The Hunter Valley, birthplace to Australian wine, has much to offer tourists, from weekend getaways to concerts, and family activities to fabulous food experiences. For city dwellers, the two-hour drive from Sydney is the perfect driving distance for a weekend away. They can enjoy this beautiful region, with country views of mountain ranges, pasture and forest, wake to the sound of birds and encounter kangaroos grazing within sight of their hotel room.
The Hunter has over 150 wineries and many hatted restaurants. With so much to see and do, a long weekend provides us with a great introduction to the area.
Hunter Valley wineries require cellar door visitors to book and pay for cellar door experiences ahead of time. Though this practice may seem less spontaneous, for the wine tourist, the benefits of personalised one-to-one tastings far outweigh the task of pre-planning. Though it may be tempting to cram many venues into a day, a maximum of three or four wineries in a day is plenty, at least one being a place where you stop for a meal paired with a glass of wine. This allows you to spend time at a winery, enjoy the experience, while still leaving reasons for a return visit.
The Hunter region is also known for its high-end cuisine. There are many hatted restaurants, most offering degustation menus. Food could just as easily be a focus for your trip as wine, or perhaps a balance between the two, with some other activities thrown into the mix, such as historical visits, markets, bushwalking and photography. We chose to dine casually at places such as Twine Restaurant and the Cru Bar at Brokenwood, concentrating on wine as the focus of our trip.
“The Hunter Valley accounts for a small proportion of Australia’s total annual grape crush. However, with its focus on quality over quantity, it consistently produces premium wines. It also plays a significant role in Australia’s winemaking reputation and wine tourism…”- The Ultimate Guide to Hunter Valley Wine, Wine Australia.
Well known for its Chardonnay, Semillon, and Verdelho as well as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, the region grows 30% of Australia’s Semillon. It’s the region’s most iconic wine; a variety that many people know little about. It’s worth stepping out of your comfort zone and away from your favourite variety to try something new. Who knows? You may find a new favourite.
Staying in Pokolbin, we chose to visit wineries which showed us history, interesting viticultural techniques, and growing trends in the industry. Most of the wineries we visited rated in the Top 50 Wineries in Australia.
The Hunter Valley is the oldest wine region in Australia. The first grape vines were planted by 1823, with commercial production beginning soon afterwards and continuing to the present. When pioneer viticulturist James Busby returned from Europe in 1832 bringing vine cuttings with him, he helped establish the Hunter as a wine region. Other vineyard pioneers included George Wyndham, Dr Henry Lindeman, Audrey Wilkinson, Maurice O’Shea (who founded Mt Pleasant in 1921), Murray Tyrrell, and famous wine families like Drayton and Tulloch.
Tyrells Winery is one of the oldest wineries in the valley, winning international and domestic awards throughout their 164 years of operation. Family-owned since 1858, and now sixth generation winemakers, the Tyrells cellar door experience is boutique and steeped in history, held in the tasting room in the old homestead. With only eight visitors at a time hosted for tastings, we receive one on one service and the chance to try award-winning wines. The pinnacle of any Tyrrells experience is tasting wine from one of their six ‘sacred sites’, blocks across four vineyards that are over 100 years old and still producing fruit and growing on their own roots. They represent some of the rarest vines in the world.
No other winery shows off the landscape of the Hunter Valley more spectacularly than Audrey Wilkinson Winery. Set on a hilltop with 360-degree views of the Brokenback Mountain Ranges, we pass through landscaped gardens to enter the cellar door.
Operating since 1866, where once the family lived in tents as their vines were planted, Audrey Wilkinson Winery is now housed in a pristine white homestead. Audrey Wilkinson operated the winery from the 1880s until his death in 1962. A ‘gentleman vigneron’, surprisingly Audrey, his father Frederick and brother Garth were teetotallers. Present owners, the Agnew family, who bought the property in 2004, continue the fine tradition of Audrey Wilkinson Wines.
Of the original founders of Hunter Valley wineries, only descendants of Tyrell and Tulloch are still working in the Hunter. A fourth-generation winemaker, Keith Tulloch, is highly regarded as a winemaker, winning Young Gun of Wine 2021. Keith Tulloch Wine, the first Certified Carbon Neutral vineyard in the Hunter, is ranked in Australia’s Top 50 wineries. Keith and his father, esteemed viticultural researcher Dr Harry Tulloch, were instrumental in revitalising Semillon and Shiraz through their work with historic clones.
