When you think of Australian cities you would be forgiven for not immediately thinking of Newcastle. Sydney has the fame and Melbourne is considered Australia’s cultural capital but if you can spare a couple of days to make the 2-hour drive North of Sydney to Australia’s 7th largest city, you will discover some of the most friendly people in Australia and some of the most delicious wines.
Gateway to the Hunter Valley Wine Region
Newcastle is commonly considered to be the gateway to the Hunter Valley where wines have been produced since the 1860s by some of Australia’s biggest names including Tyrrell’s, McGuigan’s and Bimbadgen. However, if you love discovering new flavors from boutique producers, the Hunter Valley definitely won’t disappoint.
The area boasts almost 200 vineyards (most of them producing less than 60, 000 cases a year per vineyard) and around 45 cellar doors offering tastings. Verdelho, Semillon, and Chardonnay are the dominant white varietals. When it comes to the reds you are certainly in “Shiraz Country” but you will also find plenty of Merlot’s and Cabernet/Shiraz blends.
While these varietals may dominate, Australia’s boutique wine producers are quite creative and it is common to see all manner of blends and experiments available for tasting. Unlike the heavily regulated wine regions such as France (for example where you can only grow, make and label “Champagne” in the Champagne region of France), Australian winemakers are able to grow any varietal and blend it as they see fit.
However, you must be able to successfully grow the variety in the hot and humid Australian conditions. Temperatures in Summer (especially in January when the harvest is due to take place) can be over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for well over a week before a cooler (think 80-85 degrees) day comes along to relieve the situation, so cold climate varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling just don’t survive.
Wine growers in the Hunter Valley region have been forced by the elements to get creative and lighter bodied red varietals of Italian and Spanish origin are a winner here due to the hot climate and sandy soil. As the hot Australian summer is perfect for light meals such as Margarita pizza or seafood, you will find the perfect light red wines to accompany them such as the Italian variety Sangiovese, or the Spanish Tempranillo which blends perfectly with Hunter Shiraz.
While the French may have invented the hardy and disease resistant Chambourcin grape (one of the few wine grapes with red flesh), Hunter Valley producers have made it their own and this variety is fast becoming one of the most popular red styles in the area. Even the wild deer and kangaroos in the area can’t get enough of this variety!
Wine and Cheese – A Perfect Combination
Wine tasting is of course “the done thing” when you visit the Hunter Valley but don’t forget to sample some of the delicious local cheeses (there are some amazing yogurt based Labnas), olives, olive oil, organic and olive-based soaps and more.
In fact, if you need alternative natural products made from goat’s or sheep’s milk or olive based products you will find them in abundance at the local markets which are set up each Saturday at several of the cellar doors.
All the products are made by hand (nothing mass produced) by Hunter Valley locals. The shop’s vendor is usually the very person who made the product – you can’t get more authentic than that!
Where to Stay in Hunter Valley
When it comes to visiting the Hunter Valley there are of course many options from luxury resorts to quaint country houses when it is time to find accommodation, however, you would be making a smart choice to opt to stay in the nearby town of Newcastle (around 45 minutes drive away).
For starters, your wallet will thank you as many Hunter Valley accommodation venues are quite pricey ($500 up to $1500 per night!) and have a 2-night minimum stay. 90% of visitors to the area arrive on a Friday night, stay and tour on Saturday, then leave on Sunday so the venues need to make their money on the weekend, so you won’t find much deviation from this.
In Newcastle, there are plenty of options including 3, 4 or even 5-star motels, serviced apartments and holiday homes that only require a 1-night stay and you are so much closer to facilities such as restaurants, bars and it is easy to get around with plenty of buses and taxis. Many Hunter Valley homes that are more affordable are in remote locations where you’ll need to plan ahead and bring your own food to cook and night-time transport is dangerous due to kangaroos on the country roads after dark.
Hunter Valley Wine Tours
Hunter Valley wine tours from Newcastle are easy to book and you can be picked up and returned to your accommodation at the end of the day and still have access to restaurants and transport of an evening.
When you stay in Newcastle you will be tempted to stay more than just one night. With beautiful sunny, clean beaches it is easy to see why Newcastle has such a strong surfing culture in summer. And if historical experiences are more your thing you absolutely must fit in a visit to Maitland Jail (in Australia we spell it “Gaol”).
If you are brave enough you can stay for dinner (with matching wines) then enjoy a nighttime tour of the cells by torchlight led by a former inmate! Night time ghost tours of the historical inner city buildings are also a fantastic way to become better acquainted with this historic convict city (if you’re brave enough!).
With delicious wines, gourmet food and Australia’s friendliest locals, exploring Newcastle and the Hunter Valley region is a must to incorporate into any Sydney getaway.