Hunter Valley: Rolling hills and rollicking wines

Hunter Valley: Rolling hills and rollicking wines
PHOTO: The Star/ANN

They say that drinking copious amounts of wine will make you lean... against tables, walls and other people. That probably explains why folks enjoying wine in Australia's Hunter Valley remain seated most of the time. Or maybe they're just sitting back and enjoying the scenery.

One cannot possibly find fault with the gorgeous wine region located just two hours north of bustling Sydney, in New South Wales. The country landscape, with miles of vineyards and olive groves, is breathtaking as far as the eyes can see.

And thanks to the intoxicating wine, many pairs of eyes will indeed see double, but still that wouldn't be enough to take in the beauty that is Hunter Valley.

This illustrious wine region is definitely the place for wine enthusiasts, foodies and nature lovers alike.

For two nights, our international media group is staying at Spicers Vineyards Estate, one of the many luxury accommodations available in the Hunter Valley. Grapevines line the path from the main road to the residential villa, and though winter sees the trees bare, it still is a sight to behold.

And here, even a simple trip to its Restaurant Botanic, located within the estate, is not without excitement.

Kangaroos are aplenty and they roam about freely. Sometimes these marsupials hop over the fences to get near enough to satisfy their animal curiosity but not too close lest the humans get handsy or god forbid, immortalise their faces in multiple selfies.

It is our last night at the estate, and we don't waste any time ordering dinner and Hunter Valley's wine to go with the three-course meal. Even before the waitress leaves the table with our orders, our small group already starts yapping about why we must return to Hunter Valley soon.

For the wines, the food and kangaroos, of course. The valley is home to some of the industry's oldest and most prestigious winemaking families as well as new players trying to make a name in the game.

Turning 20 next year, First Creek Wines is still considered a baby in this region, but nevertheless its winemakers, led by Liz Jackson and Greg Silkman, are regarded as some of the best winemakers in the country.

At First Creek Wines, we are greeted by a friendly vintner who takes us on a quick tour of the facility. There is currently no new production of wine, but the winery is still busy as the winemakers are also commissioned by over 25 wine companies in New South Wales to deliver wines from a range of unique vineyards and microclimates within the country.

Barrels of wine are methodically arranged from top to bottom, each marked with its contents as well as details of the barrel itself.

As new barrels impart more flavours to the wine, winemakers are particular about the age and number of times they have been used. Here at First Creek, a barrel has a lifespan of about five years.

At the end of the tour, we are treated to a wine sampling to savour some of First Creek Wines' finest selections with platters of oysters and cheese.

First up is the NV Cuvee and if this is the benchmark for the rest of the wines we're about to taste then we are set for a good time.

The white wine is delicate and creates a creamy palate that goes well with the oysters, but more important, it gets us excited for what is up next - the 2013 Semillon. With crisp citrus flavours of lemon and lime, the wine is divine. So is the 2014 Verdelho with its perfumed nose of citrus, melon and apples with a hint of honeysuckle and spice.

The wines are refreshing, with their various degrees of sweetness and we each have our favourites. I pick the NV Muscato. The fragrant aromas of sweet berry and rose petals are balanced with a crisp palate and refreshing spritz. It goes really well with the cheese and crackers, topped with a generous amount of quince jam.

Our host knows what he is doing when he saves the best for last. The award winning 2011 Winemaker's Reserve Semillon is crisp, clean and has a good length on the palate. The fine minerality lingers, and at AUD$45 (S$46) it is worth every dollar spent.

If pairing cheese and oyster with wine seems too conventional, Pepper Tree Wines has that covered - they offer a chocolate and wine pairing session.

According to them, chocolate and wine is the ultimate do that brings out the best of both. Our host, Luke, says that the natural tannins in cocoa prime the palate for the tannins in the wine, thus allowing the other flavours in the wine to shine.

The rules to pair chocolate and wine are simple. First, the chocolate must be served at room temperature and the wine at the temperature recommended for its varietal. The palate must be cleansed with tepid water or bland cracker.

Secondly, taste the wine. Swirl around to coat the side of the glass and release the aromas. Smell the scent. Jot down what you detect. Now sip the wine, swirl it in your mouth and take note of its various flavours.

We then break off a small piece of chocolate, take in the aroma and place it in our mouths. No chewing allowed as we wait for the chocolate to dissolve and do its magic. Finally, we take another sip of the wine and note the changes in flavours. We cleanse the palate and repeat.

With each combination the wine tastes different, sometimes for the better and at times we just leave the chocolate and down the wine alone.

Taking a break from wines, we visit Chef Matt Dillow, the owner of the Verandah Restaurant. Here, he serves us Spanish paella.

Wait, what? Spanish food right smack in the middle of a wine region in Australia?

Yup, that's what we are having he says, and adds that we will be making the paella ourselves. So out comes a huge paella pan, and the chef proceeds to make what has to be the most paella made for a group of four tipsy ladies.

Dillow usually conducts paella making classes during the annual Hunter Valley Wine and Food Month, which over here is a major celebration.

Throughout June, winemakers organise wine trails and tastings where visitors get to learn more about their favourite wines, or just kick back, let loose and get tipsy.

Restaurants around the region also join in the fun, and chefs use local produce to create menu specially for the celebration.

As friendly and hospitable as Dillow is, he didn't let us stray too far away from the pan and one has to always be on hand to stir the paella.

To say that we worked for our meal would be an understatement. Stirring the paella takes up all our energy and Dillow rewards us with a jug of freshly made sangria.

The paella is beyond amazing, I must admit. Huge mussels, prawns and squids, and peas effortlessly found their way into our stomachs. Sitting on the verandah, we take in the glorious food, the sangria, the panoramic view of the vineyards, and of course, the good company.

Now back at the resort, we are giddy with happiness... and maybe a little too much wine, as we laugh and discuss the fun two days we had in Hunter Valley.

The food arrives, and we do what comes naturally to us now - pick off each other's plates. Someone ordered the slow-cooked pork belly, and our conversation shifted to the three little pigs we saw wallowing in the mud, behind the restaurant earlier.

The beef fillet is seasoned and cooked to perfection, and the duck breast is tender and full of flavour.

Dessert is the usual fun affair with someone announcing for the umpteenth time that they are going on a diet the moment the trip is over.

That reminds us that the trip is indeed coming to an end, and that our return flight is tomorrow.

Tonight, however, we face the arduous task of fitting the bottles of wine, jars of quince jam, and cheese we purchased - as our attempt to bring home the flavours of this amazing region - into our luggage.

It seems impossible but if all else fails, we plan to devour them there and then. The diet only needs to start when we are home.

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