Hunter Valley's heady brew of wine and wilderness

A sign outside a chocolatier next to the Keith Tulloch Winery in Hunter Valley, New South Wales. -- ST PHOTO: MELISSA HENG
A sign outside a chocolatier next to the Keith Tulloch Winery in Hunter Valley, New South Wales. -- ST PHOTO: MELISSA HENG
If you want to picnic in the valley, stop by the Smelly Cheese Shop, which offers the best local and imported cheese, gourmet foods and also amazing gelato. -- PHOTO: LISA MAREE WILLIAMS, DESTINATION NSW
If you want to picnic in the valley, stop by the Smelly Cheese Shop, which offers the best local and imported cheese, gourmet foods and also amazing gelato. -- PHOTO: LISA MAREE WILLIAMS, DESTINATION NSW
A vineyard in Hunter Valley, New South Wales (above). -- PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW
A vineyard in Hunter Valley, New South Wales (above). -- PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW
Besides indulging in wine, you can also go horse riding in Hunter Valley. -- PHOTO: JEFF DREWITZ, DESTINATION NSW
Besides indulging in wine, you can also go horse riding in Hunter Valley. -- PHOTO: JEFF DREWITZ, DESTINATION NSW
For a panoramic view of Hunter Valley, try a hot-air balloon ride. -- PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW, MURRAY VANDERVEER
For a panoramic view of Hunter Valley, try a hot-air balloon ride. -- PHOTO: DESTINATION NSW, MURRAY VANDERVEER

Hunter Valley, one of Australia's best-known wine regions, also features luxurious accommodation against a backdrop of mountains

As I step off the trail into the tall grass, the rustling disturbs the croaks and chirps of hidden frogs and crickets, making heads turn and ears perk up.

Several large kangaroos pop up from amid the troop to see what has come to disturb their silent grazing.

I move forward slowly, trying to be as quiet as possible, till I am less than 15m away from them. I catch my breath, resisting the urge to laugh from the excitement of seeing the wild marsupials up close.

More than 20 of them trail down the small hillside, which sits just in front of Chateau Elan (www.chateauelan.com.au), the five-star resort where our tour group is staying. It is one of the many lavish accommodation options available in the Hunter Valley.

It takes less than three hours to drive from Sydney to the valley, one of Australia's best-known wine regions.

But the country landscape, with a backdrop of mountains and which is filled with olive groves and vineyards, feels like it is a world away from the metropolitan capital of New South Wales (www.destinationnsw.com.au).

There is a pervasive wildness that lingers in the Hunter Valley amid the luxury and the indulgence of world-class wines, gourmet regional produce and beautiful chateaux.

As the kangaroos hop away into the pink-tinged twilight, I turn back to the resort to meet the rest of the tour group as we prepare for dinner.

Tonight we dine at Esca Bimbadgen, a restaurant perched at the top of a hill in the heart of the valley. Our menu, titled Beef-Olution, is a four-course affair showcasing the versatility of beef in a progression of styles.

From a refreshing tartare mixed with truffles and anchovy to lightly sizzled tataki slices seasoned with sesame and rice wine to a tender steak off the bone paired with honey roasted parsnip, marmalade and brussel sprouts, the flavours are deep and satisfying, and each course is thoughtfully matched with a delectable Bimbadgen wine.

Beef-Olution is just one of the culinary experiences available in Hunter Valley during this year's Wine & Food month (www.winecountry.com.au), an event that celebrates the region's diverse wine and food culture every June.

Wine-makers put together tastings and wine trails, where you can learn more about your favourite variety and its characteristics or simply enjoy a range of award-winning wines.

Chefs create decadent menus to show off their skills using the best locally sourced produce, sometimes grown in their own backyards, to provide exciting gourmet fare.

Events take place daily throughout the month with bookings available at each estate or restaurant website.

In the morning, we are taken to Adina Vineyard & Olive Grove where we go through its Olive Experience, also a part of Food & Wine month. The vineyard's owner Peter O'Meara shows us how its premium extra virgin olive oil is made, from the sorting of the olives to how the oil is extracted and bottled.

