before this chef opens his own restaurant and does dinner service as well, but for right now we know where to find him.
  5. It’s a frosty Sunday morning, with clear blue skies and a warm middle of the day. What to do? How about a 40 minute stroll in the sun down the backroads to Beltree Restaurnat for a long, lovely lunch, and then another 40 minute stroll home again. Yep, that’s a good plan. Beltree Restaurant (Hermitage Rd) bills itself as rustic italian (couple Jess and Guy, the front of house and chef respectively, previously lived in Positano where Guy trained under a Michelin starred chef). The adobe building used to be a cellar door, with a de rigour cosy fireplace. The food is rich but not too heavy . How about  King Mushrooms, truffled potato mayonnaise & soft egg? Or a roast pork share platter of various cuts of suckling pig & belly, pork sausage, apples and prune? Or maybe balsamic duck with beets, chard, chilli, almonds and grapes? Or maybe go all out, share all of them and wash it down with some Otago pinot noir and big Tuscan reds. For a few hours. Yes, a good plan indeed. A good thing we were walking home afterward, although we probably were staying a bit too close for it to really help.
  6. And in case all of that is not quite self indulgent enough, try staying at the Thistle Hill cottage. It strikes me that the word ‘cottage’ may be a bit of an understatement for a luxurious building with two large bedrooms and private ensuites, at either end of a large dining/lounge area (with a splendid wood burner fireplace of course). The breakfast is deservedly quite famous here, but I won’t reveal their secrets, you’ll have to go try it for yourself.

I’ve definitely warmed to the Hunter Valley after this trip. We just scratched the surface, it would take a couple of weeks to try all the food and wine options, but it was a pretty good start. So give me some tips for next time – which places did you enjoy when you went to the Hunter?

Degustation relaxation in Mendoza, Argentina

Wine tasting can be a tiring business, it needs real stamina. Mendoza is quite rightly a world renowned wine region,and I have already spent a day exploring and tasting by car, and another day of the same by bicycle. Now I feel the need for a little time out. My lodge owner comes up with two suggestions for me. I can either spend a day rock-climbing, or I can do a long degustation lunch at a winery restaurant (with matching wines of course).

ready for the degustation to begin
ready for the degustation to begin

Surprisingly I chose the long lunch. Now that might not sound very different to wine tasting, but this time I can sit in one spot for hours and it all comes to me, instead of getting in and out of a car door dozens of times in a day. So off I go to the Casa Del Visitante, at the Familia Zuccardi Vineyard for a spot of degustation relaxation.

The hardest thing I have to do all day is decide whether I am going for the 8 course or 12 course degustation. With a rare sense of restraint, I choose the 8 course menu (with 6 matching wines). My table is in a prime spot in a room with floor to ceiling glass and a view over the vineyards, on a sunny blue day. At times I am so distracted by the view and the food that I forget to take photos!

Cured trout from Tupungato with caramelised peas and kefir. This is a lovely light start.
Santa Julia Torrontés 

Cured Trout
Cured Trout

Lamb sweetbreads with sunflower seeds ice-cream and sweet eggplant foam.
Corn creme brûlée with brie, tomato marmalade and lamb’s kidneys. I can thank Colin Fassnidge at 4Fourteen in Sydney for getting me over my offal aversion, so that I am now excited instead of scared to see these dishes on a menu.
Santa Julia Reserva Bonarda 

Corn Creme Brûlée with lambs kidneys
Corn Creme Brûlée with lambs kidneys

Crunchy yolk wrap with tomato fondue and bacon chips. I still have no idea how they achieved a runny yolk inside a crunchy cooked filo, but it was delicious!

Crunchy yolk wrap
Crunchy yolk wrap

Lamb ravioli with smoked corn cream and crunchy leek. Crunchy leek, say no more.
Zuccardi Serie A Bonarda

Braised lamb rump with truffled beans puree. This is the most substantial of the courses, the rump is large and rich and delicious, and I realise that I am very very full already.
Zuccardi Q Cabernet Sauvignon 

Braised Lamb Rump with truffled beans puree
Braised Lamb Rump with truffled beans puree

And then there are 3 desserts to finish me off:

Torrontés grappa and raspberry sorbet with tangerine and cardamon gelee. Alcoholic sorbet and gel lollies are colourful and fun

Roasted squash tagliatelle in torrontés, cinnamon mousse, Malamado viognier and apple infusion. The sweetness of the squash makes it a great dessert ingredient.

roast squash tagliatelle (dessert)
roast squash tagliatelle (dessert)

Coffee truffle filled with chocolate and black olives, mascarpone and vanilla sauce, white brownie mousse. Maybe I am just too full by this stage but I wasn’t as wowed by this dish, the olives seemed overpowering in it.

Malamado Voignier

Coffee Truffle
Coffee Truffle

Mmmmm… time for a slow wander around the vineyard (to aid digestion) and then back to the lodge for a light nap I think. This has been a delicious and interesting way to wile away a few hours of the day, one that I would happily repeat.