Let’s say you’re up for a trip to wine country, and you’re thinking you’ll go to the quintessential wine growing region, the Napa Valley. But then you think about it for a minute and realize that such a trip would not be convenient, because you’re not in California -- you’re in New South Wales. Australia. You know you’re near great wine country, and you still want to satisfy that tasting-day urge, but you don’t know where to start. What’s a wine lover to do?
One answer is to head north to the Hunter Valley. While Australia enjoys several gorgeous wine regions, the Lower Hunter Valley, and its smaller sibling, the Upper Hunter Valley, located within a few hours’ drive of Sydney, boast some of the grandest wineries in the country. Now, this is not to say that the wines from this region are the best, or even that the Hunter region is the most prolific producer (that honor goes to the neighboring state of South Australia). But there’s plenty to see, and you’ll definitely enjoy a bona fide wine country experience.
With a humid, subtropical climate, the Hunter Valley is not the most intuitive environment for grape growing. However, it enjoys the distinction of having been one of the earliest planted vine areas in Australia, with British settlers planting a variety of familiar vines in the late 18th and early 19th century. Ultimately, they found a few French grapes, such as syrah (shiraz), chardonnay and Semillon, that didn’t wither and die, and today, the Hunters enjoy some of the oldest vineyards in the country. The Lower Hunter was the first planted, and its Semillon has been described as crisp and delicate when young, with enough legs to mature into a more complex, richer wine with some (5 to 10 years or more) age.
Wine critics sometimes like to comment that shiraz from the Hunter Valley, particularly the Lower Hunter, tends to take on a “sun baked” quality. This is probably the reason so much of it is used for blending, rather than single label designation, and you’re less likely to find “Lower Hunter Valley” explicitly stated on a wine label than say, Barossa Valley or McClaren Vale. However, there are still plenty of gorgeous wineries to visit during a trip up there, and plenty of admirable wines to taste.
Two well known, older wineries that would be happy to pose for your photo opp are Wyndham Estates and Lindemans. While most of the wines from these two houses tend to not show up in critics’ top quality lists, they are worthwhile to see for their historical significance and their rustic charm (and of course, there’s that laid back Aussie hospitality).
George Wyndham was one of the first to plant grapes in the area in the early 1800s, and Wyndham Estates boasts that it’s the nation’s oldest continually operating winery, as well as the birthplace of Australian shiraz. They maintain an open-to-the-public tasting room (a cellar door, if you will; isn’t that a lovely phrase?) complete with restaurant, outdoor café, and banquet facility, all on the banks of the picturesque Hunter River.
Also the namesake of an early Aussie vine planter, Lindemans prides itself on its century-plus of quality winemaking, and encourages visitors to at least stop by, and perhaps host their wedding, on their tasting grounds. Now part of the much larger Southcorp empire, Lindeman makes one of more renowned Semillons of the region.
If you’re not a oeno-history buff, and quality trumps idyllic beauty in your book, there are several other oft-cited producers of fabulous shiraz, chardonnay and Semillon, that are worth a visit. Try the Semillon and chardonnay at Tyrell’s, the Lovedale and Elizabeth Semillons at McWilliams Mount Pleasant, and the Graveyard Shiraz at Brokenwood, to name a few. Of course, if you’re really looking for a sumptuous, complex, to-the-moon wine from down under, you will have to venture a bit further out from Sydney. And you may have to plump up your wallet. But we’ll save that discussion for another day.