Throughout May and June, the Hunter Valley Wine and Food Festival returns with an enormous number and range of events highlighting produce of the region and beyond. Each year the festival returns with big, comprehensive programs so we spent three days experiencing the region, the tastes and the people to try and pull out a few highlights, each highlighting Hunter Valley as a refreshing and otherworldly weekend option to Sydney-life.
Leaving at 4:30pm on a Friday, we spent just over 2 hours in the car from Sydney’s CBD. From the Maitland/Newcastle exit on the M1, there is a smooth ease into properties, estates and vineyards. Welcome to the Hunter Valley.
Our first stop on the Wine and Food Festival program was the By The Fireside dinner. Situated in a private room in the Hunter Valley Resort, a large square table fits only 10 guests at a time (some weeks it’s limited to 30 guests). It is personable, intimate and pure local appreciation.
Each week a different local winemaker pairs their own wine with a menu cooked by the head chef of the Resort. Winemaker Lisa McGuigan of Lisa McGuigan Wines joined Hunter Valley Resorts own Phil Hele amidst a table of 6 other local wine lovers.
If anyone deserves the title of a rockstar winemaker, it’s Lisa McGuigan. Between jokes about religion, people from her past and stories of business deals, Lisa entertained and amused throughout the entire evening. An entree of Zucchini and Fetta Roualde with Pumpkin Puree was paired with the crisp and light 2015 Lisa McGuigan Pino Gris. As the night developed, white wine evolved into red as the dark sweetness of Confit Duck with Yams and Cumquat and Pink Pepper Relish bounced off the 2015 Lisa McGuigan Wrattonbully Pinot Noir before another course of Braised Lamb Neck Pie with Sweet Potato and Fresh Dates was served with the 2015 Lisa McGuigan Barossa Valley Shiraz. The courses were ultimate indulgence and followed a short introduction by Lisa about the background of each bottle, from vineyard to name conception. The night was a fun and enlightening experience for all levels of wine appreciators.
The next morning saw us head straight to Two Fat Blokes, a recommendation made to us by our hotel receptionist. Located next to the De Iuliis Wine building, it is both a deli and a cafe/restaurant with ample amounts of cheeses, sandwiches and pies available for immediate purchase.
A 10 metre stroll took us into De Iuliis for their Shiraz Masterclass event. Hosted by Sean Parkinson, Cellar Door Manager of De Iuliis, the masterclass was a behind the scenes experience that allowed different years of wines to be compared, contrasted and critiqued beside one another. Parkinson had a relatable and witty charm who encouraged questions and debate about flavor notes and favorites. A visit to the barrel rooms also offered the chance to note the differences in a not-yet matured 2017 sample.
This immature glass, along with the introduction of a cheese board, further highlighted how this Festival event allows the average guest the chance to completely experience the uniqueness between each product.
After working up a hunger (again), we headed to Leaves & Fishes – a 15 minute drive away. Situated down a long driveway, next to a small dam and encircled by trees, the restaurant and cafe was an enchanting and popular stop.
Every table was completely occupied and we soon found out why. Large portions of snapper, pork belly and cheesecakes whisked by us to smiling customers, we followed out sweet tooth and went for the Almond, Riberry and Cognac Pie with Double Cream ($14). The almond pie by itself was warm and lightly sweet, earthy body to a perfectly cooked pastry body. The riberry (a native Australian rain forest fruit) paste burst with fresh sweet that elevated the almond and faint cognac notes.
After another few hours of wondering between wineries and fields of grass and vines, we were again hungry. Bike hire is easily done at a few locations throughout the Hunter. With two electric bikes, for 2 hours ($40 a bike) we dashed from winery to winery chatting to owners and makers. The electric motors made peddling a breeze as you well, peddled in the breeze. As the sun shone, the clean and crisp air accompanied you on the designated bike lane to winery after winery as we encountered like-minded Sydney visitors on bikes. Each time, the passion of the staff was enchanting and charming. With complete ease you enter these wineries to be quickly welcomed and asked what you’d like from their menus of wines.
Suggested by two people over the weekend, we went to Amanda’s On The Edge in Pokolbin. From the outside it appeared to be a simple house sitting on top of a hill above stretches of vineyards, but as an near-full carpark came into view and the murmur of patrons enjoying themselves was heard, Amanda’s appeared to be the place to be. Tables extended outside onto the patio that spread around the vineyard facing wall of the restaurant.
The Crispy Skinned Confit Pork Belly with Master Stock and Asian Greens ($22.50) was a light, yet warm introduction to the menu. The salted skin of the pork shone in the earthy and raw stock as the pork tenderly fell off the crackling and absorbed the broth. The menu was a complete list of teases but the Three Times Cooked Duck Maryland ($38.50) couldn’t be passed up. Just like the pork, the duck meat fell apart into the bed of sauté leek & shallots in a plum compte. It also appeared to be the most frequently seen dish being carried out to tabled – not hard to see why.
Closing the night was the towering Banana Waffles with Ice Cream ($14). Looking like a sail on a ship as it maneuvered to our table, the desert was every part rich and sweet as you hoped.
Our final stop the next morning took us to Whispering Brook Vineyard, 30 minutes away in Broke. Just under 500 Kalamata and Manzanillo olive trees on their product are used to create their boutique line of olives and olive oils as well as Shiraz, Chardonnay, Merlot and Semillon wines.
A quick tour amongst the trees and vineyards had us hearing facts behind the harvest and cultivation of the olives to how each, individual olive is inspected after a year of fermentation to remove the bitterness. Amidst the cool breeze between olive trees, we also encountered kangaroos whom apparently pose no harm to the trees or vineyards. For the Wine & Food Festival, Whispering Brook offers a sensory and tasting tour as well as their renowned Olive Long Table Luncheon where a single table stretches between the olive trees pictured below as guests dine on food from local resources.
Hearing the stories behind vineyard size to attempts to combat worsening Summer heat to bottle design created a personal relationship between us and all the Hunter Valley food and wine products we indulged in. It became apparent how much the area relies on drop-in tourists to visit these wineries (that are open every day of the week) for in-person tastings and purchases. The region depends on this personal and direct interaction and even as a self-confessed wine novice, not once were these experiences or wine makers intimidating overwhelming. There is a genuine desire by these winery staff to teach you their skill and extend their passion. If wine isn’t your thing, there are still boundless options of restaurants that locally source their produce and have the same pride in their artistry the wine makers do.
Even with Sunday traffic on the M1, the return to Sydney took only 2.5 hours. Not only was the weekend away one of pure education, but also realising the absolute ease it takes to get to the Hunter Valley proved the weekend to be an ultimate awakening. A pure and easily accessible escape.
For the entire program of experiences, events and accommodation offers of the Hunter Valley Wine & Food Festival across May and June you can head here.
To read our five highlights of the festival you can head here.
For more information on The Hunter Valley Resort and the By The Fireside Winemaker’s Series head here.
For more information on De Iuliis head here.
For more information on Leaves & Fishes head here.
For more information about Amanda’s On The Edge head here.
For more information about Whispering Brook’s olives and wines head here.