The Hunter Valley has evolved from a major wine area producing arguably the world’s best Semillon among others to a food bowl of artisan producers. Our version of California’s Napa Valley has restaurants, vineyards and breweries vying for our attention alongside cheese and olive oil producers. Though, and this is no pun, without the cheesiness that Napa can have at its most twee.
As well as some of the large scale, well-known wineries, you should visit some of the numerous excellent boutique producers with cellar doors for tasting and sales. Depending on the time of year you can watch the seasonal processes of wine making in action. We went in the relative calm of autumn when finishing and bottling take place, although as this season’s dreadful summer weather ruined most of the red wine fruit, the pace was slowed somewhat this year. We stayed at Spicers Vineyards Estate in the heart of Pokolbin, not just because of the location, but I’d been keen to try the food of chef Mark Stapleton since his move from Sydney’s 1 Alfred Street. Mark and his wife Belinda co-own and run the estate and merge the hospitality and the culinary seamlessly; Mark as chef at their restaurant Botanica and Belinda managing the estate. There are seven suites, all stylish and well-appointed, with lots of little treats like having the fire set and ready for lighting every day, impeccably hospitable and luxurious, too.
Fresh bread at Spicers Vineyards Estate
The whole paddock-to-plate fad can seem a branding concept more than a practice, but at Botanica you can see it in action. Mark has built the gardens, selected the heritage seeds for the produce, nurtured them to ripeness and harvested them for the plate each day. It is a rare treat for a chef, but precarious too when there isn’t the providore arriving with contracted boxes each day. The country people I know will tell you if you name a farm animal, it’s yours to take care of forever. Not so here, where the pigs Chop-chop, Salami 2 and Crackle are too cute for words and mad for a scratch behind the ears. Mind you, as organically raised Berkshires they are incredibly tasty too and destined eventually for the table. House-cured of course, served as all manner of charcuterie, and the results are wonderful. It is a rare treat to have food so meticulously conceived from seed to plate.
Botanica is a minute’s walk from the main house. You can walk via the organic kitchen garden where chefs can be seen harvesting herbs or greens for the table that night. They are only partly self-sufficient, so the menu is created from other local artisan ingredients as well. And because of the organic nature of the garden and seasonal variation there can be almost spontaneous changes in the menu. There were some great surprises in store.
Haloumi with autumn leaves is something that I wouldn’t normally try. I look for more…I don’t know, oomph I suppose. At once almost rustic and incredibly fine in its flavour and execution, it was a wonderful dish. Small cubes of roast beetroot, pan-fried haloumi, pancetta (house-cured, of course) and roasted walnuts with fresh garden leaves. Of course the detail: that dressing brought it all together with the roast beetroot sorbet. The selected wine was Tyrell’s Stephen Semillon 2008. Next the indulgent rillettes of pork in brioche crumbs with lemon aioli, capers, cornichons and fresh celeriac. Sumptuous, crunchy and tangy all together I loved it, and the wine, the home estate chardonnay, (unavailable, unfortunately for sale). The veal cheeks, slow-cooked until melting consistency and served with truffle purée and charcuterie jus are new for the winter menu. Again the selected Brokenwood Baby Graveyard shiraz was perfect.
Colourful produce at Botanica
Our dessert was honeyed panna cotta with gorgonzola dolce and walnut biscotti. It’s a really surprising combination of flavour and texture. The panna cotta isn’t sweet, that comes from the honey, but it ties the flavour to the cheese and the crunch of the biscotti adds that extra dimension; it really shouldn’t be missed. Again, as part of the showcase of local wines the Hungerford Hill botrytis Semillon was a perfect finish. On our second night, Mark created his garden grazing platter, which can be ordered ahead. The bread is made onsite and excellent. Mark’s sourdough culture is said to be 150 years old. Our salad had just been picked and the platter with pâté, potted pork with pickled vegetables, estate olives and relishes, but the description does it no justice. Everything the estate produced and executed with passion and finesse as was the Chateau Pato Shiraz. It’s so hard to keep up with smaller wineries and that’s another aspect of Botanica: they give you an opportunity to try selected wines from makers you may not know.
The setting for Spicers Vineyards Estate is calm and relaxing with a grand view over vineyards to the Brokenback Range. Autumn is a lovely time to stay in the valley with warm days, woodfire nights, and the wine business fine-tuning for bottling. The property is perfectly situated in the heart of Pokolbin for exploring the area and Belinda and the team will concierge this for you skillfully. They seem like part of a large family introducing you to places and people you wouldn’t find. But if it’s just getting away for a quiet weekend, one night at Botanica, and one with an in-room spa/massage treatment, with a garden platter served in front of the fire is hard to beat.