Time for a Road Trip...Hunter Valley Wine Time
With New South Wales still on Covid state lockdown (ie - we can travel within the state but not beyond), we took the opportunity to go on a road trip and see what lay just beyond Sydney that needed a visit…and boy are we glad that we did!
Our road trip started with the 3 hour drive from Sydney to the Hunter Valley. The Hunter Valley is known as the NSW premier wine region and one of the best wine regions in the country. They are particularly well known for the grapes needed to make the perfect semillon due to the soil conditions - in fact, along with France, Australia is one of the largest producers of these grapes world wide.
I’ve visited the Hunter Valley a number of times prior to 2020 but always as a day trip (way too long a day…stay over if you can) so this year I decided to finally go down and stay in the region…twice. This blog features my recommendations from my July stay as well as my recent October visit.
I had always thought of the Hunter Valley as a winter destination - lots of hotels have fireplaces, there are too many flies in summer, red wine is the perfect self-heater…etc - really, why I thought that I’m not too sure but I’m sure that these ideas had something to do with it. Whilst I loved visiting in July (winter), I definitely have to say that Spring was something quite wonderful in the valley. Yes, there are undoubtedly more flies, however, beyond that, the vines in each winery were plump and the valley was filled with seemingly never ending rolling green hills, plus the Hunter Valley Gardens looked amazing filled with flowers!
I would be reluctant to go in summer - flies, heat, etc - but both winter and spring proved absolutely divine!
Driving straight from Sydney, we decided to hit the Hunter Valley Gardens as our first stop, even prior to checking in to our hotel due to the time of the day. The gardens really require a minimum of 2 hours, but if you can spend a bit more time there (if you’re enjoying it), do. We spent 2.5 hours in the gardens and still only saw half of it as we chose to sit in each of the gardens that we saw and enjoy the view. Each of the areas of the Hunter Valley is uniquely different to the garden before it - there are gardens that feature waterfalls (the sunken garden), gardens that draw inspiration from gardens of the world (Chinese garden, Oriental Garden, Italian Garden, Indian Garden), and gardens that will have any child excited (Storybook Garden), plus so many more.
The Gardens are definitely a visual experience so I feel everything that I would say about it, can be done better with these photos
All in all, we had a great time there and I would say that if you’re visiting the valley with kids, or if you’re interested in finding the perfect shots for your instagram, this garden is where you want to be. Tickets are necessary and are $30 for adults (concessions for children, locals and seniors apply). Keep your eyes on their events calendar too as they always seem to have different themes happening throughout the year - November/December will be Christmas lights time and whilst we were there preparation for the event was already underway - looks like a lot of fun!! We were there for the mega creatures (dinosaur) feature which I have to be honest, didn’t grab our attention much BUT the kids around us were loving the treasure hunt to find them all!
** Note - all prices are in AUD throughout this blog.
From the Gardens we headed to our hotel, the Voco Kirkton Park (an IHG Hotel) which sits on a lovely property of 70 acres and is accessed by a beautiful, tree lined driveway from the road it is based on.
The hotel is beautifully appointed, noticeable from as early as check in. They have a consistent theme of navy and whites throughout the restaurant and lobby, before moving into the rooms which are largely black and white with pops of bright blue detailed lamps. The property features manicured gardens, an indoor pool and spa, a gym and stables where you can feed the animals on their property if you would like to.
Room Tour of our Room
You definitely need a car to make staying at this hotel easy, or need to be willing to rely on taxis as it is slightly beyond the main centre of the town, about 7-10 mins up the road. Most of the good hotels or the boutique hotels do require this little drive and I would say that it is worth it to stay amongst the beautiful countryside.
In July I stayed at an AirBnb on the Gemelli wine estate. This very cute cottage featured 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a lounge room and a kitchen, making it a very comfortable place to stay! It’s greatest feature was certainly that it was located right on the vineyard - the view was just gorgeous and it was awesome to be able to walk amongst the vineyards and see kangaroos hopping around outside our window - loved it!
