Lisa Perkovic surveys the Hunter Valley's generous helping of new wine, food and stay options.
Student accommodation looked different in my day. Instead of futon couches, mismatched chairs and instant noodles, the Hunter Valley's newest self-contained accommodation, the Longhouse at Pokolbin, is a chic shed designed by University of Newcastle architecture students.
The stylish building inspired by the region's woolsheds, with three units, is tucked behind the vines at the end of a long driveway. In ours, big barnyard doors slide open to reveal a concrete kitchen bench beneath cool Rockett St George lampshades and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at the vines.
While the vintage Penguin paperbacks, Trivial Pursuit and giant chalkboard wouldn't have been out of place at my student pad, the white leather lounge, freshly stocked fireplace and monsoon showers definitely would have been.
Manager Jo Baker initiated the project, the first for design collaborative egresStudio, during a year off between architecture degrees.
"I decided I wanted to build something rather than work for somebody else because building is a part of architectural education that's really missing," she says.
Originally involving just four friends from the University of Newcastle, the project grew until 70 students from Australia and Europe were involved, working three-week stints on-site and staying in a guesthouse next door.
What sounds like an architectural commune has created a cutting-edge tourism product. The Longhouse is eco-friendly, with solar panels providing about half the electricity. "The sun never touches the glass until quite late in March, so it stays cool, and right through winter the sun creeps into the building," Baker says.
We immediately spread out in one queen bedroom, using its en suite and the other bedroom's en suite as "his and hers" bathrooms. In the morning, we burn more electricity cooking bacon and eggs from the hand-delivered breakfast hamper. We skip the Coco Pops - yes, that classic student meal is included - and eat fresh-cut fruit on the long deck, while kangaroos munch on the grass nearby.
At Keith Tulloch Wine, on the corner of Polbokin's Hermitage and Deasys roads, is the two-bedroom Manager's Quarters apartment.
Finished late last year and decorated in French provincial style, it's a cosy space filled with wrought-iron beds, kitsch Eiffel Tower lamps and gilded mirrors. On the top floor above the new restaurant on site, Muse Kitchen, the rooms are designed for winery members but anyone can check in.
Rain might have muddied this year's vintage but plenty of other developments have ripened in the Hunter Valley. The big names, such as Tempus Two and Scarborough Wine Co., have added tasting rooms, cellar doors and third-party restaurants. At Tempus Two, on the corner of Broke and McDonalds roads in Pokolbin, Goldfish cocktail bar is a reincarnation of the Sydney Kings Cross establishment of the same name. It's surprisingly swish if it's spirits you're after. The popular Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop has a new store on site for Tempus Two wine tasting paired with its cheese range.
Family-run Scarborough Wine Co. has just opened its second cellar door on Pokolbin's Hermitage Road and there are plans to open the second storey to serve antipasti platters from The Beltree Restaurant down the road.
At the winery's quaint vine-covered cottage on nearby Gillards Road, which is still open for tastings, we sample a citrus-heavy White Label 2010 semillon that winemaker Ian Scarborough tells us to store. "We want people to start storing the whites like they would a red," he says.
The Hunter's newest wine label, Wynwood Estate, is the pet project of sixth-generation Hunter vigneron Lance Mikisch, Lindeman's-trained Chris Staples and local industry expert Desly Harris. Their Grey Gum range, including a rose, moscato and chardonnay, is made for affordable, everyday drinking, while a special reserve range made from the oldest grapes on the property is coming soon.
"We want to bring history back to the Hunter," Harris says. "This used to be a hub for the locals in the '70s, when Robert Molines ran Happy Valley Restaurant and the Saxonville winemakers were here. We'll be making traditional Hunter wines and opening a restaurant later in the year."
On the ground floor below the Manager's Quarters at Keith Tulloch's winery, Muse Kitchen is the latest project by Megan and Troy Rhoades-Brown. Known for serving fresh, seasonal food with finesse at nearby Muse Restaurant and Cafe at Hungerford Hill, they have expanded with this new French bistro-style brunch-and-lunch spot.
French dishes such as pork hock croque monsieur and ocean trout baguette are on the menu, but most of the produce is local and herbs and vegetables, such as zucchinis, peas and dill, are picked from the couple's own patch.
We arrive too late for lunch, so head across the manicured lawn to Keith Tulloch's tasting rooms.
