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Race through the vines.

With living only an hour and a half from the lower Hunter Valley, I should have no reason not to visit this wine region more often. But you know what they say, you don’t normally visit your own backyard as there’s always another opportunity, and that opportunity finally happened.

An invitation from the Hunter Valley Wine Country Tourism soon had John and myself, along with a group of bloggers and journalists up in the valley for a weekend getaway, running amok in the midst of the wine region, Amazing Race style. It is all part of a fun and exciting famil to discover the Hunter Valley through fresh eyes.

The Mill restaurant – Tuscany Wine Resort Estate

The weekend commenced with a meet-and-greet dinner on Friday evening at The Mill restaurant, at Tuscany Wine Resort Estate. We were introduced and mingled with local winemakers, including David Hook and Ian Burgess, of Moorebank Wines who also kindly shared their wines with our meal. After a few round of canapes and champers, we finally took our seats ready for the meal. The Amazing Race team members will also be determined by the seating arrangements among three tables named, Educated Palates, No Cheap Dates, and the Fussy Bastards.

We began with an entree of tequila prawns, a new twist to the old school prawn cocktail I say. Despite I could hardly detect any tequila in the dish, the prawns were fresh and firm in texture, the sweetness of the meat is elevated by the umami from the tomato concasse, basil and garlic butter. Main course was a hunk of beef filet mignon, cooked to medium rare, served with pomme puree which was silky smooth, the acidity of the pickled inoki mushroom cut through the richness of the dish, a side of baby vegetables were cooked well and sweet. The dessert was the highlight for me, tasted bit like jaffa, a square block of chocolate semifreddo is topped with chocolate balls filled with boozy orange flavoured cream and chocolate strips, served with a scoop of butterscotch ice cream and strawberry coulis.

There was no time to waste and the amazing race began right after dinner, a trivia challenge to test our tweeting skills. We all also received a goodie bag with our personalised tshirts, map, mint drops and tissue packets (?) before we headed back to our holiday accommodation at Englewood Ridge for some good rest, as it would be a action packed day ahead of us.

Breakfast – Briar Ridge Grillade Restaurant

We arrived at Briar Ridge winery for breakfast bright and early the next morning. Apart from the alluring aroma of the grilled bacon from the kitchen, I could definitely smell the tension in the air among the three teams. There were lots of whispering between teammates, it could be the first sign of competitiveness or maybe because most of us were still recovering from all the wine the previous night. But the coffee and big breakfast share platters perked me up instantly and recharged for the ‘racy’ day ahead.

The first challenge of the day began here. We put our thinking cap on and our dramatic acting skills to the test, as we had to come up with a wine label and an advertising skit. Being on Masterchef in front of cameras for over 6 months obviously didn’t help on my performance, but Phee Gardner, Project Director at Appetite for Excellence was an absolute delight to watch and led the team ahead of the race.

Bike riding – Brokenwood Winery to Tulloch Winery

A clue in an envelope led us to the Brokenwood cellar door where the bikes were waiting for us. Who’d have thought you can rent a bike in Hunter Valley and tour all the wineries at your own leisure without having to worry about drink driving? It was mostly a short leisurely ride following the cycling path, but apart from testing our stamina, we were also challenged to capture some creative photos along the way. Thus we decided to plank our way to the finishing line at Tulloch Wines for our next challenge.

Food & Wine Flight at Tulloch Wines

Time for some rest to catch my breath, we were ushered into tasting room for some wine and food matching exercise. We were given food items including Binnorie Dairy‘s Branxton brie and black wax aged cheddar, pork and pistachio terrine to match with three Tulloch wines – Tulloch 2010 Viognier, an E.M. 2010 Limited Release Chardonnay and the Hector 2007 Limited Release Shiraz.

Despite the appropriate name of our team, our ‘educated palates‘ obviously weren’t up to scratch and only had one perfect match out of the three, the acidic Viognier with the creamy brie. I thought the spice in the terrine would go down well with the shiraz, but it was the nuttiness of Chardonnay that matched well with the pistachio in the terrine. (Rubbish!) Hence, the sharp cheddar was the right match with the shiraz. It was an enjoyable exercise and the food and wine matching is available daily at Tulloch.

