12 Aug

Pictured Margan citrus curd granita vanilla and

first_imgPictured: Margan citrus curd, granita, vanilla and meringueIt may be Australia’s oldest wine region but the Hunter Valley has plenty of new stars and experiences blended with traditional favourites that continue to make this one of the country’s most visited tourism destinations.I recently visited during the Hunter Valley Wine and Food Festival  — a month long celebration each June that sees local restaurants and vignerons create a number of foodie-friendly activities to lure tourists to enjoy local produce around open fires.Some of this year’s events include a Hunter Valley Wine & Film Festival; a Vermouth Cocktail masterclass at Margan; Music in the Woods; long lunches, cabernet and chocolate classes and of course, numerous wine tasting activities. EXP RestaurantHunter ValleyHunter Valley Wine and Food FestivalMargan RestaurantPeppertree WinesUsher Tinkler Wines At just a little more than a two-hour drive from Sydney, or a faster chopper ride for the well-heeled, each time I visit I am reminded of what a special and accessible region the Hunter is for Sydney-siders and those visiting Sydney. In such a short time, the ‘big smoke’ is but a distant haze in your rear-view mirror and nothing but fields, vineyards, cows and wide-open spaces fill your periphery.Roaming the region are all sorts of travellers — couples having a romantic break; families having a weekend change-of-scene; groups of friends, both young and old, enjoying wine-tasting or a combination of other leisure activities and international visitors taking a Sydney side-trip.There is a definite mix of experiences in the region and it pays to check out a variety of eateries and cellar doors as there is a broad style to cater to all tastes. Peppertree Wines on Halls Road has a loyal following and a healthy wine club of devotees. On beautiful grounds, it’s a cosy place to stop and have a chat with the staff and also try the wines made by head winemaker, Gwyn Olsen who is making a number of wine styles, not just in the traditional Hunter classics of semillon, chardonnay and shiraz but with a beautifully balanced, food-versatile 2017 Limited Release Vermentino which we picked up to take a piece of the Hunter home with us.For a contemporary social cellar door experience, head to Usher Tinkler Wines and their Cellar and Salumi bar on McDonald’s Road. Cheese and salumi offerings at Usher Tinkler WinesWinemaker Usher Tinkler and his wife Ebony have created a relaxed and fun cellar door experience housed in the converted St Mark’s Anglican church that was built between 1900 and 1905. Inside, groups sit relaxed together at communal tables on mismatched chairs, a church pew or on Chesterfield couches. A large stag’s head keeps watch over the vinyl record turntable. A long bar counter features old barrel racks for its frame, backed by a white subway tiled wall and original stained-glass church windows — while large, new windows overlook the Hunter’s picturesque Brokeback mountains.Usher, former winemaker at Poole’s Rock, also makes wine for his family’s Tinkler Wines. But for his Usher Tinkler Wines brand, he and Ebony wanted to concentrate on wines that were “not too complicated”. Usher makes the Hunter’s only prosecco sparkling.  He was encouraged to experiment with it after Ebony returned from a trip to Italy, having grown very fond of the classic Italian aperitif, an Apperol Spritz.“So we grafted some semillon over to prosecco and started making it – and it worked. It has lots of nashi pear and fresh pear characters. I can’t believe more people here haven’t planted it,” said Usher.There is a $5 tasting fee per person, but it’s redeemable on any wine purchase. Tastings are open 10am until 5pm, and salumi and cheese plates are available from 10am until 2:30pm.  Usher and Ebony TinklerThe best-selling wines include the Nose to Tail, The Cow (a light, smooth shiraz pinot blend); the prosecco; and Usher’s ‘Mr T’s Rare Batch Fortified’ made from old barrels of liqueur verdelho barrel aged for 15 years with layers of creamy caramel and spice with each of the 3,000 bottles made a year labelled, bottled and wax-sealed by hand.“We don’t put our wines in shows. We’re trying to be really edgy and modern and not rely on that old-fashioned way of doing things. That’s what we’re trying to do here, just make interesting wines,” said Usher.The wines may be Usher’s department but it was Eboy’s brains behind the cellar door. Her contribution to the Hunter region was recognised in December when she won Marketer of the Year at the 2017 Australian Women in Wine awards.Foodies who want to get their hands dirty should head to a gnocchi-making class at local restaurant Il Cacciatore,  which has been serving northern Italian inspired cuisine for 25 years. These classes are held during the Hunter Valley Wine & Food Festival (a class takes place on 23 June).Our class was run by Noreen and also Nicole, who has worked at the restaurant for more than 20 years. There is always gnocchi on the menu at the restaurant so the staff were incredibly knowledgeable when sharing their tips for how to nail  your own potato gnocchi at home. Nicole leading a gnocchi-making class at Il Cacciatore.After we gave gnocchi-making our all, rolling our pillows of potato down the gnocchi paddle, we then watched while Nicole transformed our gnocchi into some of the classic dishes they serve at the restaurant including a tomato-based version with chorizo, zucchini and basil pesto; and a lemon butter