Discover New South Wales: Winetrails in the Australian outback
You will never see as many fit and good-looking people in one frame at any given point in time as you will in Sydney. Fitness is a way of life for Australians and the staff at the bell desk will insist you try out their gyms and I say this in the plural as the hotel we stayed in, QT Sydney, had more than one – one for the light stuff and the other for the more serious workout-o-holics, that Australia has several of. More notes on fitness were made when our cabbie, very much an Indian, pooh-poohed our short ride to a nearby restaurant, telling us, “Why don’t you walk!” Thankfully, Sydney was just a stopover, and we were soon headed to a laidback outback.
Wine over matter
A lot has changed in the Australian outback since the days of Crocodile Dundee. Hunting knives are not sold on the streets, and wine has won the battle over beer, with not just more people drinking it but with more Australians even making it. Today an Australian outback experience is not complete without a wine trail woven into it.
We hit the road to Mudgee, via the Blue Mountains, one cold Sydney Morning with not too many thermals but with hot coffee to warm us from the inside. You have to do this by road and we had a gregarious and knowledgeable gent who answered to Mark McAlpine drive us there. It’s about a four-hour drive to Mudgee and we suggest a few pit-stops along the way. The air gets coooler as we climb and Sarah Shields our guide took the call for our first stop at Katoomba to give us a chance to get used to the chill and get a quick look at the Three Sisters at Echo Point. Legend has it that the Three Sisters were originally three beautiful girls who were turned into stone by a magic spell, which some say was cast by the father to protect them from a bunyip, while others say was cast by a witch doctor who did so to protect them from angry members of the tribe who wanted to kill them for falling in love with three bothers from another tribe. Either way, the sad story has it that both the father and the witch doctor intended to turn them back to their beautiful selves, but the father lost his magic bone and the witch doctor died in battle. So today the Three Sisters stand sentinel over the Blue Mountains attracting over a million visitors every year.
Back on the road, you realize it’s been a two-hour drive, and your mind is once again thinking coffee. The Aussies take good care of their road users with rest areas every few kilometers; but you still need to find the right place for good coffee. We suggest the Anonymous Café in Blackheath. Their cookies come warm and their coffee uses freshly roasted campos beans. Take it black and skip the sugar for a true hit.
Two hours later we find our lunch seats booked at the Zin House in proper Oz outback with nary a building or barn in sight, save their mothership, Lowe wines. But still bookings here are a must, for on a week day, they ran a packed house at 3 pm in the afternoon.
The Zin House is a country restaurant on an organic and biodynamic farmland and vineyard in this wine region of Mudgee. Everything on the table was organic. They grow their own food and the menu is seasonal, dependent on what’s available. Our repast for the day began with house made Khorasan sourdough with cultured butter and pork head terrine. This was served with caramalised onion tart and a salad of bitter greens. Every region in Australia has a different flavor of bread and this treat before us buttered ever so lightly made our eyes close in agreement. Accompanying the food was a selection of the Lowe wines and we stayed with the Lowe ‘Mudgee Blue’ Shiraz Cabarnet. On offer were David Hookes ‘Old Vines’ Chardonnay and the Craigmoor Botrytis, all local wines from the Mudgee region.
Then came Tagliatelle served with Lamb Ragu. One bite into this and the tad high price (of AUD 90 per person) at the Zin House is justified. Desert was a 10 with a Zabaglione with Citrus Salad and Palets Bretons. Once done with this you’re good for nothing else for the rest of the day, but the Lowe Winery next door was too much of a temptation and we chose to walk to it hoping to burn off some of the Zin overdose.
The Lowe Wines are a certified organic facility that specialises in small batch winemaking using innovative techniques. Their vineyards are untrellised, unirrigated and certified organic. If you want to make the most of your visit here, buy yourself a bottle of their Headstone Rosé. With this we were all primed for our outback getaway and what a thrill it was to drive into the gates of Peppertree Hill Cottages.
