Remember the days when you eagerly headed up the F1 to the Hunter Valley, a mere two-hour drive from Sydney, boot empty, friends in tow, ready to hit as many wineries as you could in a day and do some serious wine tasting?
Well, COVID-19 has put the hand-brake on much of that, and while the Hunter Valley is very much open for business, it’s a matter of planning ahead, and understanding the new Post COVID-19 wine tasting etiquette.
On the back of what’s been described as a trifecta of outstanding vintages (2017, 2018, 2019) came 2020... A vintage troubled by drought, tormented by bushfires, and then came COVID-19 which shut down the Valley for the best part of three months.
Regional travel restrictions lifted in June and with that came a flurry of winemakers and marketers working out how to best navigate the tricky but necessary legalities of serving and selling wine in a post COVID world. That’s not to mention the mass flurry of regional travellers keen to support the regions and get back out into the world.
The Hunter, being on Sydney’s doorstep, and the oldest and most visited wine region in Australia, is a great example of what post COVID-19 wine tourism looks like. And while it might take a bit of getting used to, it’s likely here to stay. We’re here to help you navigate what that looks like.
The new normal looks a bit different to the old, but it’s actually meant that some incredible new tasting experiences have come out of adversity. You can now book ahead (and its absolutely recommended that you do) for most of the cellar door offerings, and with each brand having to reinvent the way they run their cellar doors, it’s incredible to see what’s on offer.
With the 4 square metre rule applying just as it does to restaurants, and the requirement that all guests must be seated, comes the need to offer finite spaces for tastings at Cellar Doors, and with that has come the rise of the online booking system and paid tastings. Paid tastings have slowly crept into the wine tourism experience over the years, but now it’s a genuine need. With limited spots available to taste, and the huge increase in resources required to manage the hygiene and social distancing measures in place, there is no other way for these winemakers to exist. And we salute this decision, after all where else in the world can you go for a free wine, right?
In addition to the need to be seated, the law requires that wineries gather contact details from a person within your group attending a tasting be that by pre-registration or signing in on arrival, and are asked to encourage visitors to download the COVID tracker app if they haven’t done so. Operators are empowered to refuse entry to anyone who presents unwell, with cold or flu like symptoms or with a fever or temperature. They’re required to provide floor markings and designated order, pay, collect areas as well as single entry and exit points if feasible. There’s sanitiser, disposable utensils, single use spittoons, laminated or single use tasting lists, and no communal water on offer, and unless the winery has a commercial grade dishwasher on the premises, the glassware must be either disposable or yours to keep. It’s a whole new world.
So with the School Holidays and the peak period upon us, it’s essential that we’re all aware of the new etiquette when you’re planning your visit to the Valley. It’s trickier than ever to taste with kids in tow too so best to check ahead if you’re booking a tasting experience as many can’t accommodate kids under these new rules.
Our top tips for visiting the Hunter Valley this winter
Book ahead, do your research on which kind of wine experiences you’re after.
Please understand that these aren’t “our” rules, but they are state government restrictions placed upon us, designed to keep us all safe.
Winemaker Andrew “Thommo” Thomas’s Top Tips for bookable Tasting Experiences
Is it an in-depth experience of the Hunter’s two signature varieties you’re after? If so make a bee-line to us at Thomas Wines on Hermitage Road where no one will ever give you a better Semillon and Shiraz only experience that encompasses soils, vineyards and a tasting of up to 17 single vineyard varietals. The Discovery tasting just $10 per person, or the one hour Journey $20 per person /Visit-Us
If you’re a collector, head to one of David Hook Wines two tasting locations, the quaint cellar door that everyone knows and loves next to Café Enzo off Broke Road, or the tasting room at the winery with expansive views over their vineyards in Belford conveniently located just off the Hunter Expressway. Your $15 tasting will reward you with a take home Riedel glass valued at $25. Take up to 6 friends and collect the set. https://bookings.davidhookwines.com.au
Is it a food and wine experience you’re looking for? You’d be hard pressed to go past Margan, who are offering a range of Limited Release wines from 100 hectares of Sustainably Farmed Margan vineyards with a range of casual grazing options with your wine flights, seven days a week or dine in the acclaimed one hat restaurant Friday through to Sunday. Our pick is the Hunter Heroes tasting which includes 6 wines, a board of local artisan cheeses and salumi, 75 minutes $40. https://www.margan.com.au/hunter-valley-restaurant
For a cheese matching experience and a family friendly offering, you can’t beat Scarborough Wines on Gillards Road, and a view that’s hard to beat. With 5 levels of bookable tastings ranging from $30-$45 there’s something for everyone. You’ll be seated and served by your own private host while you taste through individually portioned small bottles. Taste your set, and take your mates set home. Or if you don’t have the full hour that’s recommended to enjoy these experiences they’ve cleverly created the Sip on Inn experience which showcases 6 wines chosen by your host for just $20 per person https://www.scarboroughwine.com.au/Visit-Us/Our-New-Tasting-Experiences
If you’re simply after a great tasting of a full range of Hunter varietals while taking in the view then head to Bimbadgen and try their full Signature Experience for just $15. https://www.bimbadgen.com.au/cellardoor/
At Brokenwood the options are just as fancy as their new Cellar Door with tastings ranging from $25 to $110 depending on where your budget and palate is at. Their pod seating is as COVID safe as you can get and allows your group a relative privacy. https://www.exploretock.com/brokenwoodwines
For a family friendly tasting experience, the 125 year old institution, Tulloch Wines on Debeyers Road has created a full spectrum of tastings from Wine & Chocolate ($30) through to their premium Aged Wine & Cheese experience ($100), plus there’s a special kids tasting of three soft drinks matched with three kids snacks all for just $10 to keep the kids occupied while the adults taste. There’s even a Kombucha tasting for the designated driver! https://www.tullochwines.com/discover/