Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Hunter Valley Weekend Getaway - Touring the Vineyards with lots of Cheese!

We awake to a huge storm.  There is lightening and black clouds and rain falling by the bucket load....so much so that we had the guttering fall off our villa with a loud crash and bang this morning (so there was alot of water around).

villas at Leisure Inn

the guttering comes crashing down

As part of our stay we were surprised with a breakfast voucher.  So we headed over to reception and the restaurant for a hearty, warming breakfast (we need to line our tummy's before a day of drinking).  Mr C goes with a caramel milkshake and I have a hot chocolate. 

We sit back and take in the dreary scenery, relaxing and chatting.  There are a few ducks waddling around in the rain and we finally see glimpses of clear sky i the distance.  We have hope that the day will clear up. We are looking forward to tasting some more wines.

Mr C goes with the Big Breakfast.  A huge serve of fried eggs, sausage, bacon, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms with hashbrowns and toast.

the big brekky
He digs in heartily so I assume he enjoys it.
I opt for a egg and bacon muffin with a side of hash browns.  The muffins are toasty on the outside and soft and fluffy in the middle.   The fried egg yolk was runny and oozing through the muffin...and although the hash browns are generic they are crispy and hot.  The bacon is crispy and greasy and brings it all home!

egg and bacon muffin with hash browns
We had pre-arranged a small boutique winery tour with James Vineyard Tours.  It's highly recommended to pre-book a tour particularly around a long weekend.  James picked us up at 10.15am and we head out to pick up 7 other guests. It didn't take long before we arrived at our first vineyard, Ernest Hill Wines.
Ernest Hill
We are given a private tasting and chat about the do's and don'ts of tasting wines.  Best practice on how to hold the glass, aeration, sipping and working your way through the ranges of whites to reds. It's a good foundation for the day.  I'm finding my like of verdelho again and realise I'm not a huge fan of Semillon.
We hold back on purchases here, although I do like their stickies...but we do not know what we are goign to like today and make the responsible decision not to over buy (right now).  We can always come back tomorrow.
Our next stop is Constable Estate.  It's a family run boutique vineyard and there is many sculptures dotted around the land including the cow inside (hint: please don't sit on it or try to ride it - it's a piece of art and expensive!)

lefover wine - never!

We are greeted with a glass of Sparkling Cuvee - a blend of semillon and chardonnay. 

bubbles and sparkles
I am liking the wines here and we end up with a few bottles to add to the collection including a bottle of the 2007 Botryitis Semillon and a bottle of the 2013 Matilda Late Harvest Verdelho.  I don't know what it is but when I am wine tastings I always end up liking the sweeter wines and I love dessert stickys (which I don't usually drink often and have quite the collection that I WILL drink soon).  Why am I drawn to them when I am in the Hunter Valley?
The weather is finally clearing and the sun is poking through the clouds.  The girls on the tour are starting to fire up and everyone is getting chatty.
Our next stop is lunch at Blaxlands Inn on Broke Rd. A pub/restaurant offering big comfy lounges that you can sink into, saddles in the rafters and a nice verandah to sit out on and enjoy this lovely area.  We had pre-ordered before arriving to help the kitchen out.

Mr C and I are celebrating our 3 month anniversary (it's more about an inside joke that we have rather than actually 'celebrating' it).  It's a nice way to mark the occassion though with a glass of Blaxlands Estate 2011 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc .  Also, this man sends me photos of his food... he knows me to well already and I think he is a keeper!

We (note 'I' in we) like to share plates so that we can maximise tastings, plus I usually cannot eat a 2 or 3 course meal to myself due to tummy 'issues'. Small plates, tapas and entrees are my friend.
A serve of the salt, pepper and chilli calamari is served with rocket aioli and a bit of rocket garnish.  The calamari is tender but the batter is soggy and only a small hint of chilli but as it is tender and juicy.

One of our fellow diners let me photograph her garlic prawns in a pot.  These looked and semlt absolutely amazing and wish we had gone with this option.

