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The Hunter Valley is one of the country's most visited wine regions, but delightful nooks await those prepared to venture to find them.
The love affair that travellers have and will have with the greater Hunter Valley region of New South Wales and the smaller sub-regions of Broke and Wollombi start with just a short hour and a half drive from Sydney, and to the sub-regions, about 15 to 30-minutes from Pokolbin respectively. To get there, you can bypass the usual gateways of Cessnock and Pokolbin altogether and arrive via Tourist Drive 33 by taking the Peats Ridge exit off the M1. To truly discover this region for exactly what it is, which is nothing short of amazing, we suggest at least four to fives days.
In the Hunter Valley, there are approximately 150 wineries and is known for being one of the oldest wine regions of Australia. Beginning your trip around Pokolbin, it's best to visit a variety of wineries. Bike hire is a crowd favourite and is an easy way of getting from one winery to another, plus it allows you to explore the Hunter Valley's fabulous scenery of rolling hills, country laneways and dairy farms from a different angle. Stop for a relaxed lunch within the Tuscan-inspired courtyard of Café Enzo, where you can dine on linguine, or pork cheek and pistachio terrine. The drive-by car though is efficient and effective, allowing you to taste it all within a couple of days.
Starting the afternoon on a high at picturesque Audrey Wilkinson, which is perched atop the foothills of the Brokenback Ranges, and serves excellent semillions at its country house tasting room. Sample chardonnay and shiraz at the country estate of Oakvale Wines, which has been in operation since 1893. At Usher Tinkler indulge in wines or whisky matched with prosciutto, truffle salumi and camembert within the beautifully restored Pokolbin Church. Visit the sleek 'tasting pods' at Brokenwood or soak up the views on their expansive outdoor terrace. They also offer several bespoke masterclasses to enhance any visit to the Hunter. In the evening dine at multi-award-winning Muse restaurant on dishes such as New Zealand king salmon sashimi, Redgate Farm duck leg and roasted Rothbury mandarin ice cream with coffee cream.
Driving from Pokolbin to the sub-regions of the Hunter, we insist that you drive a slower-paced route following a rather windy road, originally built by convicts, which passes through some incredibly pretty farmland, charming country houses and barns, cattle and sheep grazing roadside, not to mention, farm-gate stalls promoting local produce and clusters of weird and beautiful letterboxes sitting at the top of long country roads. At the end of this drive, you'll be welcomed with a host of family-owned and run businesses where the people behind the food and wine tasting experiences are generally the ones who are out on the land picking the grapes and olives, making the wines and oils, and labelling bottles. More than just producers, they're artisans – a good number of whom take a sustainable and organic focus to their craft. Compared with Pokolbin, where tour buses ship visitors in and out in droves, these underrated sub-regions of the Hunter Valley are quiet and peaceful.
Noyce Brothers is a boutique wine producer whose cellar door is in a beautiful 19th-century sandstone building, also home to Grays Inn, in the heart of the historical village. Julie MacDonald is a welcoming cellar door manager at Noyce Brothers Wine in Wollombi and will provide all travellers with the best and most unique tastebud experiences. The vineyard is located just a few clicks up the road and is owned by Phillip Noyce (director of Australian film Rabbit Proof Fence and TV series Revenge) and his two brothers Michael and Peter.
Despite being small, there are several dining options in the village: Café Wollombi has a lovely wraparound verandah that is the perfect spot to perch when bathed in sunshine (the coffee is excellent, too!); Italian-style eatery Panino is located next to Noyce Brothers Wine – dine out back and play a game of chess on the giant chessboard; and the Wollombi Tavern is a good ol' fashioned establishment where you can enjoy some pub grub and a glass of the infamous Dr Jurd's Jungle Juice, created by legendary local Mel Jurd in the late '50s and sold here ever since.
Depending on your time-frames you might want to stay overnight in Wollombi.
Wake early for a one-hour sunrise hot air balloon ride with Balloon Aloft. You'll rise high above the vineyards of Pokolbin, Lovedale, Rothbury and Broke, before enjoying a decadent champagne breakfast at Peterson House Winery. Afterwards, tee off at one of the Hunter Valley's championship golf courses including the 18-hole, Greg Norman-designed Vintage Golf Club. Or take a stroll through the enchanting 24-hectare (60-acre) Hunter Valley Gardens. Ten themed gardens, including the Rose Garden and Storybook Garden, showcase a diverse variety of botanic beauty.
Spend your afternoon unwinding at the Golden Door Day Spa and Wellness Centre. Indulge in the 170-minute Spa Fusion, which includes a Swedish massage, customised facial and pedi spa. Please book well in advance for dinner at EXP. and delve into its tasting menu with matching wines. The menu showcases seasonal, local ingredients – many of which are sourced from the kitchen garden.
A trip to the Hunter Valley region is never complete without a trip to The Hunter Valley Cheese Factory or the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company. Before you head back to Sydney, sample handmade Belgium chocolate and fudge or watch cheese-making in action.
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