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Wining and dining Down Under

About two hours north of Sydney lies Australia’s oldest wine region, the Hunter Valley. Like the Napa and Sonoma valleys north of San Francisco, this region has become a Mecca for wine enthusiasts and those looking for gourmet meals amid nature’s splendor.
/ Source: Tripso.com

About two hours north of Sydney lies Australia’s oldest wine region, the Hunter Valley. Like the Napa and Sonoma valleys north of San Francisco, this region has become a Mecca for wine enthusiasts and those looking for gourmet meals amid nature’s splendor.

More than 80 wineries spread across the valley in a patchwork quilt of vineyards and varietals. Intertwined with the vines are scores of fine restaurants and traditional bed-and-breakfast guesthouses, which provide a wonderful combination of wine, food and comfort.

The locals like to compare the cycles of the vineyards to the cycles of human life. Over the years of encouraging visitors to enjoy their wines, they have also sought to help city folks appreciate the workings of nature and to use their sojourn in this beautiful valley as a time of renewal for their spirits and their relationships.

The pace is natural, slow and pleasant. Though many visitors start out racing from vineyard to vineyard, trying to taste as many wines as possible, most soon succumb to the naturally measured rhythms of the valley. Frenetic tastings give way to long afternoons of conversation, and the fast-food mentality of city life is traded for long, lingering meals in the moonlight.

Hunter Valley is a wide valley with thousands of acres of vineyards stretching across the valley floor and up the encircling hillsides. The elevation change is significant enough to allow for the cultivation of many different wine grapes, each requiring slightly different growing conditions.

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Winemaking is not a new industry in Australia. These vineyards date back to the 1820s, when British settlers planted the first vine cuttings along the Hunter River. The cuttings had survived the long sea voyage from Europe and South Africa, nurtured tenderly — and optimistically — below deck.

Today, the most widely grown grapes are shirah, semillon and chardonnay. The climate is perfect for them, and the semillon and shiraz grapes grow especially well in this valley’s silty soil. The valley also produces many barrels of merlot and cabernet.

During my visit, I visited the tasting rooms at Rosemount Estate, Lindemans and Tyrrell’s — three of the biggest exporters to the United States. I also visited Bimbadgen and Pepper Tree vineyards. These two smaller wineries, almost unknown in the United States, have produced award-winning wines over the past few seasons. In Australia, Pepper Tree is regarded with awe, and Bimbadgen is working hard to create buzz for its wines through an extensive advertising campaign.

Both Bimbadgen and Pepper Tree have wonderful gourmet restaurants. Pepper Tree is the older and has a well-earned reputation. It is the site of many weddings, and it plays hosts to dignitaries from around the globe. Bimbadgen, a newer kid on the block, has partnered with a noted Sydney chef and restaurateur, Mark Armstrong, who has brought his reputation and one of his top chefs here.

Turn down virtually any leafy lane in the valley and you’ll find a B&B or small guesthouse tucked away in the middle of a vineyard. There is lodging for every budget, and you can stay at most wineries as well.

A stay here offers far more than wine tastings and dining. There are also some excellent golf courses, riding trails, bicycling and hot-air ballooning.

The calendar is also packed with events from budburst in September to harvest in March and April (remember, the seasons are reversed here). In June, ArtScrawl promotes artists and craftsmen. And every month from October through February there are celebrations of folk music, opera, jazz, rock and blues.

To plan your trip, contact the Australian Tourist Commission or check the Hunter Valley Web site, which links to more than 250 different winemaker sites.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .