In Vino Veritas: Tasting the Hunter Valley

When your BFF is a wine snob, but all you know is how to drink it in large quantities, a little wine tasting education is in order. While travelling through Sydney, a tasting tour to the Hunter Valley provided the ultimate liquid learning experience…

After drinking in The Ivy with my dorm-mates until 3 am, amazingly, I  was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (well, awake and desperately clutching a black coffee) when my tour arrived at 8am. I chose a boutique tour for a better experience. The hostel had offered a host of options for touring the Hunter Valley, but the idea of getting dragged around vineyards all day with a coachload of 18 year-olds who’ve only just graduated from WKDs did not appeal. I decided to stick with the grown-ups to perhaps learn something and attempt to impress my wine snob mate W (Rosé? In winter?  how declassé!) when I got home.

On my tour were Doug and Janice from Toronto, Lena and Josephine from Sweden, Helen from Wilshire and Rohan our Driver. I’m the youngest by at least 15 years, but am not bothered in the slightest. After ‘VIP minivans’ in Laos, our leather-seated Mercedes with icy-cool air con and cupholders were like paradise. It even had a DVD player. Big pimpin’.

We head towards Hunter Valley, about 2 hours out of the city inland, home to the best wineries in the region. There really are about 25+ establishments in operation, but the majority are owned by big businesses, like the Fosters Brewery and are already household names, such as Lindemanns and Rosemount. We actually avoid all of these on our tour – we’ll leave them to the coach parties – instead concentrating on “boutique” wineries. These are small, independent, often producing less than 10k bottles a year (versus 800,000+ of someone like Rosemount) for limited distribution within Australia only, often with sales solely from the cellar door.
Our first stop is Iron Gate, run by an English ex-pat who made a fortune in petrochemicals in the nineties. Now he runs the vineyard, makes the wine and pumps in loads of his personal cash to keep the place running.I have no idea what I’m doing and feel a bit of an idiot in my group. Everyone seems to know how to sniff and swirl and swallow or spit. I just blag it, as usual, (which is probably why – spoiler alert – I end the day drunk off my arse). However uneducated my palette, I’m not a big fan of these wines. We taste about 7, but they’re all kind of meh. We get a quick tour “backstage”, then it’s onwards and upwards.

Mountain View Wines L

Melissa, her buddy…and ELEVEN BOTTLES of wine

Next stop is Mountain View. This is much more my scene. The manager is mad Aussie lady called Melissa who is loud, hilarious and sounds like she’s been drinking since breakfast. I want to be her. She lets us taste 11 (??!!) wines. I’m still not a fan of the Semillon and the Verdelho varietals (see, I speak wine) that we also tried at the Iron Gate, but they had an amazing Sauvignon Blanc (one of only 2 vineyard in the area that grow these grapes) which I just had to put my hand in my pocket for.
We stopped in the Hunter Valley Gardens & Shopping Village for lunch at Oscar’s and a wander. I bought some chocolate covered espresso beans though, to be fair, I probably inhaled twice as many as I bought from the sample dish, then it was back to the booze.
Next winery was Blueberry Hill, run by the most random bloke ever, but probably the best wine overall. I would have bought some, if it wasn’t so damn expensive. The Sauvignon Blanc was good (Mountain View just edges it), but the rose, made with Pinot Noir was amazing. “Elegant” they called it, even W might like it.

Blueberry Hill Wine

Beautiful labels at Blueberry Hill. Just wish I could afford the bottle!

Finally, we headed to Ernest Hill, managed by Jackie (her other half makes the wine). She was good mates with Rohan, our driver, so they were just ripping it out of each other. It had been a long intense day of drinking, sorry…tasting, so it was good to have a bit of a laugh. Again, good wines. They had an excellent Cabernet Merlot, but a bit expensive. Instead, I went for a sparkling dessert wine (which I usually hate) which was just gorgeous. Then we saw a kangaroo, which was fun.

After all of that excitement, I was a little drunk tired, so was grateful to be able to curl up in my comfy seat and snooze all the way back to Sydney.

The verdict

A really worthwhile experience. Sydney Boutique Tours are a really slick operation, and Rohan was a great guide. It is clear that they have long-standing relationships with all the wineries that we toured, meaning that their groups got a lot more (wine) out of each visit.

They were competitively priced – not much more expensive than their mass-market counterparts – and I felt the difference was worth it (this coming from a chick staying in a hostel).

The smaller group environment meant that we were able to have a more personal experience, to ask more questions and, most importantly, drink more wine

We were well looked after everywhere we stopped and, even though my group weren’t really the crowd I’d hang with on a daily basis, they were great people and really contributed to the overall “merry” vibe of the day.

My only disappointment would be that, given the boutique nature of the wineries, I won’t be able to find (and therefore, show off my knowledge of) any of the wines I enjoyed back in the UK. Unlike the wines from the mass market tours tours, which I could probably pick up for a fiver at my local Tesco, I’d need to order them directly from the winery (by the case) and have the shipped over at a cost verging on criminal. Well that’s the price you pay for quality and, with a palette as sophisticated as mine now is(!), quality is all that matters.

Hunter Valley Wine Tour with Sydney Boutique Tours

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