Hunter Valley, NSW: Australia's oldest, most underrated wine region is on Sydney's doorstep

"It was terrifying," says Abby Crawford, marketing manager at Winmark Wines. "We could see the fires coming down the hill towards us." Winmark was one of many Hunter Valley wineries that lost its entire 2020 vintage to smoke taint. Having already endured three years of drought, the bushfires in late 2019 must have felt like the final straw. And then, of course, came COVID-19.

When restrictions in NSW finally eased in June last year and people started travelling again, the Hunter faced a more familiar challenge: the surprising indifference of many Sydneysiders to the world-class wine region on their doorstep. Many bypassed it in favour of what are perceived as the cooler wine destinations such as Orange and Mudgee.

Perhaps it's the region's proximity to Sydney (two hours on a good day) that encourages this sense of familiarity. Or maybe it's the blurry memories of boozy bus tours in our youth.

Whatever the reason, it's easy to overlook the Hunter's impressive credentials. These include the fact that not only is it Australia's oldest wine region (the first vines were planted in the early 1820s) but it also has the highest number of cellar doors (more than 150).

Despite producing less than half a per cent of the country's wine, its flagship varietals are world-renowned. British wine writer Jancis Robinson famously described Hunter semillon as "Australia's unique gift to the wine world".

Bright and citrusy when first picked, it ages graciously in the bottle, developing mellow honey and brioche characteristics. Hunter shiraz also has a trademark style, medium bodied with a fruity sweetness. And let's not forget chardonnay, the region's most ubiquitous varietal, which comes in a range of styles, from clean, crisp peachy numbers to rich, buttery and oak-infused.

While the Hunter is best known for these seminal grapes, a new breed of maverick winemakers is experimenting with lesser-known vines and innovative techniques.

"The Hunter is steeped in tradition," says Richie Harkham, the exuberant 41-year-old owner and winemaker at Harkham Wines at Pokolbin, "but we decided to go against the grain."

Harkham sources hand-picked fruit from sustainably farmed vineyards, then takes a minimalist intervention approach to produce unfiltered, sulphite-free, kosher wines. "We don't f--k with it," he says. "We just ride the wave of nature."

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At Vinden Wines, second-generation winemaker Angus Vinden is producing Australia's first sparkling Alicante Bouschet rosé plus a "farmers' wine" piquette made by rehydrating grape skins. For Vinden, it's all about "respecting the tradition" but also "challenging the status quo".

His experimental Headcase range includes a tempranillo that is wild fermented in open concrete tanks and a light, perfumed shiraz nouveau that tastes like a pinot. At Whispering Brook, you'll find an intriguing range of Portuguese varietals, including arinto and touriga nacional, while Scott Comyns at Comyns & Co is the Hunter's only winemaker producing a sparkling gruner veltliner.

Visit any of these wineries and there's a good chance you'll meet the winemaker. Even at the larger, more commercial cellar doors, the tasting experience on a busy weekend is no longer the four-deep-at-the-bar tourist crush it was in the past. COVID-19 forced wineries to introduce booking systems and seated tastings and many intend to keep these measures.

"It's a better experience for the customer," says Glen Fox, cellar door manager at Whispering Brook. "And it means we can plan and order supplies in advance."

One area in which the Hunter has consistently over-delivered is as a culinary destination. Restaurants such as Muse, Bistro Molines, Margan and Restaurant Botanica are worth the drive from Sydney alone. All four are enthusiastic supporters of regional produce and three were awarded 2020 Good Food Guide hats.

While food and wine are the Hunter's most championed drawcards, the region also boasts distilleries, breweries, health retreats, family attractions and activities from horse-riding and hot air ballooning to bushwalking and golf. It's a reminder not only of the destination's broad appeal, but also that it's constantly evolving.

So, if the Hunter is somewhere you feel you've "been there, done that", here is a selection of innovative offerings (and not all confined to wine), recently tried and tasted by Traveller, that may well entice you back.

THE MAVERICK WINEMAKER

Richie Harkham of Harkham Wines

Richie Harkham of Harkham Wines Photo: Daniel Honan

TELL ME MORE As the winemaker at family-owned Harkham Wines, Richie Harkham is on a mission to make high-quality, preservative-free wines.

WHY WE LOVE IT Harkham only uses the best-quality hand-picked grapes and takes a hands-off, minimalist intervention approach in the winery. The result? Cloudy, unfiltered, preservative-free wines that uniquely express the local terroir. Taste Harkham's award-winning chardonnays, shirazes and semillons at its funky, neon-lit cellar door. Buy a bottle of the Hark Angel Shiraz and you'll be helping to fund one of the brand's charitable endeavours, including building schools in Africa and Myanmar.

DON'T MISS Their life-changing chocolate wine liqueur, a decadent brandy-based mix of chocolate, hazelnut and coconut.

