Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Another Trip (The Last?) to the Hunter Valley

First day of the trip was from the south coast through Sydney to the central coast to stay overnight at Stirls.
The drive through Sydney is always a pain. Lots of heavy traffic and multiple hold ups. This time it took around 2 hours from the south to the north of the city.
But Stirls had a good dinner and nice wine waiting so all was good in the end.

Next morning we headed for the Hunter and over the next two days visited a few wineries for tastings and wine purchases.
The Hunter is best known for Semillon (both young and aged), Shiraz, Chardonnay and the up and coming Verdelho.
Our main aim was to taste the latest release (2015 vintage) of Semillon and Verdelho.
The samples of both varieties were excellent. We succumbed to some cellar aged Semillon (2007) at Mt. Pleasant as well.
As usual we bought a little bit more than planned.

We visited
McWilliam's Mt. Pleasant
Drayton's Family Wines
We had a very nice long lunch at the Muse Kitchen at the Keith Tulloch Winery and stayed over night at the Grand Mercure Vintage which was very comfortable.

Then it was another night at Stirls before stopping off in Sydney for yet another over-nighter to celebrate the daughter's birthday at Billy Kwong.
This restaurant is run by celebrity chef Kylie Kwong where she showcases her immigrant-Chinese background by marrying traditional Chinese cooking with many native Australian ingredients. This creates an unusual but yummy fusion of flavours.
We decided on the banquet menu which couldn't be faulted. The wine list was also extensive and quite eclectic.
Now why would we consider this to be our last trip to the Hunter area?
The first major plantings in the Valley were established in 1825 when James Busby, widely considered the father of Australian wine, purchased vineyard land between the settlements of Branxton and Singleton.
Stirling and I first visited the Hunter Valley in the early 1970s. We were both members of the now defunct Rothbury Estate established by Len Evans, a Brit who migrated to Australia in 1955 and, who it is said, "advanced the cause of wine in Australia more than any other individual." There we attended wine dinners, pre release tastings and wine education days.
There were fewer wineries about then but some of those that were had been establish for a long time eg. Wyndham Estate (1848), Draytons (1853), Tyrrells (1858), Mt Pleasant (1921).
The Old

In our earlier visits tasting rooms were rustic and the people there were usually family members or old time employees. You got to talk to the viticulturists and winemakers. You stayed in an old fashioned motel or country pub. Wine prices were in general cheaper than you could get in the city for the same bottle.
As time went on the area became more accessible (better roads) and more touristy with many more attractions than just being a wine region eg. golf courses, chocolate factories, olive oil plantations, breweries, themed flower gardens to name a few.
Major hotel chains built luxury accommodation and B&Bs sprung up everywhere. Destination weddings and business conferences became big business.
We really began to notice the change over the last decade or so.
This time round the tasting rooms, even in the older places, were all polished wood, glass and chrome. The people serving the minuscule tastings were sales people with a set patter. Some even want to charge for a tasting. Even where I am a winery member I could buy the same wine cheaper by mail order through companies like Dan Murphy. Prices for food ($25 for a hamburger or $21 for a green leaf salad, anyone?) and accommodation have gone through the roof.
The New
I was looking for a word to describe the vibe we found in the Hunter this time around. I came up with slick:  deftly executed and having surface appeal or sophistication, but shallow or glib in content; polished but superficial; glib.
I try not to be one of those "back in the good old days" people but in the case of Hunter Valley visits I think I am 'done'.

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