A trip to Australia's Hunter Valley in June will turn anyone into a gourmand.
Other than taking a break from the sweltering Singapore weather, June is the perfect month for food-lovers to go on an epicurean adventure, thanks to the Wine and Food month events held at Hunter Valley every year.
Visitors get to take part in special tasting sessions and classes that are available only during the month.
As with all sybaritic experiences, the price tag on a vacation in Hunter Valley may seem a little steep but this doesn't mean that a trip there will burn a hole in your pocket. Hunter Valley - while a paradise for food snobs and connoisseurs - is amazingly laid back and unassuming.
Located just two hours away from Sydney's city centre, the beauty of Hunter Valley is that it offers a luxurious experience within the average traveller's reach.
Here are some of the treasures AsiaOne discovered during our two-day media stay in the beautiful wine country.
1) A taste of the valley
Adina olive experience & Emerson's tasting plate
There are only about 70-100 olive producers in Hunter Valley and Adina is the largest producer here, with thousands of trees producing an average of 400-500 tonnes of olive oil every season.
Owner Peter O'Meara bought over the vineyard after retiring from the corporate world in 2003, and has since dedicated all his time to the wine and olive business. The sprawling 132-acre estate consists of a vineyard and olive plantation, a spa and Emersons Restaurant, which is owned and helmed by award-winning chef Emerson Rodriguez.
The sky was bright and clear on the day we were at Adina, and the cool breeze pushed us to take an impromptu walk in the tranquil olive grove. Peter then kindly showed us how table olives are picked before they are placed in large canisters of brine where they remain for months before they are checked, bottled and sold. Extra virgin olive oil is also produced on the compound with the help of an industry-size olive mill. Here, olives are sorted and crushed before the oil can be extracted.
He let us in on some industry knowledge and showed us how we could discern true extra virgin olive oil from the pretenders. There are strict international standards that producers must adhere to for their olive oils to get certified. But this hasn't stopped some producers from disguising lower quality oils as extra virgin olive oil. Australia mandates even higher standards to be met if producers want their oils to be certified, and Adina is one of the producers whose olive oils have been awarded this prestigious certification.
During the olive talk, we got hungrier and hungrier as the scent rising from the barrels of olives slowly overcame us. Thankfully, our mini-bus was waiting outside to take us to lunch at Emersons, one of the most iconic restaurants in Hunter Valley.
For the Wine and Food month, Adina and Emersons offer a joint tasting session which costs $35 per person. One special session at the end of June will include a three-course meal with matching wines that costs $75 per person. We couldn't get enough of the food prepared by Chef Emerson, who created a light and crispy olive pastry tart that was so divine it left us wanting more.
This year, Adina is also taking part in the Lovedale Art Trail for the Wine and Food month. It doesn't matter if you're not an art collector, the trail is a fun way to pair Lovedale's best wine and gourmet food offerings with the appreciation of exquisite art.
Here's something a little different - a beef and wine pairing session that meat-lovers will not be able to resist.
For $70, participants get to try Esca Bimbadgen's beef tartare, beef tataki, scotch fillet and a steak from the bone. Although Bimbadgen describes the dishes as sample-size, the portions served were large enough to fill our bellies by the time we got to the third course. If anything, that was probably too much beef for one meal - we could almost hear ourselves moo by the end of the night.
Having said that, the chefs did a wonderful job of the local produce, and the unique tasting session did provide greater insight into the kinds of wine that can be paired with different beef dishes. A raw beef dish like the tartare, for example, can be matched with a chardonnay, while cooked beef and steaks usually go better with shiraz wines.
2) Drink up
And of course there's the booze. What would a trip to the wine country be without any, well, wine? We had even discovered a beer tasting event held by the Hunter Beer Co., but were too full from lunch to even go anywhere near the tap. In the end, we decided to focus our energies on what the valley does best - wine, the drink of the gods.
With over 150 wineries in Hunter Valley, we were spoilt for choice when it came to wine tasting options, but there were a couple which stood out from the crowd. Here are the wineries which left the most pleasant memories lingering on our tastebuds.
Unlike common wines such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, verdelho is a lesser-known variety loved by connoisseurs for its crisp taste and fruity aromas. There is no better place to learn about this type of wine than at Tulloch Wines, which is run by a pioneering family of wineries in Hunter Valley.
