Ah, wine country. The Hunter Valley’s fertile fields have given birth to more than 150 wineries that roll across the green hills of this popular region, just three hours' drive from Sydney. Proud growers, wine makers and vintners have been squeezing the good stuff out of grapes for close to 180 years, and it has earned the Hunter solid street cred on both Australian and international vinous scenes.
But despite the much deserved nickname, wine country offers more than just bottled grown-up grape juice and the fabulous mouldy mates from the Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop. The region is home to exciting music festivals and community fairs, as well as innovative chefs that’ll pair your preferred variety of Hunter wine with exquisite meals, and even show you how to prepare a Hunter-style feast at home. And when you come and stay for a cheeky long weekend, the incredibly luxurious accommodation options will blow every other glamping experience or couples’ retreat out of the water.
When to visit
Some wine lovers enjoy a bold shiraz by the fire, while others require a citrusy semillon while they picnic among the vines. The best season to visit the Hunter Valley will depend on your sommeliere style.
Summer is for those sunflower types who want to ride bicycles through the fruit-laden vineyards, stopping off for picnics, a dip in the river and wine rehydration. Things get pretty steamy in the hotter months, with the mercury regularly hitting the high 30s and thunderstorms flashing through sunsets. It’s also when you’ll get to don your festival glitter and head to the huge annual concert Grapevine Gathering.
Conversely, winter is a more subdued affair. The weather is comfortably cool, the grapevines dormant and the fire roaring. From June-August your focus will be food, and luckily enough that's when the Hunter Valley Food and Wine Festival kicks into gear.
As a general rule, wine regions are pretty spectacular during the shoulder seasons, with the golden flora floating to the ground or buds blooming anew, plus perfect weather to explore every inch of the valley with minimal sweat. Spring in particular has an action-packed program of events in the Hunter, like Opera in the Vineyards, the Spring Festival of Flowers and the small town celebration at Dungog Festival.
While someone will inevitably have to be the sober driver if you’re not travelling with a tour, everyone on your Hunter Valley road trip team should enjoy a full day of wine and beer tasting – yes, beer is also on the menu. But the Hunter’s big four are their semillon, which is crisp and citrusy in its youth and honeys with age, a peachy chardonnay, lively verdelho and a medium bodied, savoury shiraz.
At Wine House, you can try them all and more as you’re guided through a tasting flight, and then sashay over to the self-service wine bar. You top up a sampling credit card and pour yourself tastes, and half or full glasses of their finest drops from the wine vending machine. This interesting contraption is much classier than your average chip dispenser, and can keep wines at the perfect temperature, while also maintaining the freshness of open bottles for around three weeks.
Your next port of call is Pepper Tree Wines. This cellar door is positioned on a lush estate, which has spectacular accommodation within spitting distance and some superb food on offer at the nearby Circa 1876. If you have a particularly keen interest in wine science, or want to test the tasting skills you’ve learnt so far, book in for the winery’s Vault Experience. The extremely knowledgeable and surprisingly laid-back staff will take you on a private tasting journey of the boutique winery’s premium labels, while providing some history about their three decades in the business and the master vigneron behind it all, John Davis.
Are you done with all the tannins and creamy chardonnays? Cleanse your palate with a craft beer at Hope Estate. These guys are relatively new to the Hunter, but they’re smashing stereotypes and producing some solid craft beers in addition to their wine range. There’s always 12 brews on tap, rotated around 20 core range and seasonal beers – the mango sour is a shining light among this brew family. Since they’re already adhering to the unusual, these guys have also set up a massive stage that brings music and festival action to the valley.
Ask any Hunter Valley dweller where to go for a schmick dinner date and they’ll say Muse Restaurant. The towering atrium dining room of this modern Australian marvel is perched on the perimeter of Hungerford Hill Winery. The celebrated kitchen offers a seasonal menu marked by ingenuity and its championing of local produce. Keep an ear out for the daily specials recited by the well informed, elegant waitstaff. You might find a favourite like the delicate cross sections of woodfired Wagyu steak, which comes with housemade polenta that is grown, milled and made on site.
In the morning, if you need something salty to fortify you after last night’s shenanigans, head to Emersons at the Adina Vineyard. They’re not shy when it comes to serving up a mountain of breakfast fuel, but if you’re wise, you’ll order a side of mushrooms made tender in reams of butter and garlic to any meal you chose. They are particularly good friends with the warming housemade baked beans and chorizo ragout.
Those wanting to learn a little something about their lunch should pop in to the Lovedale Smokehouse Café, which is also home to Major Lanes Cooking School. You can book in for an informative tutorial in smoking and curing – think a super soft, ten-hour smoked brisket – as well as Thai, Vietnamese and Mexican cooking classes. While you’re there, load up on a fridge-full of produce from wild boar salami and maple-infused bacon, to smoked rainbow trout, cheeses, olives and pickles.
For a truly unique stay in the Hunter Valley, book a night at Boydell’s luxurious glamping accommodation. There’s only one safari-style tent on this massive property which incorporates vineyards, cattle grazing paddocks and two bordering rivers. The huge tent sits on a wrap-around balcony overlooking a green haze of grasslands and the resident mob of kangaroos. Inside, you’ll find ridiculously luxe fixtures and furnishings, like the perfectly proportioned, free-standing copper bathtub, the king size bed with a silk canopy and linen sheets, as well as an independent sitting room.
You follow a bumpy dirt road for about five minutes to reach the camp from reception, which also doubles as the gorgeous farmstead home of the family who owns Boydell’s. They are extremely welcoming and are more than happy to set you up with a gourmet dinner pack which you can prepare on the barbecue or roast over the fire.
The whole setup is certainly couples-focused, and despite its size the impressive glamping tent can only sleep two. But it’s for good reason. You wouldn’t want to be shy about bare bottoms, as the only shower is connected to a huge gum tree outside. Inside, the toilet wall doesn’t extend much higher than your eyebrows to shield you from peeping toms (aka your other half) sitting on the bed.
If you’ve become accustomed to bathroom doors and appreciate fine dining within walking distance, your fabulous alternative is the Wood’s. There’s multiple accommodation options available on the property, which is just up the road from Pepper Tree Wines, but the one-bedroom Blackwood cottage is sure to interest couples keen to spread out. The lovely structure has an outdoor entertaining area with a deliciously deep plunge pool, a huge open plan living area with a full kitchen, a massive bedroom, and a duel use bathroom with a sliding door separating the double shower heads and a whale-sized bath from the sink and loo.
Can’t stop, won’t stop?
Scattered around the dormant volcano Mount Canobolas are the friendly vineyards of Orange. Drive through cherry blossoms, lurid wattle and gold mine adjacent creeks (that still yield a nugget or two) to find some of Australia’s most interesting wines and meet the passionate makers.