Hidden Hunter

Hidden Hunter

While the Hunter might be home to some of Australia’s most famous winemaking names, GO Magazine discovers that venturing off the beaten track reveals some lesser known yet equally enticing treats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published GO Magazine Autumn/Winter 2011

It all started with a Doctor named Jurd and a desire to taste his infamous Jungle Juice. To partake of this intriguing mix of port, brandy and wine it was necessary to visit a little tavern in Wollombi. Given that Wollombi, from Newcastle, is a 77km winding scenic drive with sweeping rural views, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to pack up the car for a weekend of exploring the less frequented pockets of the Hunter Valley.

About half way between Cessnock and Wollombi you come to Greta Main. From here the beauty of the landscape starts to grow, as do the number of signs asking motorcyclists to take care. It was no surprise then that a colourful row of motorbikes greeted me at Wollombi Tavern.

Taking a break from the road, the riders, along with their car-driving compatriots, were enjoying a drink and a bite to eat in the tavern’s kitchen or outside overlooking the Wollombi Brook Creek. Others were taking advantage of the free barbecues. For this visitor though, the focus was singular and it was waiting behind the bar in a clingfilm-covered plastic jug.

“A taste of Jungle Juice, please.”

One sip of the tasting cup was enough to get the gist of this legendary drop – sweet syrupy port followed by a potent hit of spirit – the kind that ends with an expulsion of air and an involuntary shake of the head. Although it’s not likely to become a regular on my drinks shelf, I picked up a small sampler bottle for $6.50. Inside the bag was an information sheet. On one side there was a list of serving suggestions including my favourite, the “Lady Special” of Jungle Juice, Moselle, lemonade and ice. The other side told a cautionary tale in poem form of “a city traveller, a toff just passing by” who partook of too much Juice, backed his car into a tree and was shipped off “to wander round a mental home in a happy, blissful state.”

Although I’d only had a very small sample, it felt wise to take heed of the poem’s warning and seek out some lunch. Besides the tavern, Wollombi offers a great choice of places to eat including Café Wollombi, Lavender Gate Farm and Panino Gourmet Deli Café and Restaurant. The latter, located at Grays Inn on the main street, was my choice and their Gorgonzola pizza was delicious. What’s more, the verandah was the perfect spot to soak up the village vibe, including the comings and goings at the bazaars and the intrigued tourists photographing the many historic buildings. From the grand sandstone of St Michael’s Church and the old Post Office – now a private house – to the rickety-looking timber tavern, the architecture of this historic town has been kept true to its original state and the locals make a huge effort to preserve it.

However, it is the inherent friendliness of the locals that gives Wollombi its authentic charm. Chatting with Bruno Giagu, the proprietor of Panino, I was soon joined by a band of cordial locals including Graham Kinnear, a retired engineer and bush firey who raved about his hometown: “It’s great living here – everybody looks out for everybody else.” Bruno, a stylish Italian and successful fashion magazine publisher, also retired to the valley but soon found that he needed to keep busy. So he took on the role of village barista and promoter of objet d’art in his cosy café.

Pushing for more historical information I was directed to Steve Sullivan who runs the General Store two doors down from the café. Before we knew it, Steve had his old photos and maps out, explaining how Wollombi had been created to accommodate the convict workforce that was building the Great North Road.

“Originally there were five or six pubs to accommodate a thirsty population of almost 4000. Now that has dropped to around 400 it only has the need for the one,” Steve explained. The tavern remains at the heart of the community due, in part, to the fact that it’s one of the few places with an internet signal and is subsequently known by many as “The Office”.

Steve also tells me about Mulla Villa, the old convict-built house just out of the town towards Laguna. Built in the 1840 for the Dunlop family, it has been lovingly restored by Caroline Maul and her late husband and is now maintained as a guest house by Caroline and her mother, complete with the original convict cells underneath.