The Walk to our Cottage
Whilst there are definitely activities beyond wine tasting in the Hunter Valley (many in fact), unquestionably the main event there is the wine! With so many vineyards to choose from, I spent a lot of time researching those that I wanted to visit on each trip to do tastings at.
Just as an FYI, in choosing the wineries, I was looking for:
Quality of wine - was it known for being both good in flavour and reasonable
Appearance of the property - I was looking for wineries with something special about them or their tasting areas. Many of the cellar doors are smaller, indoors, almost in cabin style rooms. I was looking for those that had the opportunity to showcase the beautiful views
My October trip was a mother daughter trip and as my mum doesn’t like wine, I wanted there to be either a special feature, or a tasting of another variety, or wineries that were accepting of guests of the person tasting as well.
Please note - right now, due to Covid, and likely for the foreseeable future, pre-booking your tastings in mandatory and if you’re visiting on a weekend, I would recommend pre-booking with weeks ahead due to the popularity of these wineries and the likelihood of them booking out due to limitations on capacity.
Here is where I went:
In July, with only one night in the valley, we had less time to visit many of the wineries but still fit in:
Piggs Peake Open 7 days a week. Tastings are free I believe but reservations are mandatory. Their range is quite extensive so leave yourself some time at this winery and, if tastings are still outside as they were when I was there, time to enjoy the vegetable gardens and walk through the barrels. My favourites were definitely the dessert wines, of which they make three, here. Really enjoyed this tasting - still one of my faves in the Valley.
Krinklewood Open 7 days a week but with varying hours. Tastings are $10 and cheese boards are available for purchase from $20. Books are essential. The main attraction of this winery is certainly the gorgeous cellar door at which it is located. Done in an almost French Provincial decor, you truly feel like you escape overseas when on this beautiful property. They offer biodynamic wines and the tasting features a long list of wines which you choose from to taste. I enjoyed their reds the best of their collection but must admit, I am definitely more of a red drinker than white. Their large, resident peacock is almost mystical - it’s truly stunning (from afar) but loves cheese so be careful =). Had a great time at this winery!
The Hunter Distillery Open 7 days, currently taking bookings only on the hour for Covid restrictions. Tastings are $5 refundable with any purchase. Bookings required. Breaking away from wine momentarily, the Hunter Distillery is one of the more fun tastings as you try their extensive selection of vodkas, gins and liqueurs from test tubes. Many of their offerings are flavoured - especially in the Schnapps selections - making the tasting here particularly exciting as you choose which flavours you want to try. The staff are very knowledgeable and let you know whilst you’re tasting how they would recommend using each of their products (in a cocktail, as a dessert, etc), Thoroughly enjoyed our time here!
Gemelli Open Friday, Saturday, Monday and the first Sunday of the month. Tastings are free I believe. This family run winery is newer in the Valley having opened in 2011. We came here as our AirBnB was on the property and the kind people at the cellar/check in offered a tasting on arrival. Whilst not my favourite wines in the valley, I really loved the beautiful view with the vineyards right in front of you, and the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of the winery.
In October, we stayed for three nights and visited:
Audrey Wilkinson Open 7 days. Tastings range in price from $5-$25 for wine, tastings with foods or picnics or winery tours available for booking as well. Put simply, I picked this winery before I knew much about the wines simply because I read across numerous sites that this one of the best views in town…and it was. This vineyard looks out over acres of perfectly structured rows of vines, rolling hills and spotted lakes. It is gorgeous! The wine was great too and more than that, the staff were awesome - very friendly, very knowledgeable and very welcoming. Would highly recommend the experience.
Bimbadgen Open 7 days. Tastings are from $8-$15. Children’s tastings (including a soft drink and activity pack) are available too and are $8. Fee is redeemable upon purchase. This winery looked pretty, hip and fun in all my research of it and so I decided I had to go. We decided to do one ‘Hunter Valley Experience’ tasting at $8 and one ‘Premium Wine Tasting’ at $15 to give us a better taste across their selection. There were many that I thoroughly enjoyed but I particularly liked their Shiraz (premium tasting) and their Dessert Wine (experience tasting). The staff at this winery were absolutely divine and truly make much of the experience. Had a great time!
