In September—the end of Australia's winter—the sun disappears at 7:30 p.m. and in about 10 minutes. And when it does, the interior of Robert's becomes as romantic as a country house in Provence. Decorated with rustic antiques, the large space fills with the chatter of happy eaters, and the three private dining rooms—one with a blazing fireplace—invite intimacy. So, if you're proposing marriage (or a merger), ask for the room with the fireplace, and you'll get the response you want. And if the deep-sea cod is on the menu, grab it; simply prepared, it is juicy and flavorful. Shun the overcooked pork rib, however, and go straight to the buttermilk and banana puddings. If you're not sure which of the local vintages to sample, just ask. Almost everyone in the Hunter Valley is a walking wine encyclopedia.
Australia had been known as a strictly beer-guzzling country for so long that it took the world a while to adjust to its "sudden" expertise in wines. Like all overnight successes, the wines from this valley have a lengthy and checkered history.
In a warm and somewhat humid climate, the Hunter Valley is bordered by its namesake river and the Liverpool and Brokenback mountain ranges. The valley is filled with eucalyptus trees, which contrast pleasantly with the craggy slopes of the mountains, and just about every time you turn a corner you'll find a different landscape. The first wine grapes were planted here 170 years ago, filling only a paltry 10 acres. By the 1860's the industry had grown, and the venerable names Lindeman and Wyndham appeared. For a while producers prospered, though the wines were generally cheap and sweet and carried the alcoholic punch of a city bus.
It took over a century for the wines to shake that reputation. Common wisdom holds that Australia has superior reds and New Zealand superior whites. Indeed, the red clay loam of the Hunter can lead to exceptional Shirazes, but the white and yellow clays overlaid with gray, sandy loams also produce great Chardonnays and Sémillons. Wines here are often named after their grapes; if one is a blend, all the grapes are in the name, leading to less confusion but mouthfuls of words. It isn't uncommon to have a wine labeled a Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc-Merlot, for example.
The Hunter's stand-alone Sémillon is particularly quirky and may be unique on the globe. Young and grassy and pleasantly drinkable in the first two or three years after bottling, it degrades for a period of three to five years, during which time it's no good at all. Then, it butterflies into a rich and toasty wine quite unlike any other.
You can find these exquisite Sémillons as well as the buttery and lanolin-y Australian Chardonnays and peppery, cigar-boxy Shirazes at most of the area tasting rooms. We spent the better part of two days hitting as many as we could. After a morning of tasting, we returned to Robert's for lunch, where the chef-owner, Robert Molines, greeted us. The gardens proved just as picturesque as the dining room. They surround a restored 1876 settler's cottage; we could have happily spent a summer of afternoons there feasting on blue-crab omelettes and New Orleans-style spatchcock (akin to poussin).
Molines, who claims to have introduced garlic to Australian diners in 1973, is a pioneer. "Until the seventies, our food was uninspired because of so much British influence," he says. "Then, gradually, we had a great influx of immigrants: first from Europe, then from Asia. No longer were parents ashamed to send their children to school with a salami sandwich instead of toast and Vegemite."