Blaxlands Inn is famous for their deep dish pies.  We chose the beef, red wine and vegetable pie.  It's certainly enough for two people.  A dish full of chunky beef stew (some very tender pieces and some tough and chewy pieces are mixed together) topped with flaky puff pastry.  Hearty, hot and flavoursome, the beef and chuncks of carrots swim in a bath of rich and thick gravy. Just disappointing with the couple of peices of tough beef throughout.

Blaxlands Inn famous deep dish pie
Onwards, the afternoon gets a bit rushed and we are over to Ballabourneen Wines.  This was a fun winery to taste at.  Very lively staff and the wines are pretty good too!  I ended up with a 6 pack of 2013 Moscato Blush (don't know how that happened LOL)... I can so justify anything - particularly when you technically save $52 by buying the case!

Checkout their Pukara Estate offerings too.  I am a huge fan of Pukara Estate and have quite the collection of flavoured olive oils and particularly their balsamic vinegars.  I restocked on a bottle of my favourite fig balsamic vinegar and a bottle of their white balsamic vinegar which is sharp and tangy and has a lovely light note.

Another stop on the trail is the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company. Apart from some fabulous tasting fudge the 'chocolate and wine tasting' was 4 tiny pieces of chocolate (a choc rock, a couple of coffee beans coated in chocolate and a couple of other pieces) and then it was a taste of some random wine you choose.  There were to many people pushing in and I was hoping that someone might have explained the concept of chocolate and wine tastings and how they pair together.  The wine tasting was random and not particulary helpful.  But that is just my opinion.  I would have (and would like to again) come here on my own and spent some more time discovering it.
However, we did give in to a slab of salted caramel fudge, which was creamy and smooth and had great salty caramel flavours ribboned through it.  We end up fighting over the last bites!
fudge and shiraz paste
eat all the fudge
Then there is a quick stop at the Smelly Cheese Shop (at Tempus Two complex) to pick up a few cheeses for the next couple of days.  We over indulged big time!

so many products I want to buy

Our last winery of the day is at Lucy's Run Wine and Olives. Named after their dog, obviously Lucy, the winery grows three varieties of grapes, verdelho, merlot and shiraz.  I find the wines young and light (see I am starting to learn something from these tastings today!)
Lucy's run range
They also grow olives and produce olive oil, dukkah and a range of olives (which unfrotunately they had run out of and none for tasting). The olive oil is first pressed only and thick and yellow with a strong fruity taste.  Perfect for dressings and dipping with the dukkah and bread.

olive oil, dukkah and breads
We are dropped off out our accommodation by 5ish.  It has been a great tour and a great way to see some boutique wineries that otherwise would never had made our radar list.  There are over 150 wineries in the region so getting to all of them could take a very long time.  I highly recommend James and his tour.

Back at base we need some down time so we enjoyed a glass of wine out on our patio - as if we didn't need more wine (now that the sun is out).  We settled in with a cheese plate which consisted of a walnut layered cheese, windsor red (has port through it), Hunterbelle capsicum and basil cheese and a Smelly Shop creamy blue with a side of shiraz paste for the crackers.
We opened the Mistletoe 2009 Hilltips Cabernet and revelled in its smooth velvety lushness.  I wish we bought another bottle of this to bring home. 

This is the life - when are we moving to the Hunter Valley Mr C?

Monday, 28 April 2014

Hunter Valley Weekend Getaway - Welcome to the Vineyards

Seeing that Easter and ANZAC Day fell in the same week  I took an extra day leave and headed up headed north for a weekend retreat in the Hunter Valley.

Road Trip!

We were on the road early and made great time up the M1 (formerly the F3) and hit Cessnock at around 10 o'clock.  In need of sustenance (and to prepare our tums for an afternoon of wine tasting) we found Mama's cafe for some brunch.

No need to eat breakfast, we went straight to the lunch time offerings even though it was so early in the day.  Mr C had the beef lasagna (he has been craving this for a couple of weeks now) and I opted for the special of the day which was chicken schnitzel covered in a creamy prawn sauce.  Both dishes are served with salad and chips.  Order and pay inside and they will bring it out to you if you are sitting road side.  This gave us a chance to people watch on the main street of Cessnock - it was interesting!