A very friendly sommelier greeted us in the private tasting room to explain the history of verdelho wines in the valley. From the way he spoke about the grape variety, we could tell how passionate he was about introducing more people to the white wine. "Verdelho is traditionally not taken very seriously," he says as we took a deep whiff of the first glass sitting in front of us. It was love at first sip for us. A vibrant, citrus acidity filled our mouths like a good wine should. With such great flavour, it surprised us to learn that wine snobs often dismiss verdelho in favour of the more commonly found shiraz and semillon varieties.
Tulloch's verdelho tasting event is an effort by the winery to change misguided perceptions of the wine. Being one of the first three wineries that helped develop Hunter Valley into the wine country it is today, the Tulloch family's take on wine is respected and trusted by locals and visitors alike. Jay Tulloch, whose grandfather James Alexander Tulloch founded Tulloch Wines, has such a passion for developing the wine industry that he was named a Hunter Valley Living Legend in 2009. Jay's daughter Christina now runs the company, and has repeatedly reiterated the winery's strong commitment to the verdelho variety.
During the session, we tried five very different kinds of wine featured in the winery's #VivaVerdehlo tasting event run during the Wine and Food month. Although made from the same grape, the five styles of verdelho offered vastly different experiences. Our favourite verdehlo styles were the light and sweet sparkling Verscato and the Madeira-style Creme de Vin, which has a rich butterscotch aroma and lingering finish. The best part is that it costs only $10 for a verdelho tasting and food pairing session, making Tulloch Wines a must-visit destination in Hunter Valley in June.
Shiraz & Cheese Matching Experience
Another must-try on our wine list are the award-winning shiraz wines from De Ilulils where the Shiraz & Cheese Matching Experience was being held for the first time.
Priced at $15 per person, the special tasting sessions held this month feature three different styles of shiraz that won top honours in regional wine competitions last year. This includes the 2013 Steven Vineyard Shiraz, which was awarded Top Gold at the 2014 Hunter Valley Wine Show; the 2013 Shiraz, which won Gold at the NSW Top Wines competition; and a 2011 Limited Release Shiraz, which won Gold at last year's Hunter Valley Wine Show.
De Iulils provided an extremely relaxing experience for us. Here, we sipped our wines while looking out into a perfectly manicured garden oddly decorated with sculptures of ninja-like figures on stilts. The full-bodied flavours were a treat to our palate. After all the food we had eaten, some cheese and shiraz was the best thing we could have on a chilly afternoon. As we immersed ourselves in the movie-like atmosphere, owner Michael De Iuliis casually talked to us about the character of each wine and explained how they could be paired with cheeses from Australia and New Zealand.
3) Learn to whip up a feast
If you are looking for something playful, get your hands dirty by joining one of the many cooking classes offered in the valley during the Wine and Food month.
The most amusing thing we discovered at Hunter Valley (aside from friendly kangaroos casually chilling out next to us on grass fields) was a candy-making class taught by Phillip Collis, executive chef at the Hunter Valley Resort.
Collis conducts a fun class, encouraging participants to be experimental with their sugary concoctions. "There are no rules in candy class," he loudly declared as he smashed a slab of toffee to bits on the floor. We customised and made our own marshmallows, macadamia brittle and rocky road during our candy session, but there are many other types of sweets you can ask Chef Collis to teach you. We started the session dazed from a food coma, but were laughing loudly at Chef Collis' jokes in no time. We behaved like overgrown children in the kitchen, creating little toffee sculptures and tuxedo strawberries of our own. We ate and played with so much candy and chocolate that we had to bring the huge slabs of rocky road home as a souvenir for our families.
Candy-making classes at Hunter Valley Resort range from 20 to 90 minutes long and costs $50 per person. Participants get to bring home the candy they made, and also receive a certificate of participation signed by Chef Collis.
The art of gnocchi
Hunter Valley takes its food very seriously, and many of the chefs here are well-known for their passion in the food-making craft.
Il Cacciatore, a restaurant which has been named Best Italian Restaurant in the Hunter region 11 times, offers a unique step-by-step gnocchi-making lesson during the Wine and Food month. We didn't have time to make our own gnocchi on this trip, but it is definitely something we will keep in mind for a visit here next year.
Priced at $115 per person, the class concludes with a two-course lunch at the restaurant which sits in the very serene and peaceful Hermitage Lodge.