Tamburlaine Organic Wines (not for a full tasting however) Open 7 days. Bookings available for groups of 5 people and more. Smaller groups (4 and under) may walk-in for tastings. Unfortunately we ran out of time for me to do a full tasting at this winery however, having had a glass of their Muscat the night before in the hotel bar, I had to at least go on a little dessert wine shopping spree. This will be the first winery I go to on my return as their wines are delicious! I tried to order a glass of whatever was on the menu from their vineyard wherever else we went and so I know I’ll be going back! Their wines are organic and vegan friendly.
Pepper Tree Wines Open 7 days. Bookings are essential and tastings range from $5-$50 depending on how top end you want the wine to be. I did the $15 premium wine tasting which generously included a small cheese plate as well. This was perhaps my favourite winery of the trip because of how adorable the setting was and the fact that we could do the wine tasting in their gardens at a perfect table with a sun umbrella - just loved it! It was so relaxing, it is definitely the sort of place you could sit for some time! Their wines are largely fantastic and their dessert wine was an absolute must have for me! Also delicious was their Rose and their Shiraz. I loved it here and cannot wait to go back again!
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN THE HUNTER VALLEY
The Hunter Valley Gardens (as mentioned above)
Cheese Tasting With a non-drinker in the mix, we definitely wanted to do another kind of tasting and as big cheese lovers, this seemed absolutely up our alley. We opted for the five cheese tasting ($7.95) and then from that, picked our favourites and bought them in store to make a delicious cheese plate of our own. We particularly liked their Harrigans Vintage Cheddar and the Hunter Gold Washed Rind! Other tasting options include a $14.95 tasting including oils and olive tasting, or an artisan cheese making appreciation course at $42.
Cakes and Fudge and Chocolate, oh my! The Hunter Valley has some fantastic places to get a sweet treat! We visited two of them and I’d say that both should make your ‘must visit’ lists in the Hunter Valley Hunter Valley Chocolate Company There are a number of outlets where you can buy their products but I’d say head to the large, factory style store on Broke Rd so that you get the most selection. Filled with decadent chocolates, fudges, and a myriad of gifts that you can take back with you, this is the place to try! I particularly liked the cappuccino chocolate truffle, mum highly recommends the vanilla fudge.
Sabor Even more than the chocolate company, this was totally my thing!! Their cakes are unbelievable - so so delicious! You can get takeaway or sit in store (need to book) and can either get a full size cake (for 1-2 people) or a tasting platter if you just cannot choose…and choosing could be very hard! I tried the Nutella, Banana Dome and the Crispy Green Apple Royale - wow! We only had time to get take away from here but next time, this would be an essential stop for me - highly recommend.
Cocoa Nib Located right opposite Muse Kitchen (read on), this shop features some of the most artistically designed chocolate I have come across…ever. They’re beautiful little pieces - my favourite was the Gaytime flavoured one for sure!
Kurri Kurri Nearby to the Hunter Valley (approx 25 mins) is a small town called Kurri Kurri, known for being the town of 60 wall murals. As a big fan of street art, this was an essential stop in my mind. If you choose to go and visit, I would recommend downloading the map of where each mural is prior to visiting as this helped us greatly in finding many of them. I must admit, the town wasn’t what I had expected and whilst I had a good time there ‘treasure hunting’ for as many murals as I could find (and trying to find the hidden Kookaburra in each because apparently, as the symbol of the town, each mural has one of the Aussie birds somewhere in its midst), it isn’t somewhere that I would highly recommend to other visitors. I did appreciate the artwork though and the importance of each in telling part of the town’s history - here are some of my favourite murals
Things I haven’t done but know are available in the area:
Hot Air Ballooning
Aqua Golf and Put Put
AND VERY IMPORTANTLY, WHERE TO EAT
My favourite of the restaurants that I have been to thus far in the Hunter Valley is firmly Muse Kitchen. I had dinner there during my July trip and returned for lunch during my October trip and both experiences have been absolutely excellent.
