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The hills are alive.

With the sound of swirling wine that is. A full weekend itinerary was given to me by Hunter Valley Tourism, soon enough The Pom and I have organised a house-sitter to look after our pets, bags are packed, bicycles are loaded onto the car and we are setting off to the lushious green wine region for an indulgence weekend to unearth the secrets of Hunter Valley.

It all started late last year when Hunter Valley Tourism announced looking for three bloggers to be their ambassadors of the wine region by running a competition on Yahoo! Without knowing what they are really looking for, I submitted a post of my recent trip to Wolgan Valley. And who’d thought I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the three ambassadors along with Siobhan Curran (Cooking from the heart) and Lisa Perkovic ( Ambassador or not, my excitement is building up and I am looking forward to discover and see Hunter Valley in a new light.

Whenever Hunter Valley is mentioned, Pokolbin is the only place everyone could think of. Like myself, I’ve been to Hunter so many times, explored so many wineries, but have always been sticking to the main path and never been out of the boundary. Why should I? There’s enough to see, play and drink in Pokolbin, so little time and so many wineries to visit before getting legless. But that’s about to change, with a short 15 minutes drive south, this time we find ourselves in the hinterland of Mount View.

Mount View is the most idyllic and scenic parts of Hunter Valley, it is truly a hidden gem to be discovered. The panoramic view over Brokenback Range, award-winning vineyards dotted along the windy road, this whole region somehow reminds me of Adelaide Hills in South Australia.

First thing we check into Cottages on Mount View, a boutique accommodation of four cottages tucked away in the secluded bushland. The fully equipped cottage is cosy and clean with comfy beds, but it is the on-deck four person spas that I can’t wait to jump into! Soaking in a warm spa at a constant temperature of 38 degree Celcius, with a glass of sparkling wine in hand, life simply could not get better than this.

Owner Brian and Delia Metcalfe are a very hands-on husband-and-wife, apart from running the cottages, they also operate the Hunter Valley boutique wine tours. Brian will take you to the not-so-on-the-radar cellar doors to have private tasting and plus a few gourmet food sampling along the trail. I’ve developed deep interests in wineries since my last visit to Jacob’s Creek in South Australia and would like to learn more. Hence, before to go on a tasting trail, I have specially requested for a behind-the-scene tour to find out more how the vineyards are doing from the extremely wet summer this year.

Behind the Scene at Mount View Estate

Hunter Valley Tourism has organised for us to meet up with winemaker Phillip Halverson from Mount View Eastate in the morning. He will take us on a tour of the winery to show us what harvest time is like in the Hunter Valley.

Mount View Estate is nestled in the foothills of the mountain range and it was first planted over 30 years ago back in 1971 by Harry Tulloch and now owned by the Burgess family. What makes Mount View Estate so special and different from others is because it is 100% estaste grown and produced. In other words, all wines are made from the grapes in that single vineyard, hand picked and pruned. They have full control of the winemaking process to strive for the highest quality wines. At Mount View Estate, it is a small operation at only around 7,000 cases of wines per annum, but to keep a small yield of excellent wine has paid off as wine guru James Halliday has rated Mount View Estate a 5 star winery for the last 3 years.

It is late February, all the white grapes already been picked and pressed by now. The red grapes unfortunately had no such luck this summer, all the vineyards in Hunter Valley are affected by the recent torrential rainfalls and a recent hail storm, many of the grapes are bruised, split and damaged, mildews and fungus are everywhere, not many of them are salvageable.

Phillip takes us to a small vineyard of cabernet grapes that is waiting to be harvested in the next few days if the weather permits. Today mission is to measure the sugar level of the grapes to see whether they are ready to be picked. We follow Phillip along the grapevine, taking every few 15 paces, we will snip off some of the grapes from each side of the canopy, we do this for a few rows of the vines. As Phillips explains by doing this, he will be able to get a better reading of the sugar level from different grapes on different branches in different area.

We take the grapes back to the lab, Phillip crushes them into juice then measure it with a hydrometer, the sugar level sits at around 11%, which is not high enough for the grapes to be picked yet. Hopefully the next few days of sunlight will perk the sugar level up. (We heard from Phillip two days after the trip that the cabernet grapes were picked just in time before the next storm hit the estate. It is a happy ending.)

