Wine tourism is a huge growth industry for Australia. And it’s not surprising, given that touring the vineyards offers a great excuse to eat, drink and be merry at the same time as doing some serious research and development for the home cellar.

One of the best-known wine regions within easy reach of Sydney is, of course, the Hunter Valley. It’s an easy two-hour drive north of Sydney along the Pacific Highway. The Hunter is renowned as a fine wine-growing district, with many of Australia’s best known labels based here. Wine has been produced in the area since the mid-1800s, and the area boasts over 80 wineries and cellar doors. Shiraz, chardonnay and semillon are the region’s primary assets, but you will also find relatively new varieties such as chambourcin and verdelho.

The largest concentration of wineries is in the Pokolbin-Rothbury area. First stop should be the visitor information centre at Pokolbin where you can collect a variety of material to help plan your stay. Most wineries have cellar doors open to the public and do not charge a tasting fee. Wineries in the area range from big names such as Lindemans, McWilliams, Rothbury and Wyndham Estates to smaller boutique operations such as Lakes Folly, Scarborough, Tower, and Pepper Tree. Lakes Folly produces only two varieties, a chardonnay and a cabernet sauvignon, both of which are rated as among the best in Australia. The friends I travelled with were particularly enamoured with the Brokenwood Graveyard chardonnay.

After a solid day’s tasting, you’ll need to refresh those tastebuds with some of the local produce. Luckily the Hunter is renowned for fine dining and most of the larger wineries have a restaurant attached. One of the best restaurants in the region is Robert’s at Pepper Tree, where you can enjoy a unique style of country and European cuisine in beautiful rustic surroundings. As an alternative, Il Cacciatore Restaurant offers a hearty northern Italian menu for dinner and a more casual offering for lunch. Other options include Mallees Caf?estaurant and Chez Pok at Peppers Guesthouse.

Strangely, the Hunter is short on do-it-yourself food options. If you’re keen on throwing a picnic together to enjoy during a day’s tastings, or even pulling together a light snack instead of having to eat out at night, here’s a tip: bring essentials with you. We had no luck while in Pokolbin when we went looking for a corner store or deli (now there’s a business opportunity).

The bed situation is another story altogether. A wide range of accommodation is available in the Hunter Valley, from cosy B&Bs to five star luxury. Cypress Lakes Resort offers a luxury experience with day spa and golf course if you’re that way inclined. Here you’ll get a very comfortable self-contained villa with views of the golf course and surrounding countryside. Peppers Convent, once home to the Brigidine nuns, is another luxury option, and worth checking out.

For self-contained accommodation, options include Olive Grove Cottages and Four Horizons Eco Lodges. Alternatively, browse through the classifieds at the back of this newspaper and see what’s on offer.

God forbid anyone would tire of wine tasting. But strange things do happen. And if you should find yourself feeling a little jaded by the idea of visiting another cellar door, think laterally and head for some of the towns in the region. The city of Maitland, in the heart of the Hunter, has some wonderful heritage buildings from the 19th century. Morpeth is another town well worth a visit, again for its colonial history. Further afield lies the town of Dungog. It’s a very attractive spot, surrounded by beautiful hills and boasting a laid-back feeling.

Finally, consider a visit to the Barrington Tops National Park. The park covers over 80,000 hectares and includes four different types of rainforest and 2,000-year-old antarctic beech forests. Grab some brochures from the visitor information centre or go to the Tourism New South Wales website at www.visitnsw.gov.au and plan a day bushwalking or canoeing. Don’t forget to bring water and sunscreen.

A weekend in the Hunter is a great way to stock up the cellar. Sure, many of the wines are available in your local bottle shop, but there is always something special about pulling out a bottle you’ve chosen from the source and reminiscing about your very first taste. Remember, enjoy wine in moderation, and have a nominated driver.

-“ Malcolm Harding is a shareholder of Gay Travel Guides P/L and manages Q.Beds.com.

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