A wine trip is supposed to be a gentle, sophisticated affair winding through spectacular bucolic scenery. At least that’s one way. David Whitley, with a few too many under his belt, shows us his way . . .
It seems somewhat sacrilegious to come to one of the world’s greatest wine regions only to face a table full of empty beer glasses. Still, when you’re full of the spirit of adventure (and, more importantly, several dozen sampling glasses of fine reds and whites), no new challenge shall go unmet.
And this is why the various bocks, witbiers and kolsches of the Potters Hotel and Brewery in Nulkaba (02 4991 7922, www.pottersbrewery.com.au) have been ploughed through with such ruthless efficiency. An air of invincibility now surrounds the table; no matter how many new vessels they present us with, by the heavens they will be sunk.
This is also why two complete strangers are smooching away in the corner, their Hunter Ginger Beer and cabernet sauvignon abandoned, all but forgotten. This is accompanied, surprisingly tunefully, by another pair banging on the arms of their chairs and bellowing out the theme tunes from cartoons of yesteryear. And this was supposed to be such a dignified weekend.
IN VINO VERITAS
It’s strange how we associate wine tours with sophistication. No matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise, the general aim is to taste as many wines as possible within a designated timeframe. With beer or spirits, this would be called binge drinking. With wine, largely because there’s the option of spitting it out, it’s regarded as a cultural pursuit.
Admittedly, a lot depends on venue. And in this regard the diversity in the Hunter is extraordinary. Many tours will take in some of the bigger operations, of which the McGuigan’s aircraft hangar is the perfect example (02 4998 7402, www.mcguiganwines.com.au). The wine’s not bad, but there’s a bit of a production line feel to the whole place, especially on a Saturday afternoon when it’s absolutely crammed with visitors lining up at the tills, clanking their bottles. In a similar mould is neighbouring Tempus Two, run by Lisa McGuigan, which looks for all the world like a football stadium dropped unceremoniously on its head in a paddock.
For every place that comes over as a bit soulless, though, there’s another that has character by the vat load. The wines at Kevin Sobel’s (02 4998 7766, sobelswines.com.au) may fall for some into the take-it-or-leave it bracket, but it’s impossible to be ambivalent about the adorable St Bernard that takes to his role of slobbering down visitors’ trousers with animated gusto.
Elsewhere, the entertainment comes in human form, although in the case of the Hanging Tree Winery (02 4998 6601, hangingtreewines.com.au) on O’Connors Road, there is more than a touch of the equine about the man in question.
A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
After venturing up the sandstone pathway at Hanging Tree, we’re quickly ushered from the oak-panelled entrance hall to a little courtyard outside. It’s full of roses and flowers intertwined with the fencing, but more important is the slight-but-sturdy man with a gigantic white moustache in the chair. This is Diamond Porter, who bills himself as a horse whisperer. But if ever he fancies a career change, he could easily make it as a certified raconteur. He appears to know something about everything, and he works his way round the group with consummate professionalism. Everyone is engaged in conversation and debate as his wife Colleen slips by to surreptitiously top up the glasses with a new drop. It’s hard to get more civilised and pleasant than this, with the sun beaming down in the late afternoon, chatting about politics and the distorting effects of the media. It’s almost as if it’s ceased to be an excuse to drink all day.
Soon enough, with the wine still being ghosted into our hands, the topic turns to his beloved horses: “It’s not the horses that need to be trained,” says Diamond with utmost solemnity. “It’s us. We have to learn to think the way they think.”
What follows is a fascinating ramble through the world of stallion psychology, complete with actions. It’s all about comfort for these nags: stroking a knee can work wonders. It seems to work on humans, too, if the burgeoning romance in the pub later is anything to go by.
PEAKS AND VALLEYS
The problem with valleys is that, by definition, they come with hills. The Hunter is no exception, as anyone foolish enough to try cycling after a monumental tasting session will discover to their detriment. You can see the people in their nice cars and buses offering sympathetic laughter as they watch an out-of-shape dehydration victim wheeze away, pushing his bike up his own private Kosciuszko. To get up some of these gradients you either need a very good bike, legs of iron or a yellow jersey.
