By Brad Clifton
THE fire is crackling, the baby has been put to bed and I’m sitting down with my better half, sniffing and swirling an oversized glass of 2014 Oakvale Shiraz after a hard day’s golf at Cypress Lakes Resort.
“Stop pretending you’re some big wine connoisseur,” my wife says in hysterics.
Normally I wouldn’t have a response to such a valid point. In fact, I’d burst into laughter with her. Not this time, though. Not tonight.
“What, can’t you taste the pepper and thyme spice or the subtle hint of a blackberry in the finish?” I asked in my most sophisticated tone.
“OK, shut up, now you sound ridiculous,” she retorted.
It was time for my power play, the line of all lines. It was time to conclude tonight’s lesson on Hunter Valley viticulture with an absolute corker of a fact (pun definitely intended!).
“Babe, this is a bottle from 2014 – the greatest vintage to come out of the Hunter since 1965 … possibly even better than ‘65. We really need to stock up on as many 2014 bottles as we can because they don’t get any better, trust me.”
It was a message I heard repeatedly – 18 times in fact – during the recent Cork and Fork Cup at The Vintage, the No.1-ranked course in the region. The resort’s annual degustation golf day welcomes people from all parts of the country to take part in 18 holes of great food, top-shelf wine and varying levels of ‘golf’. It’s a great concept – on every tee sits a local Hunter Valley restaurant and winery, which combine to showcase their best tasting plates and tipples. And the participants duly oblige.
“Have you heard about our 2014 range?” one winery representative asked me 15 holes into my round.
“I certainly have – best since 1965, in my humble opinion,” I reply, acting ice-cool but by now walking like a newborn giraffe on skates.
“Oh OK, so you’ve heard already. We figured you might have. Every Hunter winery enjoyed a breakthrough season. Here, try this one…”
As sublime as it is, great plonk – 1965 or 2014 – is merely scratching the surface of one of the country’s great holiday destinations.
The real beauty of the NSW Hunter Valley, regardless of how many times you’ve been or whether you’re there for golf or grapes, is you always go home that little bit wiser.
Here are five things I learnt in June.
1. An Old Favourite Is Back
One of Australia’s most iconic ’90s golf resorts is embarking on a rejuvenation program its management hopes will pave the way for a return to Australia’s Top 100 Courses.
From the moment it opened its gates in 1992, Cypress Lakes Resort built a reputation for delivering a world-class play-and-stay experience right in the heart of Pokolbin. The challenging layout, designed by American Steve Smyers, was complemented by luxurious self-contained villa accommodation and was a regular host of pro tournaments and popular corporate events. But over time things started to change. The course began to deteriorate, and it became apparent the owners were dropping the ball. That’s when a Thai hotel group came to the rescue, purchasing the resort for $10 million in 2013. Minor International acquired the resort and the management rights to 125 strata-titled villas through its Australian entity Oaks Hotels and Resorts from Singapore-based Lasseters International. The timing couldn’t have been better and the course has benefitted ever since.
“The owners have injected $2.5 million into the facility already and there’s plenty more improvements to come,” says Cypress Lakes golf operations manager James Harris. “It was clear the course was suffering a little, but we’ve seen a dramatic turnaround in the past year. Our new superintendent is doing a fantastic job. The greens are looking good, we’re undertaking a bunker rejuvenation program and the cart paths will also be upgraded to go with our new cart shed. There’s a real buzz around the place and I’m sure those who don’t already know will be pleased to hear Cypress Lakes is back.”
If you’re up for a challenge, try playing the new-look Cypress Lakes off the championship tees. With a course rating of 150, it’s literally the toughest track in the country. Bet you didn’t know that?
Another Great Way To See Wine Country
All Around the Vines offers complete Hunter Valley golf packages tailored to suit your needs. Choose your golf experiences from Cypress Lakes, The Vintage, Hunter Valley Golf and Country Club, Stonebridge, Pacific Dunes, Horizons, Newcastle or Kooindah Waters.
Select your accommodation from one to seven-day stays in style at either resort, hotel or self-contained accommodation. Then throw in transfers to and from Newcastle Airport if required and a visit to some of the valley’s fabulous wineries and restaurants. For more information, go to allaroundthevines.com.au
2. A Seven-Hour Golf Round Can Be Enjoyable
With all this talk about slow play, we stumbled – quite literally – on a solution: degustation golf days.
Seven hours we were on the golf course during the Cork and Fork Cup. SEVEN. It felt like two. Combining golf with an 18-hole smorgasbord of fine wine and food is pure genius. There’s no rush, no stress, and no reason to not sample everything on offer. Just a four-man ambrose team enjoying golf at its best, without a care in the world.