For those who don’t know, the sugar in grapes is basically the alcohol in wine after fermentation. To keep an eye on the fermentation of the wine is a 24 hours job. Phillip tells us that he is lucky to live closeby, he can always drop in at the winery to check on the temperature of the tank to make sure the yeast is healthy and happily eating all the sugar content away. To think about it, the whole winery is alive and working its magic.

We sample a few of the wines in the tanks that are in different stages of the fermentation. The wine is still cloudy and full of yeast, some still just as sweet as grape juice whilst some is more acidic and ready to be bottled in a few months time. So basically yes, we’ve been drinking wine since 10am!

Phillip has joined Mount View Estate only 8 years ago, a transition from banking to winemaking and he is already doing a brilliant job producing many award-winning wines, especially the 2009 Reserve Shiraz which scored 96 points by James Halliday. “Sometimes people will come in holding the ‘bible’ and request for a dozen without even tasting the wine,” says Phillip.

It has been a very insightful morning and we are very much looking forward to visit Mount View Estate in the near future to see how those cabernet grapes we tasted developed into fine drops.

Wine tasting 1 – Saddler’s Creek Winery

Now, it’s time for some wine tasting. We get picked up from Mount View Cottage to join the group on the Hunter Valley Boutique Wine Tour at Saddler’s Creek Winery. It is a small group of 9 and we will be having a private wine tasting in the cellar room.

As you are aware that Hunter Valley is famous for its Semillon and Saddler’s Creek’s Semillon is one that has been very well received for many years. I’ve also learned that you can actually cellar Semillon for up to 15 years! My recent encounter of a 15 year old Semillon was almost as sweet as honey, soft on the palate with the aroma of a whole botanical garden squeezed inside a bottle.

Saddler’s Creek takes pride of its Botrytis supreme 2008 which has taken the Gold medal at the Sydney International Wine Competition 2011. The deep golden tinge sweet wine is rich with a lemony character. Random fact – Botrytis is actually made from moldy grey grapes that had been infected by a type of fungus called Botrytis cinerea.

Hunter Olive Centre & Gourmet Food Club

All you need is 50 cents at Hunter Olive Centre, it will buy you a ziplock bag of bread cubes and you are welcomed to dip it into an extensive sampling list of olive oils, chutney, jam, chilli sauces. That place is heaving when we are there, queuing with a cube of bread in hand, slowly turning into a human conga line along the counter, dipping into each oil and sauce as we move along.

We were warned to try the chilli sauce at last, with a name like “Ring ‘O’ Fire” and “Morning After”, I can understand why. Even the koala on the label is not impressed! We picked up Maxwell’s Treats Grandpa’s Beer Chutney, which reminds The Pom so much of the Branston’s Pickle.

Wine tasting 2 – Tamburlaine

The tour continues with another private wine tasting at Tamburlaine, a well loved boutique winery by many in Hunter Valley, Tamburlaine is Australia’s largest producers of organic wines. The operation at Tamburlaine is an interesting one, as nothing is going to waste and will try to recycle as much as possible. They even recycle their wine barrels by shaving it down to get rid of the old stain, flavour, aroma from the previous wine and reuse it again. Instead of a lifespan of 3 years before turning into a coffee table or pots, now the wine barrels can be reused for another few years.

The most interesting wine we’ve tasted at Tamburlaine is definitely the Reserve Framboise Raspeberry Liqueur. If you love raspberries, then you will love this Frambroise made from 100% raspberries, it will go down so well with a big bowl of vanilla ice cream.

Degustation Lunch with Pairing Wine – Lindeman’s

My liver is suffering and my stomach lining is getting thinner, I think is time for some food. But little did they know that Chef Craig Parkinson has designed an Indulgence Menu for us with four courses to be paired with 12 Lindeman’s wine. Yes, TWELVE!

I’ve been to Linderman’s once and have never really noticed there is a restaurant in the winery, only then I’ve been informed that the 1843 Harvest Cafe is actually only 2 weeks new! The bistro style cafe seems popular when we are there, pizzas, frites, pasta and the like, but if you are interested in the degustation lunch with wine pairing, you will have to book.

We start with the first course of pan seared scallop with lemon myrtle dukkah and gazpacho soup which is paired with:

  • 2012 Eliza’s Ten Riesling
  • 2011 Hunter Valley Semillon BIN 1155
  • 2004 Reserve Hunter Valley Semilllon 0450

The whole idea of the lunch is to taste the wine with the food that we think is perfect match for our palate. So there is no right or wrong, food and wine is always subjective. We all preferred the 2004 Reserve Hunter Valley Semillon from the first sip, but after tasting the sweet scallop and the intense umami of the chilled spiced soup, our palate immediately changed and preferred the riesling.

