For Memorial Day weekend, we went on a road trip to New South Wales’ Hunter Valley wine region. I planned it a few months ago; although I last went in 2005, my husband had never been, and I thought it would be a nice getaway for us after a stressful few weeks at the embassy between official visits, long hours, and feeling bummed after the departure from post of two close friends. Throughout May and June (late autumn and early winter), the Hunter celebrates its annual Wine and Food Festival. But with 150 wineries, restaurants, and cellar doors to choose from year-round, it’s always a wine and food festival there!
Five hours from Canberra, it wasn’t the easiest drive, but the traffic was essentially nonexistent. (And I’d take Canberra to the Hunter Valley over fighting Virginia and Maryland holiday congestion to overcrowded beaches any day.)
There’s no “right” way to do the Hunter Valley, and that’s why I’m not going to post a bunch of links. You can easily do some research and pick places that look good to you! I started with NSW tourism sites, asked friends for their recommendations, and cross-referenced distances on Google Maps. Although you don’t need bookings to stop by cellar doors, I highly recommend reservations for all meals in advance, including for lunch, especially if you want to be sure to hit particular establishments.
For this trip, we decided to go with an AirBnB rather than a hotel. I was really excited for this AirBnB because it was close to wineries, but also down a dirt road on property with a pond. It didn’t disappoint. Frankly, it was kind of amazing.
The house we stayed in was behind the main house where our hosts, Stephan and Karen lived. Virtually all of the materials used to build it – lumber, cabinets, brick, stone, fixtures, etc. – were all reclaimed from other structures.
There was a great kitchen with all the necessities, and since we brought groceries, we were able to cook our breakfast both mornings before setting out for the day.
Our hosts were wonderful and let us play with their dog, Bluey, and walk in their gardens. Stephan, who has retired, told us about his various projects around the property. They even gave us a tub of delicious honey from their farm’s own beekeeping efforts. Had it been summer weather, we could have used their outdoor pool, as well. They shared with us their elation that they were about to become grandparents. There was such a peaceful and contented feeling throughout their little estate.
There was also a new fireplace in our house that apparently had just been installed, so we were the first to enjoy it. My husband collected firewood from a large pile on the edge of the property and built us a few cozy fires to keep the downstairs warm, because the only electric heating was on the second floor loft.
I wish I would have taken more pictures of the inside of the house, but if you look under AirBnB Australia and search for “Thulanathi” you will find it. I highly recommend it for couples or solo travelers looking for a rustic, nature-focused getaway!
The picture below shows the wine regions of Australia (the Hunter Valley is on the lower right – the dark green in New South Wales, northeast of the pink):
The Hunter Valley is particularly well known for its semillon and shiraz varietals, so whether you prefer white or red, you’re covered with tons of options.
Wine & Cheese Pairing Class
One of the things I was the most excited about was our reservation for a class that teaches you how to pair wine and cheese. The class was held at De Iuliis Winery, co-located with a cheese and tour company called Two Fat Blokes.
I have done similar classes years ago and have done my share of entertaining, so I already know a fair bit about this topic. However, every day’s a school day, and I was eager to learn from the experts. (And hello? There was going to be cheese. And wine. And also cheese.)
The table was set up with individual cheese boards, and each thin cracker had a small portion of cheese for tasting. All the wines were from the winery itself, but the cheeses ranged from local to European.
The guide provided a menu with details of the eight cheeses and their accompanying wine matches. He served the wines one by one, talking about the attributes and what flavors they brought out in the respective cheeses. The recommendation was to take a bite from the matching cheese, eat it, then take a drink of the wine, and then finish the cheese. Walnuts and apricots were provided as palate cleansers between tastings.
Of course, while there is some science and art to these pairings, and I tended to agree with the majority of them, I also think that food and taste are often down to personal preference. What tastes good to one person may not to another, and if serving a certain cheese and wine together that are “supposed” to match better with another choice suits you, than by all means do it. To me this was less about rules and more about (cheese!) suggestions for putting matches together that are known to elicit the best taste qualities in each item.
I particularly enjoyed a soft-ripened, triple cream French cheese called Le Délice de Bourgogne. It was deadly rich and flavorful! My husband didn’t much care for it. It was paired with a De Iuliis 2016 chardonnay that I thought was just okay, but together with the cheese it tasted amazing. I also loved the Reypenaer V.S.O.P. 2 year old Gouda cheese from the Netherlands, paired with a 2016 shiraz that I wanted to never see the bottom of.
