Odometer: 6403 km
How do you know when you are retired? When you find yourself sampling various champagnes (*) on a Monday morning in the Hunter Valley!
After visiting the Blue Mountains we turned away from Sydney, and headed up to Pokolbin, the heart of the Lower Hunter Valley.
We wanted to take the scenic route, so we joined the historic Putty Road. This 168 km road closely follows the Bulga Road, which was the first road linking Sydney to the Hunter Valley in 1823.
Roads here are situated on the ridge lines, rather than in the valleys next to the rivers as is the case in Europe. Following the rivers led the early explorers to the insurmountable vertical cliffs that surround the Sydney Basin, hence they had to follow the ridge lines.
The road winds its way up and down, traverses a number of small valleys, creeks and rivers and wooded canyons. It is a lovely drive, shame that there are very few official scenic lookouts or rest areas. Especially next to the Wollemi and Yengo National Parks.
Putty road is a favourite with the motorbike community. Besides the large number of bikers, there are similarly large number of road signs warning bikers to stay safe and a remarkably large number of police cars hiding in plain sight.
As we approach the Hunter Valley, we anticipate the traditional views of rows of grapes, horses grazing, framed by the mountain range. Instead, we spot the familiar sight of a very large manmade hill of tailings, resulting from the very large coal mines that surround this area.
Don’t let that put you off, keep on driving and you find yourself in the “Lower Hunter Valley”, a beautiful and surprisingly compact area of vineyards and farmland against the backdrop of the mountains.
There are a large number of vineyards here that still plant rose bushes at the end of the row of vines, providing a colourful accent. Traditionally this has been the best way to get an early indication of fungal infections.
The Hunter Valley has a choice of distilleries, craft beer, cheese and chocolate makers, besides vineyards. This is the place where the wine industry in Australia started in the 1820’s. The Hunter Valley is famous for its Semillon, defined as “Australia’s unique gift to the wine world”, a grade apart in viticulture.
Most vineyards are only open for tasting between 10 and 4, and require bookings. We managed to visit two of the smaller cellar doors and were very impressed.
Keith Tulloch is a fourth generation boutique winemaker in the Hunter Valley, his standards are high and the amounts are small. The cellar door is a lovely building where you enjoy the wine tasting while overlooking their vineyards. A tasting takes about an hour and costs $25 for the premium wines which cover single block (Field of Mars), family collection and single vineyard wines. A standard wine tasting of $10 will get you a taste of their non-premium wines. Naturally, these fees are refunded upon purchase of wines, which is inevitable. We sampled his excellent Semillon, Shiraz and Chardonnay wines, and left with half a dozen bottles.
We always like the smaller boutique, vineyards, where the tastings are more personal, and you often deal directly with the winemaker or his / her extended family.
We prefer not to do more than two cellar doors a day, separated by lunch so your tastebuds can reset after going through a flight of wines, from sparkling via white and increasingly heavier red wines to the dessert wines. Taking our time tasting, talking and enjoying!
Wine tasting is a simple joy that should engage all your senses:
- swirl, and admire the colour.
- swirl a bit more, stick your nose in the glass and breathe in deeply. This targets the tastebuds on the back of your tongue and your sense of smell.
- take a good sip, and swirl it around your mouth for a first impression.
- take another sip, the second sip quite often tastes different from the first sip, as the flavour builds up.
- my personal favourite, finish the sample 🙂 spitting is not allowed under Covid restrictions anyway! If you really don’t like it, you can pour the remainder of the sample in the spittoon.
At the recommendation from Cam at Keith Tulloch, we head to the Pierres Wines Vineyard. Peter M Went, owner and wine maker, makes some of the best sparkling wines in Australia, taking the best from the Champagne tradition, and blending it with new world techniques. His wife is French and from a wine making background. If his grandson joins the tradition he will make it the 13th generation of wine making in the French traditional style!
We manage to make an on the spot booking, and have the man himself serve us the wines. Peter turns out to have taught viticulture and is very happy to share his wealth of knowledge. He has travelled the globe in an effort to perfect the sparkling wine. The cellar door may be modest, the wines are certainly not. I end up tasting five sparkling wines, all quite different, and continued on with some of his whites and reds, as well as a sticky (dessert wine).
The traditional champagne method includes a first stage of fermentation and then blending of still wines. For the second fermentation yeast (from the original Champagne area) is added, and the wine will spend some time horizontally ageing, i.e. in contact with the slowly spent yeast.
The next step is riddling, where bottles are placed on special wooden angled racks, and turned regularly to ensure the sediment slowly moves down to the neck of the bottle. This sediment then gets removed (disgorgement).
The bottle is then topped up (dosage) with still wine of a particular sweetness, which will dictate the overall sweetness of the resulting wine. The bottle can also be topped up with fruit juice. And for sparkling reds, a vintage port can be used to top up the bottle creating a richer flavour. The sparkling wine is then ready for drinking or more cellaring.
Again, another half dozen bottles make it into the boot of our car… and it is only Monday morning!
A quick dash into the Hunter Valley Gardens Shopping Village in Central Pokolbin provides some chocolates from the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company, even though we are still full from our breakfast at the Botanica Restaurant at Spicers Vineyards Estate!
And especially for our foodie friends, some food pictures!
I would highly recommend a two or three day visit, which would allow enough time for a number of tastings and also relaxing. And if you come from Sydney, why not take Putty Road to or from the Hunter Valley (just watch out for those motorbikes!).
- Best coffee: We just stayed at our base, Restaurant Botanica at Spicers Vineyards. Coffee was excellent, an easy 8/10.
- Accomodation: We stayed at the Spicers Vineyards Estate on Hermitage Road in Pokolbin. A lovely place with only 12 guest suites (adults only), and 1 family house available. The Botanica restaurant on the premise serves dinner (tue to sun evening), and also provides breakfast daily for their guest. Not cheap, but I managed to use my Qantas Frequent Flyer Points.
- Tip: Check where your frequent flyer points can take you, besides flights! I used some of my Qantas points for our Spicers accomodation booking.
(*) I know, technically this is not champagne, as it is not made in the Champagne District in France. However, our Australian sparkling wine is of the same quality. Give it a try!