Produce Luncheon at Hunter Valley Gardens

With the next clue in hand, we were soon huddled back into the bus and headed to our next destination, the Hunter Valley Gardens where we would be having our lunch to sample some of the beautiful local produce. The organisers had absolutely outdone themselves by holding the lunch in the pagoda with the most serene backdrop at the Oriental Garden.

A spread of local cheeses and charcuterie were already on the table to welcome us. The platter of smoked ocean trout, salami and duck prosciutto from Lovedale Smokehouse was exceptionally delightful, I particularly enjoyed the glossy cured duck breast which was velvety smooth and smokey, simply melted in the mouth. A variety of cheese from Smelly Cheese Shop and Binnorie Dairy were delicious on crusty sourdough.

The lunch continued with further catering by Hunter Valley Gardens head chef Nick Vivian. The dishes came out one after another, big share plates of creamy risotto with spicy chorizo, also from the Lovedale Smokehouse; heartwarming pumpkin soup with textural macadamia crumbs; caesar salad, and despite the sandwich wraps looking invitingly fresh and delectable, none of us were brave enough to pick them up as our poor stomachs simply couldn’t take in anymore food.

Then there were the golden arancini balls and quail Scotch eggs that arrived at the table when we least expected and we were absolutely full at this stage. But there’s always space for something deep fried (and dessert!), John and I decided to share half of each. The arancini was cheesy and creamy with a crispy outer shell, quail Scotch egg on the other hand was a little greasy, but the gooey yolk in the centre was a welcome surprise.

When the dessert arrived, it was the first time I was actually happy to see the petite portion size, served inside a small cup. The chocolate mousse was a perfect mouthful of light airy richness to conclude our lunch.

Treasure Hunt around the Gardens

Time for a nap me thinks, but the organisers had other plans. Another clue had been handed out after lunch and this time, we had to run around the biggest display gardens in the Southern hemisphere – with a full stomach!

Clues were dotted within the garden and we had to race the other teams to find them. It was a run to the Indian spice garden at first, then gradually slowing down to a stroll through the Chinese and Story Book Gardens, I eventually arrived at the last check point outside the Garden at the oval huffing and puffing, cursing at this silly game. But what was waiting for us at the oval field lifted my racing spirit instantly!

Helicopter Ride to Bimbadgen

A helicopter ride! I only had been on a helicopter ride once and it was during my time on MasterChef, I won the ‘tinned & frozen food’ challenge and rewarded with a joyride from Sydney to Bells restaurant at Killcare. But this shiny black chopper from Slattery Helicopter Charter we were about to get on was a lot smaller and could only fit three passengers at a time.

One group after another, we strapped ourselves in into this tiny glass box and within seconds, it felt like sitting on a magic carpet, our seats slowly levitated vertically and hovering in mid air, the scenery outside the window was getting further and the objects below us also getting smaller. And within seconds, we were 500ft above the ground flying over the vineyards, with an expansive panoramic view of the valley.

The joyride was short and swift, we landed at the grassy lawn outside Bimbadgen Estate, which will be the destination for our next challenge.

Wine blending experiences with Bimbadgen

So we had our wine label, an advertising skit, and some knowledge about food and wine matching, then it was time to blend our own wine. The challenge took place right in the Bimbadgen production area located just behind the front entry, there is even a viewing platform level for whoever is interested to come in and experience the sights, smells and sounds of a working winery.

Our challenge was set by Bimbadgen Senior Winemaker, Sarah Crowe, an experienced wine judge who has spent nearly a decade in wineries in the Hunter Valley, and she would also be judging our wine blends today.

We were given three wine varietals – Merlot, Cabernet and Shiraz in separate laboratory bottles, and instructed to taste them, then mix them and come up with our own blend. We all gave it a go, our team found the Shiraz was tannic and acidic with a distinct spiciness, the Cabernet was fruity and had more tannins whereas the Merlot was mellow, almost chocolatey. We were quite happy with a blend of 60% Shiraz, 30% Cabernet and 20% Merlot, but did find the blend was still a little bit acidic and decided to take the edge off by adjusting the quantity of Cabernet and Merlot to 28% and 22% subsequently.

