After 35 hours travelling across the Pacific, under the Equator and through the International Dateline (we literally skipped an entire day, April 2, 2016), it was time to unwind. Our adventure finally began with a bottoms-up down-under tasting in the picturesque Hunter Valley Australian wine country. Just two-and-a-half hours north of Sydney, Pokolbin is the center of Aussie wine country and a worthy nod to Napa Valley without the commercial feel. Great food – check! Craft breweries – check! Free wine tasting – check! You read that right, free wine tasting. And if you’re still adjusting to acceptance of life on the wrong side of the road, we suggest you book a tour or designate a driver. You’ll find that this is no place to “drink drive” because even without a big red or sparkling white, it takes at least a week just to figure out that the blinker and wiper controls are switched too! Americans are guaranteed to have the cleanest windows at every turn.
The Hunter, as it’s known, became the starting point of our 30-day trip, the perfect combination of wine, food and jet lag with simple pleasures for the kids, but first we had to fall asleep at 7 PM.
So after figuring out how to drive on the left side of the road with the steering wheel, blinker, and windshield wiper controls on the opposite side of where we know them to be (every time Marty wanted to switch lanes, the windows got a thorough wiping), our Hunter Valley experience began.
HOT AIR BALLOONS
Serious jet lag has unexpected perks. We all woke up by 4:00 a.m. What were we to do? We couldn’t go back to sleep. It was two in the afternoon by our internal EST clock. Luckily, hot air balloon tourism has taken off in the Hunter and we decided to take advantage of waking before the sun to go on a hot air balloon chase through the valley. With binoculars in hand, the chase was on as the kids pointed the way and we drove through the rolling hills in search of vibrant orbs set in the clouds. Landon said this was like the “Amazing Race,” half expecting to get in and fly. Just after spotting our first balloon, we located our first taste of Aussie wildlife – Kangaroos! Lots of them! Just hanging out in a field off the road, as curious about us as we were about them. After a two-minute staring contest, they hopped away as Jake exclaimed: “Boing! Boing! Boing!” This would be the first of eight kangaroo sightings throughout our day in the valley, like spotting deer back home except easier to find. They are everywhere.
Our hot air balloon “road block” didn’t end there (nor did Phil Keoghan show up). After meeting a balloon flight crew, they allowed us to follow them to the launch sites. Like curious children, we watched the giant fans inflate the even more massive balloons and then… FIRE!!! Jake jumped up and down, dancing as if there was fire in his pants, squealing with a smile “Fire! Fire! Fire mama!” Waving goodbye to the passengers, the gentle giants quickly floated out of sight and into the rising sun.
FOOD AND DRINKS
Hungry after a packed morning of adventure (mind you it was only 8 a.m. and we’d been sight seeing for three hours), Peterson House was our first gourmet stop. Picture corn fritters topped with avocado and crème fraise, eggs poached over thickly-sliced toast with dukka, and apple pie sultana (Australian for raisins, mate!) fluffed pancakes with ricotta, honey and crème anglaise. Peterson, a staple in this region for their sparkling wine prowess, marked the perfect start to our tasting journey. At 9:30 a.m., we were the first to enter the cellar door (tasting room) for one of the friendliest tastings we’d ever had. Felicity and her team were prepared for our wide-awake boys. Overlooking the vineyards, we found lots of sparkling wine without any whine thanks to bubbles, bubbles, and more bubbles floating throughout the room. The staff had revved up a bubble machine and encouraged the boys to jump around and pop bubbles while we enjoyed the bubbly, including our first experience tasting sparkling red wines made from Shiraz, Merlot and Chambourcin. Note to anyone reading this, we need more red sparkling wine in the U.S.!
At the recommendation of Felicity, thinking of a fun experience for the kids, we headed for the hills to a boutique winery, Piggs Peake. With an impromptu behind-the-scenes tour, we were invited to see every step of the wine-making process. For our grape-obsessed kids, staring into a grape-filled vat and being allowed to have a little taste (this was the grape juice phase, not wine) was a real treat! The greatest excitement came from bubbles once again, as the boys put their ears to the bunghole of the wine-filled oak barrels to here the “pop pop pop” of the fermentation! Back in the cellar door, our host, Dave, gave us sample after sample and story after story of swine-inspired wines like House of Sticks, House of Stone, House of Bricks, Wolfie, and Werewolf (get it?…Three Little Pigs!). We’re not exactly wine experts, but we knew enough to recognize that we tried three different types of Shiraz and each one tasted completely and deliciously different from the next. We couldn’t leave Piggs Peake without a bottle of House of Bricks, beyond our normal price per bottle but the unique flavor was worth it. We had other stops for tastings including beer and wine at HOPE Estate which had a great lawn and ambiance for a flight of beer on the patio – and a Springsteen concert had we been here a month earlier.
Now in a bona fide food coma after a late lunch and paddle of beer at Matilda Bay Brewing, we had to pass on the cheese tour (tear!) and decided to take advantage of the beautiful landscape and … roll down hills! Really. We rolled down hills. A lot of times. We drove to the oldest winery in the valley, Audrey Wilkinson, atop the highest hill, and used their hillside as a playground for kids and adults without entering the winery. And what else would we see hanging out in the hills? Lots more kangaroos of course!
So if you think wine country is not ideal family-friendly fun, think again! With a little sense of nature, wonder, adventure and responsible wine tasting, Hunter Valley proved it could give us all of the wine, without the whine.