You know all your hard work blogging pays off when you are invited to an exclusive day tour to the Hunter Valley region with Zepher Tours! We were treated to the finest wine, cheese and vodka that the Hunter has to offer, while also being allowed to soak up the views and drink as much as we wanted without the need to drive back, it was great! We also enjoyed a three course lunch at Villa du Pays Restaurant in Leogate Estate Winery.
Rafael our guide for the day picked us up in front of Sydney Central YHA
at 7:30am on the dot. See other pick up points here. The pickup was swift and our names were crossed off with no time to waste. We love sitting in the front of the bus and fortunately, the front seats wasn’t taken. You definitely get the best few and get to strike up conversations with the driver! We did a tour around the city and picked up a few more passengers before we hit the road to Hunter Valley. When we reached Cessnock (the main city of Hunter Valley), there was a handful more passengers before we were on our way to the first winery, James Estate Winery.
There are three options with Zepher Tours which varies in price.
Option 1: Lunch and a glass of wine
Option 2: 2 Course Lunch and 2 glasses of wine
Option 3: 3 Course Lunch with 3 glasses of wine (we were treated to option 3)
The view from our dining space was picturesque and breathtaking. James Estate Wines loves being able to bring the flavours of the Hunter to your door step. Their grapes are grown in the region and made and bottled onsite. It was an incredible and unforgettable view. We participated in an interactive game on wine and Hunter Valley knowledge. Spoiler alert, the winner receives a bottle of wine. How lucky! They also have a $50 lucky dip wine box to purchase from the gift store. We were served a cheeseboard which had a range of different cheeses to be paired with the wine servings. The fig jam was nice and sweet, so be on the lookout!
There was a selection of wines served, starting with the white wines and making our way to the reds, to finally the dark reds. This transition is important to prepare your taste buds and gradually build up a tolerance before trying the rich wines. This allows you to enjoy the full breadth of the wine instead of being hit in the face with a flavour impact.
The white wines we tried were the Athyrium Sparkling Blanc de Blanc, Semillion Blanc, Elkhorn and the Chardonnay Semillon Verdelho. The red wines were the Estate Merlot, Staghorn Shiraz Merlot and the Single Vineyard Reserve Mclaren Vale Shiraz.
We both agree that our favourite wine was the Athyrium Sparkling! Made from the James Estate Hunter Valley Chardonnay vineyards, this wine is blended from three different vintages creating an elegant and sharp taste that is both refreshing and very easy to drink. We could imagine a wine as such could be matched with almost any food.
Leogate Estate looks like a scene from the most romantic film you have and will ever see. The beautiful and luxurious white mansion sitting upon a hill, surrounded by a range of mountains ever so blue. This stuff just writes itself!
It is definitely one of the best locations you could choose for either a wedding or pre wedding photos with the backdrop of the brokeback mountain
. It was picture perfect despite the strong winds. The same however cannot be said about the food, which tasted fine but was ultimately "under dressed" for a venue of this magnitude. The wine however was a different story. Not only were we provided with quality wine to be sampling, but we were also entertained by the in-depth knowledge of our wine connoisseur for the afternoon. The amount of knowledge and information she was able to share with us was outstanding to say the least.
Beetroot, Burrata, Hazelnut, Raddish
When the entree was brought to the table, our initial thoughts were that we would be in for a treat! It was presented beautifully, with quite the number of elements to tickle our taste buds. The radishes were seasoned, perhaps even pickled meaning they were full of intense flavour which complimented the beetroot and burrata which had a very faint flavour. The entire dish was light and a great way to start the three course meal and get the juices flowing. Zepher Tours asks you to select your main dish prior to arriving at Villa du Pays. We each decided to choose one of the two choices, so that we are able to try more of a variety.
Steak with Chips and a Bread Roll
This is the point where things started to well, confuse us a bit. After a great entree, the steak was served with chips and a bread roll, what you would expect at most local pubs. That said, the steak was cooked perfectly to order. There was a significant portion of chewy fat that was inedible, but when you cut around it, the steak was actually quite a nice cut of meat. What would have been nice is some jus from the pan, served with some baked glazed vegetables. Simple, yet elegant and befitting of such a venue.
We weren't too sure what to expect with this vegetarian option, but given the other option we are sure glad we did. The pasta was tasty, in that the mushrooms and cheese were perfectly portions and worked in harmony to provide a bliss of flavour. However it was missing something that we can't explain. It was nice but it wasn't "wow".
