Hunter Valley Wine Tasting: A Day Trip from Sydney

Hunter Valley Australia

Standing in the bright sunshine, sipping crisp Verdelho, and watching kangaroos bouncing about in the woods, it occurred to me that the Hunter Valley delivered one of the most Australian experiences would could have requested. If, in addition to confirming we wouldn’t overstay our 90-day visa and had no criminal record, Sydney Airport’s immigration team had asked us to complete an Australian order form, our paperwork would have asked for weather, wine, and wallabies—with kangaroos as a perfectly acceptable substitute.

Wine didn’t factor into our first trip to Sydney in 2011. We spent the days we had there sightseeing within the city and exploring the Blue Mountains before moving on to Cairns. It wasn’t until we arrived in Melbourne that we tried our first Australian wine in the Yarra Valley, a memorable day that made us wonder what we missed by skipping the wineries closer to Sydney. When Sydney made it back into our vacation plans, we added wine tasting as a must-do activity, and with high hopes for great varietals and warm weather we booked a daylong tour of the Hunter Valley. It didn’t take long for our high expectations to be exceeded; everything about our day was more than we could have hoped to enjoy. If you are planning a vacation to Sydney, we’re excited to share some of the reasons a daytrip to the Hunter Valley might be the perfect choice for your itinerary, too!

Hunter Valley Wine: an Overview

James Busby (Image Source: Wikipedia)
James Busby (Image via Wikipedia)
Australia’s Hunter Valley is home to wonderful wine as well as a unique history. The Hunter Valley is one of the oldest wine regions in the country, with most accounts dating it back to just before the 19th century. In 1797, a supply ship was commandeered by convicts who were then pursued by British Lieutenant John Shortland. Shortland discovered the Hunter River by accident during his search for the missing ship, and since the valley offered suitable growing conditions for grapes it quickly became a desirable place for vineyards. In fact, Australia’s government strongly encouraged grape growing in the Hunter Valley as a way of preventing public drunkenness and encouraging safety. Officials believed people were more likely to become drunk and disorderly after consuming spirits and other drinks higher in alcohol content than wine—a fair observation and a great reason to ask people to drink more wine!

In 1825, the man recognized as Australia’s father of wine commenced the first major vine planting in the Hunter Valley. Having traveled widely through Europe and Africa, James Busby’s first planting included more than 500 cuttings collected on his way to Australia. Today, some of the varietals Busby introduced to the region are among those that grow best, and whites and reds are successfully produced throughout the region. Still, the occasionally harsh climate is kinder to whites than reds. The most iconic white wine is Semillon, which grows exceptionally well and is popular with winemakers and wine drinkers alike. Chardonnay and Verdelho are also regularly found on tasting menus. Of the reds, Busby’s own Shiraz planting still grows in the Hunter Valley, and along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot it is found at wineries throughout the region. Also of note is Pinot Noir, which grows well in the Hunter Valley’s climate—a climate similar to Oregon, where we have enjoyed plenty of great Pinot Noirs. Considering the number of wineries offering their own blends and a variety of young and aged wines, it’s safe to assume wine drinkers will find at least one or two wines to love at any Hunter Valley winery.

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Hunter Valley Wine: Take a Tour or Visit on Your Own?

There are about 150 wineries in the Hunter Valley, most of which are boutique wineries that are small and offer personalized experiences. If you are planning to visit the Hunter Valley for a day of wine tasting, you have two great options: take a wine tour or plan a visit on your own. There are benefits and drawbacks to both, but each experience offers the chance to enjoy some great wine.

Hunter Valley Wine Country
Hunter Valley Wine Country
Taking a wine tour has a few immediate benefits: you don’t need a car, you can drink throughout the day without worrying about driving, and the tour will take you to cellar doors that are expecting you and are well-prepared for your visit. We have taken wine tours in a number of cities including Montevideo, Florence, Porto, and Dubrovnik, and our favorite benefit of wine tours is that they are often led by knowledgeable guides with a passion for their work. Our favorite wine tastings are those that leave us feeling more educated about and more connected to the wineries we visit, and wine tours are a great way to achieve those goals. Wine tours do have drawbacks; they visit pre-selected wineries which leaves no room for spontaneity, and they can be more expensive that other options. While we visited Sydney, we decided to book a wine tour with Zephyr Tours because they offered a full-day experience that included multiple wineries, lunch, and a few additional stops to try chocolate, beer, and spirits. Our guide Sam made our day feel relaxed and enjoyable from pickup to drop off, and we felt like the money we spent was an incredible investment in our vacation.

