There aren’t many places in the world where you can enjoy a glass of local shiraz while kangaroos feed and play in the vineyards nearby. The Hunter Valley is one of them.
The Hunter Valley is one of Australia’s major wine regions, and it’s only a three-and-a-half hour drive north of the Sydney Central Business District (CBD). The region is well-known for not only its incredible selection of wineries, but also its relaxing day spas, exceptional restaurants, and premium golf courses like the Greg Norman-designed course, The Vintage.
With so much on offer and regular pop-up food, music, and wine festivals, it’s no wonder the Hunter Valley has become a hotspot for Sydneysiders to spend their weekends. Most people come for the wine but fall in love with the country atmosphere, kangaroos, soft pink sunsets, and the locals who make this region so memorable.
Editor’s note: A question on many minds is whether or not visiting Australia right now is a responsible, or even viable, option given the recent fires. The wildfires that have torn through the southeastern part of Australia since September 2019 have had an outsized impact on the whole of Australia. Supporting local businesses and the country’s tourism sector as a whole can aid in economic recovery.
Hunter Valley wineries to visit
Wine should be enjoyed, not rushed. Soak in the whole experience and atmosphere that each winery has to offer and limit the vineyards you visit to a maximum of four to five. That’s harder than it sounds when you consider there are more than 150 to choose from. Most wineries charge between $5 and $25 per person for tastings, which is usually waived if you purchase wine. It’s useful, but not essential, to call ahead of time and book with the cellar for your wine tasting, especially if you plan on visiting during the weekend. This way you’re guaranteed to have someone from the team and you might be lucky enough to try the occasional wine that isn’t usually available.
Ernest Hill Wines: Start your day at this family run winery. Stroll through the vineyard or enjoy a cheese board on the balcony while soaking in the sun and sipping on the award-winning chardonnay. If you prefer something lighter like a sauvignon blanc, the verdelho, which has notes of tropical fruit and early picked stone fruit, is the one to try. Don’t leave Ernest Hill without trying the Luna Sparks dessert wine, while the muscat is the perfect drink to open with family over the holidays.
Where: 307 Wine Country Dr, Nulkaba NSW 2325, Australia
Lake’s Folly: A winery established in 1963 by the late Dr. Max Lake, a surgeon, winemaker, and writer who is frequently credited as the man who started the modern boutique Australian wine boom. While Lake’s Folly’s wines are on the expensive side, you certainly get what you pay for. The two flagship wines are the chardonnay and a cabernet blend. While vineyards like Brokenwood, Tyrells, and Peterson’s might have more brand clout, Lake’s Folly is the quiet achiever of the Hunter region.
Where: 2320/2416 Broke Rd, Pokolbin NSW 2320, Australia
Brokenwood: A newly renovated winery that’s less than a five-minute drive from Lake’s Folly. Here, you’ll find a contemporary fine dining experience with a strong focus on seafood. Alternatively, the lounge area serves lunch and gourmet bar snacks at Cru Bar + Pantry. Established in 1970, Brokenwood’s original block of land was destined to be a cricket ground for the local community. The owners, however, had plans to be self-professed hobby winemakers. Eventually, that turned into one of Australia’s most reputable wine labels. There aren’t many things Australians like more than cricket, but a good shiraz certainly makes the list. It’s worth paying the extra $15 for the premium Single Vineyard wine tasting option, which costs $25 per person. It’s a great opportunity to sample wines in the $40-plus range that have made Brookenwood so widely respected in the industry.
Where: 401-427 McDonalds Rd, Pokolbin NSW 2320, Australia
Gundog: A boutique winery that most people hear about through word of mouth. It’s a visitor favorite, in part because of the premium wines starting at $30 a bottle. In 2010, winemaker Matt Burton was recognized as “Hunter Valley’s Rising Star,” and in 2015, he was a finalist for Winemaker of the Year at the Hunter Valley Wine Industry Awards. The smoking barrel red is the perfect shiraz blend and an excellent choice for all occasions.
Where: 101 McDonalds Rd, Pokolbin NSW 2320, Australia
Where to eat in the Hunter Valley
It’s difficult to find a bad restaurant in the Hunter region, as most restaurants have menus that complement the neighboring wines.
Cellar Restaurant: Located just a short stroll away from the world-class Hunter Valley Gardens. At Cellar, you’ll find a fine dining experience if you have the budget to splurge on a five-star meal.
Where: Hunter Valley Gardens Village, Broke Rd, Pokolbin NSW 2320, Australia
Il Cacciatore: If you’re looking for something simple and cost effective, this Italian restaurant has a relaxed ambience with food focused on the fresh flavors from northern Italy. Main meals range from $36 to $42, and the traditional tiramisu is a must-try.
Where: 609 McDonalds Rd, Pokolbin NSW 2320, Australia
Smelly Cheese Shop: What is wine without cheese? The Smelly Cheese Shop is as iconic as any vineyard in the region. Whether or not you like smelly cheese matters very little — coming here is an essential experience to just spend a bit of time surveying the vast number of cheeses and delicacies available. Located across the road from the Brokenwood complex, nothing cleanses the palate quite like a delicious cheese board.
Where: 2144 Broke Rd, Pokolbin NSW 2320, Australia
How to get around
If you don’t have a designated driver for the day, the region has Uber and a variety of other car services. There are plenty of group tours to choose from, but Two Fat Blokes tours are great if you’re wanting to take the day at your own pace with a private service. The guys at Two Fat Blokes will pick you up from your resort and take you to five wineries of your choice for $800 for four people, with options for larger parties.
Where to stay
Tourists not familiar with the area often make the mistake of booking accommodation slightly outside of the Hunter Valley region in Cessnock. You’ll find most of the action is in Pokolbin, including a variety of villas and budget accommodation on Airbnb.
Cypress Lakes resort and Chateau Elan at The Vintage both provide guests with the perfect contrast between a luxury and natural outdoor experience. Both offer golf courses, swimming pools, spa facilities, and restaurants for those who prefer to dine in.