Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A race through Hunter Valley - part 2

It was a cool winter's morning on the day of the 'Amazing Hunter Valley Race', following the previous night's welcome dinner. It was the kind of morning that as soon as we arrived at Briar Ridge, we barged towards the smell of bacon.

Briar Grillade at Briar Ridge Vineyard, Mount View Road, Mount View
Briar Grillade is the casual dining restaurant on site at Briar Ridge Vineyard; one of the few lovely vineyards and cellar doors in the picturesque Mount View area of the Hunter Valley.

Outdoor seating at Briar Grillade

Cappuccino at Briar Grillade
Here, we were gathering sustenance for a big 'Amazing Race' day ahead, with coffees being the first order of the day.

Bacon and eggs at Briar Grillade
There may have been some drooling at the sight of the bacon and eggs share platter, featuring nicely crispened bacon and eggs three ways (poached, scrambled and sunny side up).

Grilled tomato, mushrooms and hash browns at Briar Grillade
Pan fried field mushrooms, roma tomatoes and crunchy hash browns rounded out the big breakfast platters, with fruit and muffins following. And as if polishing all that off wasn't enough, the organisers decided that putting our creative and dramatic skills to test first thing in the morning was a good idea.

Breakfast, wine label advertisements and the first Amazing Race style clue then lead us to a mostly leisurely bicycle ride/race from the Brokenwood cellar door to Tulloch's vineyard.

The ride was fine when we weren't on the open roads where cars were also hurtling through as we wrestled cameras and other social media necessities.

Tulloch's vineyard, Corner McDonalds & DeBeyers Road, Pokolbin
We managed to get our bikes through the vineyard, although the uphill ride to Tulloch's cellar door just about killed me. It took several deep breaths and sips of water before I could think about wine, let alone wine and food matching.

Food and wine flight at Tulloch Wines
The challenge in this part of the morning was to match food items to three Tulloch wine varietals (left to right): a Tulloch 2010 Viognier, an E.M. 2010 Limited Release Chardonnay and the Hector 2007 Limited Release Shiraz.

Food for the wine flight at Tulloch Wines
Although breakfast wasn't all that long ago, I was pretty excited to see the plate of Binnorie Dairy's Branxton brie and black wax aged cheddar, as too the pork and pistachio terrine from nearby Cellar Restaurant.

The fruity viognier seemed to go especially well with the spice-heavy terrine (although the correct match was supposedly the brie - all subjective, I say). I thought the lightly oaked chardonnay matched well with everything but it was meant to go with the terrine, while the full bodied shiraz was simply superb with the flavoursome cheddar.

My team didn't score too well on the matching front, but we certainly enjoyed the food and wine flight, which is available daily at the Tulloch cellar door (with matches normally revealed).

Inside Hunter Valley Gardens, Pokolbin
The next clue lead us to Hunter Valley Gardens; the biggest display gardens in the Southern hemisphere. Even in winter, the gardens are meticulously kept, and still bright and vibrant in many parts.

Lunch in the Oriental Garden, Hunter Valley Gardens
We headed to the serenely pretty Oriental Gardens for lunch of some of the region's beautiful produce, with further catering by Hunter Valley Gardens head chef Nick Vivian. Luckily we were set up in the pagoda, as bits of sprinkling rain thought they'd join in on our fun.

The long lunch table in the Oriental Garden, Hunter Valley Gardens
Every time I'm in the Hunter Valley I seem to eat exceptionally well; which is a result of the stunning produce and restaurants in the region. But then again, personally I find it hard to go wrong with a great cheese and crackers, so perhaps I'm easy.

Smoked and cured goods from Lovedale Smokehouse
We started with a platter of smoked ocean trout, salami and duck prosciutto from local Lovedale Smokehouse, and it got pretty quite at the long lunch table aside from appreciative murmurings and nods.

Marinated ricotta from The Smelly Cheese Shop
There was also bread and plenty of cheese, including a marinated ricotta style cheese with sundried tomato and garlic which is made for smearing (liberally) on crusty bread.

Chorizo risotto
Produce from Lovedale Smokehouse made another appearance in the chorizo risotto; a crowd favourite that was perfectly seasoned, none too rich nor creamy and fantastic inspiration for my next risotto dinner.

By the time the golden balls of arancini came out (with sandwich wraps and generous caesar salads too), I was approaching the oh-so-stuffed stage rather too quickly. I hear the arancini were delicious.

Quail Scotch eggs
However, I had to make room for at least half of the quail Scotch egg which was also golden crumbed and looking all too tempting.

Quail Scotch egg cross section
I managed to score a perfectly cooked half with a still gooey yolk. The mince around the quail egg was unexpectedly a little like chicken nuggets in flavour (which was fine for me considering chicken nuggets are near the top of my list of guilty pleasures - sorry, Anthony Bourdain).

Chocolate mousse with cream and strawberry
And there was wine, as one might expect, and even a little dessert to finish, which pretty much finished me off for the afternoon. A nap wouldn't have gone astray, but we still had some racing to do - and this time, literally, within the themed Hunter Valley Gardens.