If you are a more independent traveler, you might prefer to plan a Hunter Valley wine tasting day on your own. An unguided experience offers plenty of benefits: you can select the wineries of greatest interest to you and your tastes, and you can spend as much time visiting each winery as you want. In order to plan a successful day, you will need a car (car rentals are easy to find in Sydney, but remember they drive on the opposite side of the road from countries like the USA!), and you’ll need to do some research in advance to know which wineries will make your list. You may also find you cannot visit all of the wineries you want unless you have a designated driver who will not partake in the wine tasting experience. We have planned plenty of solo wine tasting trips in the past, especially around Virginia, California, New York’s Finger Lakes, and Washington state, and we have loved those experiences as much as more structured wine tours.

Which Hunter Valley wine tasting experience is right for you? Think about the amount of time and money you have, your comfort with self-driving, and the amount of control you want to have over your itinerary. Those considerations will help you decide if a Hunter Valley wine tour is the way to go or if a self-guided day trip might be a better choice for you.

Hunter Valley Wineries: a Few Favorites

Leogate Estate Winery

Leogate WineryThe first Hunter Valley winery we visited was Leogate Estate. Our group lined a few long tables set up for us outside of the main tasting room, and with the stunning Brokenback Range behind us we were guided through a tasting that included a variety of whites and reds. The 2014 Brokenback Semillon provided our first taste of a Hunter Valley favorite grape; it was a young, slightly acidic white with lots of citrus notes. Toward the end of our tasting, the 2017 Late Harvest Semilion had a slightly sweeter finish and struck us as a great wine to enjoy on a hot summer night with friends. Our favorite wine was the 2015 Brokenback Shiraz, which featured a brilliant crimson hue and notes of oak and spice. We tend to favor red wines, and the Shiraz was notably complex and a wonderful way to wrap up the red portion of our tasting. As a fun bonus, we were also treated to a few sips of Libertine Frizzante Rouge, which is a sweet, red, sparkling wine that everyone in our large group enjoyed.

Leogate is a beautiful, elegant winery that has crafted plenty of great wine in the decade since they first opened their doors. We appreciated the warm welcome and how our host expertly answered the questions our group asked. Although we loved our alfresco tasting in the late spring sunshine, we also thought a tasting inside by the fireplace would be a great way to spend a chilly afternoon.

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Hermitage Road Cellars + Winery

Hunter Valley Wine
Hermitage Road Cellars
Wine pairs with almost everything, but for me cheese is its perfect partner. Our visit to Hermitage Road Cellars combined great wine with equally great cheese to create a really fun winery experience. Hermitage Road Cellars has wine from multiple boutique wineries available to sip and purchase, which made it a terrific stop for us. Since we only had one day in the Hunter Valley, Hermitage Road gave us a chance to broaden our knowledge of the wines produced within the region.

Pear, citrus, and passionfruit took center stage as we sipped the 2018 Lisa Pinot Gris, a light-bodied and flavorful white wine. The 2017 Stormy Ridge Verdelho was equally crisp and easy to sip. Somehow, our favorite wine of our visit was a surprise even to us: the salmon-colored Lisa McGuigan Silver Moscato, a sparkling wine, blended Muscat and Frontignac grapes and was so good we purchased a bottle to bring home with us.

Along with the wine, several selections were paired with Binnorie Dairy cheese, a great way to try some local fare and learn about how the cheese changed the flavor of the wine. One of our favorites was Labna, a Middle Eastern-style cheese with roots tying it to Egypt. The cheese marinates in an olive oil mixture and takes on notes of rosemary and garlic, and served on top of a cracker it was a delicious bite.

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Ernest Hill Wines

Friendly Kangaroo in the Vineyards
VIDEO Friendly Kangaroo in the Vineyards
With roots in the Hunter Valley that date back to the 1960s, Ernest Hill Winery produces high-quality premium wines against the backdrop of the gorgeous Brokenback Range. Our tasting began inside the tasting room, where we sat on wooden stools and sipped six different wines. We started with the 2017 Semillon, the most prominent of Ernest Hill’s plantings. It drank like a classic Semillon, with crisp citrus notes and the faintest notes of honey. The 2016 Shareholders Shiraz is so named for the block from which the grapes are harvested, and we loved the flavors of deep red fruits like blackberries and mulberries combined with a spicy finish that lasted on our palates. Finishing our tasting with sweet Moondance, a Gew├╝rztraminer that could have been drizzled over ice cream or berries as easily as it could be sipped from a glass, felt like the perfect way to end the tasting.

