Words and pictures (c) Cescabell
Before we touched down on Australian soil we knew that we were going to make the effort to go here and taste the wines of Uncle Richard’s youth.
Having spent a difficult night in Sydney en-route to the Hunter Valley, we were more than ready to hot foot ourselves onto the Rover coach direct to the door of our new abode ‘Hunter Valley YHA’. We pick up the coach from Sydney Central where I stood overshadowed by the EY building, but there was no looking back.The morning light was enjoyable even through the throngs of rush-hour. Our coach was virtually empty as we navigated out of the city and over the famous harbour bridge. The journey lead us through the suburbs and town after town, until the coach turned west towards the mountains.
Slowly we gained height as we passed rivers and lakes and admired the ever more rewarding views. Taking good pictures while on the move is challenging and timing and accuracy are everything to make each shutter press worthwhile. My first observation as we entered the valley was of the plethora of horses. It was lovely for me to see them and exhale, countryside again. There were many farms on our journey but no vineyards to be found beside the highway.
We made it to Cessnock, the nearest town to the YHA which despite it’s apparent remoteness from Sydney was still using English street-names and store-names. We were dropped of at the wooden hostel which was set back off the highway. It was set in beautiful surroundings and oozed a warmth in the daylight. The smell of the wood was very enticing and relaxing. We briefly met Michael before his daily wine-tour and so Jenny checked us in and showed us around. Our twin-double was a YHA room placed into a boutique casing and environment. Sadly this line, possibly invisible to others, was like an assault on my eyes and a disappointment to the potential that had not yet been realised. This aside it was a lovely spot complete with swimming pool and surrounded by Michael’s (the owner) vineyard and a couple of ponds full of toads.
We offloaded our worldly possessions and wandered up the road for some lunch. Potter’s brewery came highly recommended and offered a beer tasting for AUD6, bargain. The beers were cold and delicious; Witbier, Pale Ale, Lager and Kolsch (which is now my favourite) all slipped down easily and were so varied. The food was tasty and James got hooked into the rugby preview of the evenings NSW versus QLD game. On our jaunt we stopped by a furniture shop with stunningly made wooden pieces and for supplies we succumbed to the only option in this area of town, the BP shop! In the afternoon we launderer, I wrote my Blue Mountains blog, read and watched the sun dip over the horizon once more.
Today was the day, the wine-tasting had finally arrived and I had the foresight to prepared us both with large bowls of porridge, which James thanked me for only hours later. Our tour started at 11am so we enjoyed a seemingly rare lay-in. Michael explained some background to the Hunter valley as we meandered the local roads picking people up from various accommodation in the hills.
The Hunter Valley is high above sea level and 1 hours drive from the east coast, north of Sydney. To our surprise the largest export of the Hunter is in fact coal from the north of the valley and millions of tonnes are exported from Newcastle every year to the Orient. ‘Hunter’ as it is referred to by the locals, is defined by two ranges of tree covered mountains to the east and west, which conceal a wide undulating landscape with farms dotted throughout the lower valley and small family owned estates surrounded by swathes of vineyards stretching off into the distance. There is a warm and welcoming glow all around. The valley is famous for Semillon but also specialised is Shiraz and Chardonnay, however, I was delighted to here that they also grow Merlot and Riesling and make cab-sav too.
We began our journey at Draytons where sadly we learnt the winemaker and another employee lost there lives in a recent vast explosion of one of the vats and so they are currently reconstruction the damaged property. As a novice of wine-tasting tours I didn’t discover the spittoons until I had finished several tastings fully and the effect was immediate! Wine-tasting as a rule of thumb starts with a sparkling to refresh the palette where you then journey from dry to sweet white, through rose and onto light to fully bodies reds and onto port and liquors. I discovered that I enjoy Traminier-Riesling (80-20 blend) where the Traminier grape is the sweeter one. This lead me onto learning that Guwertz means spicy, as in Gwertztraminier. I also really enjoyed the port which is something that has alluded me until now. Nicely tipsy with eleven wines sampled we moved on, briefly stopping to watch the bottling and labelling process which was fascinating. Our mini van was full of chatter as testimony to great effect that alcohol has at breaking the ice.
Our second port-of-call was Rosemont Estate, a small tastefully converted chapel which now housed a tasting room and shop. We now knew the format to wine-tasting and had all relaxed somewhat as well. The wines here were just as palatable, if not a little more expensive, but the variety was not as good in my opinion. Our group appeared to err towards the sweet whites, but J&I also indulged in the reds in search of the ultimate wine that satisfies both our palettes!
Lunch was definitely calling us by then and so the Hunter Valley Gardens provided much needed sustenance and give us some hope of making it through the afternoon safely, coherently and on both feet. After fish and chips we browsed a high-definition photographic gallery which was impressive, but not my cup-of-tea, so quickly found ourselves in the chocolate shop where I was not in the least surprised to find hoards of tourists. Happily though I found an much needed ATM which was a blessing as it enabled me to get supplies for supper.
And so to the afternoons supping which took us to a wonderful spot with a great view of the valley called Bimbadgen Estate. The grounds were wonderful which has attracted the likes of Rod Stewart, Elton John and many others to perform here. I however was romanced by the helicopter flying someone out of there. By the time we got the this tasting we were both more knowledgeable and more selective on the wines that we would try. The sommelier was much more passionate here, but still no one had actually bothered to teach us about wine-tasting, amazing really. I guess they see so many people only interested in drinking wine rather than understanding wine. As we left the afternoon light was wonderful and I delighted in photographing some heather.
On our way to the ‘Smelly Cheese Shop’ we spotted half a dozen kangaroos grazing amongst the vines, it was magical. One had a joey too. They were quite approachable considering the six of us we slowly and consistently walking towards them to a reasonably close distance. The shop in fact was not smelly and the cheese tasting was delicious but disappointingly rushed. They were mainly soft cheeses with chili or pesto mixed in. James spotted a ‘Huntsman’ cheese which we had a laugh about. We didn’t manage to resist temptation at the ice-cream parlor and indulged.
So we ended our tasting at the final estate Sobels, run by Kevin Sobel. The sommelier here did know her grapes and was more particular about rinsing the glass out between tasting than any of the others. There was an alcoholizer there which amused us all as we tried to get the higher score by not waiting the required 10 minutes before testing! It was here we discovered that cab-merlot was suitable for both our palettes and so bought a bottle for later. The bbq put on by the hostel was much needed, but a little disappointing for the price if I am honest.