Muse Kitchen, like many in the Hunter Valley, offer a set menu only though at Muse there are a number of options per course for you to choose from. So far, everything that I have tasted there has been delicious but I will note that the menu changes seasonally.
That said, both times I started with the chicken liver parfait which, if you are a fan of this dish, cannot be missed - it is so smooth and tasty! Highly recommend. I also had the ‘Farmer's Wife’ gin cocktail on both visits which I can also say was very good. This time around I had mussels, an amazing lamb and one of the best desserts I have had in a long time, the ‘Malt-iso,’ a chocolate nitro, burnt custard and malt creation that was just fabulous. The current chicken dish on the menu was also very tasty!
Dinner in July
Lunch in October
I love the decor of the restaurant, with a particularly Hamptons feel to the place, and the wonderful ambiance at both lunch and dinner. This would be a highly recommended must do, if you’re looking for a beautiful place for a long lunch, from my point of view.
Unfortunately I have yet to try Circa 1876, the other restaurant in Muse Kitchen’s calibre, but intend to on my next visit as I have heard wonderful things!
Another place for a lovely long lunch is Bistro Molines which boasts one of the most spectacular views in the valley, and certainly of restaurants of its kind. Personally, the mains left me a little more disappointed than other restaurants, however, the entrees/appetisers were some of the best I had in the Hunter Valley. I definitely would love to go back and give this place another try as it is often recommended when speaking about the Hunter Valley - it is much loved by its regulars and many Sydneysiders. The husband and wife who run the restaurant are clearly seasoned professionals in the hospitality industry and this restaurant sings as loudly as it does completely thanks to their attention to and affection for the place.
If you’re looking for a nice place to stop for breakfast/lunch, I would recommend Fawk due to the delicious food and good coffee that they are known for. Whilst not so scenic, this restaurant, located in the Pokolbin village, will definitely leave you satisfied and ready to start your wine tastings right!
Finding somewhere a bit more casual (read affordable) can be tricky in the Hunter Valley if you still want to have good food. Here are some of the best that we found.
Cafe Enzo was hands down our favourite for this. Offering lunch a la carte (no set menus) and located in a beautiful cottage in the Peppers Creek Village, we loved our lunch there so much that on our return from the Upper Hunter Country (on route to Port Stephens) we detoured just to go back for lunch again. With your time in the Hunter being filled with tastings or large meals, it was so great to find some absolutely delicious salads and lighter meals available. We had the chicken Caesar salad which was both extremely tasty and very generous in its portions, and the spinach and pumpkin salad, again, yum and huge!
The best thing on the menu though is something that you may just order on the side but however you do it, do not miss their crispy potatoes with parmesan and sour cream - they are seriously insane for potatoes!! I also tried their pavlova which, though not my favourite pavlova (little acidic for me), was beautifully presented and very good.
We also tried the local Japanese and Thai restaurant, Oiishi because, let’s face it, we can’t go too many days without Japanese food evidently =). Again, this restaurant does not have a set menu or minimum spend, instead, you can order freely from the wide range of Japanese and Thai dishes on the menu. We both found the food to be very good!
Also not a set menu (but also not necessarily on the affordable list for all), we had our first dinner at Locavore at Voco Kirkton Park (our hotel). Though a very nice meal it is one that I would say really we enjoyed more as a matter of convenience after a long day than one that we would have sought out otherwise. We also enjoyed drinks at the hotel bar just opposite - a nice place to sit and relax. The food was good at both but the ambiance better.
The Hunter Valley is the perfect getaway from Sydney. Just a 3 hour drive, it feels like you’ve gone much further as you leave the cityscape behind for a more country landscape…granted one filled with rows of vines. I absolutely love this part of NSW…it won’t be long before I go back, that’s for sure!