Manicured hedges and trees in Hunter Valley Gardens
Running around after a massive lunch wasn't ideal, as we raced/strolled through the Indian, Chinese and Storybook gardens looking for clues and pretty photo opportunities.

In the Hunter Valley Gardens

The Sunken Garden, Hunter Valley Gardens

Pretty flowers in Hunter Valley Gardens
The end point of that part of the race actually took us outside of the Hunter Valley Gardens to the oval, where a very exciting prospect was waiting.

Slattery Helicopters - we're going to fly!
The slick black helicopters could take three passengers at a time to a 'mystery' destination, so we lolled about on the oval with the teams as we waited our turn.

Although it's not necessary, a few of us couldn't help but duck our heads as we approached the chopper and its powerful propellors - just like in the movies!

Helicopter cockpit - I'm flying shotgun
I thought that the take-off would be a lot scarier than it was. For my first time in a chopper, I think my freak-out levels were fairly well maintained, as my wonderment at being in a helicopter quickly outweighed any fears or doubts.

View from the helicopter
Being winter, the vineyard views weren't nearly as green or lush as they will be in a couple more months, but the views were breathtaking nonetheless.

Coming in to land the helicopter at Bimbadgen Estate, McDonalds Road, Pokolbin
Our ride ended as we headed lower towards Bimbadgen Estate and their spacious lawn for landing. My joy ride had come to an end but I think the short chopper rides are actually surprisingly affordable - so I will be keeping this experience in mind for my next trip.

We'd landed and headed into the on site winery, where the temperatures were cool and what was laid out on tables for us even cooler.

Wine blending challenge at Bimbadgen Estate
Tastes of wines and rather scientific looking bottles of labelled red wines awaited our attention in a wine blending challenge with Bimbadgen senior wine maker, Sarah Crowe, who is also a professional wine judge.

Cabernet for blending
In this team challenge, we were to taste the merlot, cabernet and shiraz seperately, and then devise a blend using the wines.

On its own, I found the merlot quite mellow and subdued, and the cabernet somewhat dry (or "doughnut-y" which is the term winos - thanks Lisa - use to describe the sensation when the wine feels like it drys out the palate at the edges but not the centre). The shiraz was my favourite solo taste, with significantly more body and bouquet than the others.

Tasting before blending
We ended up using a majority shiraz blend with some cabernet and minimal merlot to arrive at something we kind of liked in the timeframe. Crowe was to judge based on look, smell and taste - with half the potential points allocated to the latter as they do in professional judging.

Crowe deliberated slowly, tasting and spitting very professionally, saying the three team blends were all surprisingly decent. But sadly, our blend - described as being aniseed-y -  didn't make the winner's cut. Oh well, back to the day job.

With one last clue and last chance at race points, we headed to end the day with a different sort of beverage for the Hunter Valley.

Microbrewery at Potters Brewery, Wine Country Drive, Nulkaba
We got a bit of microbrewery education in Potters Brewery, along with a refreshing sample of their Hunter Kolsch, which is an easy drinking, golden ale style of beer.

Hunter Kolsch
Given I could down a few of these over a hot summer's lunch, it's apt that this - and all the other beers on offer - is available by the wine-sized bottle as well as 1.5 litre magnums. I went for one of the latter in Hunter Witbier (or Belgian-style white beer), which is brewed with coriander and orange peel for a complexity of flavour.

And with that last flourish of downing a beer, we ended the 'Amazing Hunter Valley Race' only slightly exhausted from all the eating and drinking.

There were certainly surprises throughout the day - who knew that riding a bike or flying in a chopper were transport options from cellar door to cellar door; or that fatty cheeses could accompany "oily" wines. But points were yet to be calculated and winners yet to be awarded at a later dinner - so more surprises to come.

Food, booze and shoes and guest attended the 'Amazing Hunter Valley Race' famil courtesy of Hunter Valley Wine Country Tourism and the fabulous girls at Agent99 PR.


john@heneedsfood said...

I still can't believe they made us run after that huge spread of food at the Hunter Velley Gardens. I swear I was ready to hurl. The wine mixing was so much fun and yay to my team for winning! Loved the chopper ride

sugarpuffi said...

wow helicopter ride! and i didnt know they did long table lunches at the hunter valley garden D:

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I remember my first helicopter ride. It was so much less scary than I thought it would be!

Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said...

Never been in a helicopter so, wow, what an experience! And the view - even though it's winter and a little bare it is still spectacular.

Vivian - vxdollface said...

Looks like you had an amazing time! What a fabulous way to indulge in Hunter Valley produce in the Oriental gardens

Tina said...

Hi John - I simply couldn't run...:S Loved the entire weekend really :)

Hi sugarpuffi - Yeah, it was a gorgeous long table set-up.

Hi Lorraine - Totally agreed. Less scary than a plane.

Hi mademoiselle délicieuse - Yeah, definitely a highlight of the weekend :D

Hi Vivian - Was a fabulous weekend with beautiful food constantly :)

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