Hunter Valley



David Whitley returns to Australia’s Hunter Valley wine region and shamelessly plumps for exactly what he did three years ago.


As a general rule, travel is about the thrill of the new. Exploring new horizons, sampling new experiences and making discoveries is generally where the thrill comes from. But sometimes a bit of what’s familiar can be just as rewarding.

One of my favourite places in the world is a small (but very stylish) bed and breakfast in the middle of Australia’s Hunter Valley. The Hunter Valley Cooperage ( sits right in amongst the vines, and I’ve found few greater pleasures than tucking into Gay and Warren’s top grade breakfasts as the morning sun bathes the vineyard in that fresh, happy light of a new Australian day.

We first stayed there in 2008, and fell in love with ‘The Retreat’ – something of a wooden upstairs barn decked out with random shells and owls as well as all the mod cons. Returning to the Hunter Valley this time, we possibly should have experimented by staying elsewhere, but frankly we didn’t want to. In fact, we did pretty much exactly what we did three years ago. And if that’s not cool, then so be it – cool’s overrated. 


You can’t go to the Hunter without tasting lots of wine (or rather, you can, but you really are missing the point tremendously). It’s Australia’s oldest remaining wine region (not the first – the first Aussie vineyards were in Parramatta, Western Sydney), and there’s a wonderfully unsnobby attitude at the cellar doors. Again, we could have done things differently, but elected to head out with Peter Kane from Aussie Wine Tours ( Most wine tours in the Hunter involve being trailed around the usual suspect big wineries in a tour bus on a pre-ordained route. Pete specialises in taking couples and private small groups around, however, and he picks the wineries according to the tastes of his passengers.


It’s a brilliant way of doing it – he asks about what sort of wines you like, what sort of wineries you fancy visiting and generally what floats your boat. He then plots out the itinerary as he goes along, accommodating awkward requests to taste viogniers, zinfandels and grapes that only really exist in Narnia.He really knows his stuff, and while we’re tasting he’s clearly working – chatting to the staff and winemakers, keeping his finger on the pulse of what’s happening where. It’s an impressive display of schmoozemanship.


The other massive bonus to going on a small private tour is that you can get into the wineries that won’t allow the big tour buses in. And, frankly, I wouldn’t have found Piggs Peake otherwise. Winemaker Steve Langham clearly doesn’t go in too much for etiquette; he doesn’t enter wine shows or pay fees to be listed in wine guides. He just makes extraordinarily good wines (with a little help from Junior the Alsatian) and people come to him. 


There’s no stinginess with the samples either – we end up ploughing through 11 or 12 different glasses, of which at least seven are a level above anything else we have tasted or will taste all day. If it wasn’t for customs allowances, we’d have wandered out with case after case. Better still, we were invited back behind the cellar door to have a look at the grapes fermenting in giant vats. Don’t tell health and safety, but we were allowed to dip our fingers in and taste the juice. If it never gets made into wine, they could still make a fortune by selling the juice as a soft drink.


By the time we’re dropped back at the Cooperage, we’ve got deliriously happy smiles on our faces. We’ve done what we know, repeated a winning formula from three years ago yet still managed to make a fabulous new discovery. It doesn’t get much better than that...