September 27, 2009

Hunter Valley

The Hunter Valley wine region is only about two hours north of Sydney. We'd never been there and various of our friends had been telling us how pretty it was, so last Thursday and Friday we headed up to see what it was like. Debbie and I had recently gotten YHA memberships and booked the tour through them. They provided transportation to and from the Hunter Valley, a half-day wine tour, dinner, and a private
room with bath at the Hunter Valley YHA all for a total of AU$368. We ended up seeing four pretty ordinary wineries and some typical tourist attractions the first day, but an interesting brewpub and some great brick kilns on the second day.

We were told to meet the bus at the corner of Pitt St and Campbell St at 7:15am. We arrived a few minutes late and had a momentary concern that maybe this time they really meant "we will leave at 7:15 sharp" rather than the more traditionally Australian "you show up sometime around 7:15, we'll show up anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour after that." We needn't have worried, the bus didn't arrive for another 45 minutes. Not only that, it was only a shuttle to take us to the Star City Casino where we would meet our actual bus!

Finally everything was ready and we set off. The bus was a Chinese manufactured "midi" bus, quite modern and comfortable. We wound through Sydney morning traffic for a bit then headed north. After crossing the Hawkesbury River we headed inland off the main road through towns with names like Kulnura, Bucketty, and Yallambie before making our first stop of the day in Wollombi. During the gold rush Wollombi was a town of a couple thousand people, but now has a only few hundred people and a certain bucolic charm.

We rendezvoused with our wine tour at the Rosemount/Lindeman's winery. Rosemount is best known for quantity - it's one of the largest selling Australian wine brands in the US. I did not have particularly high expectations, and they were adequately met. I'm not really complaining, we were on a discount wine tour arranged by a youth hostel after all. If I had wanted an oenophile tour of the best Hunter Valley wineries I would not have arranged it through the YHA. We were here to have a fun time and see the Hunter Valley. Still, I couldn't bring myself to get enthusiastic about tasting wine at Rosemount.

Our next stop was Drayton's Family Wines one of the oldest wineries in the Hunter, and still family owned. They go way back in the Hunter, and have a lot of history, not all of it happy. In 2008 an explosion at this winery killed two people including one of the best known of the Drayton family.

Besides the standard Hunter Valley Semillons they make some fortified wines, including some flavored ports, and a botrytis Semillon dessert wine. Debbie, our resident fan of "stickies" picked up a chocolate port, and a botrytis Semillon from them.

Next stop was lunch at Hunter Valley Gardens, a huge touristy development containing the aforementioned gardens, a kitschy shopping area, and a large resort hotel. One of those expensive integrated tourist destinations that resort owners like to build. For our purposes it had three attractions. A place to get lunch (including a 20% discount from tour operator), a fancy chocolate store, and a cafe. I ended up explaining the differences between an espresso machine, a moka pot, and a press pot to a cafe customer when the clerk couldn't, and suggested they should grind their beans a little finer for the espresso. Just call me "helpy helper."

After lunch we visited two smaller wineries. I had been spitting rather than swallowing at our first two stops, hoping to be able to appreciate the wine in the afternoon, and I'm glad I did. The next two wineries were smaller, and the wines a little more interesting. The first winery was Oakvale Wines. It's a fine smaller winery making a pretty standard range of Semillon, Chardonnay, Verdelho, and Shiraz, with a few dessert and fortified wines - some muscat, some sherry and tawny. The woman behind the counter was great fun, making outrageous comments and flirting shamelessly, sadly I didn't really find anything I wanted to take home with me.

After that we made a quick stop at the Smelly Cheese Shop where Debbie and I ducked out of the "tasting" portion of the stop - they were passing around fresh farmer cheeses that had been marinated in various things, and as fans of really smelly cheeses we knew there was no way they'd be passing anything challenging around. We went directly to the counter where I asked about any local washed rind bacterially ripened cheeses and about local blue cheeses, while Debbie asked about local goat cheeses. They had one reasonably nice washed rind, but it wasn't really ripe, and they had a nice chevre style that Debbie picked up. Unfortunately, due to some miscommunication, I later found that I'd ended up with a triple brie instead of the washed rind. I was a little sad.

