Spotlight on the Hunter Valley

Written by
Winsor Dobbin
February 16, 2017
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If you like a bit of wine history, they've been planting vines and making wines in the Hunter Valley – a two-hour drive north of Sydney – since 1828.

In recent times this once sleepy region, known as the birthplace of Australian wine, has been transformed into Sydney's playground with world-class golf courses, restaurants, spas and concerts featuring international stars.

But it is still the wines that are the star attractions, with the Hunter regarded as arguably the best place in the world to grow Semillon.

The climate is sub-tropical with maritime influences from the Pacific Ocean, resulting in a region that is one of the warmest and wettest in Australia and the earliest to pick fruit each year.

In addition to stellar Semillons, it is also well known for savoury Shirazes and vibrant Verdelhos.


Famous Names

The Hunter Valley is home to some of the most famous names in Australian wine, including regular winners of national and international awards. It is the sixth-most-visited place in Australia, attracting more than 2.5 million tourists annually, but only provides 2 per cent of Australia's wine production.

The hamlet of Pokolbin is the centre of the Hunter Valley Wine Country and is located between the towns of Cessnock and Branxton. Nearly all the vineyards are within the Cessnock and Singleton council areas.

The vast majority of the wineries here are still family owned, so you might sometimes spot a Tyrrell or a Tulloch going about their business while you are tasting.

Visitors flock to sample the region’s famous Semillons and Shirazes, particularly on weekends, at cellar doors including Tyrrell’s, McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant, Hungerford Hill, Tulloch, Drayton’s, Brokenwood, Tempus Two, Scarborough and Lindeman's. There is no shortage of choice for visitors with over 60 cafes and restaurants and close to 120 cellar doors. The Hunter, however, is constantly evolving and offers a new selection of activities and dining options each time a visitor returns. 

Semillon is a unique wine style in that it is fresh, delicate and lively with citrus and grassy acid notes when it is released - usually within a month or two of being bottled. It then can be cellared to produce a honeyed style several years down the track. Semillon has undergone a schizophrenic existence since first being planted here in 1830, being variously sold as Hunter Valley Riesling, Shepherd's Riesling, Hock, Rhine Gold, White Burgundy and Chablis.

British wine writer and educator Jancis Robinson describes Hunter Semillon as: “Australia's great gift to the world of wine”. Because the style is not widely understood, however, Semillon can often be found at bargain basement prices.

Tyrrell's Vat 1 is widely regarded as the benchmark Hunter Semillon, along with those from Andrew Thomas, and there are also affordable options from McWilliam's, Mount Pleasant, Brokenwood and Audrey Wilkinson.


Luscious Reds

When it comes to Hunter Shiraz, which was known as Hermitage or Burgundy until well into the 1970s, these tend to be soft and approachable, less overtly masculine than their Barossa brethren, but also cellar-worthy.

Wines like Mount Pleasant Phillip Shiraz offer great value for under $20.

Probably the most expensive wine from the Hunter is also a rare one; Lakes Folly Chardonnay is considered one of the finest in the land although it is made in tiny quantities.

Fruit-driven Verdelho, made from a grape that originated in Portugal, has proved a huge success in the Hunter due to its ability to withstand both heat and rain. It is the specialty at Tulloch Wines.

While the big-name wineries are de rigueur destinations, the Hunter is also home to dozens of small, family-owned boutique wine producers, many of whom experiment with alternative grape varieties.

It pays for visitors to take some of the valley’s roads less travelled to explore the slower-paced sub-regions like Wollombi, Lovedale or Broke-Fordwich – and for wine buyers to seek out some of the lesser-known producers.