How to have a fabulous time in Australia’s Hunter Valley.
Wine tasting might not be at the top of your Australian bucket list, but the Australians do it well. A few hours outside of Sydney in New South Wales lies the Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest wine region that’s home to gorgeous wineries, boutique hotels, incredible restaurants, and some only-in-Australia adventures.
Do yourself a favor and save a day or two at the end of your Australian adventure to experience a wine country that’s different from anywhere you’ve ever been before. It’s unstuffy, lighthearted wine drinking in a beautiful place with fun-loving people.
But it’s not all Bacchanalian feasts of gluttony, either. It’s beautiful here, with lush rolling hills and misty mountains. One of the best ways to experience this bucolic countryside is with a hot air balloon ride that takes you on a journey through the valley, skimming treetops and floating over a patchwork of vineyards. It’s an early morning wakeup call (especially in summer when sunrise is earlier) but it’s worth it to see the rising sun bathe the valley in gold. Just try not to indulge in too much wine the night before. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to spot a kangaroo or two from up in the balloon.
Where to Drink
The Hunter Valley is the oldest wine region in Australia; the first vineyards were planted in 1823. Tasting rooms (called “cellar doors” here) offer a surprisingly diverse range of wines, but after a full day of tasting, you’ll be extremely familiar with the two main players: Semillon and Shiraz. The area is most famous for Semillon, a semi-dry white wine. It’s an interesting wine because of the way it ages in the bottle (as opposed to the barrel)–a young wine is fresh and zesty, while a wine that was bottled 5-10 years ago can have buttery or caramel flavors. For red wine, the Hunter Valley is known for Shiraz (a.k.a. Syrah), an easy-drinking light and slightly fruity red that pairs well with almost anything you’d like to eat.
With over 150 tasting rooms throughout the Hunter Valley, you could spend years getting to taste everything–but if you only have a few days to spare, there are a few wineries and vineyards you must visit. Tulloch is one of the oldest wineries in the valley, offering a range of tasting experiences from a regular wine flight to a museum experience that involves tasting some of the oldest wines in the cellar. At Glandore Estate Wines, you can sample a range of off-dry Semillons and even some dessert wines, paired with hand-crafted chocolates from Adora. If you want views as stunning as the wine, don’t miss Audrey Wilkinson, perched on a hill overlooking miles of vineyards below. For a long luxurious lunch al fresco, plan your day around a visit to Brokenwood Wines, a vineyard that makes good wine and has way too much fun while they’re at it. The restaurant is delicious and the indoor-outdoor venue is a great place to spend the afternoon.
Where to Eat
Sure, visiting wine country is about the “wine,” but we all know what it’s really about: FOOD! You’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant in the Hunter Valley that isn’t excellent (with an excellent wine list to match) but there are some can’t-miss dining experiences you’ve got to put on your list.
You really shouldn’t leave without a cheese tasting at Binnorie Dairy. The dairy focuses on soft cheeses (all produced on site), and the stars of the show are the labneh and the washed-rind brie. Come to sample everything and buy some souvenirs to bring home (the marinated feta comes in a jar!) or sit down and stay a while with a cheese plate and a bottle of wine or cider.
INSIDER TIPYou’ll likely spot a kangaroo or two while you’re here, and you’ll probably see it on a few menus, too. It’s a gamey and lean red meat, similar to venison or elk.
One of the most interesting dining experiences in the Hunter Valley is at EXP Restaurant, where you’ll find a locally-sourced tasting menu and wine pairing. The tiny restaurant has an open-format kitchen, allowing you to peek at what goes into creating these complex, over-the-top dishes like chicken confit with wild garlic veloute or house-made gummy bears served on a bed of leaves.
For that quintessential wine country meal, don’t miss eRemo Restaurant, serving contemporary Italian comfort food with a twist. Dinner here is truly decadent–come hungry and try the “Avido” (“greedy” in Italian) menu for a multi-course selection of the chef’s seasonal favorites (zucchini flowers stuffed with gorgonzola! Spaghetti with Fraser Island crab and lemon! Warm beef carpaccio!). Talk to the sommelier to choose from the extensive wine menu and end the night with a digestif by the fire pit outside.
The annual Hunter Valley Food & Wine Festival is a great time to visit the region, with events and tastings happening all over the region. Wineries get creative with their offerings, like a sausage and wine pairing at Tulloch featuring cured meats of kangaroo, duck, and more. Other adventurous dining events include a Semillon & Sushi tasting experience at Briar Ridge Vineyard or an over-the-top Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
Where to Stay
Spicers Retreats has two hotels in the Hunter Valley: The luxurious and exclusive Spicers Vineyards Estate with just 12 guest rooms, a spa, and the modern Restaurant Botanica; and the bigger and more affordable Spicers Guesthouse, home to eRemo Restaurant, an outdoor infinity pool, and a cozy library where you can sip your coffee in the morning while you watch for kangaroos among the vineyards.
The Hunter Valley is about two hours from Sydney by car. Between Sydney and the Hunter Valley lies the Central Coast, which is worth a stop on your way to or from wine country. Spend an afternoon at Bar Botanica, an off-the-beaten-path botanical garden that’s somehow also home to an adorable bohemian restaurant, a gin distillery, and a gelato stand. It feels like a mysterious and chic utopia where the most delicious versions of all of your favorite things await.