The oldest, the pioneers and the root of Hunter Valley.
After an exhilarating hot air balloon flight over the wine country, our Hunter Valley adventure continues on the ground, visiting some of the region's older vines and also learning more about the oldest living culture on earth at the picturesque Wollombi Valley.
Our first stop is at Tyrrell's Wines, and who said you need a flashy modern architecture building to be named as the "Star Cellar Door" by Gourmet Traveller Wine? A visit to Tyrrell’s Pokolbin based winery and Cellar Door offers a unique insight to over 150 years of winemaking, with the old oak vats and historic dirt floor cellar still in full operation.
This is where it all started, the original iron bark hut built in 1858 by Edward Tyrrell, the first generation of Tyrrell’s winemakers, is still standing tall, overlooking 4 Acres Vineyard, planted back in 1879.
The cellar door opens daily plus a winery tour that runs regularly makes Tyrrell's a must visit at the lower Hunter region. There are five generations of history reminiscing at every corner, family portraits on the wall are the keepsake of past and present.
Proudly independent, Tyrrell's is now headed up by fourth generation family member Bruce Tyrrell, with his children following his footstep and the young guns are already submerged themselves in this family run business.
We have a quick tour of the wine cellar and sample Tyrrell's iconic Vat 1 Semillon straight from the barrel.
Then we also put the test by sampling a range of Vat 1 Semillon from different years of 2012, 2006, 1999 but we have to guess the last one. Despite the 1999 Semillon has been oxidised a little with a darker amber colour, we still guessing the mystery wine which still carry the fruity notes quite well to fit between 2006 and 1999, surprisingly it is actually the oldest among the four, as we are told later that the old bottle shape is dead give away.
1838 Broke Road, Pokolbin, NSW 2320
P: 02 4993 7000
The Cellar restaurant
By midday and before we hitting more cellar doors for more wine tasting, it is time for lunch at The Cellar restaurant. Nestled inside the Hunter Valley Gardens complex, The Cellar has been operating since 1978, originally a tuck shop opened by Robert & Sally Molines. This institution has since changed hands where now Andrew and Janet Wright are the full owners and still serving outstanding meal focusing on local produce.
The huge central fireplace inside the dining room is everyone's friend during the winter months, but the warm sun is begging for an alfresco dining. The menu options are extensive, from bite size sharing morsels, charcuterie, to something more substantial of entrees, mains and an impressive selection of premium meat and seafood. That's not it, there is also a seasonal 8-hr braised Milly Hill lamb shoulder that will keep 2 to 3 people well fed.
We start by sharing a few appetisers, the deep fried sardines with heirloom tomatoes are simply divine; although I wish the pork belly comes with a few tiles of crackles, the sweet meat is tender and juicy, happily mopping up the cauliflower puree. I do love my black pudding pan fried with crispy edges, the sausage is crumbly, studded with not too much wheat and barley, just how I like it.
There is a good selection of steaks on the menu to choose from, our 250 grams Angus reserve sirloin is heavenly delicious, juicy medium rare with ribbons of fat run through the meat guarantees a meltingly tender satisfaction. There are a total of 15 sauces to pair with the beast, and the horseradish creme fraiche is a classic pairing that never fails to please.
We have two sides to share with our mains, the roast kipflers with garlic and rosemary are exceptionally moreish but the baked cauliflower cheese with jamon crumbs is simply to die for, soft cauliflower florets literally covered in hot melted cheese, is ridiculously decadent.
The market fish of the day is pan fried skate in caper butter sauce, it arrives in a generous serving of two large skate wings dressed in herbaceous caper butter sauce. The fish is cooked just right, the meaty white flesh is soft and not too dry. The dish can easily feed two, as I struggle to finish the dish on my own.
We could easily spend the whole afternoon in the courtyard at The Cellar, but we are already running late for our next meeting and simply no more room for desserts, is best to get up and march on to the next wine tasting.
The Cellar Restaurant
2090 Broke Road, Pokolbin,
NSW 2320 (inside Hunter Valley Gardens complex)
P: 02 4998 7584
Another winemaking pioneer in Hunter Valley, the Tulloch Wines story dated back to 1800's and have been producing outstanding quality wines from the fertile soil of the Hunter Valley since 1895 from some of the oldest vines in the region. By 1920's, Tulloch was the largest vigneron in the Hunter and now in its 117th year, the Tulloch name lives on as a founding producer of the Hunter region.