Much to our great joy, our tasting ended not with great wine but with a kangaroo sighting! As we walked back outside into the sunshine, a sudden movement in the distance caught our attention. Staring back at us was a huge kangaroo, who stood frozen with eyes locked on ours. Slowly, he raised a single paw in the air, almost as if to greet us. I raised my hand in response, and we briefly engaged in what felt like waving to one another. A short while later my new marsupial friend lowered his paw and crouched down a bit, and I held my breath (and my iPhone) in the hope he might bounce away. Sure enough, he did. That’s when I noticed he wasn’t alone; another kangaroo joined him, bouncing away toward the horizon where they met up with two other kangaroos waiting for them. Sunshine, wine, and kangaroos: the Hunter Valley just doesn’t get more Australian than that!

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Hunter Valley Bonus Stops

Australia’s Hunter Valley is a primary wine destination, but there’s even more to try beyond the reds and whites that are famous in the region. Our wine tour included a few other stops that you will love whether you take an organized tour or plan a day trip on your own.

Hunter Distillery

You might think you accidentally walked into a laboratory when you are handed your first test tube, but that’s how the Hunter Distillery serves their delicious spirits. Featuring gin, vodka, and a variety of flavored liqueurs and spirits, there is something for everyone to sample. Chocolate mint liqueur would make a delightful after dinner drink, and coffee vodka would be a delicious base for a cocktail, but it was the butterfly pea liqueur that earned a place in our luggage. The butterfly pea flower gives the liqueur a beautiful blue hue, and the liqueur is pineapple-flavored which makes it perfect for tropical beverages. To make it even more appealing, butterfly pea liqueur will turn from blue to pink if an acid (like tonic water) is added to it, which means tasty drinks can also be served with a magical flair. We appreciated that our tasting afforded us the chance to sip from as many test tubes as we wanted—including the spicy Chili Schnapps that also came home with us and will make a great mixed drink in the future.

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Hunter Valley Chocolate Company

Adam and I are both the proud owners of a sweet tooth, and our visit to the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company provided a great chance to enjoy some gourmet locally-made chocolate. After a brief orientation and a chocolate sample, we selected a few treats to enjoy during our stay in Australia. Our favorite was chocolate-covered honeycomb, which combined the richness of the chocolate with the sweet crunch of the honeycomb to create a delicious snack. The Hunter Valley Chocolate Company uses Belgian chocolate (which we are partial to after spending New Year’s Eve in Bruges!), and we felt each ingredient combined to make delicacies that are worth a stop when you visit the Hunter Valley.

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Matilda Bay Brewhouse

Matilda Bay Brewhouse MenuOur wine tour provided lunch for us at the Matilda Bay Brewhouse, and while we enjoyed our meals we thought the beers alone made the stop worthwhile.

Located just a few steps away from Hermitage Road Cellars, the boutique brewery features a dozen different beers on tap that are available for purchase by the pint or as part of a tasting paddle. Adam and I each ordered a paddle, which served six four-ounce pours. Being a person of multitudes, my two favorite beers were ginger and Nitro; the ginger beer was a perfectly light and refreshing choice, while the Nitro was a deep, dark, slightly bitter stout. When the glasses on our paddle were empty, we exchanged them for a glass of the beer of our choice—a great bonus and a wonderful way to savor a bit more of our favorites.

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Visit Hunter Valley!

As fans of a great wine tasting, we absolutely loved the day we spent in Australia’s Hunter Valley. From world-class wines sipped amidst beautiful scenery to great bonus stops for chocolate, beer, and spirits, we found the Hunter Valley offers an incredible variety of places to visit and experiences to enjoy. If your travels will take you to Sydney, plan to spend a day exploring the Hunter Valley. Whether you join a tour like we did or set out on your own, the Hunter Valley is a beautiful place to relax and a lovely contrast to busy Sydney. Just be sure to keep your camera handy—you never know when a kangaroo will bounce in your direction and make your day in the Hunter Valley one you will never forget!

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Hunter Valley Wine Tasting: a Day Trip from Sydney

* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we booked a Hunter Valley wine tour with Zephyr Tours, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected Zephyr Tours based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.