Go on a food and wine trail in the exquisite Hunter Valley region of Australia.
Our hotel has its address listed as Halls Road, and as we near our destination, I key it into the GPS. Twenty minutes later, we find ourselves literally in the middle of a jungle with the road in front of us coming firmly to an end, while Mr Tom Tom (the GPS) insistently asks us to turn right ahead. The right turn he is referring to is not actually a road, even calling it a hiking trail might be a euphemism – it is a forgotten path of twisted vines and tree roots coiled together as if frozen in a moment of lively play. With the setting sun starting to cast dark shadows around us, I nervously say out loud, “Surely this isn’t the right way!”
It wasn’t – a quick back-track, and stopping-for-directions later, we find ourselves cruising into Cessnock, the tiny town that marks the start of Hunter Valley wine country. The correct Halls Road was, in fact, a short detour from a far more civilised highway that connects Cessnock with Pokolbin, the centre of the wine region. But such is the nature of Hunter Valley – sprawling and quiet – that, had the road permitted, our hotel could well have been tucked away in the midst of that forest. As it happened, the Peppers Convent felt almost as remote – in a good way – when we finally did arrive. The twinkling lights of the converted former monastery, now an exclusive luxury guesthouse, were however, far more welcoming and warm than those forbidding tree trunks.
Dating back to 1909, the house was originally a nuns’ convent (hence the name), and was in fact, physically transported 600 kilometres to its current location, when being restored, to become the luxury hotel it is today. Part of the leading Peppers group of hotels, the convent is home to only 17 rooms, decorated in a classical country home style to keep the historic charm of the property intact. History is certainly preserved here in every sense, with creaky floorboards and baroque-style furnishings completing the authenticity, although all the mod cons you’d need are available. The oversized outdoor deck overlooks the Pepper Tree winery estate, the grounds of which are populated by thousands of cicadas who provide your morning wakeup call and evening lullabies with unfailing diligence.
A long heritage
The Hunter Valley is probably one of Australia’s best known wine-producing regions, although it is isn’t very large. Overlooked by the majestic Brokenback mountains, the valley enjoys a unique micro-climate that is almost Mediterranean in nature, with warm summers and moderate winters. This is what led to it being developed as a wine-producing region as early as the 1830s, although it was only about a century later that it acquired renown for fine wines. That reputation has stuck, with a few pioneering winemakers sticking to quality viticulture in spite of declining demand in the mid 20th century when cheaper wines were more popular due to the depression. The strategy paid off, as today, it is known as the home of artisanal, boutique wineries, with its signature Semillon grape being compared to the sort of stature Bordeaux and Champagne enjoy in wine circles.
But today, the Hunter, as it is colloquially referred to, is known not only for its artisanal wines, but also for its gastronomic offerings, as well as a thriving arts scene – the rolling green vine-clad hills provide a soothing setting that tempts many to trade busier city lives for a slightly more laidback existence surrounded by food, wine and cheese.
George Francisco, executive chef of Robert’s restaurant is one such person who has made this swap. The award-winning Roberts circa 1876 is one of the Hunter Valley’s top restaurants, with a reputation for championing local produce. Passionate about growing and sourcing local, Francisco has a fully-fledged organic vegetable garden in the backyard of the historic, painstakingly refurbished 19th century cottage the restaurant is set in, and he also harvests his own honey and cures his own bacon. He serves up modern Australian cuisine executed with French finesse, with the menu including everything from tempura ricotta filled zucchini flowers, to grilled aged rangers valley rib eye with garden salad and potato puree. Desserts include panna cotta and handmade chocolates, but my pick would be the seven-layer chocolate cake with rum sauce and coca nibs – an indulgence if there ever was one. There is no messing about in the food, with simple yet artful presentation, classic flavours and an emphasis on taste. The rustic-style setting, complete with wheelbarrows with vegetables spilling out, sitting room-style lounges doubling up as private dining areas out the front, and distressed wood walls, offset by the sophisticated food, makes this a must-visit that I was glad to have ticked off my list on the very first evening.
Another Hunter Valley culinary classic is the (aptly named) The Cellar restaurant. Run by husband-wife duo Andy (who is the chef) and Janet Wright, this award-winning restaurant is open and airy, with large glass windows and a lush indoor garden blurring the boundaries between alfresco and indoor dining. The seasonally changing menu here also celebrates local produce, with a Mediterranean influence in the cooking – whether it’s the braised lamb pie with tzatziki, the pan-fried halloumi with Italian veg, or the tiramisu. What remains quintessentially Aussie however, are the fresh, delicious flavours, and hearty portions.
