David Whitley quickly realises that sampling shirazes and equestrianism don’t mix in one of ’s top wine regions.
OK, OK, I’ve had a bit to drink. I can accept that things may appear slightly skewed in my current state but, please, can someone tell me why everyone is in their pyjamas?
It is approximately 4.30 on Saturday afternoon. The barman is sweeping tables for empty glasses, and on his feet he has big, furry slippers. Two of the local girls are dressed identically which, I’ve been led to believe over the years, is social death. Maybe those rules are waived when the matching outfits are night gowns adorned with a fetching pink rabbit pattern.
Our rather motley group has come to theHunterValley, the world famous wine region two hours north ofSydney, for a birthday blowout weekend. A little too much celebrating has gone on already. We’re five (or was it six?) wineries to the good and for some reason best known to her, the birthday girl has booked us all in to go horse riding the next morning. That may well be a mistake.
It turns out that we have stumbled upon karaoke night in Kearsley, and for some reason known only to the person who dreamt it up, the theme is nightwear. If some old bloke with two teeth and an Elvis haircut came sauntering in, sporting a Wee Willie Winky nightcap, it wouldn’t come as a great surprise. Still, when inRomeand all that. Now, Mr Barman, before you toddle off to bed, more wine please…
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The Hunter is all about enjoying yourself. It’s about decadence, fine wines, cheeses and chocolates. Whilst there is plenty to do aside from racing through tasting rooms, that’s what nearly everyone comes here for. There are approximately 140 wineries in the area, many of them world famous and despite any pretences to the contrary, Dionysian delights are the Hunter’s drawcard.
It may be a major name on the maps, but Pokolbin is virtually non-existent. It’s not a village, but a general area where the vineyards are crammed in, one after the other, with an almost ruthless efficiency. Trawling from cellar door to cellar door, there is a curious mix of tourist, ranging from the true wine aficionado to the clueless plonk-quaffer who is just there to get free alcohol.
A pattern is repeated throughout though, and that is that the wines get better as the day goes on. Call me an old cynic, say that I picked a couple of duff ones early, but it’s probably no coincidence that people come out of the later wineries armed with large cases and small wallets. The more samples you drink, the better they taste. Funny that.
Our first stop is Kevin Sobel’s Wines, one of the smaller wineries. Perhaps it’s due to time of day or lack of prior lubrication, but there is no great enthusiasm for any of the produce. That is reserved entirely for the huge, slobbering St Bernard who wanders around the tasting area, being hugged and told just how cute he is when he drools over an admirer’s jeans.
As the day goes on though, everyone falls in love with a certain bottle, the Bacchanalian floozies amongst us with six or seven. Will power is not so much broken as smashed with a wrecking ball, and it’s a shock that the tour bus can move for all the clunking of glass.
By the time we reach the final stop, the desire to slug back as much wine as possible has been replaced by the need (and it is a need) to wolf down cheese. Mercifully, the cheese shop is right next to McGuigans’ cellar door. Unmercifully, the queue is massive, as people clamber over each other for a taste of a minute hunk of smelly stuff.
A better option is the honestly-named Smelly Cheese shop in what passes for Pokolbin’s CBD. It’s far less crowded, and has the added advantage of being next to a chocolate shop. Anyone with the ability to resist the choc caramels is a better man or woman than I. Anyone who can guzzle down two packets on top of the wine and not feel queasy the next day whilst riding Psycho The Wonder Horse deserves a medal.
Imagine, and feel free to visualise any suitableHollywoodfilm as an illustrative aid, the wounded hero on horseback. He is slowly bleeding to death from an arrow in his side, has contracted some nasty disease from fighting amongst the dead bodies, and is gasping with dehydration. His cohorts have put him on the withered beast of burden, and sent him back towards the camp in a half-hearted bid to save him. The horse is plodding along in the baking heat as its near unconscious rider drapes around its neck, dry retching into the mane.
Well, it’s Sunday lunchtime, and some remarkably good impressions of this scenario are being pulled off. It has to be said that, on a list of good ideas, going horse riding after a day and night of heavy wine tasting/ guzzling comes just below trying to tickle a wildBengaltiger. Unshaven heads pound, delicate stomachs struggle to deal with the smell of horse dung and shaking hands grab the reins with all the authority of a little old lady trying to tell a large group of teenagers that their music is “just noise.”
It certainly doesn’t help matters to make the classic mistake of admitting you’ve ridden before. “Oh, in that case, you can have Fred. He’s a dominant male, and occasionally tries to kick and bite the other horses,” says the stablehand. “You’ll need to be firm with him and tell him who’s boss.”
He is. Almost certainly. And, as if to prove it, he gives me a look that wouldn’t seem out of place on a growling grizzly bear. Come on now Fred, we’re going to be together for an hour-and-a-half – let’s at least try and be civil.
Mercifully, there is some truth in the old adage of country air being good for you. As we set off through the paddocks at a slow, one step up from being melted down for glue walk, heads begin to clear and eyes begin to appreciate the land around us.
Whilst theHunterValleyis best known for its wines, it really is quite pretty. As the sun finally breaks through the clouds that have been in permanent residence for the weekend, the Brokenback range in the distance is given a favourable light. With rolling hills and outcrops of trees in front, the world seems a pleasant place again.
Trotting through the fields, gradually getting to grips with the trusty steed, all horrific memories of serenading a dressing gown-clad would-be member of ZZ Top with Dolly Parton’s Nine To Five dissipate. Aside from the odd attempt at taking a chunk of equine rump steak, Fred is behaving himself and even the group’s total beginners are starting to enjoy the anxiety-inducing experience.
As we ride past a neighbouring property, we get a comic vision to replace the overly enthusiastic air guitar solos of the night before. A cute but pugnacious pony races up to his fence, much to the chagrin of some of our mares. It’s hard to believe, given that he’s half the size, but the miniature stallion is a bit of a sex pest. According to our guide, he’s being kept in an enclosure that’s far too small, and the fencing is inadequate for him. Every time the trail horses go past, he’s putting the moves on them. It’s the horsey equivalent of a dwarf continually wandering up to some supermodels in a nightclub, trying to woo them with some ill-thought out filth. Phwoaar! Nice fetlocks, darl, now stand still while I try and find my footstool.
As we go along, we’re told how to get the best out of our mounts, and regaled with war stories of falling off and sliding into unconsciousness. If this is meant as encouragement, it is failing dismally.
Towards the end of our little trek, we come towards a sentry, eyeing us up curiously. There’s no denying it, stumbling across kangaroos somewhat destroys the picture postcard English countryside scenery. Everything’s there, the rolling hills, the green pastures and the now-returning dank grey skies. Skippy and pals don’t really fit.
But countryside it is, whether English or Australian. With all the luxury lodges and expensive golf courses, it’s easy to get a picture of the Hunter as some five star wine-themed resort. This it is most certainly not.
We break into a canter as the kangaroos hop alongside us. Oh alright, they were probably running away, but some illusions are best left unshattered. If there’s a more uniquely Australian moment than this, then you too have probably overdone the wine.
This article was originally written for the Sydney Morning Herald.