A short drive from Sydney and you’re in a slice of winemaking and cuisine heaven, writes Shayne Burton.
When you turn off the highway towards NSW’s Hunter Valley, you immediately notice a change in pace. Fellow drivers are no longer speeding to overtake you, so you ease off the accelerator yourself. Bushland gives way to rolling hills as the winding roads lead you through country towns. I change the soundtrack to suit – dance mix off, Sade on.
My destination is the five-star Tower Estate Lodge & Winery, a hacienda-style 10-room lodge in Pokolbin. The eponymous tower is a beacon among the vineyards, and the magnificent 1895 French coach-house doors certainly allows you to make a grand entrance.
I’m staying in the Oriental Room (no two rooms are the same!), a wonderland filled with Chinese paintings, carved-timber screens and sumptuous fabrics, and antique furniture. The piece de resistance is a Japanese-inspired sunken hot tub on the adjoining deck. I later find out that the mother of Tower Estate’s owner, Matt Cowley, decorated the room herself. It’s personal touches such as these that make me feel like I’m staying at a friend’s luxurious home rather than in a hotel.
My first full day begins with wine tasting at the Tower Estate winery next door. Matt runs me and my fellow sippers through the fascinating process of winemaking. Did you know that fish guts are used as a clarifying agent during the fermentation process? You do now.
Before we get down to the business of tasting the wines, sommelier Larissa explains “the four Ss”: smell, sipping, swishing and swallowing. There is a real art to wine tasting, and one that I didn’t fully appreciate until Larissa shared her knowledge with us. For the next two hours, our tastebuds are taken on a tantalising journey. We begin with whites – Hunter Valley Semillon, Clare Valley Riesling and Adelaide Hills Chardonnay – which are roundly pronounced a delight.
Next up are the reds – Tasmania Panorama Pinot Noir, Hunter Valley Shiraz and Freeman Vineyard Hilltops Shiraz – followed by a sweet Hunter Valley Moscato to finish. I leave with the following advice ringing in my ears: “the more you taste wine, the better you will get at distinguishing the unique flavours”. You don’t need to twist my arm.
Next stop is Roberts Restaurant. While we warm ourselves by the open fire, enticing aromas waft from the kitchen. The patter of rain on the tin roof is almost a cliche but I love it – it’s perfect for a wintry Sunday lunch. The new head chef, George Francisco (formerly of Jonah’s at Whale Beach), has prepared a hearty feast of roast chicken, fish, vegetables and bean salads with matching wines from the Estate. George’s enthusiasm is infectious as he explains the restaurant’s ethos of using local ingredients and his own vision for a self-sustainable restaurant. He paints a portrait of family lunches with shared desserts and games of croquet on the lawn afterwards. The formal yet informal with a sustainable twist’ approach is right on trend, and something that I, for one, applaud.
After lunch, I take a tour of the Peppers Convent guesthouse. Once home to the Brigidine order of nuns in Coonamble, Peppers Convent was dismantled and relocated lock, stock and barrel to its present location. The deep verandahs are the perfect place to sip more wine and watch the day fade into night.
Dinner is at the award-winning NINE restaurant within Tower Lodge. It’s nine metres below the ground, offers a nine-course degustation menu and nine different menus per year... Did somebody say nine? But we’re not eating underground tonight; instead, we’re enjoying NINE’s Deep Winter menu in the impressive Lodge dining room. I was in a food coma after lunch, now it looks like I was on my way back to the food emergency room...
Once again, George has rustled up some unbelievable delights. The dishes are served hors d’ouevres style with complementing wine. Selecting the correct wine can be a challenge, but should you make a mistake, the friendly staff gently steer you back on course.
After a full day of gastronomic delights, I can’t eat or drink another thing. I sink into the king-size bed and sleep like I have run a marathon. Although my jeans seem tighter in the morning, it doesn’t seem important. Eat, drink and be merry.... I gave it a good shot.