With village events, markets and fairs happening regularly throughout the year, this is a great spot to base yourself while you explore the wider Hunter Valley. These days, a lot of the village’s visitors are drawn by the Wollombi Valley Wine Trail and I too was keen to explore some of the local vinous offerings. However, before the liquid lure took over, the locals had insisted that a visit to the area wasn’t complete without a drive up to the Finchley Viewing Platform. Heading south from the tavern, the road takes you through Laguna to Yengo National Park, part of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area. Home to several sites of historic significance to the local Aborigines, Yengo is full of fascinating walks but if you want to go for the “wow” factor, the sweeping panoramic views from Finchley are truly superb and take in the flat-topped Mount Yengo.

If you decide to stay in the Wollombi area for the night it’s worth calling in at the Laguna Wine Bar, Café and General Store, a laid-back local haunt where they claim, “If you haven’t got a story to tell when you arrive, you’ll have one to recount by the time you leave!” As well as pasta and pizza nights, “Luggas” as it’s locally known, has live music several nights a week as well as “theology in the pub” every second Sunday.

But back to that quest for local drops. Just beyond the Wollombi Tavern heading north is Yango Creek Road on which you’ll find Undercliff Winery and Gallery. In my opinion, the first sign of a hospitable cellar door is a wagging tail and Undercliff’s resident border collie, Tannin, put on the requisite show. The follow-up welcome was provided by his master, Peter Hamshere, who, along with his wife Jane, is the owner-operator of this boutique operation.

Peter was happy to talk through Undercliff’s wine list which is dominated by the Hunter stalwarts of Semillon and Shiraz. If you’re looking for something a bit different, their rich, full-bodied Chambourcin, citrus-filled Sparkling Semillon and luscious Muscat are highlights. The bottles’ designs are as attractive as their contents, with labels featuring intricate illustrations of mostly local birds.

Undercliff offers accommodation in the Settler’s Cottage built in 1847. With three bedrooms, it sleeps up to six and given its secluded leafy setting, your only company will be the local fauna.

Like Undercliff, Wollombi’s other wineries, including Millbrook Estate, Noyce Brothers, Wollombi Wines and Stonehurst Cedar Creek, are all boutique operations where much of the wine is hand crafted. Some even offer personalised tours if you call to arrange.

As you leave Wollombi, head north on Paynes Crossing Road for another leisurely drive through the pretty surrounds towards Broke. Marketed as “the tranquil side of the Hunter Valley”, Broke continues Wollombi’s theme of boutique producers with a personal touch.

After about 20 minutes you come to Krinklewood Vineyard where the lush, green entrance reveals vineyards where geese waddle through the rows and disco balls hang overhead. That’s right, disco balls! Part of Krinklewood’s environmentally responsible approach to viticulture, both the geese and disco balls play a very important role. The geese, along with sheep and cattle, help to control the weeds and their manure creates a biologically diverse environment. The disco balls have proved effective in frightening off birds after nets, gas guns and even a radar-activated speaker system broadcasting bird distress noises proved futile.

These simple yet efficient weed and pest control methods are part of Krinklewood’s commitment to biodynamics. This is a system of farming which, like organics, dictates that the land should be chemical-free. It is also unique in that followers use special preparations such as 501, a spray made from ground quartz that’s been buried in a cow’s horn over the summer, and they harness the energy of the sun, moon and constellations.

To the layman, biodynamics might sound a bit far-fetched and it’s impossible to relay the complexities in a couple of sentences, but for its proponents it’s seen as the best way to produce a superior product while protecting the environment. For Krinklewood’s owners, Rod and Suzanne Windrim, the decision to convert came from a belief that “it’s better for the environment, better for the people that live and work on the farm and most importantly, the result is a better quality wine.”

Whatever you think of their approach, the proof is in the tasting and the warm, friendly cellar door offers the traditional Hunter varieties alongside some alternative offerings such as a Rosé that’s a blend of Mourvedre, Tempranillo and Shiraz.

If you’re looking to do more tasting when you arrive in the town of Broke, head up Milbrodale Road. There you’ll find the delights of Catherine Vale and Nightingale Wines, as well as Whispering Brook, where they make their own olive oil. Another highlight of this stretch is Margan Wines, which boasts a critically acclaimed restaurant.

