"Oh, you'll like it up there," the policeman said politely after handing my companion an $80 ticket for doing 77 kilometers per hour (48 mph) in a 60-kilometer zone. "Lovely wine," he added. After commending her for keeping to the left side of the road, he suggested a better route to our destination, Pokolbin, the main wine-growing town in the lower Hunter Valley. "Where are you staying?" he asked. "Tower Lodge," I said, and his eyes rolled back in his head, as though he should have doubled the fine.
The night before, at the tail end of a two-week trip to Sydney, we'd had dinner with a group of friends that included wine columnist Peter Bourne. He had urged us to spend a couple of days in the Hunter Valley visiting "cellar doors" (tasting rooms) and trying the Shirazes and Sémillons for which the region is famous. "And if you go," he said, "you must stay at the Tower." Suddenly, conversations stopped, cutlery clattered, and the faces around the table glowed. Yes, yes, you must see the Tower, beautifully quirky, only 12 rooms, famous investors, a million dollars Australian per room, luxe, luxe, luxe. Oh, and the owner's a maverick.
And so, 2 1/2 hours, countless rows of gorgeously scruffy pines, and one speeding ticket later, we rolled into Pokolbin, whose main thoroughfare is called Broke Road (perhaps in salutation to failed wineries past), and headed through vineyards and farmlands dominated by grand Victorian manses toward the portals of Tower Lodge.
Bold, purple rectangles that look like sandstone—but in fact are colored concrete troweled over brick—both intrigue and forebode at the entrance. After a short driveway, an angular complex that would arrest the eye in any location astonishes in this one: more purple surfaces jut heavenward and seem to surprise one another by eventually intersecting. It's not clear whether we are in Marrakesh, Santa Fe, or a Le Corbusier fantasy, but the effect in the surrounding wide-open field is strangely harmonious.
Arranged around a fountained courtyard reminiscent of ancient Rome, the rooms are spacious and airy—with 16-foot ceilings—many with white stucco walls, brick floors, massive beds and headboards, bent copper chandeliers, and heavy, personality-laden chairs. They convey the notion that a very demanding Babylonian, compulsive about personal comfort, designed, oversaw, and road-tested these chambers to psychotic extremes. All but two have narcotizing king-sized beds (a pleasure if you've just come from France or England, where a request for a king is greeted with the same response as if you'd given your address as "Box 13, Mars"). Several ceilings have straw panels bordered with mahogany, giving a voice to the interior design of yet another country—this time, Malaysia. (That makes five international styles so far—six if you include the Australian signature of galvanized steel roofs; seven if you consider the immense public rooms, featuring a baronial fireplace and mammoth furnishings that might have been designed by Charles Foster Kane.) The hotelier responsible for all this extravagance is a maverick indeed. Len Evans, the best known and most imaginative of the local vintners, not only conceived the lodge but also financed and designed it himself.
By many estimates, Evans—who has started up no fewer than three wineries in this valley alone—has done more for the Australian wine industry through his promotional and viticultural contributions than any other individual. Australia has recently supplanted France as the second-leading exporter of wines to the United States (Italy is the leader).
We had arrived shortly before dinner and, though hungry, played with all the room gadgets first—we opened the blinds with a remote, watched the brass-highlighted ceiling fans spin gold as they whirled above us, and practically ice-skated across the capacious, mosaicked bathroom. Since Tower Lodge serves only breakfast, we headed out to Robert's at Pepper Tree, co-owned by Evans and generally considered the best restaurant in the area.
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."
The food in the Hunter Valley promises much. For one thing, Australia is a giant produce garden. As in Sydney, every restaurant we sampled offered brilliant basics—fat tomatoes, sweet asparagus, glistening seafood, superb meats—and often imaginative, thoughtful recipes. If there is a shortcoming in the cooking of the Hunter Valley, it is the same one you find in Sydney, New York, and Paris: the tendency to overcomplicate and mistrust the exceptional raw materials. Usually, this results in a dish that, with so many personalities, ultimately lacks a single personality, like a novel with one sentence by Faulkner, another by Pound, and a third by Tennessee Williams.
The most egregious offender in the Hunter Valley is Chez Pok, part of the very pretty Peppers hotel (the rooms are a bit spartan, but the grounds are a delight). A superb slice of tuna is balanced on top of mashed potatoes complicated with kippers, tomatoes, and chives, then unnecessarily sauced with a reduction of butter, cream, and a garish sweet wine. The tuna would have been excellent on its own, but instead became accessory to a ponderous, pretentious muddle.
Faring considerably better—though still given to fussiness—is the Cellar Restaurant, the Hunter Valley's other bordering-on-exceptional boîte. Here, food is served in towers, too, though the Cellar is on the threshold of excellence. A very fine salad of seared Tasmanian salmon with smoked mussels cleverly accented with chorizo is somewhat muffled with saffron rice and finally overpowered by a paprika aioli. Each of the layers could stand alone, as could the components of a remarkable prime sirloin atop a creative concoction of Gorgonzola-and-spinach dumplings and unusually crisp prosciutto. But forked all together, it's difficult to get in your mouth unless you have the jaws of a sword swallower.
Tower Lodge serves no towers at its only meal, and for the first time in my life, I understood why a "full English breakfast" could delight: a rhubarb confit flavored with rose water on slices of toast; pears poached in Sauternes and cinnamon; a Roma tomato perfect and peeled and lightly buttered after baking; meaty portobellos; sausages, bacon, and eggs that conjured images of childhood.
The luxurious simplicity of the Tower breakfast was emblematic of the hotel itself, the surrounding valley, the lush vineyards, and the cool green and purple fruit they celebrate.
The best place to start tasting is Tower Lodge itself, where Len Evans bottles the best grapes from all over Australia under the Tower Estate label—like an all-star baseball team of wines. His bottles represent the gold standard, but here are a few other cellar doors to visit:
These wines are consistently strong. The Rayner and Graveyard Vineyard Shirazes are exceptional, and the Jelka Riesling is truly excellent.
MCDONALDS RD., POKOLBIN; 61-2/4998-7559; www.brokenwood.com.au
This small producer (6,000 cases a year) has a reput-ation for cutting-edge vintages: try the '98 Hunter Valley Shiraz. The winery features ever-changing exhibitions of arts and crafts.
LONDONS RD., LOVEDALE; 61-2/4990-2904
The immense tasting room with huge wooden casks and beamed ceilings looks like an opera set. The Brokenback Shirazes and the '99 Gerry Sissingh Selection Sémillons are particularly noteworthy.
BROKE RD., POKOLBIN; 61-2/4998-7363
A boutique winery with a spaceship-like tasting room. Look for classic varietals such as Vine Vale Shiraz and King Valley Pinot Gris.
BROKE RD., POKOLBIN; 61-2/4993-3999
Tower Lodge DOUBLES FROM $334. HALLS RD., POKOLBIN; 61-2/4998-7022
Cellar Restaurant DINNER FOR TWO FROM $62. BROKE RD., POKOLBIN; 61-2/4998-7584
Chez Pok DINNER FOR TWO FROM $84. EKERTS RD., POKOLBIN; 61-2/4998-7596
Robert's at Pepper Tree LUNCH OR DINNER FOR TWO FROM $111. HALLS RD.; POKOLBIN; 61-2/4998-7330
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