Next we visited a "boutique" winery called Savannah Estate Wines. A small friendly place, they buy grape lots from growers and produce their own wines from them. They had a somewhat more interesting range, including a 2005 Mudgee Shiraz that I bought to have with dinner, and a more traditionally thick botrytis semillon that Debbie liked. After that we headed to the YHA.

At the YHA we checked in and checked out our room. We had paid $25 extra each in order to get a "twin share, ensuite" which is to say a private room for two with a private bath. It was cozy but nice! The bathroom was nearly microscopic, but it was "en suite" (as opposed to the hostel we stayed at in Darwin, where "en suite" meant "there's no one else on your floor, so you have the bathroom down the hall to yourselves.") I could touch both walls of the shower with my elbows, looking through the drain in the floor of the bathroom I could see the grass under the house, and the sink was barely bigger than my two cupped hands with not even space to set a toothbrush - but it was ours!

We sat out on the deck eating our cheese and crackers, drinking our Mudgee Shiraz, and reading our books while waiting for the dinner that was included. It turned out to be grilled lamb chops, grilled sausages, grilled onions, and a green salad. Quite tasty, all prepared by two Chinese women staying at the hostel. One from Guangzhou, the other from Taiwan. We chatted a bit them and the other folks staying at the hostel about riding motorcycles in Ontario, four wheeling on Frazier Island, selling used Volvos, and how to get visas - typical hostel conversation.


The next morning we got up at the crack of 9am, packed up our stuff and wandered over to a nearby brewpub hoping to get breakfast. Unfortunately breakfast service ended at 10am (!?) and lunch service would not start until noon. I would just have to sit and drink beer for two hours. Poor me.

The brewery is called The Hunter Beer Company and I decided to start out with their six beer sampler. It consists of the Hunter Kolsch, Hunter Witbier, European Style Lager, a Hefe Weizen, a Dunkles, and a ginger beer. Nothing here for an ale drinker, and nothing with very much hop bite. Ah well at least it's fresh! The european style lager had the most body and depth, while the Kolsch, one of their signature beers, was a light pilsner of the style I have come to roundly hate. A beer that tries so hard to not offend anyone that there's nothing in it to like. The ginger beer was quite nice, light with a distinct ginger bite but not overpowering. A good summer beer.

Finally it was noon and we could order lunch! The brewpub is part of a resort that obviously does a lot of corporate business. As such the decor is airy and friendly, the menu is well written, the presentation is beautiful, but the food itself is rather bland and inoffensive. They don't take any risks, and as a result the food has little character and is usually boring.


Debbie ordered a swordfish with mango salsa, and I tried an Australian beef pie with mash and mushy peas. I wanted to compare it to the "Tiger" from Harry's Cafe de Wheels. The swordfish was as you might imagine - which is to say there wasn't anything particularly interesting about it.
The beef pie was better than average, cooked in a cast iron ramekin with a flaky pastry cover, then topped with mashed potatoes, (not too) mushy peas, and brown gravy. We decided to try a couple of the desserts.
Debbie's become a big fan of sticky date pudding, and I'm always willing to try a lemon tart. The sticky date pudding was quite tasty, dark and sticky as advertised.
The lemon tart was unremarkable, a creamy lemon filling in a generic tart shell. I'm glad we visited, I'd eat here again if I were in the neighborhood, but I wouldn't make a special trip.

On the other hand, the reason this place is called "Potter's" is that it used to be a brickworks and commercial pottery kiln, producing (at various times) terracotta roof tiles, garden pots, bricks, and salt glazed sewer pipes. Four of the old kilns are still standing, and are amazing looking structures. You can still see the sheen from where salt has attacked the bricks of the kiln. I could have spent hours looking at them.

Lunch over we wandered back to the YHA, picked up our stuff and got ferried to meet the big bus back at Hunter Valley Gardens. The trip back was unremarkable except for being subjected to two hours of bad '70s pop. We're talking "Captain and Tennille" level bad. I now have "Love Will Keep Us Together" stuck in my head because of our driver's choice of music.

All things considered an enjoyable two days, in a beautiful part of NSW. Lovely weather, friendly people, wine, beer, tasty food.

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