The Tullochs serve Binnorie Dairy cheese (made down the road) with their tastings, but there are plans for appointment-only food-and-wine sessions from Muse Kitchen. We sprawl on couches on the balcony overlooking the vines, lingering on a 2009 The Kester shiraz Keith Tulloch calls his "homage to the hermitage", and a creamy Binnorie Dairy dill-infused chevre.
At Lindeman's Ben Ean cellar door, 15 minutes down Broke Road then on to McDonalds Road, the new 1843 Harvest Cafe is committed to the "100-mile" food philosophy - sourcing food within 160 kilometres - and is the only spot where you can try the Eliza's Ten range of wine, named after the Lindeman family matriarch and her 10 children. We drop in for crunchy wood-fired chorizo pizza.
Back on Broke Road, about 10 minutes away, Tower Estate's Roberts Restaurant has long had a reputation for superb fine dining, since the days when Robert Molines was in the kitchen. It's seen an influx of Sydney diners since the arrival of former Jonah's chef George Francisco eight months ago.
Famous for serving decadent lunches from Jonah's jaw-dropping spot above Whale Beach on Sydney's northern beaches, Francisco has traded coast for country, transforming the site's gardens, orchard and even the abandoned muscat grapes into sources for new seasonal dishes, such as veal cheeks marinated in the estate's top pinot and a deboned pig's trotter stuffed with garden herbs. He's made a lot of changes to the menu, with more to come now he's fixed the wood-fired oven. "It was broken for six years and took us a while to repair but we've finally got it going," he says. "We're using it to braise meats and smoke bacon. Baking the sourdough is next."
Francisco plans to show the new menu with a Grand Chef Series of degustation dinners in the heritage-listed cottage.
While the Hunter's drinking and dining traditionally happened during the day, there is now opera, jazz and rock concerts in the vines at night. For those with a sweet tooth, there's a new after-dinner destination. Sabor in the Hunter is located in Lovedale, 20 minutes north of Pokolbin, and is the region's first dessert bar.
Serving ice-cream, cakes and chocolates with local dessert wines, ports and liqueurs, it's open until 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays and during the day on Sunday and Mondays.
Antipasti plates and light meals are served alongside decadent desserts. The most popular is Ecuadorian tres - a dark-chocolate mousse served with raspberry lemon cream and a glass of Piggs Peake Suckling Pig shiraz.
The new Hunter Valley iPhone and iPad apps are free and provide interactive maps, directories and personalised itineraries. Choose from "educated palate", "food fanatic", "city slicker" or "trusty friend" personalities. The GPS mapping service will make navigating easier. Many of the region's properties don't have numbers and are listed by name and road only, problematic when the roads run through several towns.
The Longhouse is at 385 Palmers Lane, Pokolbin. A two-bedroom unit costs from $325 a night midweek and $599 a night at weekends. Phone (02) 4998 7404; see thelonghouse.net.au.
The Manager's Quarters at Keith Tulloch Wine, Hermitage Road, Pokolbin, costs $820 for two nights (minimum stay) at weekends and $280 a night midweek. Phone (02) 4998 7500; see keithtullochwine.com.au.
Goldfish bar and Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop, Tempus Two, corner Broke and McDonalds roads, Pokolbin. Phone
(02) 4993 3999; see tempustwo.com.au.
Scarborough Wine Co., Hermitage Road (corner Deasys Road), Pokolbin. Open Thursday to Monday 10am-5pm. Phone (02) 4998 6538; see scarboroughwine.com.au.
Wynwood Estate, 310 Oakey Creek
Road, Pokolbin. Phone (02) 4998 7885; see wynwoodestate.com.au.
Muse Kitchen, Keith Tulloch Wine, Hermitage Road, Pokolbin. Phone (02) 4998 7899; see musedining.com.au.
1843 Harvest Cafe, Lindeman's Estate Ben Ean cellar door, McDonalds Road, Pokolbin. Open seven days. See lindemans.com.au.
Roberts Restaurant, Tower Estate Winery, Halls Road, Pokolbin. Phone (02) 4998 7330; see www.towerestatewines.com.au.
Sabor in the Hunter, 319 Wilderness Road, Lovedale (next to the historic Gillies Bridge); open Friday and Saturday 10am-10pm, Sunday 10am-6pm, Monday 10am-4pm. Phone 1300 958 850; see saborinthehunter.com.au.
Hunter Valley apps From the iTunes App Store and winecountry.com.au/plan/apps.