Second course is tomato and persian fetta herb tart served with smoked chicken and truffle oil. This time we have some very interesting wine matchings with a mix of red and white:

  • 2006 Reserve Sparkling Pinot Meuniere
  • 2010 Hunter Valley Chardonnay BIN 1081
  • 2010 Eliza’s Ten Pinot Noir

The Pinot Noir is a beautiful drop, but after tasting the tartness of fetta and the smokey chicken and earthy truffle oil, it isn’t our favourite anymore. Whilst my dining companions prefer the sparkling with the tart, I rather prefer the oakey, buttery Chardy to go with my smokey chicken… but then I also ate the Marigold flower, that may or may not have affected my palate.

You know you are drunk when you start digging into the dish and totally forgot about the usual routine of taking a photo of it beforehand! Thanks to my dining companion to remind me and offering her plate for me to take a shot, as mine was already half gone. The oven roast lamb loin is cooked to perfection, juicy pink tender meat served on a grilled polenta cake and honeyed carrot puree. The matching reds are:

  • 2010 Hunter Valley Shiraz 1003
  • 2010 Eliza’s Ten Cabernet
  • 2009 Coonawarra Limestone Ridge

To be honest, all three will work just as fine with the lamb, but the stand out is definitely the Coonawarra Limestone Ridge Shiraz Cabernet, with its berries, black pepper and liquorice aromas shone through with the dish.

And the last course of dessert, we are indulged with a decadent dark chocolate panna cotta with turkey delights and summer fruits of strawberries, grapes and wild hibiscus that has been soaked in sweet syrup. Again, we have no complaints how the dessert is going to match with the follow dessert wines:

  • 2011 Sweet Seasons Dulciana
  • Lindeman’s NV Muscat
  • Penfolds Bluestone Tawny Port

We love everything, we drink every drop, we are happy, and we are drunk! But the show must go on!

Wine tasting 3 – Calais Estate

By now, my stomach are liver are crying for help, but we still have one last wine tasting at the Calais Estate. It is my very first taste of Chambourchin, which I find a little too acidic for me. But then, I was already half drunk by then, what do I know? I was really looking forward to try their Swagman’s Port, sadly they had run out and probably is a good idea to leave it instead of feeling sorry for myself later on by injecting more alcohol inside me.

It was a huge day of drinking and eating, I can barely move when the tour finishes at 5pm. We waddle our way back to the cottage and seriously dinner is the last thing I want to think about. I will have to leave that to another post next time.

When I got home and started editing photos for this post, I only just found this photo from that afternoon. I think it sums up everything.

[ A Table For Two visited Hunter Valley as the Ambassador of the Hunter Valley Tourism]

Places I've visited

Cottages on Mount View
1329 Mount View Road, Mount View
NSW 2325
P: 02 4990 8989

Wine Savvy SPECIAL!!
Book two nights accommodation and a full day wine tour for each guest and get a THIRD NIGHT FREE!*
From just $550 p/couple
+ three nights accommodation
+ country breakfast hamper
+ full day five cellar door winery tour with lunch

Hunter Valley Boutique Wine Tours
Tour starts from $99 pp.
Booking: 0419 419 931 or (61 2) 4990 8989

Mount View Estate
502 Mount View Road
Mount View NSW 2325
P: +61 02 4990 3307
Opening Hours // 10am - 5pm 7days

Saddler's Creek Winery
15 Marrowbone Road
Pokolbin, Lower Hunter Valley
New South Wales Australia
P: (02) 4991-1770
Hunter Olive Centre
298 McDonalds Road, Pokolbin
P: 02 4998 7117
Opening hours: 7 days, from 10.00am and 5.00pm

Tamburlaine Organic Wines 358 McDonalds Road
Pokolbin NSW-2320
Phone: +61 2 4998 4200

119 Mcdonalds Road
Pokolbin 2320
P: 02 4993 3700
Opening Hours: Daily, 10am - 5pm
Cafe 1843 - Daily, 10am - 4pm

Calais Estate Wines
Palmers Lane Pokolbin
New South Wales
Australia 2320