Welcome to the stunning Upper Hunter.
The Hunter Valley in NSW is one of Australia’s best know wine regions having had its first vines planted in the early 19th century. It is also the place I called home for 19 years.
When people mention to me that they’ve just returned from the Hunter Valley I am always intrigued as to which part of the Hunter Valley, where they stayed and the places they visited. More often than not, visitors to the Hunter Valley talk about Pokolbin, the Cessnock area and Lovedale which seems to be the first stop, and often the last for visitors travelling north from Sydney. If this is you, you’re missing out.
Many people don’t realise that if they drove a little further north west, they would discover an extension of the Hunter Valley, appropriately named the Upper Hunter Valley. The main town in the Upper Hunter Valley is Muswellbrook and I’m proud to say, I grew up here.
I lived in Chardonnay Street in what is known as the ‘Wine Estate’ for reasons that should be pretty clear ;-). The estate was on the north side of town and to get to our house you would drive down Semillon Street, turn left into Shiraz Street, right into Traminer Street before taking the first right into our petite cul-de-sac. If you turned into Reisling Street you would’ve gone to far, or perhaps you blew the breathalyser by simply reading the Street signs. Growing up in Chardonnay Street was a lot of fun, we had great neighbours, many I’m still friends with today.
The Upper Hunter produces excellent local produce such as olives, cheese, apple cider, wine of course and as I discovered more recently a brand new array of award winning restaurants like ‘The Cottage’ in Scone who have embraced the ‘paddock to plate’ philosophy whilst creating a new food culture that belongs to the region and its people. I have a short list of places that I am desperate to visit and can’t wait to tease my tastebuds at some of these local food destinations. Having completed my commercial cooking degree here many years before I’m so excited to see so much culinary talent plating up pleasurable and creative cuisine.
“I left Muswellbrook 23 years ago and return from time to time to see mum and dad and my sister, niece and nephew. I have always had an appreciation for what the area has to offer from a local business and tourism perspective. Come to think of it now I was probably a tourist in my own backyard even way back then.”
I’ve always loved visiting the local cafes in and around Muswellbrook but also further north in Scone and Murrurundi. When I first got my drivers license I would often stop by my favourite wineries on my way back from my other favourite Upper Hunter past time, horse-riding. On my day off I would love nothing more than riding through the hills around Glenbawn Dam, it was the ultimate way to clear your head and appreciate the local land on horseback.
“From the long trail rides to sprints across paddocks, Brokeback Mountain it was not but I do have very fond memories of those days.”
Our visits these days are usually limited to Christmas or Easter when restaurants and wineries are mostly closed. Most of the cafes and boutiques seem to close down as well and there are certainly no horse riding opportunities. My partner said to me a few months ago that we should do a weekend outside of the main holiday times so he too can experience all of the great Upper Hunter Valley experiences I have been raving on about for years.
With that said and the October long weekend fast approaching, together with our friend Leanne, we packed our bags, along with our French Bulldog Franklin and headed north for 3 nights.
Getting to the Upper Hunter has never been easier with the M1 Pacific Motorway now connecting to the Hunter Expressway, an almost 40km stretch of road that brings you out just before Singleton. From there, Muswellbrook is a short 45 minute drive.
“When it comes to food and wine my planning skills seem to jump automatically into overdrive. I knew we only really had two full days on the ground and I wanted to make the most of each day. I also wanted it to be a good mix between wineries, local producers, art and shopping.”
I had been wanting to visit the Denman farmers markets for some time now and it all happens on the first Saturday of each month. This was on the top of my list however we arrived in Denman Saturday morning to an empty field. It then dawned on me that today was in fact the last day of September. I put it down to getting older and the fact my 42nd birthday was approaching in 3 days, but it does give me an excuse to plan another weekend very soon. Plus, in this blog I have only touched the surface on what incredible experiences are on offer.
I mapped out 10 local places we could easily visit across two full days which included:
- The Denman Farmers Market
- James Estate Wines
- Two Rivers Wines
- Small Forest by Atsuko
- Hollydene Estate (we didn’t get to Hollydene Estate on this visit but it is an absolutely stunning Vineyard with sweeping views, the restaurant is also impeccable
- Pukara Estate
- Hunter Belle Cheese
On Sunday we decided to head further north to visit:
- Michael Reid Gallery Murrurundi
- Bobadil House Spring Market
- Linga Longa Inn at Gundy
With the Denman Farmers Market a week away we decided to go for a walk through the main street and check out some of the local boutiques. What surprised me the most was how many people stopped for a chat and wanted to know if we were local or visiting for the weekend.
