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Hold the Oak Chips

A lonely spittoon is a sad sight to behold. On our way into the winery—Wyndham Estates in Sydney’s Hunter Valley—our host had casually motioned to the barrel stashed away in the corner and mentioned that it was there for our use, but I’m certain he smirked as he said it. Australians do not drink wine just to spit it back out, our guide confided. Neither do I—that’s why my girlfriend Jen and I were seeing the wine region in a luxury coach full of old European couples (about 20 other passengers) rather than in a rental car on our own. Hunter Valley is a good two hour drive from Sydney, and besides, the tour was cheap by American standards (about $50 US). Renting bicycles was a third option because the wineries are relatively close together, but while drunken cycling isn’t strictly illegal, my ineptitude on two wheels made it highly inadvisable.

Founded in 1828, Wyndham Estates is Australia’s oldest winery, and at 175 years , it’s got more history than many of the country’s cities. It also offers several cultural events each year at its vineyard-set amphitheatre such as “Opera in the Vineyards” in October and “Jazz to Shiraz” (it rhymes if an Aussie says it) in June.

We were fed a relaxed lunch and led through our first tasting in the pleasantly dank cool of Wyndham’s slate-and-oak restaurant. The Bin 777 Semillon was crisp and refreshing, although it smelled faintly of lemongrass, which is not my favorite herb. I found the Bin 555 Shiraz (they tactfully avoided a Bin 666) indistinct from many of the other Aussie Shirazes although it did have a lovely “peppery” aroma and a “sinewy” or even “muscular” texture. (My burgeoning wine vocabulary was the product of a handy-dandy pocket wine guide I picked up the day before—available all over Australia)

Through the tasting, the Europeans sloshed the wine around in their glasses and mouths, taking dainty sips and hum-huming to themselves. At my table, however, we had two middle-aged men who with each wine would take one interested sip and then drain the glass. They were American, and did a fair impression of Abbot and Costello in their stature alone. The taller man, Henry, owned “a few interior design businesses.” The larger man, Keith, owned “a few hotels” in L.A. and clearly appreciated good food and good wine—and indulged in both often. This wasn’t vintage wine, Keith explained to us, but that was no reason to let it go to waste. Our guide, who was downing his third glass of the Bin 777, nodded in assent.

Standing around the cellar door (as a winery’s own store is called) after the tasting, Keith confided to me that the secret to a successful winery visit is to act like you were planning on buying everything in sight, and then they will open the good stuff for you—although he hardly had to act. He tried it on a young woman behind the counter with amazing success; I think I liked the caramel-and-raisin-reminiscent Tawny Port best of all, but Jen thought it tasted too much like a cinnamon roll.

I found Wyndham’s wines to be better than the offerings at our first visit, if less colorful. We had stopped just before reaching the valley at a roadside shack in a blink-and-miss-it town, home to and sole vendor of the “World Infamous” Dr. Jurd’s Jungle Juice. Its origin was charming enough: legend tells that in the early days of Hunter Valley, Jurd used to go around to all the wineries with his cart and carry off all the wine that for one reason or another the wineries were going to throw out. He would mix it all together, add a little sugar, and sweet-as! (as Aussies love to say): Jungle Juice. It didn’t come as surprise, then, that the stuff tasted a little like Maneschewitz that had been sitting out for three days. 

Our bus carried us to McGuigan’s Winery through rolling hills of patchwork aridity and lushness—an antipodean Napa Valley if not for the “mobs” of kangaroos relaxing in the shade. Another popular tourist destination, McGuigan’s had more tempting offerings than just their wines. At the Hunter Valley Cheese Factory, I tried a cajun-spiced brie, which I found to be too cross-purposed for my taste, and Jen bought a small wheel of Polkolbin white, a local brie-like offering with an extra raw milk kick. The fudge shop was absolutely decadent, and its smell from the outside drew you in, willing or no. The tastings inside were limited only by one’s sense of shame: Keith managed to escape only after purchasing a mixed kilo of dark chocolate-mint and Grand Marnier, but Jen was smart and made me take her wallet before she went in.

The real standout in McGuigan’s offerings was the Tempus Two Botrytis Semillon. When Keith saw it on the tasting menu he told us that we were in for a real treat, but I was suspicious after asking Keith what “botrytis” was and getting “mold” for an answer. It turns out that botrytis cinerea, also known as the “noble rot,” is a beneficial mold that grows on a number of grapes (particularly Riesling and Semillon in Australia) and shrivels them, concentrating and intensifying the grapes’ sugar and flavor. As an added bonus, the acid levels stay high, allowing production of elegant dessert wines. Jen and I, who both had previously avowed a dislike of dessert wines, found the Tempus Two’s apricot, raisin, and caramel mingling a real departure from the syrupy-sweet dessert wines we had tried in the past. We each bought two bottles.

The winery visits also included tours of the wine-making facilities and information sessions on how the process works. It’s common knowledge by now that Australians 1) are irreverent and 2) produce vast quantities of good, cheap wine; what’s less well-known is that their irreverence is instrumental to their wine-making success. Australians demand good wine at low prices, so Australia supplements its favorable soil and weather conditions with a willingness to use processes that are heretical in Europe.

For example, good red wine is oak barrel-aged, and higher quality wine is usually aged in smaller barrels (about $1000 each) to maximize the wine’s exposure to the oak. Each barrel can only be used a few times, so instead of incurring such a large cost for their value brands, Australian wineries simply toss vast quantities of oak chips into stainless steel vats. It is a practice that does not sit well with European vintners, who are attempting to have such wine (which is incredibly popular in Europe) banned. Other wine makers have reason to fear; Australia exported 48 times more liters of wine in 2002 than they did in 1984, just 18 years before.

Apparently the old Europeans on our tour were of like mind. This information and other Australian attitudes towards wine did not sit well with them, and as the cups of wine mounted up, the corners of their mouths turned slowly down. By the end of the day they looked like they had been drinking unsweetened grapefruit juice instead of Hunter Valley’s finest.

In contrast, nightfall found Keith, Jen, Henry and myself us laughing and joking loudly in the front of the bus, the only voices to be heard. We were sad to see the iconic Sydney Opera House as we crossed Harbour Bridge back into the city as it meant the end of our tour, but with 51 more registered wine zones in the country, many near cities like Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth, we knew we would visit plenty more. And with Australia’s fun-loving attitude towards wine, I was all for it.

If You Go:
Hunter Valley tour options, pickup and drop-off in Sydney City (all prices in US$)
For true budget options, contact local Backpackers Travel Centres or STA Travel, available all over Sydney. Find locations at:

Boutique Wine Tours in a Mercedes (from $58 pp):

Wonderbus Minibus Tours (from $85 pp):

Bushtrack 4WD Eco-Tours (from $145 pp):

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