The Hunter valley in New South Wales is one of Australia’s best known wine regions, no rx boasting more than 150 vineyards.
Driving from Sydney to Pokolbin, a village in the centre of the valley, takes about two and a half hours, depending on traffic. Alternatively, those coming in from a little further afield can opt to fly to Cessnock airport, close to the heart of the valley.
Getting around can be difficult without a car. Taking one of the numerous Sydney-based guided tours is an option, but they offer little flexibility if you want to linger at a winery. Hiring a van with a driver is another option for those travelling in large groups.
A note of caution: when visiting the Hunter valley, wear stretchy pants to accommodate all the food and drink you’ll be consuming. You’ll need them.
7.30pm: Dinner and drinks at Harrigan’s Irish Pub
Harrigan’s stands against the gentle and understated restaurants Pokolbin is known for. It is unashamedly loud and boisterous, especially on a Friday night when a rock band belts out covers of Rihanna and Kings of Leon.
One of the pub’s biggest drawcards is its fireplace. After the five-plus hour drive from Canberra, sitting by the fire feels as comforting as a mother’s embrace.
The menu is similarly comforting, offering up heartwarmers including creamy vegetable soup ($12.90) and chilli prawn and chorizo pasta ($29.90). The fried fish is a deep golden brown and comes with something called “artisanal hand-cut fries”. That’ll cost you $23.90.
The wines are, predictably, local and bar staff are happy to help you navigate the extensive choices.
9.30pm: retire to the Longhouse
A thick fog has settled over the region and the night is cool. The Longhouse is off the beaten track a bit, nestled farther from the road than other offerings in the area. I drive down a couple of dirt roads, avoiding roos and potholes.
The Longhouse contains three separate units. Ours has two bedrooms, a fireplace, and windows the length of the living room. In the morning we’ll be able to sit out on the shared balcony and take in the views but for now our main aim is getting the fireplace roaring.
The accommodation was designed and built by architecture students looking for practical experience in construction and features nifty, tucked-away cupboards and spacious, modern bathrooms. Two-bedroom apartments cost between $400 and $600 a night depending on when you travel and how long you stay.
A floor-to-ceiling bookcase offers every Graham Greene book you can think off, plus a selection of boardgames and DVDs spanning the breadth of tastes from The Princess Diaries to The Last King of Scotland.
9.30am: Handmade Hunter markets
After taking in the spectacular views from our unit, my friend and I drive into town to visit the Handmade Hunter markets.
The morning is cold and clear, and we make a beeline for a stall in the distant corner that sells woodfire pizzas and bacon and egg rolls ($6).
Once food and warm beverages have been consumed, we take a leisurely walk through the markets. I am an unashamed lover of candles and I buy a sandalwood musk one for $15.
My friend, a recent resident of Newcastle, is drawn to the Striking/Newcastle photography stall. The photos are of electrical storms and are breathtaking, but the explanation of how each one came about by the photographer, Shane Williams, is what really draws you in. Many of his shots are of the big storm in April of this year.
We buy a chorizo and capsicum roll from the Blackbird Artisan bakery stall (for the road, my friend reassures me as she tears off a chunk and stuffs it in her mouth), while its owner tells us the bread’s background. The bakery is located in the old Maitland jail, where, legend has it, weapons were once smuggled in via loafs of bread.
10:45am: Kevin Sobel winery
Before leaving the markets, we take a peak inside the cellar door of the host venue, Kevin Sobel Wines.
I enjoy one of their petit verdot varieties – a grape making a bit of a resurgence in the region, which isn’t known for its heavy reds.
We meet a dozen or so French and Scottish men on a bucks’ weekend – or as one of them says with a wink so as not to scare the wine servers, a “corporate retreat”.
It’s not yet 11am but these lads are already tipsy. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing them again on our travels and, as we wave goodbye, we glimpse the suffering face of the bus driver tasked with ferrying them around the vineyards.
12pm: Briar Ridge Vineyard
Briar Ridge’s chief winemaker, Gwyn Olsen, is the toast of the town – she’s just been named the Hunter valley’s rising star of the year.
The winery manager, Steve Pike, is on hand to take us through a tasting. My friend is taken by the crisp white wines and meaty reds and decides to become a member of the wine club. Members come together every year and create their own blend. If Olsen gives it the tick, the winning blend is sold to the public.