There are many great places to visit in Denman, unfortunately the Denman Pie Shop we had heard so much about was closed for the weekend, but we visited the Tourist Information Centre, Hunter Valley Liqueurs & Baerami Olives and Precious Pieces Boutique before enjoying a coffee at Graze Cafe. The Baerami Olives were outstanding, perfectly prepared with that delicate crunch that is so important with well-produced olives. We indulged in a large container of the almond and feta stuffed olives. We then spent some time in the gorgeous Precious Pieces store. Excellent quality product, priced very reasonably coupled with great local service, the 3 elements I always say attribute to great business success. The Denman Butcher was open which was a great opportunity to stock up for the BBQ we had planned for later that evening.
Leaving Denman we headed to James Estate Wines and after a week I am still raving about this fantastic cellar door tucked away in the countryside near Sandy Hollow.
Definitely a stand out for the weekend, we were greeted by Vanessa who introduced us to James Estate Wines by talking us through the vineyard’s story and wine maker Alex Finnie’s approach to producing their range. Vanessa has been working in the industry for years and you could tell, her knowledge of wine and the history of the region was so evident as she shared her passion for all things grapes during the wine tasting.
All of the wines were beautifully produced, my favourites were the NV Fern Hill Athyrium, a lovely and light sparkling wine, the 2015 Reserve Rose, the Merlot and also the straight Semillon which was the best Semillon I have had in a very long time.
The selection of local cheeses were beautifully presented and absolutely delicious, it is also fair to say that this was our breakfast and what a way to start the day! Breakfast never tasted so good. Luckily for us,we had a very experienced local driver ;-).
The next stop on our itinerary was Two Rivers Wines. I have long been a fan of Two Rivers Wines and there is something uniquely present in their offering that differentiates them. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is and I’m very pleased about that. I am just happy to be swept away by the magic and the wine. Since 1988, Two Rivers has been creating quality wine from their beautifully presented vines under the professional eye of award winning Viticulturist Brett Keeping and his wife Linda.
Two Rivers is located where the Hunter and Goulburn rivers meet, surrounding the boundaries of the vineyard. We were met by Linda and Mandy who talked us through the creations of talented winemaker Liz Jackson. Chardonnay in my opinion has been overexposed over the last 20 years and many wineries mass producing it have given it a bad name. Two Rivers continue to shine as one of the best Chardonnay producers in the country, probably the world, with three to choose from, each represent the grape superbly ranging from subtle through to the comforting notes of French oak.
“If you want to remember what Chardonnay should taste like, head to Two Rivers.”
The Semillon Sauvignon Blanc was also very special and I have fallen head over heels in love with the NV Cuvee Sparkling, one of my new favourite sparklings. We also loved the antipasto plate which was only topped by the gorgeous view and sounds over the vines.
By this stage on our wine trail you must be thinking that things couldn’t possibly keep getting better, but this is the Upper Hunter where consistency and quality is alive and well.
Welcome to Small Forest by Atsuko where Winemaker Atsuko Radcliffe, who was actually the first female winemaker in Japan, is the only Japanese winemaker to establish a presence in Australia. Atsuko presented her story and stunning wines at her cellar door just outside of Denman over looking the vines and the dreamy white bridge that straddles the Hunter River. The sun was preparing to set and it was a very special moment indeed.
Atsuko produces wines that could almost accompany any type of food. Each variety has a delicate and very elegant subtleness that is evident in every sip. The 2015 and 2016 Rosés are the most interesting I have tasted. Made from 100% Shiraz, this wine will be a summer favourite without a doubt.
I am not a big red wine drinker, but I did try a few on this trip. My favourite hands down was Atsuko’s 2014 Shiraz. Awarded the Silver Medal at the Orange Wine Show and also a Silver Medal at the International Wine Challenge in London this year, it is textured, clean and bold. I can’t wait to open another bottle over the next few weeks, I think it will be the perfect accompaniment for my Boeuf Bourguignon recipe which I always say should only be eaten in winter, but an exception will be granted as an excuse to open Atsuko’s Shiraz.
For Sydneysiders, Small Forest by Atsuko recently sponsored the wines for a dinner at HaNa Ju-Rin in Crows Nest. Keep an eye out for the next event which I for one will be attending. Follow Atsuko on Instagram for news about future events.
Leaving Small Forest by Atsuko, we meander around the corner and head back on Denman Road toward Muswellbrook. My eyes and belly twitched with excitement when I saw the stunning olive trees of Pukara Estate. Over the years their products have become a staple in our pantry and I have always wanted to visit their olive farm and today was the day.
I absolutely love olives and other products made from the precious little stone fruit. My partner and I also love olive trees, and have a few ourselves at our home in France. You can read about our life in France on a blog I wrote early last year called ‘A Home in France‘.