Then, it was the judging time. Sarah judged the three blends based on look (the color of the wine), smell and taste. “Spit or swallow?” definitely wasn’t the question, Sarah took a sip, wishy-washy-ed in her mouth then spitted it out aimed straight into a bucket like an archer fish. After much deliberation, Sarah finally picked our blend as her favourite among the three. It was a nice surprise as we hadn’t been doing so well in most of the challenges all day long.

By now, we were exhausted and the only thing that could sooth the lethargic souls was a glass of cold beer at Potters Brewery and there we went.

Beer Talk at Potters Brewery

I was glad that there’s no more challenges for the day and we finally got to sit back and relax a bit. Whilst sipping a chilled glass of Hunter Kolsch, Keith the head brewer at Hunter Beer Co. gave us an insight on how the beer is made and a little bit of history about the brewery.

The list of crafted beer here is extensive. You can sample from their popular Kolsch, an easy drinking German Ale to some seasonal beers such as the Smoked Oyster Stout or Cranky Pants IPA. Keith said that they are always experimenting with new flavours for different seasons, including a blend for Christmas that tasted like a Christmas pudding in a glass! See, Hunter Valley is not all just about wine, I made a mental note to stop by at Potters Brewery next time when I am in the region to try a few more varieties.

It had been an eventful day racing, wining and dining in the valley, but it was time to head back to our hotels and freshen up to get ready for our final dinner.

Dinner at Margan Restaurant

The Margan vineyard is a little further away from the centre of Pokolbin in the beautiful Broke Fordwich Valley. The drive from our hotels to Broke in total pitch black through misty fogs was eerily spooky, especially when we couldn’t see anything outside our windows The journey seems to take a lot longer despite it was only a short 10 minutes drive. We eventually arrived at the vineyard, an impressive well-lit signed main entrance assured us that we were at the right place.

I was really looking forward to the dinner at this highly acclaimed restaurant which has won numerous awards in recent yeards, including Best Restaurant from Tourism Hunter Awards 2010 & 2011 and also NSW Tourism Gold Award 2010. But we were not dining in the restaurant itself, instead two long tables were set up inside the elegant Barrel Room.

Andrew Margan, the winemaker/owner himself was there to greet us, swinging an empty wine glass in one hand like Luciano Pavarotti with his hankerchief, telling us stories how one man’s dream fourteen years ago is now a reality.

The menu at Margan restaurant is driven by the seasonal produce, harvested from the mere one acre fruit and vegetable garden here in the vineyard. Head chef Josh Davidson had designed the menu tonight with two options alternated between guests at each course.

The entree options were seared scallop in sweetcorn puree, and beef carpaccio with beetroot puree. The scallops were cooked to perfection, firm flesh yet bouncy and caramelised on the outside, swam in a pool of silky smooth sweetcorn puree infused with truffle oil. The beef carpaccio was a little thinner than usual which tore quite easily as we scraped it off the plate. The flavour was subtle while paired with earthy beetroot and goat curd.

For the main, we were alternated between braised Wagyu beef shin and Moroccan lamb shoulder. The slow cooked method for both meat guaranteed they were equally tender and simply fell apart with a fork. The lamb was absolutely beautiful with its sweet meat amplified by Moroccan spices, served with parmesan cavelo nero, eggplant & oregano. But it was the wagyu beef shin that won our hearts over, flossy beef shin that melted in the mouth, served with baby vegetables picked from the garden the same morning and an intense reduction jus to round it all up.

We concluded our dinner with two beautiful desserts, chocolate marquise with caramel and salted hazelnuts and Panna cotta with rhubarb and almond crumbs. The chocolate marquise was simply to die for, rich and velvety smooth, the salted hazelnuts enhanced the sweetness of the chocolate and caramel sauce. The panna cotta was a wintry combo, the tartness of the poached rhubarb cut straight through the sweetness of the smooth vanilla panna cotta, almond crumbs added texture and nutty flavour.

It was time to announce the winner of the Amazing Race challenge and our team didn’t win which wasn’t of a surprise but we all agreed that we had a fabulous time throughout the whole weekend rediscovering Hunter Valley in a new light.

I’ve already planned to come back during summer with a whole new list of things to see and do in Hunter Valley, but at least next time it will be at my own leisure, without running. 🙂

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