Mr C washed his meal down with an Iced Choc too.

I had to have a small sip or two.

beef lasagna and chicken schnitty with creamy prawn sauce
I was VERY happy with my schnitty and prawn sauce.  A huge slab of crumbed moist chicken topped with a creamy (think hollandaise) prawn sauce loaded with shallots.  The side salad was also a good one full of onion, carrot, cucumber, red capsicum, green leaves and beetroot dressed with a honey mustard dressing.  Very decent meals.  The lasagna was $15 and the special was $17.  Good value I reckon.

Bellies full we were ready for some wine tasting!

Driving towards Pokolbin we decided before checking in to our Hotel we would stop at Peterson House first (saving us doubling back later in the day). 

Petersons House
life is flat without bubbles merchandise
It's only 11am and it's already buzzing, so I asked a member of staff if it was possible to do a private members tasting (I forgot to book in advance).  Luckily they were able to accommodate and for the next 2 hours (yes 2 hours) we sat out on the back veranda overlooking the dam and sipping on member only tasting bubbles and sparkles.

Life's Flat Without Bubbles

Half way through we were given  a little light refreshment in the way of a plate of cheese, crackers and house made quince paste.  Delicious paired with a sparkling red or two.  The quince paste is smooth and runnier than I expected but is great smeared on a cracker with a chunk of cheese (which I failed to asked what it was!)

eat all the cheese and quince paste
I have to say I am a big fan of Peterson House sparkling reds.

which drop is your fav?

Our tasting ended with a small warmed glass of Muscat.  A delicious, mellow, smooth fortified wine.  It was velvety smooth and the aroma was wonderful.  Although I'm expecting my first member pack in June we did purchase a few bottles including a 2013 sparkling botryitis and a bottle of that muscat!

ching ching darlings
Next time I am coming here for breakfast.  It looks absolutely delicious.  Even Mr C who is not a bubbles drinker loved it (and I may have converted him on the sparkly reds!)
After a quick check in and freshen up at Leisure Inn at Pokolbin we caught a taxi out to Piggs Peak Estate with the idea of walking down the road back towards Blue Tongue Brewery to meet with friends later in the day.  I have been to the Hunter Valley a few times over the years, but this was the first weekend where I was actually getting to appreciate the wines a little more (aka not a hens weekend or dance weekend which is not wine focused AS SUCH).  When we arrived at our first winery we realised how much distance there actually is in the countryside.  Big mistake....our destination wasn't as close as we first thought and now way am I walking that far carrying wine, so we had to come up with Plan B (which sort of just came our way).
Piggs Peak Winery has a reputation of making unique wines made from old vineyards with a good reputation. 
The wines are described as gutsy reds but I will admit I was not impressed with the wines (but hey, I am also not a wine buff and haven't maybe developed a palate enough to make the judgement)  so who am I to judge? Everyones palate is different.  However we did like the 2012 Boer Doe Cabernet Merlot and purchased a bottle to take home.  One thing that we did note at this winery was the little midge flies.  They are everywhere and a particular problem in the Hunter Valley at this time of year.

here piggy, piggy, piggy


tasting a boer doe that was very good

Now this is where we had to rethink our Plan B.  Walking all the way was going to be an issue and spending $30 in a taxi to get to the winery was expensive, so we thought while we were in the area we should pop next door and try Tintilla Estate (and make that taxi ride worth it!). Not only good wines but olives (grown on the estate) and jam products.  Why not?

It's such a lovely day to walk through the vineyards.

welcome to wine country

Lots of taste testings of punchy, lemony olives and some jams, but for some strange reason I was drawn to the wines.  While tasting I turned around and realised my friends had arrived and were tasting the olives.  They had decided to do a few wineries in the afternoon too before meeting later.  So we all hung out together for the rest of the afternoon.

