If you’re headed to Sydney, consider adding the nearby region locals call “the Hunter” to your itinerary. With its laid-back tasting rooms and friendly vintners, this wine country is an idyllic weekend escape.
Australia’s oldest wine region also happens to be its easiest to visit. A two-hour drive north of Sydney, Hunter Valley is home to some 150 wineries, many of which trace their roots to the 19th century. Vineyards stream down from the foothills of the Brokenback Range, sharing space with grazing land for cattle. While the winemakers produce Shiraz, as they do in the rest of Australia, Semillon is the benchmark variety here. These featherweight white wines are thrillingly vibrant and citrusy when young, but as they age, they take on richness and depth—think of toast topped with tart marmalade, but without any sweetness.
A standout food scene and activities such as hot-air ballooning give travelers even more reason to make the drive. The weather is mild and the cellar doors (as the winemakers refer to their tasting rooms) are open year-round. Sit back with a glass of cold Semillon as you look out over a vineyard to the Brokenbacks turning blue in the twilight, and you won’t regret your detour from the city.
The drive from Sydney is a straight shot up arrived. From there it’s 10 minutes to Lake’s Folly, where a ramshackle tasting room belies the cult status of the winery’s world-class Cabernet. The currant- and tobacco-scented 2016 is gorgeous. Bistro Molines (entrées $32–$34), in the tiny town of Mount View, is a must for lunch, not just for chef Robert Molines’s excellent French country cuisine (don’t miss the rich pâté) but also for the bright, flower-filled dining room and its views of the vineyards.
From there, a 15-minute drive will bring you to Brokenwood, which was founded in 1970 and remains one of the valley’s standout producers. A $5 fee allows you to taste a dozen or so vintages. Make sure to try the 2016 Hunter Valley Shiraz, which in this vintage incorporates grapes from the winery’s famed Graveyard Vineyard.
After your tasting, check in to Kirkton Park Hunter Valley (doubles from $161), a hotel tucked away on 70 acres of rolling countryside that’s a great base for the weekend. The blue and white décor and manicured gardens—not to mention the high tea served every day—suggest an English country estate, albeit with an Aussie slant. If you’re in search of exercise, there are tennis courts and a vast indoor pool. Kirkton’s own restaurant is very good, but for dinner I booked the two-person chef’s table at Emerson’s (entrées $30–$32), in Lovedale. This put me smack in the kitchen itself, where I got to watch the über-talented Emerson Rodriguez at work creating dishes like pan-fried local snapper with clam velouté and parsley oil.
Get up early, because the best way to appreciate the sweep and beauty of Hunter Valley is by hot-air balloon, and trips lift off before sunrise. Balloon Aloft has an impeccable safety record, and its guides are a wisecracking but thoroughly professional crew. I watched dawn spread over the valley from 2,000 feet up before we descended to float above vineyards and more than a few startled kangaroos.
After your balloon ride, enjoy a leisurely breakfast and plenty of coffee at Peterson House, the meeting point for the excursion. Then move on to Tyrrell’s Wines, owned by the same family since it was established in 1858. Take the tour of the original dirt-floored winery, then sample current releases like the 2012 Vat 1 Hunter Semillon in the intimate cellar door.
Have a light(ish) lunch of charcuterie and cheese at Usher Tinkler Wines, paired with a glass of its complex Reserve Chardonnay. The sleek cellar door at nearby Thomas Wines is where you’ll find the brilliant and outspoken vintner Andrew Thomas. My favorite of his offerings is what he refers to as his “grand cru” Semillon, from the Braemore Vineyard. Thomas firmly believes in this grape: “You pair Hunter Semillons with some freshly shucked oysters, a bucket of prawns, some sashimi—that just takes everything to the next level.” I tested out his theory at chef Frank Fawkner’s inventive Exp (tasting menus from $65). Barramundi with spiced oil and heirloom lettuce, together with an aged Brokenwood Semillon? The man was right.
Head up the valley to the town of Broke, home of the winery Margan. Andrew Margan’s wines aren’t exported to the U.S. market, which typically favors bolder Aussie reds, so take this opportunity to taste them. “It’s always been a dilemma,” Margan says. “We make lighter, less power-driven Shiraz in a world that thinks power equals quality.” I enjoyed the peppery White Label Shiraz, then had lunch on the sunlit patio at Margan’s acclaimed restaurant, which draws ingredients from the winery’s own gardens, orchards, olive trees, chickens, lambs, beehives...you get the idea. From Margan it’s a 10-minute drive to Krinklewood, owned by the charming Windrim family and one of the Hunter’s few biodynamic estates. Try the lively Sparkling Shiraz while you watch the farm’s Limousin cattle, pigs, and peacocks wander about.