“Pukara Estate has over 23,000 olive trees on their Denman property and they are absolutely magnificent. I have added a new experience to my bucket list and that is to host a long table lunch amongst the olive trees with family and friends at Pukara Estate. I’m not sure if it’s even possible but it would be amazing. The very comforting thought of spending a spring or autumn afternoon enjoying local wines and produce nestled between these olive trees is very appealing indeed. A little touch of Tuscany or for us Charente, right in the right of the Upper Hunter.”
Rhonda from Pukara Estate is a purveyor of fine food specialising in all things olives. Her passion for the Pukara brand and her knowledge brings the tasting room to life. We enjoyed our time at Pukara very much and thanks to Rhonda I have a new favourite bread dipping technique involving my all time favourite, truffle oil, traditional Dukkah and red wine vinegar, in that order. Try it for yourself and let me know how you go.
What I loved about this wine trail was the great support local businesses showed one another. Each business asked us where we had been and where we were headed, they all gave suggestions and also offered local delicacies from other local businesses at their cellar doors. At each winery we had beautiful selections of cheese, some of which we supplied by Hunter Belle Cheese. We loved the cheese so much that we couldn’t help but ask our experienced local driver (aka Mum) to get us there before it closed to pick up some of their stunning washed rind, Ol Smokey Cheddar and Blue Moon cheese. I have to say I have become a little bit of a cheese snob over the years and if you follow my Facebook or Instagram you will be well versed on my favourites. I am pleased to say that I now have some new cheeses to add to the list and I’m very pleased they come from my home town.
A change of pace on Sunday sees us heading north to Murrurundi.
When I lived in the Upper Hunter I was a frequent visitor to Cafe Telegraph, a gorgeous little house that backed onto the flowing river where I actually had my first ever pork and veal terrine. I can still taste it along with the tarty yet sweet cumberland jelly and toasted pine nuts that accompanied it. I remember also attending a 40th birthday party there when I was 18, such a special spot. Unfortunately Cafe Telegraph is no longer open but this is certainly no reason not to visit this gorgeous town just past the horse capital, Scone. I hear that Take a Break Cafe (previously Amora’s Cafe) is impressing the locals and servicing up great food.
When I was researching what to do in Murrurundi, the Michael Reid Gallery appeared in my google search results. Being big fans of the Michael Reid Gallery in Sydney I contacted our neighbour James who coincidently is an Art Adviser and Specialist for Michael Reid. James informed me that yes the gallery was indeed open this weekend, and that it was the perfect time to visit with the new gallery extension being opened and the Bobadil House Spring Market launch.
“The Michael Reid Gallery is like walking into a gorgeous story book. The setting is so tranquil and dreamy. You are immediately transported to another place as you walk through the gates. As for artists exhibiting their work here, how absolutely inspiring.”
The new gallery extension is best described as a large tin shell that towers over the original sandstone cottage gallery. It is a stunning contrast architecturally between yesteryear and now. We were lucky enough to be visiting during the Bobadil House Spring Market which was also amazing. We will be back for a weekend in Murrurundi, such a special place and I have already started to traverse Airbnb for places to stay.
Leaving Murrurundi we headed through the winding back roads toward our next stop, Gundy and the locally famous Linga Longa Inn. On the way to Gundy we were discussing how dry the land had been all across the Hunter and travelling to Gundy the almost drought like conditions were even more evident. It broke our hearts to see almost no vegetation for the animals, and with no decent rain for almost an entire year, the trees are bare which means no shade for the animals to rest under.
This region needs rain desperately, as do the livestock. If you know how people reading this article may be able to donate or help raise awareness for local farmers, please leave a comment below so I can update this article with a link where people can help.
Arriving in Gundy for lunch around 1:00pm we sat outside under the big old gum trees. It was a glorious spring day. The food was excellent as was the service. Our food took around 90 minutes to arrive but who cares when you feel this relaxed. We even bumped into our former neighbour Sharon whom I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. Enjoying our new favourite sparkling, Two Rivers Cuvée, we had such a wonderful afternoon with family. Very special indeed.
I still remember that summers day 23 years ago when I left Muswellbrook for life in the big smoke. I was so excited to be leaving country life behind me and embarking on new adventures in Sydney and overseas. Many people don’t appreciate the place they grew up in for one reason or another and it has taken me many years to finally and rightfully start appreciating again the abundance of amazing places and people that make not just Muswellbrook, but all of the Upper Hunter Valley a very special destination. I hope you will welcome us back again very soon.
I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below and don’t hesitate to ask any questions you might have about the Upper Hunter Valley and the places I visited.
As always, Bon Appétit, Mike X