By Frank Smith
HUNTER Valley, just 250km north of Sydney, is an ideal spot for short break from the big city. My wife and I spent a few days in the valley following a two-day workshop, recently.
Having all day to get there we drove via Paramatta and Windsor to motor slowly along the Putty Road through the Blue Mountains and the Wollemi National Park. The road wound its way through and over the hills with little traffic until we stopped for a break at the Route 66 café that turned out to be a favourite of bikers, offering 24hr bike repairs.
Moving on, we left the Putty Road and entered the Hunter Valley at Broke.
The valley nestles under the Brokenback range, part of the Great Dividing Range and an iconic feature of the Lower Hunter Valley. It is regularly shrouded in morning mist. The majority of the Hunter Valley’s most prestigious vineyards are located on the southern valley and foothills of the range on rich alluvium soils laid down by the Hunter River over millennia.
Wine grapes have been grown in the valley since about 1820 and several wineries have been in the same family ownership for four or five generations. Nearly all growers specialise in hand-crafted boutique quality wines.
The specialities of the region are Semillon, old vine Shiraz and Verdelho. The valley claims to be the Australian birthplace of Chardonnay. There are also smaller amounts of some less known but delicious grape varieties such as Fiano, Tempranillo, Barbera, Sangiovese and Vermentino.
Most of the wineries – there are more than 150 – are open for tastings and many offer food, ranging from light lunches to fine dining. You can’t visit them all so here is a sample:
Audrey Wilkinson’s vineyard was founded in 1866, There are spectacular views of the Brokenback Range and Valley floor.
Tulloch vineyard was founded in 1895 when the owner’s great-grandfather changed from retailing wines and other commodities to growing his own.
Margan Estate offers light lunches where nearly all the ingredients are grown on the property. In addition to food and wine they offer tours of the one-acre kitchen garden.
If you want something more upmarket and corporate Brokenbrook provides a range of food options from pizza to haute cuisine and a weekend complementary shuttle bus so you don’t need a nominated driver.
Tyrrells winery claims to be the oldest (1858) owned and operated by the same family. The family also claim, on slender evidence, to be descended from Walter Tirel who killed King William II (Rufus) of England with an arrow in 1100. Whether by accident or on the orders of his brother Henry I is uncertain.
Also available for quality pub meals is the Bellbird hotel, built in 1914 and said to be the most haunted hotel in Australia, but none of the phantoms appeared during our stay.
Bellbird was the site of one of Australia’s worst coal mine disasters in 1923 when fire broke out in the workings of Bellbird colliery, resulting in the death of 21 miners and their horses.
But if food and wine doesn’t turn you on there is much more to see and do in the valley. There are two golf courses and several art galleries. One, Winmark Estate, has both an art gallery and sculpture park. Winmark showcases works by WA born Felicia Aroney.
As we left, we were watched by several cheeky Pademelon wallabies scampering amongst the vines.
Cheese and chocolate tasting was also on offer.
Gardeners will be enthralled by Hunter Valley Gardens with 14 hectares containing 6000 trees 600,000 shrubs and over one million plants arranged in several theme gardens with water features, statues and murals.
While the easiest way to tour the valley attractions is by car, there are plenty of other options including bus tours, electric bike hire, Sedgeway, balloon, helicopter and on horseback.
And if you like Australian kitsch there is the world’s largest sundial at Singleton and the Giant Ugg boots at Mortels sheepskin factory, Thornton.
The Hunter Valley is a great place to spend a short break. A pity it is so far from Perth