Hunter Valley: Week 212

Vineyard landscape in the Hunter Vallery: Pokolbin, Australia

Pokolbin, the gateway to the Hunter Valley wine region, is an undulating field of grape vines under a pale blue sky. It’s located about two and a half hours north of Sydney and a good first stop after that long drive would be Kevin Sobels Wines. Aside from the tasting bar, the grounds host the Handmade Hunter Markets on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. Because we drove up on Easter weekend, the markets were also open on Sunday.

The usual country goods were all in attendance- from hand sewn purses to cutting boards to scented soy candles. We ate a bacon and egg pizza that was cooked in the back of a van and tasted passion fruit lemon butter ‘just like Grandma made.’

Casbars Kitchen and Garden business card: Pokolbin, Australia

My best purchase though was a jar of River Flats Estate Chilli & Fennel infused Corregiola olives in apple cider vinegar. The diminutive size of the olives might not have been impressive- and the fact that they weren’t pitted- but that would have been a huge misjudgment. They were some of the best olives I had ever tasted and it was also the first time I actually appreciated olive pits because they forced me to slow down and savor the spiciness of the chilli and the bite of the fennel seeds.

Tamburlaine Vineyard: Pokolbin, Australia

After the market our friends and I drove to an organic vineyard called Tamberlaine. The tour guide worked part time at the vineyard and had a full time job as a drama teacher. We knew it was going to be an interesting tour when we heard him respond to a query about having children. “Look at me. Do you think any woman would trust me to impregnate them?”

After we toured the vineyard we reconvened in a large tasting room. Beside the tour, my $50 ticket included a bottle of wine and a plate of cheese and crackers to go with the wine tasting. I was feeling quite generous, so I told Barret I’d drive and poured my share of the wine samples into his glass. He was definitely looking sleepy at the end of the tasting.

Originally we intended on visiting several vineyards, but we had such a good time with our guide that the next thing we knew there was only a half hour until most of Pokolbin closed. Barret and I decided to buy a few extra bottles of wine and some dark chocolate. Unfortunately we didn’t have any more time to spend in the Hunter Valley, but I was very happy we went away with some good wine.

Vineyard landscape in the Hunter Valley: Pokolbin, Australia

About: The Hunter Valley

About: River Flats Estates

How to get to the Handmade Hunter Markets: Corner of Broke & Halls Road, Pokolbin NSW 2320

How to get to Tamburlaine: 358 McDonalds Road, Pokolbin NSW 2320

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South Australia: Week 170

Heli pad outside the Chateau Yaldara: Barossa Valley, South Australia

Barret and I made a very important decision while watching National Lampoon’s European Vacation. We decided that we couldn’t miss the Barossa Valley during our first trip to Adelaide. The valley has a lot going for it (like producing 21% of Australia’s wine), but it wasn’t until Chevy Chase slipped into some lederhosen that we pined for the region’s Germanic heritage. We’re tasteful like that.

Just outside the town of Tanunda, is Chateau Yaldara. It’s one of the most famous vineyards in the Barossa Valley because of its beautiful sandstone buildings. It was founded in 1947 by Hermann Thumm, a Georgian immigrant. Because of his German ancestry, Thumm spent several years interned in a POW camp after he first arrived in Australia. Never one to idle, he used the camp’s library to study viticulture and upon release he headed straight for the Barossa Valley.

The misty rain had cleared by the time we reached the cellar door. Along with four other American friends we sampled almost everything on offer before heading into Tanunda for lunch. The air was crisp and carried the scent of a wood-burning fire. It made me wish we had an extra night to stay in one of the old stone cottages.

Vineyards in the Barossa Valley: South Australia

We left the valley in the late afternoon and headed for the A1. The rural route passed Bumbunga Lake, a pink-streaked body of water inhabited by a Loch Ness monster made out of car tires. The only station we received was Radio National, the Australian equivalent to NPR. A retro-disco-Bollywood band from Melbourne was performing live in the studio and each member had an identity like The Skipper or The Bandit Priest.

The saltbush landscape slowly crept up as the Bombay Royale led us on a psychedelic journey. “We’re in a very small space for those listeners who can’t see us right now, and this is the Mysterious Lady talking. But you can imagine in this scene, this set: the humidity and the passion and we go to the Island of Doctor Electrico.”

The sun set before we entered Port Augusta, an industrial town at the ‘Crossroads of Australia.’ The Leigh Creek coal field is 250km north of town and supplies Port Augusta’s two power stations. Usually only one is operational during winter, but the air still had a metallic tang.

We drove straight through town and onto the Stuart Highway- the legendary road which runs north through the center of Australia. It was named after the Scottish explorer who traversed a similar route in 1861. The most dangerous time to travel the highway is between sunset and sunrise. This is when kangaroos are either most active or (obviously) harder to see. At 30mph mid-leap, hitting a ‘roo could be devastating.

An Outback roadhouse: Pimba, South Australia

We were tired and eager to pull over for the night at Pimba. Although, it would have been more accurate to just label the speck on the map ‘Spud’s Roadhouse’. The gas station/café/motel/grocery store pretty much was the entire town.

Inside the shop construction workers in neon vests crowded around a rugby game on TV and the smell of greasy food wafted out of the kitchen. Barret and I didn’t feel like setting up the tent in the parking lot, so we asked the guy behind the counter for a room.

“It’ll be nointy dollas. Cheers mate.”

We drove our car round the side of the building and parked outside a long row of connected portables. The only other occupants next to us were already drunk and leaning against a large industrial truck. The front door behind them was wide open and the lights and TV were blaring. They eyed us as we unlocked our bent aluminum door and a salty lady called out with a grin, “we’re only here for the night!”

Inside a room at Spud's Roadhouse: Pimba, South Australia

The portable was a wood-paneled shoebox with three beds, a projectile vomit stain on the carpet outside the bathroom, and very thin walls.

“Hey, ya got any drugs?”

I spun around to see if I’d left the door open, but I hadn’t.

“Naw,” a guy replied. It didn’t stop him from searching his stuff though. He sounded like a hamster scratching through the walls. Barret and I pulled out some canned food for dinner and glumly listened in our on neighbor’s conversation. A loud voice sounded from behind our unit and then another woman cackled out in the parking lot.

I felt like we were being circled by a pack of hungry dingoes. Was it only last night that we were enjoying a fireside drink at the Grace Emily in Adelaide? The mantle had been covered in candle wax drippings about a foot thick and a giant papier-mâché dragon head hung in the cornice by the stage. I suddenly wished we were back there.

The hiss of a static-y TV channel reverberated through our walls. “Wow,” I mouthed to Barret, “this place is a shit hole.”

About: The Barossa Valley

How to get to Chateau Yaldara: 159 Hermann Thumm Drive, Lyndoch SA 5351 Barossa Valley

About: The Bombay Royale

About: The Bombay Royale performance on Radio National

How to avoid Spud’s Roadhouse: Don’t stop in Pimba

How to get to the Grace Emily: 232 Waymouth Street, Adelaide SA 5000

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