We are invited to an intimate wine tasting session of their trademark variety, Verdelho, in four different styles - sparkling, dry, sweet and fortified. This versatile fruity variety is unique and treasured within the Hunter and Tulloch managed to yield the best result from this variety. Tulloch's shiraz is also another excellent drop we love, the 2011 JYT selection is definitely not your typical shiraz with a small handful of Tempranillo from Orange, but the my palate matches better with 2009 Hector Shiraz, an elegant red with spice and black fruits.
638 DeBeyers Road, Pokolbin NSW 2320
P: 02 4998 7580
We visited the Tyrrell, the Tulloch and now the Drayton. With over 150 years of fine wine making tradition carried forward by five generations, The Drayton's are proud to be one of only two wineries established in the Hunter Valley that are still maintaining the unbroken line of family and winemakers.
While the Drayton's do produce red and white wines, but they are more well known for their tawny and fortified wines. Prices range from $13 for a young Old Tawny, to an Aged 21 years Old Decanter for $75, there are enough alcohol in each bottle to make the chest hair grows.
They also kindly let us have a quick tour of the winery. It is interesting to see a replica of the old homestead Drayton's winery once was remains in the factory, the original was burnt down after the tragic fire accident back in 2008 resulted in the death of winemaker, Trevor Drayton.
By the time we finish touring Drayton's, I am already half drunk and is best to call it a day. It's time to head back to our hotel, freshen up and get ready for our dinner.
555 Oakey Creek Road,
Pokolbin NSW 2320
P: 02 4998 7513
Tonight we will be dining at the recently relaunched Chez Pok at Peppers Guest House. Chez Pok was opened in 1984 and has a long association with the wineries and produce growers of the Pokolbin wine country. After a brief interlude as ‘Restaurant Sanctuary’ under previous management, Chez Pok returns with a renewed focus under new Executive Chef, John Edwards who brings you a new French inspired menu.
We order half a dozen of oyster beignets as appetisers albeit I do love them au natural. These deep fried oysters are still warm, encased inside a crispy batter shell served with wasabi cream that is not overly hot.
For entree, we share a platter of duck liver parfait and house cured duck prosciutto. The silky smooth liver parfait spread like butter on toast, accompanied by candied onions and cornichons to cut through the richness; the thin slivers of duck prosciutto are not at all gamey, velvety red meat simply melt in the mouth.
For mains, the twice cooked spatchcock is a sight to behold; comes resting on a wooden block, the golden young bird is stuffed with garlic mascarpone, chestnut and pancetta stuffing that smells incredible. On the side is an individual serving of cauliflower gratin, sinfully smothered in saffron infused Comte cheese.
It's unusual for me to order a vegetarian dish for main, but the sweet corn tortellini is simply delightful; the al-dante pillows of tortellini are filled with sweet corn mash, served amongst a colourful floral arrangement of courgette flowers, asparagus, fresh green peas and cherry tomatoes, all dressed with an aromatic lemon and sage beurre noisette.
I am surprised that somehow we still manage to find some stomach space to fit in a couple of desserts. The cherry and hazelnut financier is dense like a flourless cake, paired with sponge-like blood orange mousse and a scoop blood orange sorbet that is refreshingly tangy; tiny little Frangelico caviar pearls are firm and chewy, with very subtle flavour.
The chocolate brulee is not exactly what I expected; served in a shot glass, despite the brulee is thick and creamy, I do miss cracking the toffee top of a classic brulee. A half raspberry macaron shell is a little on the crunchy side, topped with fresh raspberries and crystalised violets; perfect combo of raspberry and chocolate to cap the night off.
134 Ekerts Road, Pokolbin NSW 2320
P: 02 4993 8999
Ngurra Bu Cultural Tour
Our last day is going to be a special one, we bid farewell to the wine country and head west towards Wollombi valley, half n hour drive from Cessnock. Today, we will be joining the unique Ngurra Bu Cultural Tour to learn about traditional Aboriginal culture throughout Wollombi and Broke Valley.