ESSENTIALS 266 Debeyers Road, Pokolbin, NSW. Open Friday, 12pm to 5pm; Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Sunday, 10am to 4pm. Tastings on Saturday cost $5. See harkhamwine.com.au

THE DESTINATION WINERY

TELL ME MORE Nestled at the foot of a soaring sandstone escarpment in Broke, Winmark Wines champions chardonnay and art on a sprawling 53-hectare estate.

WHY WE LOVE IT After buying the vineyard in 2016, Danish art-lover Karin Adcock has spent the last five years transforming it into an immersive, multi-dimensional wine and art experience. The grounds contain 11 large-scale sculptures (including the striking steel installation Biosis by David Ball), a manicured rose garden by acclaimed landscape architect Paul Bangay and a recently-opened gallery promoting Australian artists. Taste the winery's two exquisite chardonnays at its intimate cellar door.

DON'T MISS Pooles Rock, a colossal boulder containing a hollow in which English convict Richard Poole is said to have stayed.

ESSENTIALS 229 Wollombi Road, Broke, NSW. Cellar door and art gallery open Monday to Thursday, 11am to 4pm; Friday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Free tastings. See winmarkwines.com.au

THE HATTED RESTAURANT

TELL ME MORE Located in the tranquil, less-visited subregion of Broke Fordwich, Margan is an elegant European-style winery and award-winning fine-dining restaurant.

WHY WE LOVE IT Lisa and Andrew Margan are credited with pioneering "agri-dining" in the Hunter. Ninety per cent of the produce used in Margan's hatted restaurant comes from its one-hectare organic kitchen garden and the winery showcases drought-resistant Mediterranean varietals such as barbera, tempranillo and albarino.

DON'T MISS The Twilight dining experience, which starts with a guided tour of the garden and vineyards before moving into the winery for a tasting straight from the vats. Finish with a sumptuous five-course tasting menu with matching Margan wines in the property's swish onsite restaurant.

ESSENTIALS 1238 Milbrodale Road, Broke, NSW. Cellar door open daily, 10am to 5pm. Tastings cost $10. Restaurant open for lunch from Friday to Sunday and dinner on Friday and Saturday. See margan.com.au

THE GROUND-BREAKING DISTILLER

TELL ME MORE Opened in November 2019, family-run Pokolbin Distillery makes delicious small-batch gins, vodkas and liqueurs.

WHY WE LOVE IT Third-generation distiller Joe Slupik has combined his family's Polish heritage with native Australian botanicals to produce an intriguing range of spirits and liqueurs, all made onsite in small batch copper stills. Sample a selection in the distillery's sleek tasting room, which features reclaimed timber, copper benchtops and an impressive 30-metre mural of two threatened local bird species by artist Thomas Jackson.

DON'T MISS The company's bestseller, the tropical-tasting Blue Island Gin, which changes from a deep mauve to a blush pink when mixed with tonic. And the adorable bespoke teeny tasting glasses.

ESSENTIALS 2198 Broke Road, Pokolbin, NSW. Open Friday, 11am to 5pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 5pm; Monday, 11am to 4pm. Tastings cost $10. See pokolbindistillery.com.au

THE PIONEERING ART GALLERY

Watershed Gallery

TELL ME MORE Watershed Gallery is an intimate, welcoming space dedicated to promoting Australian contemporary art.

WHY WE LOVE IT Former Sydneysiders Ron and Lyn Hammond fell in love with the Hunter during their many visits over the years but noticed it lacked one thing: a serious art gallery. In 2019, they rectified that, opening Watershed Gallery on what was previously a muddy paddock. The bright, airy venue showcases Lyn's work alongside other career artists, including locals such as self-taught realist painter Phil Drummond and Australian wildlife specialist Ebony Bennett.

DON'T MISS Lyn's spectacular Fire and Landscape series, which include fantastical depictions of raging infernos and haunting polar panoramas.

ESSENTIALS 621 McDonalds Road, Pokolbin, NSW. Open Friday to Monday, 10:30am to 4:30pm. See watershedgallery.com.au

THE VINEYARD ACCOMMODATION

Tinonee Vineyard Estate cellar door.

Photo: DC Creative

TELL ME MORE Tinonee Vineyard Estate is a boutique winery in Broke with two exclusive accommodation offerings – an intimate two-bedroom timber cottage and a sprawling six-bedroom mansion.

WHY WE LOVE IT Couples looking for a romantic retreat will adore the cosy confines of The Cottage, while groups and extended families can run amok in The Residence. Both are beautifully furnished with gas log fires and well-equipped kitchens (The Residence also has a pool), and all guests receive a complimentary wine tasting and cheese platter at the estate's elegant cellar door.

DON'T MISS A private in-residence dinner by Boyd & Co catering, aka local husband and wife team Thomas and Eliza Boyd, who met in London while working at the two Michelin-starred restaurant The Ledbury.

ESSENTIALS 1273 Milbrodale Road, Broke, NSW. Cellar door open Friday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Tastings cost $10. Rates at The Cottage start at $380 per night (min two-night stay). See tinoneevineyardestate.com.au

THE DETOUR-WORTHY CELLAR DOOR

TELL ME MORE Located 45 minutes east of Pokolbin, Boydell's is the only cellar door in the historic river port town of Morpeth.

