Richie Harkham loves the Hunter Valley. Making minimal-intervention wine, as his grandmother Aziza did in Israel (many of his wines bear her name), Harkham aims to represent the essence of a place that can be brutally tough but infinitely rewarding for those that stick it out.

“What I love about the Hunter Valley is that it’s probably the hardest place in Australia to grow grapes,” says Harkham. “Not only do we have a maritime climate because we’re near the ocean, we also have a subtropical climate. So we have most of our rain during the harvest time, which makes it extremely difficult.”

A true labour of love, Harkham’s wines are rustic; he uses little beyond the grapes themselves to produce his range of shiraz, chardonnay and semillon. He’s been producing wine under the Harkham Wines label since 2005, and has since become a strong advocate for a community that places good wine, good food and natural beauty above all else.

In collaboration with American Express, we take Harkham’s passionate advice on what to eat, drink and do in the Hunter Valley.

STAY

Harkham Wines Cellar Door and Harkham House
Richie Harkham takes his wine seriously, but he still likes to have fun with it, as you’ll see at Harkham Cellar Door. There’s no wine snobbery here; you’ll be greeted on one side by a large neon sign reading “In Grapes We Trust” and an us-versus-them infographic on the Aziza winemaking techniques. Run through the range of wines, including Harkham’s unique expressions of semillon and shiraz, then finish with the chocolate liqueur (a crowd favourite).

For those who fancy staying the night, Harkham House is a fully restored four-bedroom lodging on the estate with open fireplaces and perfect views of Brokenback Range. Harkham restored the place himself but is having some regrets. “It’s booked all year, that’s the worst problem,” says Harkham. “I have to move out of my house every weekend.”

EAT

Yellow Billy
The restaurant at Piggs Peake Winery, Yellow Billy is all about sharing, cooking with fire, and careful food and wine matching. “Patrick [Hester], the sommelier and co-owner, is an amazing guy,” says Harkham. “The food there is fresh [and] phenomenal.” There’s a couple of dining options, including set-menu banquets, shared plates and whole suckling pig. Whatever you choose, expect it to have been licked by the flame of the custom firepit that is the centre of Yellow Billy’s menu.

Mount Broke Wines Restaurant & Cellar Door
There’s plenty of fine dining in the Hunter Valley, but Mount Broke is blurring the edges a little. “It is fine dining, but it’s not fine dining – but it is fine dining,” says Harkham. The menu makes this statement a little clearer, with a pronounced focus on great quality produce and technique from a team of French chefs. Casual dining with quality is the name of the game at Mount Broke, particularly on Friday when staff fire up the pizza oven and you can watch the sun drop over the vineyard with a slice of truffle pizza in hand.

Bistro Molines
“First of all, anyone who knows the Hunter knows you have to go for lunch at Bistro Molines. People get helicopters there sometimes,” says Harkham. “It’s more fine dining but [chef-owner Robert Molines] makes the most beautiful food, like double-cooked duck.” The famed Bistro Molines is worthy of its reputation, bringing a southern-French bistro style to the Hunter Valley. Except for the local produce, you might well think you’re in French wine country, and with two courses starting at a reasonable $85 it balances itself on the right side of fine dining.

DRINK

Usher Tinkler Wines
Come for the natural wine, stay for the salumi. At Usher Tinkler (named for the winemaker-owner), the focus is definitely on the wine first, so expect to be blown away by natural winemaking techniques and very un-Hunter Valley blends, like the Nose to Tail shiraz-pinot noir. You’ll also find matched salumi at the heart of tastings here. “Usher Tinkler makes the most epic charcuterie boards that you can get in the Hunter Valley,” says Harkham. “They pickle all their own stuff at Usher Tinkler, which makes it so delicious.”

Vinden Wines
“Vinden wines is run by a young chap called Angus Vinden, who’s also doing a lot of exploratory stuff using obscure grapes which aren’t generally grown in the Hunter Valley,” says Harkham. “He makes some beautiful wines.” For those looking to see what the new wave of winemaking in the Hunter Valley looks like, Vinden Wines is where to go. With varietals like chenin blanc, gewurztraminer and fiano, this is a different sort of Hunter Valley winery. Organic and vegan-friendly too.

DO

Scenic flight at Cessnock Airport
The scale of the Hunter Valley’s natural beauty can be difficult to fully grasp from the ground. Flying out from Cessnock Airport, an aerial tour is the best view in town, taking in the mountains of the Brokenback Range and the many gorgeous vineyards. “It’s a beautiful flight,” says Harkham. “You get to see the Hunter Valley from an eagle’s eye perspective and it’s so beautiful. All the mountains, the vineyards. It’s a really great experience.”

Kayaking in Wollemi National Park
It’s worth a little trek to the Lower Hunter to see the stunning natural beauty of Wollemi National Park. “It’s a few hours’ drive, but [it’s] absolutely beautiful rainforest with so many hiking trails,” says Harkham. Hiking there is always a winner, but those wanting a little more adventure might also consider kayaking down at Ganguddy. Guided tours and solo kayak hires are both available.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with the American Express Shop Small program, encouraging Australians to support small business while travelling domestically. Learn more about Shop Small here.