“The Cork and Fork is not just uniquely Australian, it’s uniquely Hunter,” says Club Car Vice President (Oceania) Kevin Gates, a tournament regular. “With 18 wineries, 18 restaurants and 18 holes of golf on a sensational layout … you do the maths.”
In conjunction with the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association, The Vintage has created an event so popular it may be forced to expand, according to the club’s director of golf, Matt Farley.
“This year was our fourth edition of the Cork and Fork Cup and given the sheer amount of people we had to turn away, we are now giving serious thought to making it a massive, two-day event in 2017,” he says.
“It’s such a unique way to experience and indulge in the best of the Hunter in one location, while enjoying the peaceful and challenging surrounds of a Greg Norman designed golf course.” Now ranked No.43 in the country, The Vintage will be looking to climb even higher during the coming years with significant work going into upgrading bunkers and cart paths. But if there was a Top 100 for club employees, The Vintage would be right up there. General manager Joseph Spagnolo, operations manager Ray Manulet and Farley lead one of the most experienced and forward-thinking teams in Australian golf, as evidenced by the successful Cork and Fork Cup. So what’s the secret? “I think it’s part of the culture here now,” says Farley. “Our staff really care … whether that’s in the restaurant, spa or out on the course. Ray and the team have people’s best interests at heart and that’s really important. Any chance they get to interact with our guests, they take.”
3. I Heard It On The Grapevine
I’ve been to the Hunter Valley more times than I can remember, and thought I knew it all. My naivety led me to believe this wine country began and finished with Pokolbin, the central hub of the area.
It wasn’t until we hired a taxi to a highly rated restaurant we were told about that the penny finally dropped.
“Margan Restaurant is great. I’ll have you there in about 30 minutes,” said our driver.
“Thirty minutes? It’s that far?”
But the fare was worth it.
Based in the beautiful Broke Fordwich wine sub-region of the Hunter Valley, Margan offers guests a sophisticated dining experience in a charming rural setting. Part of the Margan Wines establishment that includes 100 hectares of vineyards, a state-of-the-art winery and a stunning rammed-earth cellar door, the restaurant’s menu is inspired by the seasons and relies almost solely on its own orchard to produce up to 90 per cent of produce used by the chefs. Talk about authentic.
Another accidental discovery came via the Cork and Fork Cup a day earlier. One of the participating restaurants happened to be Nanna Kerr’s Kitchen, owned and operated by the brother of Aussie supermodel Miranda Kerr. They handed out servings of their famous Little Hill Farm chicken terrine with tarragon oil and sourdough. It left an impression on me, much like Miranda does wherever she goes, and was enough to convince me to take the family on a short drive out to their Lovedale property for a mouth-watering breakfast.
The charming region of Lovedale is also home to Gartelmann Wines, yet another family-owned-and-operated winery specialising in fine, hand-crafted drops using grapes sourced from the Lower and Upper Hunter Valley, Mudgee, Rylstone and Orange regions of NSW. It’s also home to The Deck café, a local favourite that dishes up breakfast and lunch with a fine-dining twist.
The pleasant surprises kept coming when we stumbled upon Misty Glen Vineyard and Cottage. Located in the heart of Pokolbin, not far from The Vintage, this boutique 16-acre vineyard and cellar door offers great wine and a self-contained cottage that’s pet friendly. The vineyard itself produces five grape varietals; semillon, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and chambourcin, the latter growing through the most extreme Hunter weather and a guaranteed “reliable drop every year”.
But the real story at Misty Glen is its owners. Vicci and Eric Smith purchased the prospering Hunter property in 2009 with little experience in viticulture. “We lived in Newport on Sydney’s northern beaches and had no experience in wine, apart from our love of drinking it,” laughs Vicci. “Then one day we decided to pack up and head to the Hunter Valley. The beauty is we’re still so close to Sydney for a visit yet far enough away to do what we really love – producing our own wine and being away from the hustle and bustle.”
Such is her passion for showcasing Hunter wine, Vicci also helps manage the Around Hermitage Wine Trail, which blends a wide range of accommodation styles, restaurants, cafes and galleries into one truly authentic Hunter experience.
One of the trail’s cellar doors is hidden behind the entrance at 530 Hermitage Road. Here you’ll find Wombat Crossing Vineyard – one of the Hunter Valley’s smallest boutique producers of fine table wines that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Another must-try is Hungerford Hill, a champion of NSW winemaking and prominent presence in the Hunter Valley that has teamed up with Muse Dining, the Hunter’s only 2-hatted restaurant, to offer the Epic Tasting Experience, a degustation with premium Hungerford Hill wines to match.
While in Pokolbin be sure to check out Goldfish Hunter Valley – yet another award-winning small bar and acclaimed dining destination. Unlike conventional restaurants, Goldfish serve their food on share plates, where you can sit back and let the kitchen take control of your night by selecting multiple dishes to graze on.