4) Stay here
A day trip to the wine country may not enough for those who wish to fully take in the beauty of Hunter Valley. With hotels that pride themselves on top-notch spas and impeccable service, a night at one of the valley's finest hotels is in order if you want to truly pamper yourself.
We had the pleasure of staying at Chateau Elan, a golf and spa resort known for its beautiful one-of-a-kind spa suites and villas.
Our spa suite was modern and looked out into massive green fields of the Chateau Elan golf course where kangaroos were often seen hopping about. Each suite comes with its own spa bath and a king-sized ergonomic massage bed - yes, a bed that massages you to sleep! Although the breakfast options at Chateau Elan tend to be quite limited, we didn't feel like we were missing out on much thanks to the plethora of gourmet food options in and around the valley.
Needless to say, two nights in the opulent spa suite ($320 to $450 per night) left us feeling recharged and better than ever. It was almost impossible to get us to part with that bed at the end of the trip!
This picturesque hotel is a former convent which was built in 1909 for the Brigidine Order of nuns. It was later restored and turned into one of the finest luxury hotels in the world.
Driving down the entrance, we felt like we were being transported into a storybook. Rows of trees dressed in their brightest autumn colours greeted us as we made our way down the pebbled road towards the beautiful blue and white country house and its grandoise fountain. We hear from our guide that the histoic location was also where Australia's version of The Bachelor was filmed.
It was a surreal feeling, sitting by the fountain, listening to the songs of the birds while taking in the unbelievably serene surroundings. As we sat quietly in awe, we began to fully appreciate our short little escape from the hustle and bustle of the city we had gotten so used to.
The peace and quiet here is probably attributed to the fact that Peppers Convent only has 17 guest rooms ($250 to $400 a night). If you are looking to spend a night here, you should definitely plan ahead as it can be quite difficult to book a room at the last minute.
5) Where to eat
Just two minutes down the lane from Peppers Convent sits the Circa 1876 restaurant, a place famous for serving great food grown in its own backyard. On the inside, Circa 1876 reminded us of a scene out of a fairytale with hues of gold accenting the elaborate wooden features in the house. Huge chandeliers hung from the ceiling in the dining hall like juicy grapes in a vineyard.
The establishment serves fine French-influenced Australian cuisine prepared by chefs who grow and source their own produce from their own country garden outside.
In the garden, we spotted chickens, fruits, vegetables and flowers pretty enough to be a Monet painting. An arch for weddings stood at one end of the garden, with the colours of the season acting as its backdrop. Definitely one of the dreamiest wedding destinations we have ever laid our eyes on.
EXP may be just 3 months old but it is already making its mark in the New South Wales culinary scene. Owner and chef Frank Fawkner has a long list of credentials having worked in London under Michelin-star chef Tom Aikens before becoming head chef at the award-winning Muse Restaurant in Hunter Valley.
The open-kitchen-concept restaurant offers two- to four-course meals crafted from locally-sourced ingredients. Even the wooden crockery used at EXP were handmade by Australian craftsmen. Chef Fawkner's creations were simply wonderful. The melt-in-your-mouth pan fried scallops with pumpkin, apple, malt and brown butter was our favourite. The sweetness of beautifully cooked apple and pumpkin slices met harmoniously with the bouncy, succulent scallops. Another dish, the black garlic risotto with cauliflower and cheddar, was also breath-taking. Cooked to the right consistency, this creamy risotto dish had a subtle crunch thanks to the clever addition of cauliflower. The group voted it our favourite dish of the night.
An offshoot of Muse Restaurant, Muse Kitchen is a rustic, laid back bistro that overlooks the verdant courtyard at Keith Tulloch Winery. Its menu is produce-driven, seasonal, and European-inspired. Our favourite dish at the restaurant was the duck confit, which was perfectly crisp on the outside and tender and full of flavour on the inside.
After our meal, we wandered into the lawn outside, where a big white bench welcomed us with wide open arms. It was the perfect place for us to cure ourselves of the tiredness from the red-eye flight we just took. With wine glass in hand and sunglasses propped on our heads, we chatted and took in the view of Hunter Valley in all its glory.
If you wish to visit Hunter Valley, it is easily accessible by tour bus from Sydney city. Alternatively, you can choose to drive yourself along the scenic route to the valley. Singapore Airlines flies to Sydney four times daily. From August 9, passengers on selected flights from Singapore to Sydney will be the first to experience the airline's new premium economy seats.
*The writer's trip was sponsored by Destination New South Wales.