I’ve visited wineries on a horse in the Hunter before, and as clever plans go, taking to a bike in a delicate state is just as torturous. But the country air can work wonders; it’s also something many visitors won’t actually notice. The Hunter is one of the most beautiful corners of the country, with rolling vineyards given their setting by the jagged Brokenback Range on the horizon. Many will barely notice, though, heading from winery to winery and huddling inside the tasting rooms before clanking back onto the bus, bottles in hand.
It’s worth taking the time to explore under your own steam. Be it on two feet, pedalling furiously or on horseback. For a start, you can just nip into any winery that takes your fancy, rather than being herded into the ones that have an arrangement with the tour company. Just strolling up, particularly if it’s at a quiet time, also ensures far more personal service – you can chat warmly with the person on the other end of the wine bottle, rather than just being lectured to about varietal grapes and hints of plum you’re supposed to be able to detect.
Marginally tiddly cycling around wineries can be an expensive experience, however. There’s room for one drop in the slot where the water bottle normally sits, but after that things become a little awkward. The solution? Lots of cases being home-delivered, and the credit card taking an absolute hammering. Still, there are few things more satisfying than money well spent.
PUT THE BOTTLE DOWN: Things to do in the Hunter that don’t involve wine
PLAY GOLF // When it can brandish a designer as well known as The Great White Shark, of course it’s not going to be cheap to play at The Vintage. At the weekend, green fees will set you back a cool $110 per person, and while it’s slightly cheaper during the week, there are 19 other perfectly serviceable courses in the area. It all depends on whether you want the brag factor, really. (02) 4998 6789.
GO HORSE-RIDING // A 1.5hr trail ride at the Hill Top Country Horse Riding Centre costs $50. Ideal for beginners as, quite frankly, half of the horses look as sprightly as a long-termer in a residential care home. (02) 4930 7111
STROLL AMONG THE GROVES // If you’ve had enough of wine, try one of the Hunter’s best olive groves, Pukara Estate. There’s a tasting room, olive press, a great cafe, and it’s all the in far quieter Upper Hunter region between Denman and Muswellbrook. Oils ain’t oils, sure, but Pukara’s are oils and then some. 1440 Denman Rd, Muswellbrook, (02) 6547 1055, www.pukaraestate.com.au
BECOME A HORSE WHISPERER // If you want to get a bit more in depth than being lugged around a field by some old nag, you can learn the art of horse whispering from Diamond Porter himself. Varied times and prices. (02) 4991 1123, www.diamondportershorsewhispering.com.au
FLY OVER IN A HELICOPTER // Vineyards are pretty enough from the ground, but from the air the ruthless industry of the Hunter is quite spectacular. Row after row after row of soon-to-be-pressed grapes, stretched across the vista. A 15min scenic helicopter flight with Hunter Wine Helicopters takes you across the wine region, as well as the Brokenback Escarpment and the Vintage golf course. From $95 per person, (02) 4991 7352, www.hunterwinehelicopters.com.au
GET ON YOUR BIKE // The fitness-conscious may be interested in staving off the extra tyre from the wine, cheese and chocolate by cycling through area. While this is obviously a terrible plan if stopping off at wineries is the main plan of action for the day, a leisurely 15km guided bike tour only costs $50. Hunter Valley Cycling’s four-hour trip leaves from Hunter Valley Garden Village. (02) 4998 6633
PERFECT YOUR PASTA // Believe it or not, there’s more to pasta making than tipping it out of a packet bought at the supermarket and boiling until virtually inedible. Every weekend at the Sandalyn Estate at Lovedale (above left), Tuscan-style cooking classes are on offer at which novices can discover how to drum up gourmet pasta dishes the traditional way. Group classes cost from $115 with The Olive And The Grape. (02) 4930 7611, www.huntervalleyboutiques.com.au