On June 4, 1783, a silk and paper balloon inflated by hot air and attached to a wicker basket carrying a sheep, a duck and a rooster was launched by French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, with the impressive new aircraft staying aloft for 10 minutes.
As experiments continued and hot air balloons began carrying humans rather than livestock, so the pilots presented a bottle of champagne to pitchfork-wielding farmers whose fields they landed in, convincing them they were not beings from the heavens and appeasing them for disturbing their animals.
So began a tradition indelibly associated with hot air ballooning – toasting a successful flight with a champagne breakfast.
As for the farmers and cows, I'm not sure which is more excited by the appearance of our colourful aircraft over the vineyards of Mudgee: while the bovines trot after our shadow with curiosity, a farmer's young son screams across a dusty paddock on his motorbike to witness the balloon landing, thrilled beyond measure to be part of such a spectacle.
Located 268 kilometres northwest of Sydney, the charming country town of Mudgee, meaning "nest in the hills" in the Wiradjuri language, is fast becoming one of the most popular weekend getaways for foodies and wine lovers, with around 40 cellar doors within easy driving (or cycling) distance from the traffic-light-free town.
While the region has been producing quality wines, particularly robust reds and chardonnays, since 1858, it is only in recent years that it has become associated with gourmet produce.
It was voted the Number One Food Destination in Australia by booking.com in 2017 and now a farm-gate trail complements the wine experience, with tastings of cheese, olive oil, honey and fruits such as pomegranates and cherries in season.
Leading restaurants, such as the one-hatted The Zin House at Lowe vineyard, Pipeclay Pumphouse at Robert Stein Winery and the innovative degustation menu at Blue Wren Wines Chef's Kitchen all contribute to an exciting gastronomic landscape.
Meanwhile, the township boasts a surprising variety of cafes, wine bars and restaurants, including the delightful Alby & Esters, tucked into a grapevine-covered brick courtyard dating to 1873 and serving share plates featuring regional, seasonal produce.
A relatively new addition to Mudgee's beverage scene is Baker Williams Distillery, using local botanicals, lemons and other citrus fruits to produce a range of delicious gins, limoncellos and schnapps. Try walking away from here with just one bottle!
Unlike the Hunter Valley, Mudgee is not really feasible as a day trip from Sydney. At least one night's stay is recommended, allowing visitors to take in half a dozen or so cellar doors, enjoy the town's restaurants and cafes and relax in accommodation ranging from hotels to bed and breakfasts and farm stays.
Belying its rustic name, The Farmhouse at Blue Wren Wines offers a slick, contemporary ambience with five bedrooms, a communal lounge room furnished in chrome and leather and an oversized boardroom table making it suitable for large family groups or as a business retreat.
Blue Wren is also conveniently the launch site for our dawn balloon flight. All we have to do is step outside The Farmhouse door to discover our giant aircraft slowly rising to life.
With just one flight a month setting off from Mudgee, Balloon Aloft's one-hour tours are still a novelty in the region, so much so that my friend and I are the only out-of-towners with our fellow passengers all locals.
A shy young shearer from Dunedoo admits he was a last-minute "ring-in", his mate having bought the flight for a date-gone-wrong. Other couples are celebrating special occasions or simply relishing the opportunity to see their local area from a bird's-eye perspective.
With perfect, overcast conditions and a gentle breeze of just six knots, our journey above neat rows of grapes and manicured farmland is silently mesmerising, a waterfall of golden rays breaking through cloud at sunrise illuminating the surrounding hillsides. We float where the wind takes us, dipping over trees and creeks, then rising again as the gas burners are released, the resulting roar sending sheep skittling in panic below.
There's something about ballooning that defies logic. Only a thin bubble of nylon, a flimsy wicker basket and some hot air keep us afloat, but somehow this gentle form of transport feels safer than motorised alternatives.
Landing, of course, offers its share of bumps and squeals, with the final reward that promised champagne breakfast back at Blue Wren Wines. Cheers to the perfect start of an indulgent weekend!
The writer was a guest of Blue Wren Wines and Balloon Aloft.
Mudgee is a 3.5-hour drive from Sydney, via the Blue Mountains.
There are five double rooms in The Farmhouse at Blue Wren, starting from $167 a night. Entire house from $800 a night. See bluewrenwines.com.au
One-hour balloon flight from $299 a person. See balloonaloft.com.au