If you decide to stay in Broke there are some lovely accommodation choices, from couples-only retreats to houses that sleep up to nine. However, if you want to go for somewhere a bit quirky, you can’t go past Starline Alpacas Farmstay Resort. Offering cottages and suites, this working alpaca farm is a unique spot for families and couples. These cute creatures with their peaceful nature add to the ambience of this picturesque spot and their “fibre” fills the gift shop with ponchos, knitwear and rugs. If you have room in the car there are even alpacas for sale!

If you don’t mind a very early morning start there’s no better way to see this picturesque region than from above. And maintaining the theme of serenity, the ideal way to take in the scenery is from a balloon, floating silently save for the occasional burner blast, through the mist and gliding over landscape unique to this corner of rural paradise. One of the Hunter’s many providers, Balloon Aloft, takes off most days – depending on the weather – from Broke.

Leaving Broke, I was keen to steer clear of the mainstream and explore some more out-of-the-way gems. Heading towards Pokolbin on Broke Road, a left turn about 15km in brings you to Hermitage Road. Although part of Pokolbin, the heart of Wine Country, this stretch is far enough away to offer a sense of discovery. If you’re peckish you can stop at the first winery, James Estate, and sample the Mediterranean-inspired menu at Salsa. Once satiated, it’s just a couple of minutes down the road to Keith Tulloch Wines. Keith, part of the Hunter’s famous Tulloch family, prides himself on quality over quantity, describing his wines as “hand-made with meticulous care.” In his beautifully appointed tasting area you can once again sample why the Hunter does Semillon and Shiraz so well and also try some of his unique Pinot Gris, Viognier, Shiraz Viognier and Botrytis Semillon.

The verandah has sweeping views of the surrounding vineyards. One belongs to the legendary Brian McGuigan so you might even catch sight of him manning his mower. But take care if you’re in the carpark, because apparently he doesn’t like to slow down!

The thing about wine country is that someone has to drive and a lone traveller is therefore limited to a small number of tastings. That’s where you need wineries that offer a little something else to tickle the taste buds. Just up the road from Keith Tulloch you’ll find a complex that includes the Arrowfield Estate Cellar Door, Binnorie Dairy, Brokenback Bar and The Mill Restaurant.

For cheese lovers, the Binnorie Dairy is a must-visit. Specialising in soft cheese, their labna is amazing and their washed rind cheese is a stinky, oozing delight. Other highlights include the marinated fetta, duetto – a blend of creamy marscapone and Gorgonzola – and Brie. The outlet is only small as they mostly do wholesale-to-restaurants, but it’s definitely worth the stop. A word of advice though: If you don’t have an Esky, leave the cheese buying until you’re finished for the day or expect a smelly car!

Next door, the Arrowfield presents a great range of award-winning wines as well as a selection from the Hunter Valley Olive Co including olive oils, balsamic vinegar and dukkah. Delicious!

The producers on Hermitage Road work together to promote the area and you’ll find helpful signs on the way out of each stop to tell you which way to head. The next place you’ll come to is Tintilla Estate, where the olive tree-lined entrance suggests there’s more to taste inside than wines. At the cellar door you’ll find a range of olive oils and olive products including a tempting olive tapenade made from olives, anchovies, capers, lemon juice, Dijon mustard and garlic. They also do a range of vinegars – red wine, caramelised red wine and white wine. Of course, their wines are more than worthy of a tasting and given owners, the Lusbys, were the first in the region to plant Sangiovese, their Rosato di Jupiter Sangiovese is a highlight.

There are plenty more wineries to visit on Hermitage Road including Mistletoe with its sculpture garden and gallery, Iron Bark Hill where accommodation guests can arrange a private tasting and Piggs Peake, where you can taste Sowvignon Blanc, Bushpig Grenache and Oui Oui Oui Barbera. However, the day was drawing to a close.

As one of many Novocastrians who tends to need an international guest to motivate a visit to the vineyards, this weekend was a real eye-opener. While it’s easy to be lured by the big names and fun activities centred around Pokolbin, venture out and you’ll find some talented, welcoming individuals doing some unique things. And this little trip was just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a vibrant region just up the road waiting to be explored.

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