Palmy at Peppertree
Situated in the heart of Mudgee’s best vineyards, Peppertree Hill is located on 250 acres of private farmland. It consists of 10 luxury cottages and one homestead. All the spaces are thoughtfully designed and aptly named for an outback experience – Stag’s Head Retreat, Hilltop, Gum Tree, Wool Shed, etc. I got to stay at Palmy.
This gorgeous little studio cottage could be the perfect couples retreat. I got to enjoy it all by myself, and I’m not complaining. It comes fully equipped with all that you need for a weekend in. You can enjoy the wood fire curled up on a leather sofa or from the cozy queen bed. If you find the desire to leave your little nest, all you need to do is wander down to the fire pit to star gaze or get around the property to appreciate the wide open spaces. Palmy comes with a fully equipped kitchen, a coffee machine and more importantly a reverse cycle AC, which I really needed as the temperatures the first night dipped to 2 degrees.
The morning broke beautifully, spreading the sun red on the grass as the Belted Galloways, dew sparkling on their thick coats, munched away in bovine benevolence. Mark and I took an early morning walk around the farm to take in the scenery and breathe some crisp country air. We returned to some freshly made coffee out on the veranda and it was time for breakfast. Scrumptious hampers were available on order, but we decided to hit town to see what it had on offer before we continued on our wine trail.
Driving back into the CBD of Mudgee, which for an Indian could well be all of four crossroads and eight blocks, we stumbled upon this quaint little place in a cobblestoned corner called Alby & Esther’s. The circa 1873 stone terrace ‘home’ is packed with character and charm, friendly staff and a mouth-watering menu inspired by local fare. Their unique location offers varied seating options, including a grapevine shaded courtyard for alfresco ambience and an eclectic interior art gallery space, welcoming us with interestingly placed share tables. After much debate we chose the outside, even though it was freezing, but only because the friendly hosts gave us some warm blankets to keep us from shaking.
Mark and I hit the coffee black while some in the group decided to try it with almond or coconut milk. Also on offer were Kefir and Kombucha, but we gave that a miss. I went for the straight English Breakfast, but what you should have here is the famous Esther’s Jaffle of locally smoked ham, free-range organic eggs, with Swiss cheese and tomato relish.
Just seven kilometres from town, in the heart of Mudgee’s vineyards, you find Australia’s largest range of Italian varietals. The di Lusso cellar door is open every day of the week for wine tastings, with over 17 Italian varietals and blends available. And while you’re here, do taste the farm-grown, house-made produce – fig pastes, vinaigrettes, vin cotto and mosto cotto and during late summer to autumn, you can wander into the orchard and pick your own fresh figs for purchase.
Further down the trail came the most scenic wine experience of them all. With the cool air biting into you as you stood in the shade, you reached for the sun and Logan wines had this lovely terrace
with a lot of sun and the wine accompaniments made the setting just perfect.
Pete Logan started the winery with his late father Mal in 1997 with their original eponymous Logan label. Gaining popularity, they now have their premium sparkling Vintage ‘M’ Cuvée, the quirky and popular Weemala range, the affordable quality of Apple Tree Flat and the newest range, Ridge of Tears, which heroes the best of the region. One can experience wine tasting at their award winning Tasting Room while enjoying the incredible view of the hills and undulating meadows.
Bikes & barrels
Staying with wines, we arrive at the Robert Stein Winery which can trace its history back to the earliest days of Australia’s pioneers. Brought out from Germany by the Macarthurs, a sheep-breeding family, in 1838, Johann Stein carried with him the first cuttings of Rhine Riesling to survive in Australia. Under his supervision the Macarthur’s Camden Park vineyard flourished as one of the earliest wineries in Australia. In 1976 the family tradition of grape growing and wine making was revived by motorcycle enthusiast Robert Stein, a Sydney-based Johann descendant, who when looking for a place to both ride his bikes and grow wine, came upon Mudgee. Starting with just 2 hectares of Shiraz the vineyard was further expanded through the help of friends and family. Robert’s son Andrew Stein, who helped with establishing the vineyard, then made Mudgee his home in 2005. The vineyard and winery have grown to become a successful enterprise, earning a reputation as one of Mudgee, and NSW’s premier quality wine producers.
