There’s nothing nicer than waking up late on a weekend, and stretching your arms and neck to see a sunny day outside; not quite beckoning, but saying something like, “Yeah, just come out when you’re ready – take your time, I’ll be here all day.” It’s admittedly rare given only two out of seven days technically qualify as the weekend, let’s say 60% of the time is sunny (pulling numbers out of nowhere here), and you don’t always have the liberty of sleeping in and/or just enjoying the day.
I hit the jackpot on last long weekend at the Hunter Valley, although there were probably a dozen or so wineries beckoning in the distance. In bed, I actually arose to check out an odd sound outside – only to find a gaggle of white and light brown geese honking loudly and generally loitering down the back of the lodge. Trained pets or not, I’m not sure – though I did note the presence of foie gras on on-site restaurant’s menu.
The itinerary for the day was fairly loose – other than a visit to a cheese factory, we were going to wing it, trawl the dirt roads and visit any winery along the way that tickled our fancy. Following a simple buffet breakfast at the on-site eatery, we made the 10 minute or so trip from North Rothbury to Pokolbin and went directly to the Hunter Valley Cheese Company, next door to the McGuigans cellar door and complex.
The immediate pungency through the doors of the factory is not for non-cheese lovers, nor is the sight of multiple cheese-filled fridges and tasting cabinets full of bits of cut cheese. As for anyone else, restraint is needed. Rather than racing to taste though, I take a slow, sensible walk around the non-cheese produce area while waiting for the daily cheesemaker talk.
Peter Curtis is the man, and he talks about his craft with obvious love and experience to a crowd huddled in front of the glass window of the controlled-temperature maturation room. They don’t have their own cows, but Peter says his 4am wake up wouldn’t be assisted by having to milk cows too.
Peter briefly talks through the general cheesemaking process, highlighting a few different ways with different types of cheeses. For example, a fresh soft cheese, like their scrumptious fromage, will mature for about two days, whereas a hard cheddar could go for 18 months or more. There’s also – in no particular order – the salting/brining process (minutes or days), pressing and turning, washing or ashing of rinds, and most interestingly, the bacteria.
By the sounds of it, cheesemaking is like alchemy. Your choice of bacteria (mostly in powder form these days, Peter tells us) will not only determine your type of cheese, but characteristics of your cheese type too. A brie could be worlds apart from the one down the road using the same milk, based purely on the bacteria combination added and how they’re eating through the sugars in the curds. It comes down to the cheesemaker, or alchemist, in deciding what flavours and characteristics they want of their cheese – their cheese tasting palates must be exceptionally particular.
After Peter’s mini seminar, it was enough talk and time for cheese tasting. With almost everything on sample, we’re advised to start from the lighter flavoured soft cheeses, and progress through to the stronger ones and the hard cheeses – much like wine tasting if we think of whites as soft and reds as hard.
The soft, white, marinated fromage, as mentioned, is delicious – their version of a ricotta but flavoured with olive oil and sundried tomatoes – simply perfect picnic stuff with a crusty baguette. Going on from that, they have two bries: the subtle grape vine ashed brie and the ballsier Branxton Brie, which is creamy and saltier and everything I dream of in a brie.
On to the washed rinds, they’re still soft but with flavour that smacks you in the mouth. The Hunter Gold is rich in colour and flavour, but it’s the Pokolbin Smear Ripened that I can still taste and smell many minutes after sampling.
The Milawa Blue is divine – quite reserved for a kind-of soft blue, making it perfect for scoffing in large portions with fruit or maybe a sticky. I didn’t try all the cheddars, but made away with a bitey Wauchope Cheddar for lunch and/or home. Along with a small wheel of Branxton Brie and a few wedges of Milawa Blue. And some dried muscatels and caperberries. And green olive mustard from the produce section. And a piece of fudge.
Despite it being before noon, it was already wine o’clock – probably quite late by local standards since most cellar doors open at 10am. With McGuigans right next door, it was all too easy to taste the entire list, especially with a super-friendly staff member pouring the tastings. The favourite here was undoubtedly the 2008 ‘sweet’ Shiraz, which, while relatively steeply-priced, was uber smooth and suave, and in its funky-necked bottle was just dying to come home with me.
Hoisting out of there with a few bottles, we also joined a winery tour of the site which started at the wintery-looking vineyards (yet to be pruned) to hear about the operations. They mostly buy grapes from growers rather than maintaining their own vineyards (strategic given the global oversupply of wine in recent times) and an impressive 65% of all McGuigans production is shipped offshore. We head for the actual machines and equipment for winemaking as well (pressing, fermenting etc.), although bottling is done offsite.
The reds are kept in oak barrels for some time; but not many of the whites – the practice seeming so traditional, and old-fashioned even, compared to the high-tech of gigantic stainless steel containers for the whites. The French and American oak barrels themselves are intriguing stories and an important part of the flavour, if not cost, profile of a red wine. We're told you can even choose the 'toasting' of your barrel.
A good couple of hours after parking in the McGuigans complex, we set off down McDonalds Road to the Small Winemakers Centre, which adjoins the Australian Regional Food Store & Café. The Small Winemakers Centre offers a select few labels from the Hunter region, led by The Little Wine Company, and is ideal when you’re without a great deal of time to check out a lot of wineries.
I’d tried and like the Little Wine Company 2008 Gerwurz at FlavourFest, but fell in lust with the David Hook Riesling for its light, happy fruitiness. The Thomas Wines 2009 ‘Six Degrees’ Semillon was also a winner – rather a sweeter Semillon – while the The Little Wine Company Tawny Port in its squat, square glass bottle was irresistible for both its packaging and contents.
Next door, the Australian Regional Food Store & Café is filled with late lunchers and shelves of mostly local produce: think jams, chutneys, mustards, chocolates and more. The giant brownie-tray blocks of fudge were also momentarily tempting, as too the many jars out sampling their wares. The green chilli jam was hellishly hot, while the Indian-spiced eggplant was unusual but moreish.
Time was flying by a little too quickly, maybe or maybe not due to the ‘comprehensive’ tastings we were conducting. In the morning we’d passed Peterson House and its signboards proclaiming a partnership of oysters and champagne (oysters and sparkling white wine just doesn’t have the same ring). Not wanting to remotely risk missing out on this, we headed back to Peterson House with haste to a fairly packed car park; understandable with the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company, a restaurant and wedding coordinator on site.
Our general aim in tasting was to find a sparkling to match with oysters; the sweeter sparkling rosés of Pink Blush Rose and Illusion Sparkling Rose completely inappropriate. Some of the sparkling whites tended too dry but the (surprisingly cheapest) NV Sparkling Gateway proved to be the favourite, with and without oysters.
I’ve finally developed my liking for oysters au naturale, though I’m still partial to a Kilpatrick one any day. I adore a wine vinaigrette but simple with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice (or Tabasco sauce for some), I gobbled my share of the plump, fresh oysters in the slowly setting afternoon sun, sipping my sparkling wine and wondering if there was anything better on a lazy Sunday long weekend afternoon. I think the pink galahs loitering nearby were having the very same thoughts.