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Even on a cloudy day, wine country is totally gorgeous

I’d say one of the true highlights of Beege’s visit was the day trip we took from Sydney to wine country in the Hunter Valley, which is about two hours north of the city. Having always been the designated driver when I lived in Berkeley and took visitors to nearby Sonoma and Napa, I was keen on taking a group tour where I wouldn’t have to worry about driving. Plus I’m yet to drive on a highway here, so there was that. Thing is, I’d heard abstractly about these group tours, but didn’t have any specifics. To be honest, group tours usually drive me nuts. Tourguides fancy themselves stand-up comics (angling for tips) and you only visit well-trod sites that are anything but authentic. I sound like such a travel snob, but it’s true! I was determined to avoid one of those massive tour buses that only a mega-winery could accommodate.

My first search stop was winecountry.com.au, the official site of Hunter Valley Tourism. They have an extensive list of reputable tour companies, and I narrowed it further by only searching for small group tours, and then those places that had decent websites. Since few companies here seem to be Internet-competent, just two places stuck out to me. I wrote to both, inquiring as to whether they’d visit specific wineries that I was interested in seeing, and both wrote back within a day to say they’d be happy to. This was definitely a good sign, but now I needed something to break the tie.

Another expat blogger, Laura at sf 2 Oz, wrote a post about touring with one of those companies, and it sounded a bit too didactic for my taste. For one, I took Cornell’s famous “Introduction to Wines” course in college (according to legend it’s the school’s most-failed class, but luckily I passed), so I have a decent foundation of wine knowledge (probably the most useful course I took in college, seeing as I was a history major). Secondly, who wants to tour around wine country all tipsy but then worry about taking a quiz? I’m all for tasting wines and discussing their complex bouquets, but I don’t want to think too much about the soil or terroir or whatever. Not that that’s necessarily what it was about, it just didn’t seem like my cup of tea (or glass of wine, as the case may be). For those with very little wine knowledge who are eager to learn more, though, I bet it’s quite interesting.

This left the other company, Boutique Wine Tours, which also happened to be cheaper. Furthermore, I noticed that it received universally glowing reviews on TripAdvisor, on which it’s ranked the #3 attraction in all of Sydney. Not that I would ever take TripAdvisor as gospel, but it definitely bolstered their cred slightly. Plus I liked the idea of visiting vineyards that are so small they don’t even sell their wines outside the Hunter Valley (hence the name Boutique Wine Tours). So Beege and I trekked up to the Holiday Inn at KX for an ungodly 7:20am pickup, where we met our extremely friendly guide, Jason, as he was preparing our van for departure. I’m pretty much useless before 10am, but he managed to engage both of us in conversation in a way that felt neither canned nor stand-up comicesque. On the two hour drive up to the Hunter (which is quite picturesque in its own right), Jason filled us in on all sorts of random Australia trivia, and promised a prize to the first person who spotted a car window with a South Sydney Rabbitohs sticker. Beege won the prize; Go America!

After drinking wine around 10am at Iron Gate Estate

Lucky for us, there were only three other people on our tour, making it quite laid-back, as if we were just touring with a small group of friends. The weather certainly could have been better, but at least it never really rained. We hit up four wineries: Iron Gate Estate, Ernest Hill, McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant, and Tallavera Grove. Each had selections of both Shiraz and Semillon – the Hunter’s two most prominent grapes – yet each “cellar door” was refreshingly distinct from the others. Iron Gate is very new with state of the art equipment– it reminded me a lot visually of  Silverado Vineyards in Napa. Ernest Hill is teeny tiny – just a couple vineyards and the father and son winemakers live in modest houses adjacent to the tasting room – but their shareholders’ Shiraz was just as light and juicy as Jason said it would be, and Beege and I were both quite taken with their late-harvest semillon dessert wine.

The modest tasting room at charming little Ernest Hill

McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant is actually one of the bigger producers in the Hunter Valley; Jason took us here at my behest (I was intrigued after reading this article at Qantas’s website). I liked a lot of their Semillons, and found their Old Paddock & Old Hill Shiraz had a lot more depth and complexity than any other Shiraz that I’d tasted. I’m also a big fortified wine fan, and quite liked their Port (I am my father’s daughter).

Some of the oldest vines in the Hunter Valley, with mountain in the background

Tallavera Grove is located at the edge of the valley, on a ridiculously scenic hilltop with views that were gorgeous even in gloomy weather. I can’t imagine how lovely it must be on a sunny day. Furthermore, we were able to do our tasting at a long table on a patio overlooking the idyllic scenery:

The ideal place to sip wine & cap off the day

It’s so peaceful – the only noise came from the chirping of nearby birds – and the winery manager had an extremely soothing voice, which he used to great effect as he poured and described each wine. I commented on this as we all piled into the van to head back to Sydney, and everyone in the group agreed, with Beege adding, “I bet he’d be great at telling bedtime stories.” I believe she said this in earnest, but Jason hilariously gave her a lot of cheek, chiding “Oh I’ll be sure to let Damian know that you’d like to have him tell you bedtime stories, Bridget!” It was pretty hilarious.

All in all, it was a lovely day, although we all passed out on the long car ride back to Sydney (getting up at 6am and drinking from 10am-4pm is exhausting!). And I have nothing but great things to say about our tourguide Jason, who was quite genial and obviously loves both Sydney and wine very much. He had lots of interesting info to share with the group, but never got overly technical or bogged down in the science of it all, nor did he dumb anything down (I have very little patience for bullshit). I never felt like he was angling for a big tip, or trying to sell us wines because he was in cahoots with a vineyard. He also took a detour over some bumpy country roads where we were able to spot a mob of kangaroos and take all the requisite photos. Beege and I both give him a big thumbs up, and I’d recommend Boutique Wine Tours to any of you wine lovers out there.

Beege with our ace tourguide, Jason, at Tallavera Grove (note Rabbitohs hat)