Keith worked with Rothbury, was Len Evan’s personal winemaker, and made wine in the Rhône Valley before making wine under his own label since 1998, the wine grown, made and sold by Keith Tulloch Wine in their own family vineyards, the property bought in 2008. Family owned and operated, we experience a very personal tasting and story in this beautiful French villa style boutique winery that focusses on the Hunter Valley’s traditional varieties Semillon, Chardonnay and Shiraz.
“The best wines begin with the best fruit,” Keith tells us. His winemaking philosophy allows the unique character of the grape to shine through, nurturing the terroir of his vineyards through sustainable agri-farming.
Established in 1970, Brokenwood Wines is well-known for its premium wine. Rustic yet iconic in stature, Brokenwood is the largest winery complex, signalling serious investment in the Hunter Valley. Despite its size, Brokenwood is a welcoming venue offering a multitude of experiences for all visitors.
From a range of tastings in pods or in private tasting rooms, to a meal or a glass of wine on Cru Bar’s outdoor terrace looking out over the view, to a visit to the winery’s museum, we are never far from the epicentre of the action, the vats visible to visitors through wall to ceiling glass.
With a long history of winemaking behind it, the Hunter Valley’s excellent vintage of 2014 brought a new wave of attention to the Hunter Valley wine industry. A new breed of winemakers emerged using new techniques of minimal intervention winemaking of preservative free wines. They focussed not only on Semillon, but also on alternative varietals that were more suited to varying climatic conditions.
2022’s Cellar Door of the Year was De Iuliis Wines. Grounded in tradition, sustainability is foremost to Chief Winemaker Mike De Iuliis. Mike notes that, “…we are committed to our ongoing sustainability journey and always open to new innovations.”
By choosing to grow a mixture of iconic Hunter varieties such as their trophy-winning Shiraz, as well as alternate varieties including Pecorino, Montepulciano and Shiraz Touriga, the risk of disease is minimised, allowing De Iuliis to eliminate the use of herbicides. Their viticultural and farming practices are linked to a longevity mindset including biocharring, composting, use of solar power, tank and grey water to reduce resource consumption, striving for more sustainability and greater environmental care in this lifetime and for future generations. This philosophy is represented at the winery by ‘The Guardians’, a set of metal sculptures of old guards who watch over the winery propped up by new stilts. They not only stand for innovation, but they also remind us that the past and present must lead into a brighter future.
The beautiful Vinden Estate, founded in 1990, took a different direction when second generation winemaker Angus Vinden took over. Named as a Young Gun of Wine 2020, Angus Vinden pays tribute to his roots by maintaining the winery’s traditional Hunter style of winemaking while also starting a new label, ‘The Vinden Headcase’, to showcase his more experimental winemaking techniques.
Producing organic wines only from the Hunter Valley, mostly from their own vineyards, Angus’s ‘Headcase’ blends Semillon aged in oak using malolactic fermentation, in stainless steel and concrete vats, mimicking the historical use of clay as a vessel used to stabilise temperature. Minimal intervention, hand-picked grapes, wild fermentation and natural sediment retention all make Vinden a place where ‘tradition and innovation collide’.
“I believe it is my responsibility, just as O’Shea did up on the old hill, to continually redefine and reinvent the Hunter Valley. Tradition is not stagnant; it should constantly be redefined as we learn from the previous generation,” says Angus Vinden. It’s a fitting summary of where Hunter Valley wine stands today.
Audrey Wilkinson Winery, 750 De Beyers Rd, Pokolbin Ph: 02 4998 1866
Brokenwood Wines, 401-427 McDonalds Rd, PokolbinPh: 02 4998 7559
De Iuliis Wines, 1616 Broke Rd, Pokolbin Ph: 02 4993 8000
Keith Tulloch Wine, 989 Hermitage Rd, Pokolbin Ph: 02 4998 7500
Tyrell’s Winery, 1838 Broke Rd, Pokolbin Ph: 02 4993 7000
Vinden Estate, 138 Gillards Rd, Pokolbin Ph: 0488777493