This family tradition of winemaking has since been continued by Robert’s grandson, Jacob Stein, returning to the family business in 2009 as chief winemaker, after having worked seven vintages both abroad and nationally and is very happy to see the old vines produce exceptional quality fruit. Jacob attributes much of his winemak ing success to the excellent vineyard site selected by his grandfather and growing conditions of the Mudgee region. Jacob explains, “Mudgee has excellent attributes for growing grapes. The region has a continental climate with warm days and cool nights, combined with excellent soil profiles are some of the attributes that help Mudgee produce great wines with a distinct regional character.” Going through their range of Chardonnay, Shiraz, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet, Merlot and Semillon, but staying a tad longer with their Riesling, we nod in agreement.
Honey I’m done with wine
Mudgee is not just all about wines. There are museums and there’s honey. We paid a visit to Honey Haven for a range of honeys to taste. A unique feature about this place is that you can watch the honey being made!
“Made…?” you ask. Well, yes. You actually get to watch the bees hard at work through a special glass window which shows a cross section of a real working bee hive, with the workers flitting in and out piling up their stock. If you still have not gotten over the wine-tasting, go ahead and sample some honey wines and liqueurs. This is also a great place to pick up gifts for your loved ones back home.
On our way back we dropped into the Gulgong Pioneer Museum which has everything you’d want to know about Australian history. Established in 1962, the museum is home to one of the finest collections of Australiana in the country, including a comprehensive array of domestic tools and utensils, farm and mining equipment, horse drawn vehicles, early photographs, Aboriginal and geological artifacts, period clothing, and buildings dating from Gulgong’s heyday during the turbulent Gold Rush days of the 1870’s.
The sun sets swiftly beyond the Mudgee hills and it’s soon time to head back to our cottage and our headlights catch a kangaroo bang in the middle of the road. A screeching halt and the marsupial quickly hops away. I’m all excited with my first Kangaroo sighting, but not so our driver. He’s visibly shaken by it. “Night driving in the Australian outback can be dangerous. The ’roos and wallabies get attracted to the lights and hop onto the road. This is one of the reasons heavy grills adorn the front of pick-up trucks and other vehicles out here,” he says.
For an animal lover like me the kangaroo sighting got me excited for more and we found a great way to end the Australian outback experience – Spend a night with the animals at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, central west New South Wales.
The Zoo is home to hundreds of animals from around the world. Whether you fancy getting up close to a big cat, dropping in on the Meerkats at meal time, feeding a giraffe or learning why Hippos are such good swimmers, their keeper talks and animal encounters aretruly special experiences. We stayed at their Zoofari tents which is five-star comfort in Bushland. Wild wallabies, that the zoo can’t keep out, because, you know, ’roos can jump, drop by your tent to say hello. This one is not to be missed if you are an animal person.
Mudgee Food hotspots
Bar & Grill
The Wineglass offers local, regional cooking at its best and an extensive selection of Mudgee wines to pair perfectly with meals. Their menu changes regularly and chef Scott Tracey loves to feature a seasonal menu, inspired by the regions local produce.
The Oriental Hotel
Warm and welcoming, ‘The Ori’ is one of Mudgee’s most iconic hotels and a popular setting for all occasions. The Ori Kitchen is a great place to meet and relax with friends. Helping you there is a variety of fine Mudgee wines, that also compliment your meal.
Artisan on Lewis
Open for breakfast, lunch and coffee Artisan promotes regional and seasonal produce and a fresh healthy food philosophy. They bake, make, pickle and plate all their food on the premises. The gallery displays handmade craft work from a variety of local artisans and presents monthly art exhibitions. Canine companions are welcome here and they have a hidden garden courtyard where they can feel comfortable.