I thought it was cruel, although secretly I had hoped that someone would suggest it. Ais’s month-long activities bender in lieu of a pint or two was set to be the adventure of a lifetime, and she’d be having too much fun to notice she’d cut out some of the good stuff. So when Ais’s mate suggested a Hunter Valley wine tour to test her resolve, I quietly punched the air and thought this was the blog content I was after.
It was an early start in town, 7am at the Medina in Sydney. Ais in her detoxified state is smiling, happy and ready to go. I am somewhat apprehensive, as I know in her clear state all day, her powers of recollection will be impeccable, and I urge myself to be on my best behaviour. Our supplier manager Michelle, travelling with her posse of two turns up, and with the obligatory dry jokes made, we head north-west with our new mate, Don. Don, our guide for the day, is new to the role – only been at it for twenty years, he says – and he’s originally a Kiwi. We don’t hold it against him.
Taking in visuals of thin morning fog through bleary eyes, we head to our first stop, the Australian Reptile Park. We’re greeted by a welcomed coffee, lamington and a real-live koala. I put myself to shame calling myself an Aussie as I struggle to remember the last time I came into close contact with a koala. Our Irish Aisling laps it up. Bags of animal feed are passed around and we’re welcome to wander through the park to hand feed animals I’ve more recently seen as road kill – wombats, wallabies and emus. It’s times like this I think it’s nice to be a tourist for a day. Being a bit shy when it comes to wildlife, I hang back with the camera while Aisling rips out her best Steve Irwin. Before we get back to the bus, we check out the alligators and the tortoises, faster movers than we expected, and the baby dingoes in reception. Cute as buttons, but I remind myself that dingos aren’t just for Christmas and buckle myself in for a trip to Dr Jurd’s.
Dr Jurd’s is apparently an institution. The Wollombi Tavern is famous for its “jungle juice”, a bewildering blend of port and brandy, among other possible ingredients, all in one. Legend has it that publican Mel, in his efforts to keep costs down and revenues up, would save all the leftovers from the night before and pour them into a single container – port, brandy, wine, you name it. This eclectic concoction, along with some experimental brewing techniques we believe must be shroud in secrecy much like the Colonel’s eleven secret herbs and spices, had turned this brew into a Hunter institution. And it’s no back door operation; an actual winery in the Hunter makes it especially for the doctor. We’re treated to a tasting, about 30mL, which gives us the impression it’s a drink for shooting, and Aisling is on camera duty as we all down our juice. It warms all the way down and leaves an interesting afterpalate. Two out of five of us walk out with a cannister of the Doctor’s best under arm, which claims confidently that the wonder-juice “Turns a gathering into a party.” It’s no surprise that Aisling is one of them, a keen supporter of the industry. “You can mix it with anything, look!” she exclaims. And on the suggested mixer list is coke, juice, beer, cider, other wines… The jurd-juice sits uneasily in my stomach.
Shortly after Don whisks us away to the Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop where we get the op to line our stomachs with a bit of the Valley’s finest curds. So far, Aisling has not really missed out on much. It’s a necessary precursor to the epic tasting we’re about to embark upon at the Brokenwood cellar door. We’re treated to our own corner of the tasting room, and Don leaves us to our own devices. It’s his first mistake (or is it mine?). As the tastes start rolling in, Aisling looks longingly at the wine glasses as they’re emptied and refilled again. I wonder if she’s on the verge of using her golden ticket to get even a sniff of the good stuff. She asks what I think, and I roll wine characters off the tongue as easily as they go down the throat. I remember the words, “Aisling, you’re such a trooper! You’ve done SUCH a good job,” fall out of my mouth. She beams, albeit dimly, and fortifies her resolve with nothing more than my words of encouragement and the knowledge that it’s only one more day, really.
The Brokenwood team does a fine job at showing us how good Hunter wine can be, stunning me with a great little pinot noir and a cracker of a chardy. Lunch at the Bluetongue Brewery sees more wines (four, in fact) matched with food, and we pass bowls of dishes around the table and literally share a meal with those on the tour. It’s a lovely way to connect with the group, and the more wine we drink the easier the conversation gets. Aisling sips on her Coke Zero.
There’s a little more time before we hop back on the bus, and it would be mad for us not to try the beer. Four out of five of us grab a paddle each. Clever, we think – upon returning the beer paddle to the bar you score a free midi of the beer you liked most. Relaxing further after my forth taste, I wonder how I might stomach a full glass and manage to walk unaided back to our vehicle. I am such a two-pot (read: two-midi) screamer at the best of times, but I do it to make Aisling proud. She’s passed disappointment now, and cheers us on as we down the dark and last ale on the paddle. Eyes swimming in delicious amber hues, Don blows the whistle and it’s time to depart for one more winery, and one of the oldest in the Hunter, Oakvale.
I curse myself here for being such a lightweight as some fine Oakvale shirazes roll out, and the corks ports and muscats. I ask many questions to mask my gastronomic intoxication, fighting off a light buzzing of the head from all the fine beverages, and the need for a nap after all the fabulous food I’ve digested. I steel myself with an olive oil tasting on the way out, thinking I couldn’t possibly ingest another thing.
But we have one more stop before heading back towards the big smoke, and that’s the chocolate tasting at the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company. Chocolate lovers beware; you will die and go to cocoa heaven. Aisling’s eyes widen and she buzzes more than a kid in a candy store, widely grabbing bags of sweet chocolatey goodness. She’s done so well, I think, and I buy the both of us a coffee, as well as Michelle, who between Bluetongue and the chocolates is giggling like a schoolgirl. It’s a top little coffee spot, which earns instant kudos for the coffee snob in me.
So, all in all, a great day out – Michelle and her posse take in forty winks on the ride home, as do our international guests. Aisling nurses her three golden tickets and her Jurd’s, and looks forward to the week ahead, and I emerge from a winey, beery haze and hope that I can recall the antics of today as clearly as Aisling does. It would take a shoe-horn to cram in more Hunter into this tour, I think, as we coast on down the highway and back to Sydney. Thanks to Don, the Kiwi Hunter enthusiast, we’re all a little bit richer for our trip to New South Wales’s iconic valley.