Ngurra Bu, meaning 'little lore camp' is a not for profit Aboriginal organisation founded and runs by Adam Drylie and Jocelyn Grant. Established in 2009, Ngurra Bu's mission is to teach and share Aboriginal culture to ensure that it continues to be the oldest living culture on earth. And by running the culture tours, they are able to raise fund to run camps for Aboriginal people especially the younger generations who have been disconnected from their culture and also create employment opportunities for Aboriginal people.
We hop into the 4WD and head to the Finchley Aboriginal area in Yengo national park. On this tour, our experienced guides will their knowledge of the cultural significant sites of Hunter Wine Country and also the diverse uses of the surrounding bushland. We stop the car halfway through the national park and Adam jumps out to pick a few branches of eucalyptus leaves for the smoking ceremony. He also brings back some native honeysuckle for us to taste, we snap the flowers off the stem and suck the sweet nectar out, it is as sweet as it gets, and we have been told best to collect them in the morning when it is at its fullest with the morning dew. Sometimes they collect enough of these flowers to make a cordial.
As we arrive at the Finchley Aboriginal site, we follow the ancient custom of smoking ceremony before entering the sacred ground, which they believe has cleansing properties and the ability to ward off bad spirits. One by one as we kneel in front of the smoldering eucalyptus leaves, fan ourselves with white smoke filled with a calming aroma of eucalyptus oil.
The tour starts literally from the car park, and within a 10 metre walk, Adam and Jocelyn able to introduce us to a great variety of native bush food nearby. Other than being used as food resource, each plant also has other benefits, some can be used as fabric dye, mozzie repellent, aid for child birth and also cure nasty illness.
The Wollombi and Broke Valleys are home to numerous Ceremony and Lore sites. "Yamma garru!" As we shout out "G'day, how are you?" to the ancestors before entering the ancient sacred lore site. From a public eye, the site looks nothing more than just a flat sandstone ground in the midst of the forest with a few faint engravings that are barely visible.
Jocelyn pours water onto one of the engravings and immediately a figure holding a large boomerang slowly revealing itself, he is the guardian of this site telling you to stop, respect the site and follow the lore or you will be punished. This particular site is known as a 'map site', a common ground where the ancestors gathered around to share stories, each engraving has an arrow next to it, pointing to the direction of other site in the park where they can find out more about that particular story.
This site is a public area so vandalising is inevitable, as Jocelyn points out the additional of a mouth on the guardian as they usually don't carve the mouth as they believe humans are fed by mother earth through umbilical cord and not through the mouth. But believe it or not, another story we are told was that a man tried to steal one of the engravings and unfortunately found dead in his car the next morning, not far from the site with the stolen engraving still inside the car's boot.
There is also an engraving of an infant, with a pointer pointing deep into the national park where the birthing cave this baby was born. This is a family site where babies are brought here to learn the important lessons from this site.
The Aboriginal ancestors were very in tuned to the nature and environment indicators, so they would follow these indicators and start their journey across the land to the site and gather around at the same place at the same time. There are many indicators including star constellations show different ceremonies, wild bush turkeys from the coast and the west start building mound of nests at the same time indicates is the time for ceremony, and they will able to learn about the weather by observing an ant nest. If is a very hot day, the ants will move all white stones to the top to reflect the heat by keeping the nest cool, and in reverse they will keep the nest dark in colour to absorb as much heat as possible to keep the nest warm, which also means it will be a wet day and possibly not a good day to continue the journey to the ceremonial site.
The Ngurra Bu cultural tour is definitely one of the highlights of our Hunter Valley trip. Being an immigrant to this country, I felt honoured to be able to learn more about the history and the Aboriginal culture of the Indigenous Australians, the "first peoples" who settled in this country. I highly recommend you to put this tour down in the itinerary on your next Hunter Valley trip, you will not be disappointed.
As we are driving back to Wollombi town centre, it is totally pot luck that Jocelyn able to spot some native berries on a tree on the side of the road from a moving car. It looks like a Christmas tree with tiny red baubles dangling off each branch, we make a quick stop and pick a few of these native berries to try, they are incredibly sweet! Now I can already see myself using more bush food in my future cooking adventures.
To book tour, please visit the website.
[A Table For Two visited Hunter Valley as the ambassador blogger for Wine Country Tourism]