My husband enjoyed a UK Charnwood Cheddar paired with a 2016 merlot and a Spanish Manchego sheep’s cheese with quince and/or fig paste (but not really its accompanying moscato, although I could see why they were complementary).
Our favorite pairing of the afternoon was a Two Fat Blokes feta with a 2017 semillon new release; it was spectacular. The wine has already won bronze at last year’s Sydney Royal Wine Show and made James Halliday’s Top 100 Wines 2017 list. I can see why – it was absolutely terrific.
The thing that surprised me the most was the last pairing of a Two Fat Blokes blue cheese with the same semillon, only late-picked. The wine tasted entirely different, and in our opinion, nowhere near as good. I was astonished at the difference three weeks in the grape harvest calendar made to the taste. It probably isn’t surprising to winemakers, who appreciate the high level of detail and nuance in creating their wines, but it wasn’t until I tasted it that I appreciated the tiny contributions of each choice throughout the harvest to the final outcome.
Before we left, we bought a mix-and-match case of our favorite wines and a package of each cheese we loved to enjoy later. (I made one amateur mistake in not bringing one of my insulated lunch bags and some dry ice to transport the cheese home, but since it’s winter here, I was able to put them in the trunk in a plastic bag with two trays of ice and remarkably, after eight hours between the zoo and the road home, some of the ice hadn’t even melted.)
Looking back I guess I thought I wouldn’t buy anything, because it hasn’t necessarily been my habit in the past. Of course everyone wants to sell you something, but my bar for loving things enough to buy can be high. When I visited there as a student in late 2005 with my friend from the San Francisco area, I was astonished that she bought cases of wine and had them shipped back to herself. Other tourists were doing that too. At that point in my life, I was lucky if I could afford the boxed wine Aussies called “goon.” But when you spend fifteen years busting your ass building your career and personal financial security, you have more freedom to enjoy the finer things. And although I am far more of a conservative shopper and foodie than some of my friends and associates, I have come to appreciate the outcomes of travel, overseas life, and entertaining on one’s palate. So, in my prior tour in Uzbekistan, I crossed the border to southern Kazakhstan to buy whatever cheese was available, and here in Australia I’m mind-blown to find things lovelier than I could have imagined wherever I go. And of course, I have a home pantry well-stocked with wines and champagnes because, diplomacy.
My takeaway from the class was to experiment with some of the recommended pairings, and to be more cognizant about the temperature at which various wines are served. From now on, I will serve my Bries and Camemberts with sparklings and full-body reds, my blue cheeses with dessert or fortified wines, and my eye cheeses from Gouda to Gruyere with dry whites to medium-body reds. Cheers!
A lot of the restaurants in the area have a strong “farm-to-table ethos,” and source a lot of ingredients in their menus not only locally but often from their own farms and garden plots. This was the case for all three restaurants we visited on our trip.
- Margan: The first night we were in town we visited Margan Restaurant & Winery (where coincidentally, the next day we learned our AirBnB hosts’ daughter works!). Its surrounding gentle hills remind one of Tuscany, and broad vineyards under a clear, starry night sky with kangaroos hopping in the distant moonlight was our first impression. Although I had a list of bookings, I misread my own plan and we arrived an hour early for our dinner. That was OK, because although they weren’t open yet, the cellar door was, and I tried an aged shiraz from about 2007 that made me want to weep. The meal started with housemade olives with grissini and Parmesan, roasted potatoes, green vegetables, and housemade bread and butter that was quite literally the best I’ve ever had anywhere. I don’t remember all the details about our meal and its wine pairings, except that I think we focused on seafood, but everything was so delicious. The ambiance, service, value, and quality of everything exceeded our expectations. We will definitely return on our next visit. An exquisite five stars.
- RidgeView: We went here for lunch on our second day, tempted by the idea of Mediterranean small plates. We did the Cypriot feast which included a first course of olives, bread, dukkah, caramelized balsamic vinegar and olive oil, followed by grilled Greek haloumi cheese with pistachios and caramelized pears, infused with oregano and topped with chiffonade radicchio, accompanied by sautéed squid and chat potatoes. The third course was spiced lamb and marinated chicken souvlaki with tzatziki, tomato caraway purée, sweet potato, and a Mediterranean vegetable medley.