WHY WE LOVE IT Housed in a timber-framed building dating back to the 1820s, Boydell's rustic cellar door and restaurant is a gloriously relaxed setting in which to sample its award-winning wines. Verdelho is the star of the show here, with four variants, including a sparkling and a fortified. Looking for an unusual accommodation option? Check out the winery's impressive African safari-style tent on its vineyard in East Gresford, near Barrington Tops National Park.

DON'T MISS Lunch or dinner at the cellar door's restaurant. Don't be fooled by the modest surroundings, the food is sublime and beautifully presented.

ESSENTIALS 2 Green Street, Morpeth, NSW. Cellar door open Wednesday to Sunday, 10:30am to 5:30pm. Free tastings. Restaurant open Wednesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner. See boydells.com.au

THE WINE PLAYGROUND

The graze experience at Wine House

The graze experience at Wine House.

TELL ME MORE Wine House Hunter Valley is an innovative tasting hub where you can sample more than 40 wines from 20 different wineries.

WHY WE LOVE IT Given the region's bewildering number of cellar doors, the ability to try a variety of wines under one roof can save you a lot of time and effort. Once you've figured out what you like, the centre's knowledgeable staff can recommend specific wineries to visit. We particularly like the Icon Wine Journey package, where you can use a pre-charged tasting card to self-serve premium offerings such as De Iuliis' gold medal-winning 2017 shiraz.

DON'T MISS The Cocoa Nib Chocolate and Wine Tasting experience, which pairs four delicious handmade Cocoa Nib chocolates with four premium Hunter wines.

ESSENTIALS 426 McDonalds Road, Pokolbin, NSW. Open daily, 11am to 5pm. Tasting experiences start from $10 per person. See winehousehuntervalley.com.au

Rob McFarland visited as a guest of Destination NSW (visitnsw.com) and Hunter Valley Wine & Tourism Association (winecountry.com.au).

BEYOND THE VINES: FIVE THINGS TO DO

DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES

A perennial family-favourite, Hunter Valley Gardens comprises 10 themed gardens containing more than 6000 trees and eight kilometres of trails. Look out for special events, such as the annual Mega Creatures dinosaur display (on now until April 25). See huntervalleygardens.com.au

SOAR ABOVE THE VINES

Serenely glide above the region's farms and vineyards on a sunrise hot air balloon flight with local specialist Balloon Aloft, then celebrate back on terra firma with a champagne breakfast at Peterson House winery. See balloonaloft.com

GET IN THE SWING

Golfers can get their green fix at several championship courses in the region, including Cypress Lakes, Hunter Valley Golf and a Greg Norman-designed course at Chateau Elan. See cypresslakes.com.au; crowneplazahuntervalley.com.au; chateauelan.com.au

FEEL THE KNEAD

Spa lovers are similarly spoilt for choice with everything from swanky health resorts like Elysia to intimate day retreats such as Spa Anise at Spicers. You can even get a Hawaiian-style lomi lomi massage at the Mercure Resort from Heavenly Hunter Massage. See elysiaretreat.com.au; spicersretreats.com; heavenlyhunter.com.au

WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

Need to burn off some of that wine and food? Beyond the vineyards, the region is blessed with a profusion of national parks, including Yengo, Barrington Tops, Watagans and Wollemi, all of which offer a variety of calorie-bashing bushwalks and make for a perfect side-trip or add-on. See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au

VINTAGE CROP: FIVE MUST-VISIT HUNTER VALLEY CLASSICS

TYRRELL'S

Five generations of Tyrrells have steered this family-owned winery to international acclaim. Visit its unassuming hilltop cellar door to see the vineyard responsible for Australia's most awarded white wine, Tyrrell's Vat 1 semillon. See tyrrells.com.au

BROKENWOOD

Home to the Hunter's biggest and swishest cellar door, Brokenwood has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1970. The impressive $8 million complex includes striking circular tasting pods, a wine museum and two restaurants. See brokenwood.com.au

MOUNT PLEASANT

Established in 1921 by visionary winemaker Maurice O'Shea, Mount Pleasant celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Splash out on a premium tasting to sample the winery's acclaimed Lovedale Semillon, made from vines planted by O'Shea in 1946. See mountpleasantwines.com.au

AUDREY WILKINSON

Arguably the Hunter's most scenic cellar door, Audrey Wilkinson's colonial-style tasting room enjoys sweeping 360-degree views from its elevated position in the foothills of the Brokenback Mountain Range. See audreywilkinson.com.au

BISTRO MOLINES

A pocket of Provence in the heart of the Hunter. Relax among the wisteria on the paved courtyard of this buzzy bistro and enjoy upscale French cuisine from revered chef Robert Molines with a side serving of glorious vineyard views. See bistromolines.com.au

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