based version with prawns and capers.Taking our aprons off, guests can relax, sip on local wines (we tried a David Hook Pinot Grigio and a Sangiovese made for the restaurant by First Creek Wines) while overlooking the vineyards and nearby accommodation at Hermitage Lodge, a 4.5 star accommodation option where you can arrange stay and dine packages with Il Cacciatore.Views from the balcony at Il CacciatoreDuring a meal shared with our fellow chefs for the afternoon, we all have the chance to enjoy our gnocchi efforts, which is of course given an expert’s touch in the kitchen and served alongside the signature Il Cacciatore salad with salad greens, balsamic figs, roasted walnuts and Hunter Valley fetta from Binnorie Dairy. With a swag of tourism awards, Margan Wines and Restaurant should be a must-stop for both food and wine lovers. It’s a bit further off the beaten track of the main action in Pokolbin, located in nearby Broke, but that only adds to its appeal. Margan is family-owned and operated by winemaker Andrew Margan and his wife Lisa. The pair were the true pioneers of the paddock-to-plate concept in the Hunter Valley, founding an impressive kitchen garden which today provides 90 per cent of the food for the restaurant’s menu.Head chef Thomas BoydThe winery has been operating for more than 20 years and the restaurant is in its 12th year.  Margan makes wines from grapes off their own vineyards in Broke and try to work within their terroir. They produce the Hunter’s only albarino, a white Spanish grape varietal; and they also produce their own vermouth.We took a tour of the one-acre kitchen garden with their passionate head chef Thomas Boyd. He genuinely enjoys showing visitors through the garden and discussing the Margan agri-dining concept using produce from their own vegetable garden, orchard, free range chickens, olive groves, bees and estate reared lambs.Margan is certified with Green Table Australia as well as the WFA Entwine program for their environmental sustainability initiatives.  Each year Margan host the 100-Metre-Meal where the food served has come from within 100 metres of your restaurant seat. New sommelier Lisa Sanders attends to our wines during the meal. Lisa has worked at some of Sydney’s best restaurants including Quay, Tetsuya and Catalina. When we dine, she provides an informed but relaxing intro to each of the wines served to us, including the Margan Non Vintage Sparkling Chardonnay; a Margan 2018 Albarino; a Margan 2016 Barbera and a Margan 2014 Botrytis Semillon.Margan Suffolk lamb, celeriac, kohlrabi, kale and potato.Throughout 2018, Margan has a number of cooking classes where attendees take a garden tour, cook and then dine. Sessions include Linguini with Truffle Butter Emulsion on 5 August; Cheese making on 9 September; whole suckling pig and butchery demo on 18 November; and tricks for the perfect Christmas feast on 9 December.For one of the best meals in the valley where you can literally sit back and watch the chef do all the work, a visit to EXP. at Oakvale Wines on Broke Road is highly recommended. Locals I spoke with had only high praise for chef Frank Fawkner and his EXP restaurant, and having visited for the first time, I was able to see what the fuss is all about.A Hunter-born local, Frank opened up the restaurant in March 2015 after working at fine-dining restaurant Muse, also in the Hunter Valley (which achieved two chef’s hats from The Sydney Morning Herald during his time as head chef). He also worked in London for Tom Aitken, becoming sous chef at Tom’s Kitchen.At EXP, Frank likes to use as much local produce as possible and serve seasonal food. The restaurant is small and cosy, with an open kitchen where guests can dine at the counter and watch Frank and his seamless team at work. Thick cedar slab tables, wall art, steel wine rack, crockery and serving dishes are all sourced from local artisans.EXP. chef and owner Frank Fawkner.The restaurant uses a lot of native ingredients and the food is delivered to tables with a full and thorough EXPlanation from Frank himself — a welcome interaction for the guests.Sourdough is served with cultured butter infused with hay; a Little Joe Wagyu brisket is slow roasted for two hours and served with celeriac, muntries and cavalo nero.Warm Shadows of Blue dessert, brioche and honey.Whatever you do, save room for the signature desserts. The ‘Warm Shadows of Blue’ sees a buttery soft brioche bun filled with a blue cheese sauce and topped with marigold ooze forth onto its base of local honey when pierced with a spoon — the flavours all harmonise perfectly. Meanwhile the Myrtle, made with myrtle gum, wattleseed, chocolate and caramel is Frank’s take on a Magnum ice cream, only somewhat more exotic with chocolate from the Daintree Rainforest and made with eucalyptus ice cream. And while we are still drooling over the sophisticated ‘magnum’, petit fours of salted caramel and a coconut rough arrive.For those who have never been before and those who are seasoned regulars, travellers can expect to uncover something new in a visit to the Hunter.    Travel Monitor stayed as guests at Oaks Cypress Lakes Resort on Thompson’s Road. Upcoming 2018 Hunter Valley Events30 June until 22 JulySnow Time in the Gardens at Hunter Valley Gardens14 JulyHunter Valley Chocolate and Cheese Festival22 JulyWinery Running Festival28 September until 1 OctoberBalloon Aloft Hunter Valley Fiesta6 OctoberOpera in the Vineyards24 NovemberJazz in the Vineyards8 DecemberShania Twain performing at Hope Estatelast_img read more