The final course was a coconut cake. Each course came with a matching wine selection, all of which I enjoyed immensely! The head chef was particularly interested in talking with my husband, who is a fine cook and hails from that part of the world. They promised to exchange recipes and I was amazed yet again at the very Aussie, very humble (despite so much talent) attitude of the chef. Even if this type of food doesn’t float your boat, the winery, the property, and the country drive out there are still worth seeing. We will be back! Four and a half stars.
- Circa1876: By the time we got to this place on our final evening in the Hunter, we were questioning whether we really even needed to eat another meal or if we should just grab something at the Irish Pub! But we had a reservation and the menu looked delicious, so off we went.
I started with the crispy skin jumbo quail with beetroot, goat cheese, garam masala, and mixed greens. I think my husband tried the seared sea scallops, which he really liked. For the main I tried lamb (above) with baby carrots, pistachio, pomegranate, more beet and goat cheese, lemon, thyme, and truffle caper vinaigrette. It was all so good (with such reasonable portions) that we even extended to a third course and had dessert, although we practically had to roll out of there in the end.
It was some very serious eating, indeed! But well worth it! A fantastic setting in a historical building with good value, delicious ingredients, lots of parking, and attentive service. A strong four stars (and maybe would have been more had we not already been so full.)
The Gardens and Zoo
There’s more to the Hunter Valley than just gluttony. Between our time eating and drinking, we also had to take some breaks to decompress and walk it off.
The Hunter Valley Gardens were practically deserted, and on a cool, overcast day, were perfect for a stroll. The gardens are spread across 25 acres and laid out in ten different styles, including French, Japanese, English, Chinese, Indian, and more. There is even a children’s section featuring fairy tale characters from down the ages. Each section featured each type’s native plants, trees, and flowers, and it was lovely to wander from “country to country” along nearly 5 miles of paths.
Fountains, roses, a waterfall, native birds, even a deserted carousel shrouded in plastic curtains for the winter – we were pretty happy to have the place all to ourselves.
On the way home the next day, we also stopped by the Hunter Valley Zoo, which was only a 5 minute drive from our AirBnB on the way out of town.
One of the things I love about Australian zoos, especially the small ones, is how close you can get to the animals. When we went into the parrot enclosure, they were all over us!!
We also had a chance to make friends with our favorite sulphur-crested cockatoos…
…pet Wilma the wombat…
…and avoid getting projectile-peed on by a blind 90 year old Malaysian tapir. We also fed camels and emus, saw Tassie devils, and saw two lions that I learned had been at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo for a dozen years prior. Unbelievably I was able to scroll back through my 2006 Facebook albums and locate an old picture of these lions I took when I visited that zoo as a student with my mom and nana. They looked pretty much the same but slightly heavier.
And of course, some very typical favorites were there too!
The only thing that made me mad about the zoo was the fact that I have been doing a Flat Stanley project for my friend’s 8 year old son and I forgot to pull him out and pose him with the kangaroos. It would have been so epic! But do you think I remembered? Even though I mentioned it to my husband as we walked into the zoo? No, no I didn’t. I can’t even blame the wine as it was a Monday morning before a 5 hour drive, and my cases of wine were unopened and safely in the car. Le sigh. Oh well…
I should note that on Memorial Day, the day we were at the zoo, the embassy was not only closed to observe Memorial Day but also a local holiday. This year, the Australian Capital Territory inaugurated a new public holiday to acknowledge the “culture, resilience, and contributions” of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia. So in New South Wales it was a regular day, which is probably why my traffic home looked like this:
I would also be remiss if I didn’t note that there’s a reason plenty of tours run through the Hunter Valley, as well as Ubers: you really shouldn’t be out there trying all the wines without a designated driver. I paced my drinking with incredible caution so as to never have my blood alcohol over the legal limit of 0.05% behind the wheel. (I think I was <0.03% at any given time, which made our meals incredibly slow, but we were in no rush to hit tons of places anyway.)
I did not see any enforcement on the road – frankly my husband and I commented repeatedly that there was no one out there. At times, the empty roads were downright eerie, especially at night, and when we pulled up to Peterson House to buy some champagne and the parking lot was jammed. Where did all these people come from?! I did see what looked like some “confused” driving, and I also saw some quite obnoxious behavior from a group of ladies at Two Fat Blokes, so be careful out there. No one wants an infraction or worse, an accident. Enjoy your wine touring safely and happily!