One month in Oz – 9. Wine tasting in the Hunter Valley

Post 9 of a series detailing our Australian adventure. Access the full series here.

Today was hugely exciting as we would combine a few of our favourite things: animals, food and drink! We’d booked a wine tasting tour in the Hunter Valley but we were probably more excited about the chocolate and cheese we’d also be tasting and the animal park we’d be visiting first for morning tea.

Bright and early in the morning, we went and found the YHA near Sydney Central Station and waited for the Kangariffic Tours mini van to come and pick us up. It quickly became clear that there were dozens of other tours like ours, and that they all shared this one pick-up point. We were surrounded by other people waiting for particular mini buses, meaning we witnessed numerous awkward exchanges between tour operators and tour participants trying to ascertain whether they were looking for each other.

One very tanned, very Australian tour operator looking for his tour participants asked me and Steve whether we were “Trevor and Maude”. He then said to Steve something along the lines of “I hope you’ve covered her in suncream mate, or else she’s going to burn!” My unrelenting paleness practically made me an ethnic minority in (predominantly white) Australia.

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Finally though, a minivan with Kangariffic Tours printed on the side pulled up and out stepped Sam, our guide and chauffeur for the day. After the necessary introductions we climbed in the back, where we were soon joined by a group of silent Singaporeans. They were followed by two other British couples and an Austrian girl, who introduced herself as Julia. We then set off on a long drive out of Sydney, Sam explaining our day ahead and telling some cringy jokes before switching on some music. The scenery became increasingly lush as we drove, until it was nothing but green vineyards below and blue skies above.

Koalas, kangaroos and snakes, oh my!

Our first stop was the Walkabout Wildlife Park, where I got my first-ever glimpse of a real koala! Koalas have always been an untouchable icon of Australia for me, so finally seeing one of these adorable creatures up close was amazing. The park ranger took us inside the koala enclosure and allowed us to gently stroke the soft fur of a mother koala and her baby, who was still clinging on to his mother despite being almost as big!

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Next we were shown and allowed to hold a snake, whose silky skin I could feel swelling and squeezing as it moved over my arms. This whole time we were surrounded by (mostly) friendly kangaroos, one of which grumpily kicked dust up at me as I got close! I was determined to see an echidna and after some wandering, we eventually found a very cute one in its own ‘Echidna Hollow’! Tea and biscuits served on the gift shop veranda provided some welcome sustenance before we had to bundle back into the mini van.

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Capercaillie winery

At around 10am it was time for our first wine tasting. Sam picked the wineries based on what we’d earlier said we liked, and this first one was surrounded by beautiful grounds. We were seated at a long table outside in front of a lake and surrounded by lush vineyards. The table was laid with stout round glasses and laminated menus of the wines we’d be tasting. The winery owner introduced himself and his company Capercaillie, before bringing out and pouring the first of many bottles, telling us about the wine and how it was made.

To be honest, although I enjoy it a great deal, I have no palate for wine and it’s unusual that I can taste any flavours other than white, red or rosé. But here I could really taste the creaminess, nuttiness and dark fruit the winemaker mentioned, even if I wasn’t particularly keen on much of it! We did, however, really enjoy the moscato and wine-hater Steve, in a most unusual move, decided to buy a bottle!

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Fudge, cheese and burgers

We next went to a chocolate and fudge factory, where we each received a handful of chocolate pieces to try while browsing the factory’s wares. The best part was the fudge counter, where we were able to try several different delicious flavours. It was so good that we decided to buy some, in addition to the chocolate Steve was buying. Unfortunately it was at this point that I realised I’d left my sunhat at the first winery! Embarrassed, I asked Sam if it would be possible to go back for it and he said he’d pick it up later.

Loaded up with bags of sweet treats, we piled into the minibus again to be driven to a small out-of-town shopping centre that had a few cafés and specialist shops. Sam took us into one called The Smelly Cheese Shop, led us into a corner and brought out several jars. These jars contained the most incredible soft cheeses, which we sampled off sticks dipped into them. Our favourite was the middle-eastern labna cheese with dukkah, but the greek feta with sundried tomato and with garlic were also beautiful!

The cheese whet our appetite for lunch, which we ate at a gourmet burger place just a door down. My chicken, camembert and cranberry sauce burger was pretty good – but I’ve had better in London. Steve and I sat with Julia, who helped finish off my chips while telling us about her own travels.
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Ernest Hill winery

Lunch over, it was time for more wine – sadly, the last of the day! The Ernest Hill winery was more rustic than the other, comprising a charming wooden shack in which we perched on stools around upturned barrels. On these stood a delicate wine glass for each of us and more laminated menus. This winemaker was just as nice as the first but more generous with his samples, meaning we were actually feeling quite woozy by the time we left! He also made a valiant attempt to convert me to red wine, but to no avail. On the way out, Sam generously offered to photograph me and Steve with some barrels.

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Time for beer

Our final stop of the day was a brewery, which was now a slightly less attractive option than it had been before all the wine! Like the wineries, this warehouse-like building looked to be in the middle of nowhere but it had some interesting sights inside, such as the great, shining copper kilns in which the beer was made. We were able to buy two beers for the price of one, so Steve and I each surrendered to a half pint and nursed them while chatting to the other couples. My beer was berry flavoured, while Steve’s was bizarrely bacon flavoured! Sam heroically went and fetched my hat while we drank, then after a few more photos it was time to leave.
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Falling asleep on the long drive back was a foregone conclusion and I only woke up as we were crossing back over Sydney Bridge. Sam dropped us off at our lodgings group by group, the silent Singaporeans first – who mistakenly took our bag of fudge and chocolates along with theirs! Unfortunately we only realised when it was too late and no one had the accidental thieves’ mobile numbers. Sam kindly sent an email out to everyone afterwards and the Singaporeans replied, saying they would leave our bag at the reception of their hotel. However, when we went to pick them up on our final morning in Sydney there was nothing there. What happened we will never know.

Laundry and pizza

It was about dinner time when we got back to our apartment but, full and tipsy as we were, we weren’t hungry (only rather maudlin over our lost fudge). Instead, we decided to do our laundry. This necessitated several frustrating trips up and down the lift to the apartment block’s car park and laundry room, which contained merely two machines that were perpetually in use. After a few hours, many rides in the lift and much perseverance later, we were the proud owners of some clean but wet clothes. There were no dryers free of course so we resigned ourselves to finding places to hang them up.
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It was about 20:30 by now and our tummies were rumbling. We picked Mad Pizza E Bar for dinner mostly because it was right outside our front door and we hadn’t the energy to go any further – but it turned out to be a great choice. Due to the late hour it was quite empty but thankfully that didn’t spoil the ambiance. Cavernous, dimly lit and stylishly quirky, it could easily have been one of the hipster hangouts with which we’re so familiar in London. But here they had something I’ve never seen elsewhere: brown paper on all the tables and pots of coloured crayons with which to draw on it! We doodled away until our giant pizzas arrived: balanced atop metal wire stands, presumably to leave more room on the table.

Our ‘Demario’ and ‘Pino’s Balls’ pizzas were just as tasty as they were large! They were thin, crispy and filled from edge to edge with beautiful fresh ingredients such as buffalo mozzarella and roast pumpkin. My ‘Love Boat to Rio’ cocktail was similarly large and delicious: one of the loveliest I’ve had. Reconfirmation that Australians make the best cocktails! I couldn’t finish my pizza so had the rest of it put in a box to revisit later. We staggered home very full and fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow – worn out by yet another glorious day.
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All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2015. All rights reserved.

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