With its first vines planted in 1820, the Hunter Valley is Australia’s oldest wine region. But it really took off after viticulturist James Busby – aka the father of Australian wine – imported several hundred cuttings from France and Spain, including shiraz and semillon. These and many others were planted throughout the 1830s, laying the foundation for the Hunter to become the powerhouse it is now, nearly 200 years later.
Today shiraz (syrah) is the most popular and widely grown wine grape in Australia. In the Hunter you’ll taste expressions different to the jammy, spice-laden beasts of the Barossa or even the lithe, aromatic stylings of the Yarra Valley. Hunter shiraz is mid-weight, with a distinct savouriness, not unlike sangiovese and tempranillo.
Semillon, though, is the real reason to visit the Hunter. In Australia, the grape is rarely in the spotlight, usually relegated to a supporting role in semillon sauvignon blanc, where it adds structure and weight. Not so in the Hunter, which makes some of the world’s finest semillon in a style that’s unique and original. And collectors love the way it transforms over time. In as few as five years, a bottle left in the back of the cupboard can develop from a zesty, pale guzzler into a nutty, honey-hued sipper that still retains a pleasing acidity.
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Where good wine goes, good food follows. It’s true in all of Australia’s wine regions, including the Hunter. In addition to wineries producing remarkable shiraz, semillon and chardonnay (another major variety in the region), there are scores of bakeries, restaurants and pubs to try. And, after the floods that hit the region hard, the area needs your support more than ever. Here are our top picks.
Fawk Foods, Pokolbin
With its expansive timber deck, rock-solid brunch menu and coffee by Newcastle roaster Sprocket, Fawk Foods is a good place to start the day. Sweet fans should order a house-made sourdough crumpet topped with apple crumble, banoffee, Nutella or lamington, but there are lots of savoury options, too. The on-site bakery also makes sourdough loaves, baguettes, pastries, caneles and brownies if you’re keen to pack a picnic or just eat on the road.
This elegant, night-time-only restaurant, next door to Fawk and run by the same crew, is one of the Hunter’s top food experiences. Book in for a multi-course tasting menu that showcases the likes of local Binnie full-blood Wagyu, Paroo kangaroo and Redgate Farm duck. Next door’s crumpets, meanwhile, get a serious upgrade with house-made sour cream and a choice of four different types of caviar.
Bistro Molines, Mount View
Robert and Sally Molines are Hunter Valley legends, having operated restaurants in the area since 1973. They’ve been running this place since 2008, where chef Robert showcases his southern French roots. The tables are clothed in brilliant white, the chairs are bentwood and the views over the valley and adjacent vineyards of Carillion Wines are spectacular. The bistro’s two- and three-course menus offer a lot of choice if you’re rolling with a big mixed group, ranging from house-made linguini with pippies and lemon to roasted pork belly with an apple and morcilla (blood sausage) tart. If you want to really immerse in the French provincial atmosphere, book a few nights at the quaint Little Orchard Cottage, which has two bedrooms and a cosy fire.
Esca Bimbadgen, Pokolbin
Three, four or five courses are your choices at this light, bright, blond timbered restaurant that showcases Bimbadgen’s sparkling wines, crisp whites and savoury shiraz alongside real kitchen talent. Expect woodfired veggies plucked straight from the garden that morning, fish treated with a light touch and a broad range of meaty mains. For a more casual option, consider Bimbadgen’s Tuscan-style courtyard, where you can order a few woodfired pizzas to share. Muse Dining is another excellent, comparable option if you’re keen to eat a set menu.
If you want a break from the more upmarket fare typical of wineries and bistros in the region, stop for a burger and a pint of Guinness at the landmark Harrigan’s Hotel. The sprawling pub has lots of space, pours a tidy selection of local beers and grills a good steak, too. The Abermain and the Great Northern Trading Post are two other options worth considering.
There are slicker cellar doors around, but for a dose of Hunter Valley history and to taste the world-recognised Vat 1 semillon (and its more affordable counterparts), this one is a must. Take the time to do a winery tour, too. Original elements of the winery, established in 1858, are still around today, including compacted dirt floors, a tumbledown ironbark shed and numerous oak barrels. In contrast with the rustic surrounds, fifth-generation winemaker Chris Tyrrell takes a contemporary, minimal intervention approach, producing wines with a great connection to place, the single block range especially. Tulloch Wines and Lindeman’s are similarly historic.
