New South Wales’ best-known wine region and Australia’s oldest, the Hunter Valley is an area long synonymous with fine wine – in particular, its golden, citrusy Sémillon and soft and earthy Shiraz. In recent years, the region has become equally prized for its restaurant and cultural scene: visitors are treated to some of the best the country has to offer in the way of fine dining, gourmet delis, arts and crafts, and outdoor events and festivals.
Wine, however, is still the main attraction. The first vines were planted in 1828, and some still-existing winemaker families, such as the Draytons, date back to the 1850s. In what seems a bizarre juxtaposition, this is also a very important coal-mining region, in the Upper Hunter Valley especially. By far the best-known wine area is the Lower Hunter Valley, nestled under the picturesque Brokenback Range, fanning north from the main town of Cessnock to the main wine-tasting area of Pokolbin. Cessnock, unfortunately, is a depressingly unattractive introduction to the salubrious wine culture surrounding it, though its big old country pubs offer cheaper accommodation options. Broke Fordwich is an easy fifteen-minute drive from the hectic centre of Pokolbin and also has many wonderful wineries, many of them boutique.
The area can seem a little like an exhausting winery theme park; to experience the real appeal of the Hunter Valley wine country, explore the region’s periphery. Take the scenic, winding Wollombi Road to the charming historic town of Wollombi, 28km southwest of Cessnock; or try the Lovedale/Wilderness Road area, to the northeast, and the still unspoilt Upper Hunter, west of Muswellbrook, with its marvellous ridges and rocky outcrops.