I’m enjoying the 2014 white blend ($28 a bottle), which is unlike any other wine I’ve tasted. It is savoury, reminding me of tomato plants and ground pepper. I buy two bottles.
2pm: lunch at Muse Kitchen
Situated in the Keith Tulloch winery is Muse Kitchen, our lunch destination. It’s lovely and light, with a garden where children are playing.
We ask the chef to bring out his favourites in the banquet menu, costing $75 for four courses. The fried brussel sprouts with maple, chilli salt and feta is a highlight for me. The main is the chef’s take on shepherd’s pie, featuring slow-cooked lamb and creamy polenta.
If you’re a dessert person, it’s pretty hard to go past the coconut cloud. Made up of little other than whipped coconut cream and fresh blueberries, it’s delightfully light and tasty.
The food is of course paired with wines. I opt for a sweeter semi-dry semillon ($7 a glass or $24 a bottle) to start, and a half glass (I’m driving, after all) of shiraz to round things out.
3:30pm: Hunter Distillery
Hunter Distillery is one of the few non-wine options in Pokolbin and is packed when we arrive. It becomes even more jammed after a costume party hens’ event arrives for a tasting.
The manager, Neil, takes us behind the scenes where the spirits are made, talking us through the intensive process. The organic vodkas are distilled at least four times, and the highly alcoholic and corrosive off-casts from the process are used as cleaning agents for factory floors.
The business opened in 2013 and has already outgrown itself. A new factory with twice the number of distilleries is on the cards.
Mango liquor is the best seller and I can see why. It’s tropical and fruity without being overly sweet – perfect to sip in a spritzer on a summer’s day. I walk away with a bottle of that, and the ginger variety, both costing $25 for 250ml or $40 for half a litre.
6pm: Restaurant Botanica
After ditching the car at the Longhouse, my travel companion and I make our way to Restaurant Botanica where we meet another friend who lives nearby. She’s excited about dining at Botanica, one of the newer offerings in the Hunter.
The menu lists a variety of seafood and meat dishes. We decide to go for the $79 three-course option after eyeing off a number of the delicious-sounding desserts.
I get the beef cheek and scallop entree, and the slow-cooked pork belly main. My dessert is a passionfruit masterpiece and makes me thankful that I broke the habit of a lifetime by deciding against the chocolate parfait.
My friends and I share in some rose sangria ($13 a glass) to end the evening. The combination of the slightly dry wine and the fruity chunks is glorious – one of the best drinks I’ve had all day (and I have sampled quite a few so by now I consider myself an expert).
10am: Cafe Enzo
After packing up and bidding farewell to the Longhouse we head to the quaint Peppers Creek Village where we find Cafe Enzo.
It’s a beautiful morning and we opt to sit outside, next to a giant water feature that has enthralled several small children.
The food is rustic and hearty. My breakfast arrives on a wooden board and the fresh orange juice in a mason jar. The home-made baked beans are tomatoey with ham hock, a definite highlight. Breakfast costs anywhere between $15 and $30, depending on what you opt for, and there are plenty of options for those who want to mix and match.
11am: Hunter Valley Gardens
Today is the last day of the Snowtime festival at the Hunter Valley Gardens, and the place is teeming with youngsters. The fake snow festival has drawn children from far and wide to the gardens, which host 8km of walking paths.
Entry is steep though – nearly $30 for an adult – and my friends and I decide to walk around Pokolbin instead and look at the shops (the bookstore and alpaca wool shop are highlights).
1pm: Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop
It’s nearly time for us to leave but, before we do, we stock up on goodies at the Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop. True to its name, this venue is not for the faint-hearted or the sensitive-nosed. Only four people are allowed into the temperature-controlled cheese room at once.
We buy four types of cheese, as well as garlic and fennel salami, marinated olives, pesto dip and fresh bread, and take our picnic out into the sun. A tasting plate of crackers and cheese, featuring hard, soft and blue varieties, can be bought for $25.
We crack open a wine from neighbouring Tempus Two cellar door and soak up the last few moments of a brilliant weekend.
• More information about the Hunter valley can be found at the Visit NSW tourism website