One of those slicker places is Brokenwood. It was co-founded by legendary wine writer James Halliday in 1970, and in 2018 cemented its status as a big Hunter Valley player by opening an $8 million cellar door complex. Today it encompasses Wood Restaurant (another great choice for lunch), a big outdoor terrace, wine museum, lounge area and casual breakfast and lunch eatery. Set aside plenty of time – the building is an architectural marvel, with bookable private tasting rooms and wine tasting pods (i.e. big circular bars). There you can taste some semillon, chardonnay and shiraz, as well as other varieties Brokenwood grows outside the Hunter. Like Tyrrell’s, Brokenwood represents a different but equally important time in the Hunter Valley timeline.
Usher Tinkler, Pokolbin
The first Usher Tinkler came to Australia in 1841, from Ireland. Since then, every first-born male in the family has been given the same first name. Great-grandson Usher John today makes classic Hunter styles at the family business, Tinklers Wines, while looking towards the future with his own wines, poured at a cute converted church built in 1905. Visit to taste skin-contact semillons, field blends packing nine or more varieties in a single bottle, and a fortified verdelho aged for an impressive 15 years. Wines don’t get much more creative or surprising than these. The room itself has a relaxed farmhouse feel, with salumi sliced to order.
Dirt Candy, Pokolbin
The name alone should tell you this winery and cellar door is something of an upstart. In 2019, winemaker Daniel Payne won Young Gun of Wine’s Danger Zone award, which recognises those really pushing the boundaries, for The Little Circus, a red blend containing six varieties and aromatic gewurztraminer skins. He and wife Jenni source grapes from all over the country depending on what’s good and available. Last year they got their hands on local cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and vermentino. And semillon, of course, which was promptly turned into a sparkling wine. The cellar door, attached to Drayton’s Family Wines, is the place to taste them all. Dirt Candy is part of an emerging new generation of Hunter Valley wineries, including Harkham, Becker, Comyns & Co and Vinden. You should make time to seek out their wines and visit their cellar doors, too.
Mount Bright Lookout, Mount View
The Broken Back Range, at the western end of the Hunter, is full of pretty vantages, including this one and Bimbadeen Lookout, just up the road from Bistro Molines. From Tinklers Wines you can drive up Pokolbin Mountains Road or walk up the Watagans Track, which runs roughly parallel.
Hot air ballooning
For even better views of the valley, book a balloon flight. Numerous companies operate in the Hunter, a testament to just how good the patchwork vineyard perspective is.
Hunter Valley Gardens, Pokolbin
The numbers are impressive: 14 hectares of gardens, eight kilometres of walking paths, 6000 trees and 600,000 shrubs. And the reason it’s called Hunter Valley Gardens, plural, is because there are 10 on site, each individually themed to represent different styles from around the world, including the Italian Grotto, Chinese Garden and Indian Garden.
Chateau Elan, Rothbury
Elan – “vigorous spirit or enthusiasm” – is a pretty good descriptor for this vast estate, housing an 18-hole golf course designed by Greg Norman, a restaurant and bar, accommodation, and one of Australia’s largest day spas. It’s for this last entry that we recommend you visit. Across 17 rooms you can book in for massages, marine mud wraps, balneotherapy, facials, chemical peels, LED therapy and more.
This romantic red-brick cottage is located a few minutes’ drive from Mount Bright Lookout and has some stunning views of its own – from an indoor spa bath, no less. The building’s tiny, Parisian-style balcony also has sweeping views over the valley, where you’ll want to watch the sun sink with a glass of wine in hand. Inside there’s a queen-sized bed and an open-plan design with a gas fireplace, air conditioning and pod coffee machine.
Vinden Estate Homestead, Pokolbin
Built in the 1840s, this grand Victorian building remains in tip-top shape, with butter-hued walls, brilliant white cornices and sculptural curtains on the bedroom windows. There’s room here for up to 12 people, sleeping in two king-sized and four queen-sized beds. Then there’s a spacious period-look kitchen, barbeque, and a swimming pool with views of the adjacent vineyard. And you can even bring your dogs to stay.
Casa La Vina, Pokolbin
This is probably the only hotel in Australia built from Santa Fe-style adobe. And owners Frank and Tracey Anderiesen haven’t done it half-heartedly. The floors are tiled, there are cacti sprouting in the private courtyards and the beds are big solid timber beasts. The three adults-only villas are aimed squarely at couples looking for a romantic getaway with a difference. Amenities like barbeques, private spas, breakfast hampers, complimentary slippers and log fireplaces make sure it’s one to remember.
Spicers Vineyards Estate, Pokolbin
If you’re after a more typical hotel experience, look into this one, set on eight acres of vineyards. There are 12 luxe suites plus a day spa and serene outdoor pool. The on-site restaurant, Botanica, is a destination in its own right, with three- and five-course set menus showcasing local produce. Within the Hunter, Spicers also operates the rustic Guesthouse and the Basque-styled Tower Lodge.
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