There are plenty of other fabulous restaurants around the valley, most of them housed in wine estates so that you can combine food and wine in a truly gastronomic experience. And with the increasing number of leading locavore chefs turning their attention to the region, you are more likely than not to stumble upon a delightful meal in some of them. Be warned however, being as it is a sleepy country destination, many of the restaurants close early (last orders usually at 9pm), so plan your days accordingly.
The cellar door is open!
With over 150 wineries dotted around the valley, it is easy enough to set off on your own if you’re driving, and go on your own journey of discovery – most wineries have open cellar doors that you can pop into for a tasting. But, a smarter way to do it – especially if you’re not planning on spitting out all the wines you taste! – is to book in for a wine tour. Divine Tours offer small-group personalised tours that combine a good mix of established, big-ticket wineries as well as newer, edgier ones who are eager to try new things when it comes to oenology.
Our full-day Gourmet Wine tour starts with a visit to Mountview Estate, where we have our first taste of the beautiful Semillon, and are also given an insight into wine production. Our next stop is the family-run Ernest Hill winery, a typical example of the friendly, welcoming nature of winemakers here, whose passion for what they do is manifest in their genuine eagerness for you to try and learn from them. After trying about five different grapes at each, lunch certainly seems like a good idea at this point – this is where the ‘gourmet’ bit of the tour kicks in. The award-winning Emerson’s restaurant serves up fresh, light Mod Aus cuisine – think peppered squid with lemon aioli; zucchini fritters with cumin yoghurt; slow cooked lamb shoulder; and pan-fried snapper – in a bright, sunlight-flooded contemporary setting overlooking the Adina vineyards it is located within. Dinner at the restaurant is a slightly more sophisticated affair, with dishes like quail terrine and sous vide duck making an appearance on the menu.
Washed down with some more wine – if you can stomach it – the tour then sets off to two more wineries, including Tulloch, one of the oldest wine estates in the region, and Gundog estate, an exciting boutique winery specialising in regionally distinct single-estate wines. The tour also takes in a visit to the Smelly Cheese shop, a Hunter Valley institution offering not only a dazzling array of specialty cheeses – not all necessarily smelly! – but also a variety of other foodie goodies, and. But they do save the best for last, which is, a stop at the Hunter Valley Chocolate Co., located next to, what else, but another winery, Petersons Champagne House. The chocolate shop is what Willy Wonka’s showroom would have looked like in real life, with everything from chocolate bars, truffles and fudge, to quirky concoctions such as chilli chocolate on offer. After a delicious day of eating, drinking and food shopping (naturally we didn’t walk away from the cheese or the chocolate shop empty-handed!), we were deposited back to our hotel – I couldn’t think of a better way to discover the delights of the valley.
Hunter Valley is just a two-hour drive from Sydney and makes for a delightful two- or three-day break, combined with Australia’s other attractions nearby. Sydney is an ideal gateway to the country, and has plenty of attractions for foodies, while Melbourne is the other cultural and culinary epicentre of Australia, with some of the country’s best known chefs hailing from this vibrant, café-rich city. From Melbourne, the closest airport, Newcastle is a 90-minute flight away, from where Hunter Valley is about an hour by road.
Getting thereAs the enormous A380 gently and almost imperceptibly edges itself out of its parking bay, you just know that if you are in for 14-hours or so of flying, you’d best be doing it in an aircraft like this. And if it’s in a Qantas-liveried aircraft, with its premium flat-bed seats in business class (with a Kate Spade kit bag, no less!), generously appointed Premium Economy cabin, and private self-service bar on the upper deck, then you know you’re going to enjoy the ride. Business class passengers can enjoy truly gourmet meals in a menu designed by Australian celebrity chef Neil Perry. Forget anything you might have expected of plane food – seasonally-inspired dishes such as lentil soup with thyme cream; mushroom ragout with baked polenta; and seared sea bass with vegetable tagine and almond couscous are just some tasty examples from the extensive menu offerings which wouldn’t be out of place in a fine dining restaurant. The fine wines, china service and attentive staff complete the on-board experience. On ground, the Qantas Business and First lounges in Sydney and Melbourne airports are something of a treat in themselves, with the Neil Perry influence continuing into the gourmet offerings, which celebrate the best of Australian cuisine.
Qantas offers direct daily flights from Dubai to Sydney and Melbourne, tickets start from around Dhs5,200 (economy class) and around Dhs9,500 (business class), visit Qantas.com.
Room rates at the Peppers Convent start from around AUD345 per night (around Dhs1,200), visit peppers.com.au.
Divine Tours: www.divinetours.com.au; Gourmet tours cost AUD$135 per person.
Robert’s circa 1876: www.robertscirca1876.com.
Emersons Café & Restaurant: www.emersonsrestaurant.com.au.
The Cellar restaurant: www.the-cellar-restaurant.com.au.