Discoveries like this are what make the Hunter Valley a regular port of call for Sydneysider Gates. “It always amazes me when golfers from Sydney travel to far flung places when right on our doorstep is a truly great golfing destination coupled with one of the finest wine-growing regions in the world,” says Gates.
“Throughout the Hunter are fantastic courses, fine wines and some top-flight restaurants. Who doesn’t love hitting the Hunter?”
4. The Wine Really Is World-Class
Let’s not underplay things. Hunter Valley wine is the real deal. Just ask Australian Golf Digest resident expert Grant Dodd, a Hunter Valley local and partner in an international winery. Dodd knows a thing or two about a good drop in this region, and he’s got a hot tip for readers.
“Put simply, the best Hunter wines come from the best vineyards, which means vines planted in the right soils for the right variety,” says Dodd. “In the Hunter Valley, this isn’t always the case, but when site, variety, viticulture and winemaking align, this is a region that can produce truly world-class wine from semillon, shiraz, and occasionally chardonnay. Stick to these varieties in your search for the regional best, and seek out Briar Ridge, Thomas, Gundog Estate, David Hook and Chateau Pato, just a few of the lesser known Hunter producers making outstanding wine.”
5. Great Golf Just Up The Road
Visitors wanting to feast on golf instead of food and wine can certainly do it on a Hunter Valley getaway. There are several courses all within a short drive from wine country.
Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley offers premier resort accommodation with a scenic golf course, breathtaking vineyard views and fantastic leisure facilities. As the largest resort in the region, Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley gives you freedom to stay on your own or as a group with a range of hotel rooms, suites and three-bedroom villas.
Hunter Valley Golf & Country Club is a par-71 championship golf course offering natural beauty with premium facilities and service. At nearly 6,000 metres long, the course is surrounded by rolling hills, picturesque lakes and stunning views of the Brokenback Mountain Range.
The pro shop is equipped with the latest gear, and there’s a locker room and shower facilities.
Hunter Valley Golf hosts regular golf clinics and is focussed on sustaining golf in the region for future generations.
Hawks Nest Golf Club claims to be the finest wet-weather course on the east coast and welcomes golfers of all abilities. Just a short detour off the Pacific Highway, or accessible by ferry from Nelson Bay via Tea Gardens, Hawks Nest is an ideal spot for the whole family with all the facilities you’d expect from a quality public-access course.
Of course, just up the road from the Hunter is Newcastle Golf Club, ranked No.19 in Australian Golf Digest’s Top 100 Courses and a must-play for the serious golfer. Built on undulating sand dunes and carved out of a forest of eucalypts and angophoras, Newcastle is home to acres of native flora and fauna, including kookaburras, bearded dragons and wallabies.
What better scene for a round of golf?
How I booked a golf tour to the Hunter
IT WAS my turn to organise the annual group golf trip. I was charged with the responsibility of finding a package for my mates and their partners. I scanned the internet to see what I could find. Several options arose until Golf To The Max popped up on my screen.
“PGA Golf Professional Kieran McMahon and his wife Kristine have been successful in providing group Play and Stay packages for more than 20 years,” it said. So I read on.
As luck would have it, Golf To The Max was able to offer a number of different accommodation options, from pub and motel stays to resort villas right next to the fairway. A two-night weekend package included staying in a villa at Cypress Lakes Resort with games of golf at both The Vintage and Cypress Lakes. Perfect, I thought. How easy is that?
I decided to make the call.
When making our golf bookings, Kieran was able to access the ideal tee times and ensure that our dates did not clash with any golf course maintenance. Anyone who has organised a getaway knows that this “insider” troubleshooting is paramount when keeping your group satisfied.
Keeping the local service rolling, Golf To The Max was also able to provide a tour to Hunter Valley Gardens and Shopping Village for our two non-golfing partners. Our transfer driver picked them up after golf on the Saturday and we all managed to fit in a wine tasting at two of the best wineries in the area before we freshened up for dinner. Mentioning Kieran’s name to the winemaker also secured us member VIP prices on the items we bought. You beauty!
Dinner on the Saturday night at the award-winning Bimbadgen Estate gave us a chance to reminisce about our round. The Esca restaurant towers over the par-5 7th fairway of The Vintage. Its new chef Michael Blank explained the preparation of each of our three courses and why they were matched perfectly with certain wines.
Sunday morning, after a very impressive buffet breakfast, we still had a couple of hours before our tee time at Cypress Lakes. Some of the group took the time to take a dip in the pool while a couple of us headed to the driving range to take up Kieran’s offer of some swing tips.
The golf trip was a great success and, importantly, I came off looking like a hero. You can do the same. Call Kieran at Golf to The Max on 0408 633 377 or email [email protected] – Pete Simpson