Ute Junker finds a new breed of restaurateurs and vintners is reshaping this winemaking hub.
Adam Ireland is a culinary Superman. Most days, the mild-mannered chef can be found working behind the burners at Twine, the restaurant he opened last year at Wynwood Estate. When the call comes, however, he jumps on a plane to the northern hemisphere where - like Superman shedding his Clark Kent disguise - he assumes his secret identity as chef to the music world's biggest names.
From catering the MTV Awards to knocking up a barbecue for the members of 1990s indie favourites the Stone Roses, Ireland has done it all.
On the day I lunch at Twine, he's just returned from catering for the Chime for Change concert in London, headlined by Beyonce, where he served lunch and dinner for 250 people two days in a row.
It's a smaller crowd for lunch today at Ireland's 70-seat restaurant in one of Pokolbin's quieter roads. The next table is feasting on oyster platters, which feature three raw and three cooked selections (the standouts come with Asian crab salad and with cucumber and chilli sorbet). While I'm savouring my fabulously light chestnut gnocchi, they move on to the mouthwatering cod.
When I ask Ireland - today in Clark Kent mode, glasses on, underpants on the inside - about cooking for the bold face set, he tells of working as head chef for Paul McCartney's American tour, when he had to prepare a vegetarian feast every night.
"When we were playing New York, he came into the kitchen and said, 'Right now, this is the best vegetarian restaurant in New York'," Ireland remembers, visibly chuffed.
A chef like Ireland can work wherever he likes. The fact he has chosen to set up shop in the Hunter Valley says a lot about the quiet revolution taking place in the winegrowing region. A growing band of restaurateurs and winemakers has chosen the valley as the place to pursue their personal visions, opting for small scale rural rather than big and bold.
Among the innovators are the boys at Black Creek Farm. The garrulous Burke brothers, Jacob and Loui, have hospitality in their DNA: their parents run the Leaves and Fishes restaurant in Lovedale.
At Black Creek Farm, their aim is to offer a more casual, chill-out style dining option. Their airy old farmhouse has an alternative, country-hipster vibe: an expansive deck, furniture made of recycled timber and glass, blankets to ward off the winter chill and cruisy beats in the background.
The food is also different, with a menu of share plates that range from homemade pates to barbecued barramundi to a hearty jambalaya.
In nearby Lovedale, Ben Sales is also pursuing a passion: in his case, an addiction to smoking. The culinary variety, that is. Sales creates a range of smoked goods that form the basis of the menu at his twin venues, the casual daytime Smokehouse Cafe and the more grown-up night-time venue, Majors Lane Restaurant.
It's not just sausage and salmon finding their way into the smokehouse (powered, naturally, by grapevine timber). Sales also tosses in bacon, salami, cheese and even octopus.
"If it walks or crawls, we'll have a go at it," he says.
On a sunny afternoon, the Smokehouse Cafe verandah is a perfect place for families. Kids play cricket in the clover-strewn field in front, while parents hoe into platters of prosciutto and bresaola, delicious smoked garlic bread and a mouthwatering salad of smoked tomatoes and feta.
At Sabor in the Hunter, Renata and Fernando Antao are pursuing a sweeter passion. Here, dessert is the only thing on the menu. The Antaos originally ran a Sydney pizzeria, before discovering the most popular thing on the menu was actually Fernando's grandmother's chocolate mousse. Their cafe is a haven for those seeking a sugar fix, offering everything from Turkish delight to banoffee cheesecake to salted caramel mousse.
The local foodies aren't the only ones doing things their way. Their independence is echoed by a new generation of winemakers. In recent years, the Hunter has seen an increasing number of boutique wineries blossom, many of which are giving the area's old guard a run for their money. For anyone interested in exploring the best of the new generation, first stop should be the new cellar door for Lambloch Estate, at the start of Broke Road.
Lambloch's parcel of land is just eight hectares but the acreage formerly belonged to the neighbouring Lake's Folly estate, known for its remarkable red clay soil. The winery's flagship shiraz, The Loch, a rich, earthy wine, is highly rated by connoisseurs: James Halliday gave it a coveted 96 points. However, Lambloch's winemaker, Scott Stevens, doesn't save his firepower for the big guns. The more accessible wines in the range are also superb - the Lambloch shiraz, unusually for a Hunter red, has lovely fruity tones.
Visitors are invited to relax with their wine, curling up on the sofa in front of the fire or wandering onto the verandah to admire the view.
Lambloch also offers visitors a cheese and wine-tasting option, with four wines matched with four cheeses.
Another don't-miss new winery is Leogate Estate. You know you're in the right place when you spot the lions flanking the entrance. This winery is a family affair: more often than not you'll find the owners, Bill and Vicki Widin, working at the cellar door.
Their flagship shiraz, The Basin, is another Halliday favourite, also scoring 96 points, but make sure you also sample some of their chardonnay.
It's not a grape that's grown a lot in the Hunter but Widin is a chardonnay buff - "it's far and away the best grape variety", he says categorically - and winemaker Mark Woods has used his sure hand to deliver an appealing drop.
Earlier this month, the winery opened the doors of its new restaurant, Villa du Pays, where chef Ben Armstrong dishes up French country cuisine and superior steak. Diners can check out the beef dry-aging room before sinking their teeth into a serve of Black Angus.
At the end of the day, the best place to lay your head in the Hunter must be The Longhouse, set amid 10 hectares of vineyard. The most stylish accommodation in the valley takes its inspiration from the traditional Australian wool shed, using materials such as concrete, corrugated iron and reclaimed timber. Step into the long, low building - divided into three two-bedroom units - and you're enveloped by a sense of luxury that contrasts with the rugged exterior.
The Long House is an inspiring project. It was conceived as an opportunity for architecture students to work on a project from conception through to construction, and all profits are used to fund community aid architecture projects.
For those who stay here, however, it's the homey touches that make all the difference: the fully equipped kitchen that invites you to make it a night in, and the complimentary basket of breakfast goodies that means getting up is a treat.
The writer travelled courtesy of Destination NSW.
The Hunter Valley is 150km north of Sydney, about two hours' drive along the F3 freeway.
The Longhouse, 385 Palmers Lane, Pokolbin, thelonghouse.net.au
Black Creek Farm, 803 Old North Road, Rothbury, blackcreekfarm.com.au
Majors Lane Smokehouse, 64 Majors Lane, Lovedale, majorslane.com
Sabor in the Hunter, 319 Wilderness Road, Rothbury, saborinthehunter.com.au
Twine, 310 Oakey Creek Road, Pokolbin, twinerestaurant.com.au
Lambloch Estate, 2342 Broke Road, Pokolbin, lambloch.com
Leogate Cellar Door, 1693 Broke Road, Pokolbin, leogate.com.au