One of the first wine regions I wanted to visit during our two weeks in Australia was the Hunter Valley, which was just over a 2 hour drive. Along the way, we could see just a bit of the blue mist coming off of the Blue Mountains to the west of us. The blue mist is actually a fine mist of oil that comes off of the eucalyptus canopy covering the mountains. It was winter in Australia while we were visiting the vineyard areas, so most of the vineyards we saw had just finished up their winter pruning.
Our first stop of the day was at Audrey Wilkinson, the oldest vineyard in the region that was established in 1866. That was one of the main reasons we wanted to visit, but also to try their flagship Shiraz and Semillon wines. The tasting room staff were fantastic, and I had such an incredible experience there. Since I had my notebook, one of the staff asked me if I were studying wine, so I mentioned that I was planning on taking the WSET3 exam. Well, out came a flight of Semillon wines that were not part of the tasting menu. The staff had just had a special Semillon training, so they gave me the same experience where I got to taste both young and aged Semillons to see how they evolved over the decades. The young ones were typically neutral in character while the older ones developed beautiful honey and toasty notes. Near the end of my Semillon training, the manager came into the tasting room and the staff told her about my studies. She then told them to give me a blind tasting with their red wines. I was able to give the profiles of both of the wines, and even pick out one of them as their Shiraz, but I wasn't able to guess the other variety, which was their Malbec. It was my first time to try an Australian Malbec, so I couldn't compare it with anything in my "wine memory." After such a fantastic experience, I couldn't imagine how the other places on our itinerary for the rest of the day could live up to the one at Audrey Wilkson Vineyard!
The next stop was at Peacock Hill Vineyard where I had one of the best Chardonnays I've ever tasted in my life. I was quite lucky since our guide had arranged for me to meet the owner/ winemaker who did the tasting with me. I had told him the I was preparing for the WSET3 exam, and he then started to quiz me on my knowledge of the vine cycle and tested me on the impact of the vineyard cycle on each stage on the wine. He also took me out to his vineyards, and explained how they had done winter pruning this year, and told me to keep a lookout for the kangaroos near the entrance gate. I had asked him if they caused any damage to his vineyard, but he said that they most just use the vineyard as a napping place during the day, and that they only eat the grapes during the droughts when they can't find water. I can definitely say that the Australians like the New Zealanders roll out the red carpet to any guest who visit their tasting rooms and vineyards! Truly incredible hospitality!
The last stop of the day was at Pepper Tree Wines, which was absolutely beautiful with its guesthouse and tropical gardens filled with bird of paradise and poinsettia flowers. Pepper Tree is a little different from the other places we had visited in the morning since it produces wine from its vineyards as well as vineyards from other regions, like Orange, Coonawarra and Wrattonbully regions. This type of sourcing is indeed one of the benefits of producing wine in the New World. The cellar door was one of the best I've ever visited with its high-rise wood beam ceilings. Again, once the staff knew I was studying of the WSET exam, they brought out other wines that weren't on the regular tasting menu to help with my studies. I've noticed that in Australia and New Zealand that tasting room staff and winemakers really want to share everything they know about with their visitors, and to make them feel comfortable at their vineyards since wine can been intimidating if you're just starting out.