After two days in the Hunter Valley, I had amassed a grand total of four bottles of wine – not much to show for, although my belly might have been otherwise. Thus, the mission for the last day in the Hunter was to gather as many bottles as possible that tickled my fancy, tastebuds and purse strings.
After breakfast, the morning started perhaps a little off track and uncharacteristically Hunter – aqua golf at the Hunter Valley Gardens Village. Nothing like whacking a few golf balls into water to relieve stress – or in my case, overindulgence. After a few air swings (intentional, of course) and several flubbery, low-altitude, water-phobic shots; I finally got the swing of things and started launching balls not much further than the nearest baskets with the unlikely chance to win a Subway prize or dinner at a local pub.
Not that I needed incentives – once I started hitting the balls with some degree of height and that cracking “phwok” sound, I was addicted to trying to hit harder and further – to the point my ‘unusual’ grip was hurting my wrist. Aiming my golf balls was an entirely different challenge that I chose not to address this day.
Just reward came at the Village shops with an ice cream selection from a huge range at the main eatery. There were also various little shops selling boutique wares including kitchenware, candles and knick knacks, and of course, chocolate and sweets from the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company. I picked up a bag of ‘Salt Water Taffy’; an American confection of various colours and flavours which I’m still working through. So far, the watermelon is my favourite.
We got back on the road for the serious part of the day; cramming in some more wineries. The nearby Tempus Two cellar door is moderately tempting on its own but combined with the Smelly Cheese Shop, it has a particularly strong magnetic force.
One of the newest, and definitely flashiest, cellar doors in the region, Tempus Two is a breath-taker. The big modern space feels airy yet intimate, and houses both Tempus Two and Roche wine labels. The chest-height bar makes it perfect for propping up upon; and it’s a space I think perfect for hosting boozy, music and dance-filled events. And tasting a multitude of wines.
Some of the varieties are a little older, back in the cork phase, and so we see and taste a bottle or two getting delicate corkscrew treatment, including the stamped pewter label range Cabernet Sauvignon (from 2004 or 2005) and the quirkily bottled 2005 Botrytis Semillon – a collector’s item, perhaps.
Going outside for a breather before hitting the shops, the popularity of Tempus Two is undeniable. There seemed to be tourists by the bus load – and almost everyone outside was eating from the Japanese/Thai restaurant or the Hall of Food, incorporating the Smelly Cheese Shop.
I imagine this is what the ends of the rainbow might look like, with a green-suited leprechaun guarding the door. So much cheese in so little space – it was an intense, cold and happy few minutes. Imagine a cheese shopping spree: I’ll take a square of the local blue, a small wedge of grano padano, the marinated fromage and the smelly washed rind. And then outside of the cheese room, more goodness with coppa and other cured meats; nuts and oils; and even my Dutch favourites of stroopwaffels.
From there, clutching a cooler bag full of cheese, somehow, it was decided that it was lunch time. My first choice was unfortunately booked out for lunch, but with back-up plan in place, we drove to the nearer-by Poole’s Rock winery with onsite restaurant.
Like a two-faced creature, the restaurant plays its role as a casual modern café by day; only to blossom into the two-hatted Rock Restaurant by night. But for now, Firestick Café was to feed us along with its very own wine label; the entry level name at Poole’s Rock. The space was obviously quite new and utterly slick – think stainless steel, shades of fawn and contemporary art – all looking out to a rather wintery vineyards and a lake, where a flock of ducks enjoyed an afternoon dip. There was much to like.
A portion of the lunch menu, and the quite large kitchen, was dedicated to wood fired pizzas with an array of modern toppings. With recent forays into home-made pizza, we ventured elsewhere on the posh bistro-esque menu but stayed true to label for the wines – the Cockfighter’s Ghost 2008 Riesling (the mid level label) and the Firestick 2009 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc.
Waiting for our meals, there was a definite air of class. There’s ladies at lunch behind us, dressed up families over yonder, and a table of ladies waiting for their men to join them from a morning of golf, in addition to quite a few young couples. Despite all, it didn’t feel pretentious and seeing the substantial plate of my entrée-sized meal, I was comforted, if not a little alarmed. I mean, how huge would a main size be?
Greeted by a shimmering crumb coat, my pork schnitzel almost covered the entire plate, casting a shadow over the potatoes and salad; but as much pork there was, it was equalled by potato. Seemingly steamed Desirees with the light taste of butter adding to the creamy texture, but seriously about two large potatoes all up.
The schnitzel was lean as expected but unexpectedly lacking in any exciting flavour – no distinct spicing, no additions to the crumb, not even a squeeze of lemon nor dab of mayonnaise for me to help myself. It was thankfully lifted somewhat by the salad of wild rocket, apple and walnuts – but not enough for me to finish off the dish.
The wagyu burger also arrived with a bit of a flourish – a towering round of meat, veg and carbs accompanied with a generous helping of fries and a selection of three sauces – a tomato chutney, wholegrain mustard and a beetroot salsa. The grilled herb roll, as it may appear, was a little difficult to get through but there was reward within worth fighting for: caramelised onions and a super-thick pattie of juicy, medium-rare minced wagyu beef. It was most probably one of the best wagyu patties I’ve ever faced, but even that couldn’t help the overabundance of chips and bread.
The routine at this stage was something like: eat, drink, drink, snack, drink, eat, drink, drink, nap, eat, drink. So after lunch, the next step was drink. The Poole’s Rock cellar door offers varieties from all three labels and some pretty good deals too. I find the Firestick Shiraz utterly drinkable, as too the Cockfighter’s Ghost Verdelho; however, the Firestick Liqueur Verdelho is just too much to handle, and the very first I’ve come across. A word to the wise: don’t let the designated driver do too many tastings that involve liqueur. Or tastings generally, to be safe.
With the sun setting and GPS working overtime, we hasten to make our last winery – on some remarkably quiet roads somewhat up a mountain to the boutique Tallavera Grove.
It’s fairly empty except for a few lingering lunchers, but the aspect from the winery is worth just sitting around for, I think.
With undivided attention, I tirelessly worked my way through the tastings where they have a few labels from western NSW and South Australia, as well as the Hunter stuff. Whether it was my jovial end of day mood or the knowledgeable staff, there seemed to be a story behind a lot of the wines, particularly the pricey Joker’s Peak Volcanics range – apparently from grapes growing on the path of lava down the volcanic mountain – the minerals seemingly adding subtle and unique flavours to the wine.
And I finally score a few bottles of dessert wine too. I had been looking and tasting all trip to find something, and lucky last it was the 2009 Tallavera Grove Botrytis Semillon that came away with me.
And in the matter of one afternoon, the car was suddenly weighed down with a couple of cases, consisting of our favourite tastes of the trip. The ride home was probably made more bearable safe in the knowledge that this wine would be so nice with that pasta dish, or scratching around our minds for BYO restaurants that don't charge insane amounts for corkage. It'll be nice when I crack open a bottle and reminisce about my superb Hunter wine and cheese gathering trip.