The salad was brought out mid way through our main meals. Not too sure why the salad couldn't have been presented on the plate, but at least there was some greens to go along with the steak and chips. The dressing though was purely salt and water, which made it a bit unpleasant when eating salted chips as well. Almost too much salt!
The saviour of the day was the dessert. This was different to what we were expecting, not just the presentation either but each element. The ice cream contained small chewy biscuit pieces which was quite interesting at first. The whole dish was very sweet, but because the serving size was smaller it wasn't sickening sweet, but the right amount. The meringue pieces added texture that you otherwise didn't have, but the letdown was that we presume they were store bought. Not quite light and airy, but solid pieces of meringue.
We next moved onto the "test tube" part of the tour, but not as you might expect. The Hunter Distillery provided each person with about 10-15 test tubes of vodka shots, each with their own unique flavour that was always very different to the next. We were started off with the subtle flavours before moving into the harder stuff. For those not wanting to continue with the shots, they teach you a special way of tasting vodka without getting drunk. That is to put your thumb on top of the tube, give it a little shake, smell your thumb and lick it. This allows you to appreciate the flavour and then if you wish, you can down the rest. The vodka sampling included Apple, Caramel, Chilli, Chocolate, Ginger and Vanilla. If you think that's interesting, wait until you see the schnapps and liqueur range. Schnapps sampling included blueberry, butterscotch, chilli and choc mint. Liqueur sampling included choc orange, coconut rum, ginger, hazelnut, lime, mango and passion fruit.
We were both quite pleased with the mango liqueur, but overwhelmed with the Ginger vodka which gave us the impression of drinking ginger beer, yet more adult friendly.
Very few dared to try the Chilli vodka, and maybe it was all the alcohol talking but Matt put a brave face on and tried the notorious vodka. This was said to be rated higher than 10 on the chilli index, but has since been tuned down to an 8/10 and apparently is like having pure Thai chilli oil. Matt tested the waters by sampling it on his thumb before continuing to shot the rest. There wasn't much of a reaction even though the presenter emphasized that it can take anywhere between 10 – 15 minutes for the heat to die down. This was one of his proudest moments. HA!
We had a very brief stop-over at the Hunter Valley Chocolate Factory where we were given a small cup of chocolate samples. There wasn't any explanation and we were quickly shuffled away into the store. The store is quite impressive with the range of different chocolates, including a jelly bean wall. You can also indulge in some truffles while watching the masters in the back at work making chocolate fudge. Make sure to bring your credit cards because everything is well overpriced, and half the items are available for purchase around Sydney. Perhaps stick with the truffle and fudge, so you can taste the handmade goodies of the Hunter!
The final stop on our day tour is a boutique winery specializing in fun and creative wines, Allandale Winery where you are greeted with two friendly dogs. They are filled with energy and are craving for some attention from visitors. Rafael provided great photo opportunities here for everyone with a backdrop of the vineyard!
It is worth mentioning that by this point, we have sampled so many types of wines and sparkling that everything is starting to taste the same and become a bit of a blur. Needless to say, we will endeavor to recount our "expert" thoughts on the wine!
We were brought into the back room where the distillery was located, and all the barrels of wine was stored to transport, or to age. The set up was very interesting as it gave you a back door into the reality of wine making, while also provided some privacy to ensure we had an intimate wine tasting session.
The wines we tried included the 2013 Savion Blanc, Sparkling Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Griev Lombardo Rose, 2014 'Matthew' Shiraz, 2014 Hiltop Shiraz and the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. The white wines had more of a yellow tinge to them, and the reds were quite sharp on the nose. The favourite was the Sparkling Gewürztraminer which was sweet, gave you a nice tingle and refreshing to tackle the Australian climate!
Zepher Tours took great care of us on this trip and we would highly recommend you join Zepher Tour for a fun, relaxing, casual day out with friends or family. It is the perfect way to enjoy the Hunter Valley without having the hassle of trying to avoid police while you are driving under the influence of alcohol (haha! we are not encouraging this at all!). Seriously, it is a stress free and hassle free day full of great wine and great company. If you are expecting a guided tour with history lessons etc, this is not the tour for you. Rafael prefers to tell you the information you need to know, the information that is interesting and forms part of the wine experience. We actually enjoyed this much more as it was very chilled and laid back.
Thank you Rafael for being an amazing guide and Zepher Tours for having us.