Thursday, January 29, 2009

Convert to the Hunter cause

I'D always snubbed the Hunter Valley: as a Sandgroper from the southwest of Western Australia, my parochial mind claimed Margaret River as Australia's premiere wine region.

So it was with a sniff of snobbery that I made my way up the coast late one Friday.

The Pacific Highway did its usual impression of an afflicted smoker, every bit a clogged artery. But it was easy enough to navigate, and a left turn after 90 minutes saw us meander into Cessnock under darkness.

Embracing a quasi-religious experience for the remainder of the journey – the brilliant stars acting as guide, illuminating the dusty tracks – we eventually found our accommodation and a warm welcome.

Hunter Valley Country Cabins' Delia Metcalfe – a transplanted Sydneysider who runs the place with husband Peter – gave us a quick rundown of the property, which comprises a 120ha bushland setting atop Mount View, in the hills above Millfield.

The accommodation itself was basic yet perfect for a couple in search of solace. The self-contained wood cabin, with TV, DVD player and air-conditioning, was rustic and literally warm in its appeal, the fire having been lit in anticipation of our arrival.

It was one of several impressive touches that proved ideal for two tired travellers.

A food basket with pre-prepared meals from local gourmet deli Mojo's kept culinary fuss to a minimum. The tender osso buco came with freshly baked crusty bread and a pate that would have Francophiles nodding in approval.

The morning brought a crisp air to the valley. It also allowed a more measured appreciation of the stunning setting.

Falling away from the cabin's deck (which was adorned by a barbecue) was thick bushland with a wealth of eucalypts.

Birdsong drew us into the scrub, where Peter has carved out several subtle tracks that take in the surrounds and the small creek running through the property.

However, walking was a minor distraction. This weekend was to act as a flavoursome feast of the Hunter.

A short drive away was Wandin Valley Winery. A popular destination run by the creators of television series A Country Practice – hence its name – the estate's cricket oval was transformed into a posh market.

Small stalls scattered around the oval's fringes sold samples of food and wine from many of the region's lesser-known providores.

Amateur experts used their limited knowledge to engage wine vendors, glugging the tasting tipples that were for most part generously filled.

We left this quaint community carnival, officially titled A Taste Of Lovedale, with lighter wallets and half the boot space in our car. The standouts were cheese from the Binnorie Dairy and a subtle rose from Emma's Cottage.

A leisurely afternoon ensued. A gourmet contemporary Australian tapas experience at The Mill Restaurant was ideal and light in anticipation of the evening's degustation menu scheduled for Restaurant Cuvee.

Taking to the back roads to make our dinner reservation proved interesting.

Kangaroo was close to being our first course, when one decided to test the strength of our car's front grille and windscreen.

I'm still not sure who was more shocked, the kangaroo or my British wife, who wailed at the thought of harming one half of our national emblem.

Travelling at a speed more often associated with octogenarian drivers had saved the roo. Visibly shaken, it soon rose to its feet before bounding back into the dense bush.

Its quick recovery was not mirrored by my wife, who took until the tantalising eighth course to forget the close call.

The matching wines are a must for those dining at Cuvee, the exquisite experience enhanced by extensive knowledge employed by the matre d'.

Again gorged and content, time in front of our cabin's log fire beckoned. Especially given the next day's early and lofty agenda.

A helicopter flight over the region concluded our introduction to the Hunter. Hovering over the plethora of plantations, it proved a perfect way to gain a further appreciation of the area.

While florally less dense than Margaret River, the Hunter's wide expanses – and its wealth of wineries and eateries – justify its premier position on the list of Australia's wine regions.