If adults had a Disneyland, this could be it.
Australia’s Hunter Valley is a premier playground for gourmands and sensualists. The region is naturally beautiful, nestled in the foothills of the Brokenback Range and lapped by cooling breezes from the coast. It’s also a pivotal player in the history of Australian winemaking, often hailed as the birthplace of the entire industry.
Vines have grown here since the early 1800s. Today their perfect rows offer a rejuvenating escape from stressful city life and an opportunity to experience Australia’s oldest wine growing region. At just a two hour’s drive from Sydney, it’s an easy jaunt for anyone looking to leave the urban rat race behind, and there are plenty of Hunter Valley wine tours to ensure the journey is as smooth as a fine… well, you know.
Pack your bags for a road trip fit for Bacchus.
Setting The Scene
The winemaking history of Hunter Valley can be traced back to the earliest European settlements of New South Wales. The region quickly became a valuable source for timber and coal, and grapevines were planted soon after. While earlier plantings in coastal areas perished due to humidity and wetness, those in the Hunter Valley flourished.
Vineyards began to crop up in the 1820s and 1830s, including James Busby’s Kirkton and George Wyndham’s Wyndham Estate, vastly expanding the territory used for grape growing. By the middle of the century, wines from the Hunter Valley had garnered international acclaim and today it is one of the country’s most recognisable regions.
But that’s not all this corner of NSW has to offer. Foodies will find much to love about Hunter Valley, as well as budding chefs, adventure seekers, and anyone in need of time to unwind. Here’s what you should do when you visit.
Let’s get this one out of the way first: if you’ve made the pilgrimage to Hunter Valley, you want to drink. You won’t run short on options if you’re looking for professional Hunter Valley wine tours, but the region is accessible enough to visit on your own if you’re the independent type.
Tours are typically either one-day affairs or two days with an overnight. Many offer the option of being picked up in Sydney so you don’t have to arrange transportation. Wine tasting obviously tops the itinerary, but for the full experience, look for other included activities like behind the scenes winemaking tours, walks through the vineyards, meals, and a visit to the Hunter Valley Village.
If you prefer to explore on your own, brush up on the vineyards before your arrival. Hunter Valley is home to more than 100 wineries, many of which operate a cellar door policy that allows visitors to simply turn up and taste without a tour group. Be sure to try the Sémillon, Hunter Valley’s most famous varietal, along with the Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Verdelho.
Between bottles, don’t forget to sample some of Hunter Valley’s edible fare. Local chefs make the most of the region’s produce to create inspiring seasonal menus, and the scenery makes the meals all the more appetising. Dine alfresco in full view of the Brokenback Mountains and rolling vineyards at one of the wineries’ in-house restaurants.
Other local favourites you may want to try include Muse and its sister restaurant Muse Kitchen, Amanda’s on the Edge, Restaurant Botanica, Circa 1876, Bistro Molines, Esca, Shakey Tables, and Cafe Enzo.
Or perhaps you fancy yourself a secret chef. If you’re a whiz in the kitchen, visit Hunter Valley’s weekend farmers markets for the freshest local produce in the area. Your options include Handmade In The Hunter Markets, the Denman Farmers & Artisans Market, Maitland Markets, and the Dungog Local Growers Stall.
Take advantage of the valley’s multitude of food and wine experts by learning from the best. At the Hunter Valley Cooking School and Majors Lane Cooking School, you can learn to whip up something worthy of Bourdain in hands-on classes that use local organic produce. There’s even a candymaking class if you have a sweet tooth.
To beef up your wine knowledge, visit the Hunter Valley Wine School. The cellarmaster will school you on the history of winemaking and teach you how wine is produced from the grape to the bottle. You’ll also learn how grape varieties differ and how to examine the bouquet, taste, and colour of wine.
If you think vineyards are beautiful from the ground, imagine how they look from the air. Adrenaline junkies can experience the Hunter Valley from the sky with a tandem skydive, while those who prefer a more leisurely pace can opt for a hot air balloon ride. There are also helicopter tours for the ultimate splurge-y bird’s eye view.
There are few pairings as famous as wine and cheese, and the Hunter Valley’s dairy products don’t disappoint. Drop by the Hunter Valley Cheese Factory to sample and buy handmade cow and goat milk cheeses produced onsite, including fromage blanc, feta, brie, washed rind, natural rind, cheddar, tommes, and blue vein.
The Smelly Cheese Shop also offers an excellent range of local and imported cheeses that can be enjoyed at home or at its in-house café. Don’t let the name put you off.
The Hunter Valley is host to a variety of festivals and events throughout the year. The Hunter Valley Wine and Food Festival is one of the largest and most famous – so big, in fact, that this year it’s set to run for two straight months. The much-anticipated annual event showcases the region’s diverse wine and food culture with tastings, tours, classes, and other themed activities.
Another popular event is the Lovedale Long Lunch, a two-day wine and food extravaganza that takes the form of a progressive lunch. Each year, a decadent line up of the Hunter Valley’s leading chefs team up with seven of Lovedale’s finest wineries and local entertainment for a full weekend of foodie fun.
After gorging on so much food and wine goodness, you may be inclined to burn a calorie or two. The Hunter region has you covered, with opportunities for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and golfing.
Nearby national parks include Werakata National Park (home to Astills Trail and the ominously named Deadmans Loop for mountain bikers) and Yengo National Park. A mix of championship and nine-hole golf courses cater to players of all levels. Horseback tours and carriage rides come courtesy of several local companies.
If none of those options are hardcore enough for your nerves of steel, visit Sideways Action RallySchool to take a turn behind the wheel of a rally car with a professional coach by your side. You may not burn a tonne of calories, but you’ll certainly sweat out some water weight.
After a weekend of excitement, it’s time to unwind. Check into one of Hunter Valley’s many day spas for a soothing treatment to put mind and body at rest. Top options include the spa at Château Élan and Spa Elysia at Golden Door Health Retreat, one of Australia’s most renowned health and wellness destinations.