|Hunting for Variety|
by Sally Hammond
Test your wine knowledge.
What was Australia's first wine region established in the 1820s and now the most visited wine region in the country? What has enough wineries (last count 120 cellar doors) producing all styles of wine, including some from relatively rare grape varieties, to keep visitors happily tasting for days?
And which region has backed this up with a range of bars, cafes and restaurants - everything from casual to elegant - and accommodation that also spans all pockets and preferences? Plus special attractions, world class musical performances and bacchanalian festivals that go on - literally - for months?
If you answered the Hunter Valley, top marks, and go to the front of the bar.
While this region is best known for semillon and shiraz wine styles, you won't be disappointed if you are looking for fine verdelhos, gewurtztraminers and chambourcin wines as well. But wait, there's more. At Lower Belford, near Branxton, Graham Renfrew has other fruit to ferment. He admits he's passionate about this new hobby-turned-career, and spends long hours of happy experimentation. As you would!
A self-taught fruit winemaker, there are now four Bramblewood labels using fruit - orange, lemon, boysenberry, and lemon and passionfruit - and mango is fermenting as we speak, he says. You get the feeling it's hard work, but he's having a lot of fun too. Tastings are available, but if you buy - drink up! Graham says that fruit wines don't cellar well and are best drunk within 12 months.
If you are hungry, though, or simply want a place to unwind and let your palate recover from a busy round of wine tastings, this area can also deliver. Mojos on Wilderness (that's the road, at Rothbury) is a bright cottage with a sunny terrace behind, ideal for a leisurely Sunday brunch, although dinners are packed out too. The paw prints on the sign are to do with the dogs that are unofficial mascots of the place.
The Cellar Restaurant, part of Hunter Valley Gardens Village, has more the feel of a vine shaded Italian taverna, using an abundance of fresh local produce, and chef Mark Hosie's skills are evident in the deceptively simple menu. In fact the whole Hunter Valley Gardens project was an idea waiting to happen. Now there's accommodation, a chapel for weddings, and gardens unrivalled in this country.
One of the great things about the Hunter - apart from the views that go on forever across folding hills striped with vines, and those wines - is that the rich area produces so much else as well. Beef, cheeses, duck, game, olives, stone fruits and honey are made good use of by local restaurants, as they realize that this is what diners are craving - a real taste of the Hunter.
But even the former steel-city, Newcastle, has done an about face. Now there are dedicated cafe strips. Check out Darby Street in Cooks Hill, if you are in doubt. This couple of kilometres strip is packed with smart cafes and ethnic eateries. A couple of suburbs away, Hamilton is now sparked with some seriously good, yet casual restaurants. And Honeysuckle Wharf has been reborn as a base for slick restaurants, cafes and bars.
If you want to get technical, the Hunter region stretches from the coast to high in the hills around Muswellbrook. There's far too much to explore in a day, or even a weekend. Which is great news.
This area is not called the Hunter for nothing. There's so much to discover - so much to learn and experience – and I for one, am looking forward to 'hunting' out some more of its treasures. Next chance I get.
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