Just for a friend of ours we really liked this wine and we bought a bottle in her honour.  A good Merlot

wine for our hussy
Going for a little drive along Hermitage Road, Mr A decided to head on down Old North Rd and we came across Travertine Wines.  Looking newly opened we decided to pop in.  The winery has been around for many years, it was just a new cellar door.  Airy, light and a really lovely space it 's going to be fabulous when finished. 

catching up with friends in the vines is a great past time
Lynn was very friendly and loved chatting about the vineyards and their wines.  I am liking what I'm tasting and Travertine prices are fabulous!  We end the tasting with the stickies and fortifieds (again drawn to them when I visit the Hunter Valley). 
We had a wonder sip of the NV Apera which has been matured in oak for 10 years and is derived from red grapes.  It's like honey....now I just need a fire place to relax by.

NV Apera
We felt so comfortable and welcomed and Miss J thought it would be okay to help herself - this 2009 Shiraz just happens to be a cracker of a red and also on sale if you buy by the case - let's just say there were 3 cases purchased between us.  Of course we had to taste for ourselves (a few times) for research purposes before purchasing LOL!

Go and check them out and say hi.  Hopefully within the next few weeks they will have completed their building and fitting it out with a fire place and a big central table inside.  You will be able to buy a glass (or bottle) of wine and a cheese plate and sit out on their decking overlooking the vineyards.

Last stop before heading to dinner and (more) drinks was Mistletoe Wines.  Now this was a winery that wasn't on our radar, however Miss J convinced us to visit for their superb reds.  She wasn't wrong!  Some very smooth, tasty wines and we walked away with a bottle of 2009 Hilltops Cabernet.

Our last stop for the evening was Blue Tongue Brewery (part of the Hunter Valley Resort).  Our friends dropped us off before heading back to their hotel to drop the car off and come back.  Mr C and I decided that we should do some more tastings....but with beer this time.  Blue Tongue offer to beer flight tastings.  The first one being a flight of the Blue Tongue range and the other is a featured 'guest brewer' beer flight which is Matilda Bay (at the moment).  Of course we go with the Blue Tongue. 

We are given a tasting sheet and advised to start from light to dark.  I just love the paddles the glasses come in.  Tip/Hint: When you return the paddle after tasting you will get a middie of your favourite beer. (also deters peoples stealing the beer flights!)

Ginger beer to a Black Ale - the palate range of Blue Tongue

So we have from front to back -  Blue Tongue Alcoholic Ginger Beer, Premium Lager, Pale Ale, Premium Light, Original Pilsener, and the Black Ale.

beer flight
Big fan of the ginger beer - it's got a good spicy kick to it.  Not a fan of the Pale Ale.  The Premium Light is a good back up and surprisingly I'm partial to the Black Ale.
I stuck with the ginger beer.  It's very refreshing, spicy and not overly fizzy (and yes it's alcoholic).
We were starving by this time to - it's been a long time since breakfast and cheeses.  Our friends arrive and we take a few minutes pondering the menu of  San Martino Bites Pizza & Pasta, which is the restaurant/cafe on site.  Not only is there pizza and pasta but a small bites and main courses.  However, we are cold and hungry and carb load with the pasta and pizza.
Mr C and I shared the Mussels in Sicilian Tomato Sauce with Fettuccine. 
3 Pigs pizza, which had bacon, ham and pork belly in an Asian honey BBQ sauce.  This was meaty and good but a little on the sweeter side.  I liked it...Mr C not so much.
and a garlic cheese pizza
My friends opted for the creamy chicken mushroom bacon fettuccini.  They agreed that it was all good. 
the dish of the meal
Slow Braised Tuscan Style Lamb shoulder with Potato Gnocchi
Overall the blue Tongue Brewery is a great little place for beer tasting, unwinding and relaxing.  I personally feel it would be better during the day.  It's very quiet at night time in the Hunter Valley.  The food was okay.  However saying that, it had been a long day, we were getting cold and tired and weren't really feeling the it.  Perhaps another chance to revisit another day.