Millions of people visit Australia’s Hunter Valley wine region each year. It’s the 6th most visited place in the country – but do you know it like a local does? Our recent visit to the Hunter has given us a rare insight into the real Hunter Region.
We recently spent 24 hours in the Hunter Valley, 2 hours north of Sydney, to get to know this famous wine region a bit better. Thanks to the Scarborough family, owners of Scarborough Wine Co in Pokolbin, we now know a bit more of what it means to live in wine country.
Do you need to have a local show you round to get to know the region?
No, of course not. But it certainly helps. Here’s what we did and what we learnt while we were with the Scarboroughs.
24 hours in the Hunter Valley – a wine education
At the end of the easy 2-hour drive north from Sydney, we arrive at the Scarboroughs’ newest of their two cellar doors – Scarborough on Heritage.
From the Hermitage property, you look out over the hills striped with grape trusses. This part of the Hunter runs all the way to the Brokenback Mountain Range and the views are truly remarkable.
Sally Scarborough and her brother Jerome pretty much run the family business these days. Though their dad Ian – or ‘Scarbie’ as he’s known in these parts – still has a lot to do with what comes out of the cellar door. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sally takes us on a look round the estate and their stylish cellar door before she and Jerome bring out morning tea – some absolutely delicious local pastries from Baked Uprising.
While I try to nibble politely on my blackcurrant and apple custard brioche, talk turns to wine. I briefly tell Jerome what we know about wine making. I say briefly because we don’t know that much!
Jerome’s wine knowledge, on the other hand, is amazing and he explains the entire process as the three of us walk the winery floor.
We go from the moment the grapes are harvested and brought into the crusher to when the young wine is laid down in oak barrels. We sample wine that’s been in different types of oak to see how it changes, and Jerome explains each one.
It’s so interesting to see what really happens behind the scenes in a winery. There’s just so much that you need to get right.
Before long we’re on the move again – this time to see the starting place of Scarborough Wine: Gillards Road cellar door.
Everything the Hermitage cellar door has in modern styling, Gillards Road has in homeliness and country hospitality.
We’re sat down at a table for a tasting. The Scarborough standouts are – and probably always will be – the Chardonnays and the Pinot Noir they make here.
However, I really like their Semillon, and the Vermentino they just released for the first time ever is dangerously drinkable.
The way the tasting is delivered at Scarborough Wines is – just like everything else this family does – that step beyond what you usually find at a cellar door.
Tastings here are a sit-down affair. You also get a crib notes sheet to work from with your wine. There’s even a snack plate of cheese and goodies to enjoy while you taste the wine.
From the tasting table, we move to the lunch table with a spread to die for. The food’s from a local restaurant – appropriately named The Cellar – is exquisite. We’re joined by Jerome and Sally, and their dad and founder of Scarborough Wines, Scarbie. Before long we’re all stuffed and laughing, chatting as if we’ve known each other for years.
Scarbie insists on cracking a couple of bottles over lunch. You can see this is not just his but the whole family’s favourite thing to do. We’ve never felt so welcome or part of a family that’s not our own.
After we’ve eaten, Scarbie takes us for a drive in his ute around the local area. It starts off as an exercise in orientation – to give us the lay of the land – but soon we’re popping into some of Scarbie’s favourite haunts and places that have particularly good views over the valley.
He points out some of his favourite wineries and places for a good feed. It’s so interesting to get a local’s perspective of a place we’ve visited plenty of times but only with a tourist’s point of view.
It’s interesting to get a local’s low-down on what the Hunter’s about and why it’s such a unique wine region.
Scarbie explains why the wineries here are so spread out compared to places like the Barossa, which are virtually back-to-back throughout that region. It’s because the Hunter is much, much older.
The soil has had time to spread out, it’s lost some of its nutrients to time and it’s generally harder to grow grapes here. Therefore, winemakers and farmers have to choose their crop sites extremely carefully. There’s so much science to it here.
Of course, the soil in the Hunter Region is still incredibly fertile, and that’s what makes this such a beautiful, green part of New South Wales.
We also grill Scarbie on which are his favourite small wineries. We love a local tip – especially when it comes to wine and food!
Our next port of call is one of those local tips down to a tee.
Spicers Vineyards Estate and its fine-dining restaurant Botanica is one of the best places to stay in the Hunter Valley.
The property is owned and managed by lovely husband-and-wife team Mark and Belinda Stapleton. Belinda has won awards for her work running Spicers Vineyards Estate, and it’s easy to see why.
Meanwhile, in Restaurant Botanica, Mark is busy getting ready for the evening’s service.
He’s put some time aside to talk to us and show us around Botanica’s kitchen garden. Around the back of the restaurant, set away from the grapevines that produce Botanica’s own small-batch wine, is Mark’s greengrocer.
In great barrels and raised troughs, Mark and his staff have grown all manner of herbs, flowers and vegetables. And all with the mind to include them in the delicious dishes served at Botanica.
We roam the garden for a while, harvesting a few leaves and blooms that catch our eye. Then Mark takes us back to the restaurant to show us how to make a beautiful salsa verde.
Dinner is even more like a big family feast as we dine with the Scarboroughs and the Stapletons at Restaurant Botanica. The food is unbelievable and made better by the great people around the table. It’s a truly memorable night.
The next morning, after an amazing night’s sleep at Spicers Vineyards Estate, we make our way to Cafe Enzo for breakfast. Over eggs, bacon and excellent coffee, Sally Scarborough tells us that this place used to be her childhood friend’s family home. They’ve since turned it into a cafe and styled it so well it’s floor-to-ceiling Instagram gold!
It’s definitely on our list for our return visit.
This experience has shown us an entirely new perspective on what it’s really like in the Hunter Valley – and what the region has to offer. We can’t wait to go back – if nothing else to visit our new friends the Scarboroughs and the Stapletons.
For more local tips, the Scarboroughs have put together a free downloadable cheat sheet for the Hunter Valley – their Home-Grown Guide.
And if you want to keep up with everything else this amazingly dynamic yet incredibly friendly family is doing – wine and otherwise – make sure you sign up to their newsletter here.
What’s your top tip for feeling like a local in a new place? How do you get to know a region quickly? Tell us in the comments!