Hiding away in the idyllic Hunter Valley

The Villa at Chateau Elan will make you feel like you're nestled in the heart of French wine country.
The Villa at Chateau Elan will make you feel like you're nestled in the heart of French wine country.

A weekend away at New South Wales premium wine country in the Hunter Valley is often the choice for many a lover of a win- tasting experience. Often it is the big names and the well-publicised venues that people choose to visit. I am not here to say that’s a bad thing at all, but this brief tale is one of the little battler, the unsung hero, the family-owned-and-operated toilers. The people that cannot but help themselves in the search of the perfect drop – it’s either in the blood or in the family.

To be frank, there is a plethora of options when it comes to said vineyards and it would take you much longer than a weekend to sample them all, and possibly a little portion of your liver too! But proper wine tasting is meant to be about the sensory examination of wine. You are supposed to sip, swill and spit. I myself always struggle in expelling a good drop of vino, and when it’s really good, well it’s just not going to happen!

During the recent Hunter Valley Food and Wine Festival (which is on every May and June), I was chuffed to be invited to experience a few of the aforementioned properties. The lifeblood through every vineyard that I visited was that internal love of what a family operating the property is all about. They live and breathe it. And it shows in all aspects of what they achieve, be it the wine they produce, the cuisine they create or just the friendliness that they exude.

Stonehurst's popular Cellar Door.

Stonehurst's popular Cellar Door.

My first destination is the perfect example of this. Stonehurst Cedar Creek is owned and loved by the Heslop family for over five generations – in fact, there has only ever been two owners of the land since the 1830’s. The original owners were Napoleonic war veterans and the land has always been known for its horticultural produce including cattle and deer, apple and orange orchards and, since 1995, vineyards.

Stonehurst is situted away from the big players in the valley and sits graciously a few minutes out of the charming historic cracker that is known as Wollombi Village. You could easily spend an afternoon here tasting their award-winners in the delightful sandstone cellar door, enjoy a wander through the vineyards or even go for a bushwalk in the surrounding mountains that seem to cradle the property.

The Heslop family were a lovely bunch.

The Heslop family were a lovely bunch.

I was lucky to be able to enjoy some time with a couple of the clan, Laura Heslop and her mother Phillipa, who were both absolutely delightful and happy to give me a little insight into the family history and the future plans as I am sure they would you too.

I was fortunate to nab a seat at the annual Wollombi Winemakers Winter Dinner. It was party of flavour and savour for the taste buds with a five-dish degustation and matching wines to boot. A mix of locals and visitors filled the room and it was just a super night filled with fine food, lots of laughter and a spot of wine knowledge to take in as well.

Hope I get invited back next year. You should come too!

Okay so we have all heard the buzzwords ‘paddock-to-plate’ right? It’s thrown around at an alarming rate really. Well, I had the pleasure of visiting a venue that can not only spruik that theme, but who take that decree to a much higher level. In fact Margan Wines were organic well before it became marketing buzzword.

Delicious dining at Margan Wines, who have long championed sustainable produce.

Delicious dining at Margan Wines, who have long championed sustainable produce.

Once again this is a family-owned-and-operated business and it oozes, dedication, passion and a total desire to produce the best possible product and experience for you, the visitor. Owners Lisa and Andrew Margan are all about environmental sustainability and they really lead that charge in the Hunter. Andrew sums it up nicely here,

“As farmers managing 100 hectares of vineyard and gardens we need to ensure that our land is kept in great condition so that it looks after us for years to come. This ethos provides guidance for all decision making within the business and covers areas such as operations, product selection, preferred suppliers and best practice procedures.”

That it does, and when you visit them, you will experience that philosophy without having it preached to you. The top quality wines and cuisine that has been sourced from the gardens and vineyards that lay within 100 metres from your table speak for themselves.

A sun sets on another beautiful weekend away at the Hunter Valley.

A sun sets on another beautiful weekend away at the Hunter Valley.

Head Chef Thomas Boyd, who was once an apprentice here before earning his stripes in London and returning, took great pride in giving me a tour of the garden and then utilising those ingredients to construct a most delicious dining experience indeed.

After a long and splendid lunch, I just had to head back to my accommodation at Chateau Elan for a little nanna nap. Seriously if I was to manage to fit dinner at Baume Restaurant in, I really had no choice. 

Chateau Elan is situated in amongst the Vintage Estate in the Hunter and has four luxury-styled accommodation offerings to choose from. I had the good fortune of having a Villa Studio to relax in.

Overlooking the golf course with mountain views in the distance, it was the perfect outlook to slow down in between what was a hectic schedule I had foolishly set myself. Although I didn’t really allow enough time to explore all that this 5-star property had to offer, what I did experience was definitely of a standard that was fitting of its reputation. A Greg Norman-designed golf course, spa and beauty salon, fashionable restaurants and bars is just a little of what awaits more exploration. 

Baume's delicious tasting pizza is perfect with a glass of burgundy.

Baume's delicious tasting pizza is perfect with a glass of burgundy.

To finish off my Hunter sojourn off I managed to drag my expanding belly out of its recuperation period and get myself to my dinner date at Baume Restaurant. Pronounced bow-may, Baume holds court in the old Penfolds winery and was just the style of dining that was my calling that night.

A nice and open-style setting created the perfect locale for a casual family dining atmosphere. Lots of small tasting plates were on offer, prepared from mainly locally-sourced produce. House-made flatbreads and pizza cooked perfectly in a traditional wood-fired oven, and plenty of larger share type dishes and pastas that make it perfect for that family night out.

Irresistible pasta served hot and fresh at Baume.

Irresistible pasta served hot and fresh at Baume.

I was tempted into a scrumptious bite sized olive, Spanish onion and basil pizza to start and I thought I should stop there to save the embarrassment of having to loosen my belt! Still I am a glutton for punishment and allowed my waiter to talk me into trying the rigatoni bolognese with pork and veal mince, tomato sugo, fresh herbs topped with parmesan! I couldn’t resist. 

As wonderful as it was, the dish remained more than half full and I defiantly refused to look at the desert menu. Fortunately I had a breakfast of cold pasta the next morning to get me carb-loaded for the trip home!

If you are keen to check out next year’s Hunter Valley Food and Wine Festival, then visit www.visitnsw.com  and click on The Hunter tab.

Scott McRae is the www.thetravellingguy.com and also the host of Channel Ten’s A Taste of Travel