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Get into the spirit of Hunter Valley

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VALLEY OF WINES Grapes handpicked at the Tyrrells Wines Vineyard in the Hunter Valley
VALLEY OF WINES Grapes handpicked at the Tyrrells Wines Vineyard in the Hunter Valley

Take a break and taste the wine at Hunter Valley, says Inder Raj Ahluwalia

Temperate climate, healthy rains and fertile soil, set below the dramatic backdrop of the Brokenback Ranges... If it all sounds a bit dreamy, just sign on and hop across for the seduction.The two-hour drive from Sydney on the Pacific Highway had served two purposes. Education and pleasure! Driving through scenic countryside, watching the terrain turn from dry to green, it was good to hear about Australia's foremost wine producing area.We'd left while the morning sunlight was still pale gold, our guide Matthew Needham telling us about the region being blessed with a climate `most partial' to grape cultivation, and about everyone working in tandem to promote their products and the destination. A successful formula, by all accounts, as we saw over the next couple of days.

Wine making tradition

The Hunter Valley is all about leisurely breaks. The vineyards of the Lower Hunter Valley straddle the plains surrounding the winding Hunter River, stretching to the Broke Fordwich region in the West, the Lovedale Region in the East and into the historic village of Wollombi in the South.Wine growing began here when Scotsman James Busby recognised the area's potential in 1824. Busby was granted 2,000 acres of prime land, and the rest followed. One of the earliest Vignerons was George Wyndham, who planted vines in the 1830s. Wyndham was followed by recognisable names like Tyrrell, Lindeman, Drayton and Tulloch.This early wine making tradition lives on and today there are over 110 wineries and cellar doors spread across the landscape of the Lower Hunter Valley. Old mixes with new, older houses existing alongside the new set! Names like Margan, Farrells Limestone Creek and Capercaillie all make great wines.Consider the variety! Classic types are rich, golden Semillon, earthy Shiraz with a well-developed depth of flavour, and the intensely rich Chardonnay. Added on, are inductions of lesser-known varieties such as Chambourcin, Gewurztraminer and Chenin Blanc. And new brands are being created every year.

Other attractions

But it isn't just about wine! There are other attractions, like top-notch food and lodging, championship golf courses, galleries, antiques, horse riding, heritage tours, sunrise champagne hot air balloon flights, tandem skydiving adventures, and the bliss of rural relaxation.We started at the right place; the Visitor Information Centre at the entrance of Cessnock Airport, exchanged quick pleasantries with Heidi Duckworth who works for the local tourism body, picked up useful literature, and left with her "enjoy our wines" ringing in our ears. Within minutes, we were at McGuigans Cellars and the Hunter Valley Cheese Co., for a bout of serious wine and cheese tasting. A series of reds, then whites, followed by some port. It all made good sense.Thus fortified, we arrived at Hunter Valley Gardens, premier local attraction and a real delight. The complex comprises the Lodge - a boutique hotel, Seasons Restaurant, Conference & Function Centre, Harrigan's Irish Pub, Gardens Village & Gardens Chapel, flanked by the Gardens themselves. Welcoming us was Rebecca Lavis, whose idea of taking us in hand was to lead us straightaway to Harrigans, the valley's foremost Irish pub, which serves Irish fare and also the traditional `cook your own' BBQ and wood fired pizzas.Dotted with assorted statuary, the theme gardens are a delight for the senses. There is the Rose Garden with over 10,000 roses, the classic European Formal Garden, the elegant Japanese and Chinese Gardens, a herb garden, tea gardens, ornamental lakes and waterfalls, a Lakes Walk, fairytale characters in the spectacular Children's Story Book Garden, `St. Francis of Assissi' in the Italian Grotto, and the Mosaic Indian Tea Pavilion entered through 180-year-old antique traditional Indian elephant gates.

Wine tasting

It was time for another wine-tasting session and this time the venue for `twilight tasting' was De luliis Wines, where Michael De luliis discussed the year's harvest while doling out his wines for us to taste. "Our De luliis Semillon, Chardonnay and Shiraz are being produced using traditional winemaking techniques, which give our wines a distinct expression of time, place and individual personality." Getting into the `spirit', I tried a 1999 Pinot Chardonnay, 2000 Semillon, and 2002 Ruby Rose.Later that evening, there was more of the same at Hunter Resort Country Estate where Philip Hele, General Manager, told us about their popular wine school and about wine drinkers outliving other beings.We bedded down at Cyprus Lakes Resort, a classy spread out affair with a golf course, tennis courts, pool and comprehensive dining and convention facilities. My cottage was comfortable enough, private enough, and everything enough... It was all that a simple body could desire... !The factsHunter Valley is some 120 km from Sydney.Once there, getting around the wine region to the cellars and restaurants could be by car or coach, horse carriages or by bicycle. There are also walking tours.Accommodation comprises hotels, resorts and guest-houses, with tariffs ranging from 60-200 dollars.Shop at will! There are crafts and antiques at gallerias like Butterfly Gallery and Peppers Creek Antiques.It's the place to sample regional foods like olives, stone fruits, table grapes, honey and beef. Or to attend wine schools or cooking classes. Indian nationals require a visa to enter Australia.

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