What better way to spend a birthday than to take in a winery tour in a foreign country? That’s what my husband and I did this November for our respective birthdays. We just *happened* to be in Australia for our birthdays, which, of course is a fabulous place for wineries and picturesque vineyards. We were staying in Newcastle, about a 45-minute drive from the Hunter Valley wine region. The day before our birthdays we stopped off at the visitor center and picked up copies of every brochure they had on winery tours.
We settled on a company called TexTours, which seemed to have the best price for what it included ($90 for a full day tour, covering 4-5 vineyards). When my husband called to make the reservation, Tex told him to make sure that we had a good hearty breakfast first. The tour started early in the morning, and in Tex’s words, “we hit the ground running.” This sounded like our kind of tour.
Tex picked us up at our hotel around 8:30am the next morning, and we got into the SUV. There was one other person on the bus, a fellow from Rioja named Faustino. Tex told us we would be picking up additional guests on our way out of Newcastle.
On the drive out of Newcastle, Tex gave us a little history lesson. Newcastle was a town built primarily on heavy industry. In the 19th and 20th centuries, its four biggest industries were copper, soap, coal and steel. The soap factory closed in the 1930s, and the steelworks shut down in 1999, leaving coal as the biggest industry to support this little coastal city of 290,000. In fact, Newcastle is the world’s largest coal exporting harbour. There is even an open pit coal mine operation just a half-hour’s drive from the Hunter Valley wine region. Perhaps this gives the wines a more “minerally” flavour?
We swung by a golf resort to pick up two more guests, then we were on our way to the first winery, Constable Estate:
The owner of the winery, David Constable bought the land in 1982, sight unseen. Amazing that his gamble paid off so well! Most of the wineries we would visit were small producers. Constable Estate, for example, only produces about 36,000 bottles per year. So chances are you won’t find most of these outside of Australia.
Our host walked us through the wines, starting with the whites and then going to the reds. They even had a sparkling shiraz, which was really flavourful and had notes of plum. We’d never had a sparkling red wine before!
In order to keep track of what we were drinking, I started to make a list on a little scrap of paper. We started with the sparkling cuvee, and ran the gamut down to their botrytis semillon. In fact, that tasting menu up above had two sides, and there were very few we skipped.
Toward the end of our tasting, Faustino noticed me writing down the wines. In his broken English, he asked me, “how many?” I counted the wines on my piece of paper, and said, “Eleven.” His eyes widened in surprise. “Oh,” he replied. Tex wasn’t kidding when he said we would hit the ground running. It wasn’t even close to being noon yet. Maybe it was better not to count how many wines we were trying.
We purchased three bottles of the 2009 Botrytis Semillon, which was one of those wines that tastes better than it smells. A sweet wine, not unlike some of our Canadian ice wines, the fragrance reminded me a bit of petroleum jelly. But the flavour had candied citrus and sweet honeyed notes that were really lovely.
After the tasting we had a bit of time to explore their lovely sculpture garden. The big purple flowering tree in the background is a jacaranda. They had some really cool pieces here, and made me long for a yard big enough to fill with art!
From Constable Estate we headed to our next winery – Lambloch Estates. I admit that I was a bit distracted by the sign also pointing to a dessert bar just up the road!
At Lambloch we stopped to admire the vines. They look rather small and unimpressive in November, but by the time the grapes are ready for harvesting in Feburary-March, these vines will be nicely filled out! Lambloch vineyards were planted in the 1950s and the estate covers 20 acres – small potatoes by many vineyard standards. But this allows them to focus on quality rather than quantity.
Yes, there are grapes on this vine…can you spot them?
Lambloch Estates makes a few ranges of wines for different tastes and price points. “Flipside,” for example, are wines made to appeal to those who prefer sweeter notes. They also make cider, though we didn’t get the chance to try any this time around.
By this time it was finally lunch, which was good because between the wines and the heat we were all starting to get a bit jelly-like. Tex took us to Hunter Valley Gardens for lunch at our own expense.
Hunter Valley Gardens is a bit hard to describe, but it’s like a multi-facility tourist trap/resort with ornamental gardens, walking paths, golf, accommodations, shops and restaurants. Oh yeah, and a giant bottle of wine, in case you forget where you are:
We stopped into Oscar’s for lunch; a nice casual cafeteria-style restaurant. I ordered the spinach, tomato and feta quiche, which was really tasty and just what I needed to get me through more wine tastings:
Actually I would have liked to spend more time here poking around, especially in some of the shops. Since it was getting close to Christmas, I could see doing a bit of shopping here for presents. Right, Big Guy?
From here we piled back into the van, where we were joined by another couple who had chosen just the half-day tour option. Honestly though, we felt like they kind of got the short end of the stick, because the tour energy was starting to wind down a bit after lunch. If you’re going to do a winery tour, you may as well make it a full-day adventure, right?
Our next winery was Ernest Hill. They produce a bit more than the last two wineries we visited, at 72,000 bottles per year.
Their vineyard was originally planted in the 1960s by Harry Tulloch. In 1999 the Wilson family purchased part of the lands, and leased additional land behind the winery for a total of 24 acres. They make some lovely wines, including a late harvest gewurztraminer, one of my favourite whites.
As I scribbled down each wine along the way, Faustino leaned over the wine barrel that was our table and asked, “how many now?” I looked at my list and said, “Nine.” He nodded and finished the last sip in his glass. “Good, good,” he replied.
We got back in the van and Tex took us to a small area of specialty shops for tastings of another kind: cheese and chocolate! We started at Smelly Deli Cheese Shop:
The cheeses in the tasting were all soft, spreadable cheeses. But they did have hard cheese behind the counter, as well as oils, vinegars, mixed nuts, and other spreads.
Then we headed to the chocolate shop for something sweet:
There were too many temptations in here! We opted not to purchase anything due to the heat, but we did get a few try-me’s. Some of their work was really fabulous. Just look at the chocolate “grapes” in the middle tray:
Our last big stop was also the biggest wine producer on the tour: McGuigan Wines.
They recently won several awards at the International Wine and Spirit Competition 2016 London, including International Winemaker of the Year, Australian Producer of the Year, and International trophies for their shiraz and semillon wines.
Here, we tried the sparkling semillion blanc, Bin 9000 semillion, gewurztraminer, malbec, shiraz cabernet, noon harvest merlot, personal reserve late picked traminer and finally, the personal reserve tawny.
Faustino just looked at me; he didn’t have to ask anymore. “Eight wines this time, Faustino,” I said. “Done?” he asked, sipping from his glass thoughtfully. The sun was starting to get low in the sky.
“Yes, Faustino,” I smiled, “I think we are done.”
Some McGuigan wines can be found in Alberta; you can search for them through Liquor Connect.