The Hunter, NSW: Time to revisit Australia's oldest wine region

Not to knock Cessnock, a perfectly serviceable, pleasant enough NSW service town, but it's hardly the world's most prestigious gateway to a wine region that, arguably, has long lived in the gnarled, vine-cast shadows of its interstate counterparts.

But in shrinking the world of travel, the pandemic has opened up a range of previously overlooked getaway possibilities right on our doorstep, ripe as harvest-ready grapes for our reconsideration.

As I pass through the prosaic old coalmining town, with its familiar, two dog-legged turns on approach to the main street, I'm ready for a reappraisal of the Hunter Valley, a wine region that, for me at least, has never offered quite the same appeal as the likes of the Barossa and Yarra valleys, or Margaret River.

What better way to go full bottle on the region than to accept an invitation to spend a few midweek nights – sans the weekend day-trippers – at one of the leading retreats in Pokolbin, pretty much the nearest equivalent to a township in the thick of Plonkland?

As a wine tourism destination, the Hunter has for a long time felt a little too touristy and commercial. But in reality, at eight years shy of its bicentenary, it is the oldest wine-growing region in Australia.

In fact, some of the region's vines, such as those at Tyrrell's Wines, having been spared the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out European vineyards in the 19th century, rank among the oldest in the world.

As my vehicle curls up the gravel driveway of my accommodation, Spicers Vineyard Estate, set on a vine-swaddled rise framed by the distant Broken Back Range, my scepticism is vanishing as fast as a mouthful of cab sav at a cellar door.

My room, one of only a dozen at this appealingly private and quiet retreat, is large and luxurious, with an open-plan bedroom and lounge with a fireplace, a spacious granite bathroom with spa tub, plus a courtyard and terrace. Frankly, only a fine Hunter red and some inspired dining are going to prise me away from the gum-shaded eyrie, though I do make a note to utilise the electric bicycles at some point.

Fortunately, in-house Restaurant Botanica is up to the task. It's set in a separate, pavilion-like building overlooking vines and is a short stroll, not pedal, from my room. It's another reminder of how undervalued the region can be – no less than eight Hunter Valley restaurants, four of them hatted, are listed in the 2020 Sydney Morning Herald and Age Good Food Guide. Among those eight are Spicers' own Restaurant Botanica and the Italian-influenced Éremo, located at the larger sister property, Spicers Guesthouse Hunter Valley, down the road.

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The food at both elegant eateries impresses, as do the cocktails. To help compensate for gaps left between tables due to social distancing, the cocktail bar has been shifted to a large table, festooned with bottles, at the centre of the restaurant, where the hotel's general manager-cum-barman mixes the meanest of (hold the red) gin fizzes.

The next morning, I head off for a private tasting at Tyrrell's, which, having been established in 1858, doesn't get any more Hunter or historic. One of the barrel-laden winery buildings, still functioning, was built in 1863 and has an earthen floor, carefully preserved.

As I taste an intimidating selection of Tyrrell's finest, I'm already plotting a return visit to the Hunter. Gosh, I may even give Cessnock another look on the trip home.

Anthony Dennis was a guest of Spicers Vineyard Estate; spicersretreats.com; tyrrells.com.au; visitnsw.com.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale September 27.

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