Wine, cheese and chocolate: The golden trio of the Hunter Valley

The Hunter may be one of Australia’s prime wine regions, but there’s plenty of other things to do here

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Friday evening. Pokolbin Hill, Hunter Valley. We had just pulled up at Leisure Inn, our weekend getaway. The lights in most of the cottages had already been dimmed, and almost all of the 25-acre property looked dark. Opening the doors to the warmed-up rooms, the best we could dream of was about tucking ourselves into the crisp white sheets for a good night’s sleep.

Leisure Inn sunrise

We woke up to a magnificent sunrise from behind the little water body right next to our cottage. The ponies that came grazing by the lake were quite a sight, and feathered visitors that dropped in looking for crumbs provided much entertainment. Since the kitchen in the resort was self-contained, there was not much delay whipping up a quick brekkie with some bread, ham and eggs to set out for the (ad)ventures Hunter had on offer.
Home to about 140 cellar doors, it is anyone’s guess what one can best do at Hunter Valley. But with little kids with us, our first destination was the chocolate place instead – Hunter Valley Chocolate Company. The Chocolate Company has changed quite a lot from when we first visited some ten years ago. It was then a homely shack selling home-made fudge, some chocolate, local produce and curios. This more recent building with the factory and store combined looked like a mightier version of that shack, still selling a wide array of fudges, gourmet hampers and heaps of chocolate varieties, some of which were available for tasting too.

As the kids went crazy over the rocky roads and fruit mixes, the sales lady asked me, “And would you like your chocolate spicy?” In response to my surprise she explained, “You might find chilli bark chocolates interesting. Or if you’re looking for something smoother, pick a pine/lime splice which is a green chocolate. Or here’s a pineapple-hibiscus chocolate for you.” Eventually my shopping bag looked like I was about to start a shop myself, back in Sydney!
Chocolate craving satisfied, the next destination was a cellar door. Preservative-free wine was what I was after, no thanks to some nasty headaches recently that very nearly put me off the grog completely. And so we drove in to Harkham Winery. It was a pleasant surprise to see that they were not just selling wines, but using part of their proceeds to build schools in third world countries. A winery with a social commitment was quite a unique find.

The place lived up to the expectation of a boutique cellar door, with a small selection of wines. The staff, all members of the one family, made sure that we were looked after, and recounted, with great passion, stories about their wines. I’m no wine connoisseur myself, but their wines did have an earthier taste. We ended up buying a few Rose and Shiraz bottles. But the showstopper was certainly the ‘chocolate hazelnut liquor’, a creamy blend of milk chocolate, hazelnut and coconut. Wonderful on its own or splashed over some ice cubes, you could even pour it over ice cream for an adult treat. The winery boasts of a private tasting room, a restaurant onsite, and some rooms to stay as well.

That done, looking for a second cellar door, we chose the de iuliis wines, with a Two Fat Blokes cheese tasting facility nearby – expecting to do two things in one go. We were greeted by an elderly saleswoman, who had seen a lot of the world and had her share of travels to India. She welcomed us stating that she has been to the busy streets of India where life is ‘rather involved’, and invited us to relax with a glass of wine. With my limited experience of wine tasting, I have already learnt that white should go before red, and dry should go before sweet. Shiraz was highly recommended but we picked the white Chardonnay after tasting a few different whites and reds which she poured out for us.
Two Fat Blokes deli

The good few sips of wine we had helped immensely in enjoying the cheese at Two Fat Blokes. We sampled cheddar, brie, blue, feta and goat’s cheese; and also some blended tastes. We chose caramelised onion cheese along with some of the cheddar, to save for the afternoon tea. Lunch at Blaxland Inn was spectacular. A superb sirloin steak, and linguine cooked to absolute perfection, proved that our choice was spot on.
Linguine pasta at Blaxland Inn

After a hearty meal laced with the warmth of country hospitality, we set about to taste some more wines at the McGuigan Wines, our all-time favourite. With a large assortment of wines, McGuigan never disappoints, and we were told that they had been named International Winemaker of the Year for a record fourth time in 2016 in the history of the International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC) in London.
Wine tasting

Their Shiraz and Semillion are amazing, but they have an awesome McGuigan Personal Reserve Late picked Traminer 2017 ($40 dollars). And if you like sweet wines, there is no going past their Autumn Harvest Semillion which is a sure winner at all of our parties at home. The mathematical precision and unique passion with which the people at the counter helps us taste the wines has always been a great incentive for us to visit the place, every time we visit Hunter.

Such an amazing day of delectable food and drinking! We headed back to our cottage at the Pokolbin Inn with our pick of crackers, quince paste, fruits and of course a pretty cheese board, to serve ourselves a cheese platter for afternoon tea, inspired by what we had seen and experienced.
Cheese platter at home

A lovely stroll later in the picturesque retreat capturing some snapshots, we called it a day and settled in to the comfort of The Vines, the restaurant onsite that serves pretty much everything from curries to pizzas to risottos and barramundis.

The perfect ending to a gorgeous day.

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