Though the olives have all been harvested and pressed, the scent of the light gold liquid lingers in the mill. The olives that are being turned into table olives are all packed into barrels of brine solution that will take the bitterness out of the fruit and leave only the tangy flavours that are complimentary to salads or a simple glass of wine.

We also get to taste different varieties of infused oils, caramelised balsamic vinegar, dukkah (a mixture of herbs, nuts, and spices) and a range of flavourful table olives.

We finish off at Emerson's Restaurant, located in Adina, where we are treated to a scrumptious three- course meal that includes a surprisingly sweet and complex olive tart.

The restaurant's porch offers a panoramic view of the vineyard and lush olive trees and it is all too easy to relax in the crisp winter air, savour a glass or two of wine and let your mind wonder.

As we drive through the valley, our guide introduces us to a little of the valley's history. She tells us that grapevines were initially planted in the valley as a means to encourage sobriety. It was believed that those who drank spirits and hard liquor would be less inclined to drunkenness and disorderly behaviour if they had wine instead.

Now the valley houses the vineyards and wineries of some of the industry's oldest and best-known winemaking families. One of the founding producers of the Hunter, the Tulloch family, have been producing award-winning wines since 1895.

At the Tulloch Cellar Door, we are ushered into a private room where a table has been laid out with wine glasses and platters of finger food.

I get to savour five different styles of the Tulloch's famed Verdelho, each glass of white wine paired with mouthfuls of exquisitely chosen hors d'oeuvres.

Most of the wines are refreshing with various degrees of sweetness that make each unique. The sparkling pink Verscato, the Tulloch's alternative to the Moscato, is a perfect celebratory drink, a light alcohol to match any dessert.

But the highlight comes at the end of the tasting when we try the luscious fortified Creme de Vin.

It is a rich amber liquid with a complex nose of butterscotch and toffee with slight hints of orange peel and almond. Paired with fluffy caramel cake, it is a warm and enjoyable end to the Verdelho experience.

Our host tells us that an open bottle will last for months, but jokes that at his house, open bottles usually do not last beyond the night.

As we drive back to our resort, passing stables and ponds and kangaroos, almost everyone in the group is carrying some olive oil or a bottle or two of wine, our attempt to take home the flavours of the valley.

These are but small memories and mere hints of the wide clear expanse, the rich luscious cuisine and the whimsical wilderness that is Hunter Valley.

melheng@sph.com.sg

The writer's trip was sponsored by Destination New South Wales and Singapore Airlines.


Five other things to do in Hunter Valley

Hot air ballooning

Multiple operators offer daily sunrise flights over the vineyards. Balloon Aloft (www.balloonaloft.com) has a ballooning adventure package which includes a one-hour ride, a gourmet champagne breakfast and a sparkling wine-tasting for $292.40.

Horse riding

Take in a different view of Hunter Valley, from scenic picnic routes to romantic sunset rides, as you explore the trails on horseback. Hunter Valley Horse Riding & Adventures (huntervalleyhorseriding.com.au) offers one-hour and 11/2-hour trail rides ranging from $65 to $86.50.

Helicopter tours

Fancy a more exciting way to take in the panorama of the wine country? Slattery Helicopters (www.slatteryhelicopters.com.au) offers a range of packages from basic flights to those that include breakfast, lunch or a tour of the valley's breweries. A basic eight-minute flight for two costs $167.70 while a four-hour tour for two, which includes lunch and wine tastings, costs $817.40.

Candy making

A fun activity for all ages. You can learn to make peanut brittle, marshmallows and boozy rocky road chocolate with an executive chef at the Hunter Valley Candy School (www.hunterresort.com.au). Its 90-minute workshop costs $52.40 a person.

Golf

Vineyards and olive groves are not all that are available in the wide green fields of the Hunter Valley. Prestigious championship courses are also available at various golf clubs and resorts. The acclaimed 18-hole course at the Vintage Golf Club costs $109 a person on weekdays and $135.20 a person on weekends.

For more information and bookings, go to winecountry.com.au.