Using my birthday as a perfectly reasonable pretext, we're taking a short break. We flew from Melbourne to Sydney, hired a car and drove 200kms north to The Hunter Resort. After two nights there, we're driving back to Sydney. We'll be spending a night there before flying back to Melbourne. I will now begin boring you to death with reams of insipid travelography. It's my blog, and you're not getting your entrance fee back.
During the day Qantas operate a 767 from Melbourne to Sydney every 30 minutes. That's a lot of big aircraft operating a short route. The flight was a few minutes late, but was not too unpleasant. We've just been through our longest period without flying since we've known each other, so we had to keep checking that we weren't behaving like tourists. Then we remembered that we were, and stopped playing the Seasoned Traveller role.
The woman at the car hire desk went through the paperwork before mentioning apologetically that the car was 'something a bit new'. She seemed a bit apprehensive. It turns out that the car is a brand-new petrol-electric hybrid - a Toyota Prius. Predictably, our response was 'Cool! Geek toy!". I think she'd been having trouble persuading people to try them.
She led us to the car , and took us through the starting procedure. Insert key, depress brake pedal, release parking brake, press 'Start'. A few seconds later, the dashboard monitor says 'Ready'. No engine noise. 'Has the engine started?' she asks. 'Can't hear it', I say. Then the light dawns. Why would it need to start the engine? It's a hybrid. The engine doesn't start until the power demand exceeds the electric capability. Cool.
The car only has 65kms on the clock. We're the first people to hire it. More cool. I will expound in tedious detail on this engineering marvel throughout this post. This is to make sure that even the non-geeks get a chance to appreciate with us the total coolness. No skipping ahead. There'll be a test at the end.
We pointed the self-powered supercomputer north, and pottered through the center of Sydney. We were rewarded with glimpses of the bridge and the bay. It felt a bit like coming home. We like Sydney a lot.
We pottered on up the freeway, goofing about with the information systems in the car. The Hunter Valley is about 150kms north of Sydney, just a bit inland from Newcastle. We were making good time up the freeway when The Serious Tourist spotted a diversion along a more scenic route. After a to-and-fro discussion, we remembered we were on our holidays, not on a schedule. I swerved across two lanes of traffic and exited the freeway at the last possible moment. In Britain this would earn hoots, rude gestures and three points on your licence. Here, it rates as above-average driving.
The scenic route is a swooping, twisty drive through the forested mountains of the Great Dividing Range. The southern end of this range is visible from our office in Melbourne, the northern end is another 3000kms north. The mountains aren't very high - around 1500m - but it's enough to form a rain shadow. It never rains in Melbourne, but the Hunter Valley has almost too much moisture for vines.
We stopped to get some water, and I handed the controls to The Better Driver. After the usual confusion caused by starting (or, rather, not starting) an electric car, she developed a grin that defies description.
The car has a display that shows all energy sources and sinks, and the energy flows between them. It has a petrol engine (source), a battery (source or sink) and a drivetrain that can be powered directly by the engine through a torque convertor, or by a battery-powered electric motor. The motor can be operated regeneratively by the drivetrain. When you hit the brakes (or go downhill), the system scavenges the kinetic energy and dumps it back into the battery. You can see these flows updated on a second-by-second display. As you may have noticed, we like this car.
In one of my rare lapses from perfection, I had left the address of the resort in the boot. As we approached Pokolbin, we pulled over so I could remedy this situation. The Better Driver decided to become The Competent Navigator, and I drove the final 10kms.
We arrived around fiveish. Our room is half a bungalow right next to a paddock full of horses. It has aircon. Since the outside temperature was over 40 degrees when we arrived, aircon is not a luxury. We strolled around for a bit, chatting to horses and enjoying the heat until the need for cooling overwhelmed us.
I've been sampling high-quality beers since I arrived here. OK, OK, point taken. Can we move on now? Anyway, the Bluetongue brewery has been one of my favourites. By a total coincidence, the actual brewery is here. They have a bar. Chilled beer and aircon. You can charge it to your room. I think I'm going to cry now.
So. Moving on. Back to the room to get changed. Got to make an effort, dont'chaknow. Also, I'd been given a tie as a birthday present. Has to be done, etc.
A quick aperitif, then on to dinner. The Elegant Stylish One outshone everyone in the reastaurant. Candles around a Supernova. Smugness? What do you think?
We asked for the Hele-Barry 2005 Semillon to start, but there was none in the Restaurant. The excellent waitress brought us the Chardonnay instead, and let us have a taste. This was more than good enough - smooth, buttery and light with a pleasant smack of oak and well-integrated acidity. The confit of duck I had would have complemented the Semillon (or even a Sav Blanc) better, but the prawn linguine on the other side of the table really brought out the smooth refinement of the Chardonnay.
I moved on to the Hele-Barry 2003 Shiraz. This comes from some vines between the restaurant and our room. It has a light, smoky aspect that floats above the soft, mellow Shiraz tones. These particular vines produce a less rich, lighter wine than one expects with a Hunter Shiraz. I ate a steak too.
The Olivine Merlot was a surprise success on the other side of the table. It had all of the charecteristics you would expect from a French Burgundy, with the added punch and richness of northern New South Wales. The added complexity and flavour from the warmer climate take it beyond the expected and into the outstanding. I think she drank it with chicken.
On, then, to a dessert wine. This was from this year's crop, and still has a pinkish hint. Smooth, sweet and very fruity, it was a delightful way to end our evening's oenophilia. Chocolate and Fig Pudding (idea: leave out the figs) and some truly magical ice-cream disappeared somewhere.
A couple of drinks to give the digestion a chance, and off to bed. A lovely way to spend an evening in the sub-tropics.
Rising only a few hours after the dawn, we had a spot of breakfast before signing on for the vineyard tour. About 20 people showed up, with varying degrees of alertness. The presenter is one of the owners of the place. Even though he does this ten times a week, it was lively and entertaining . We started in the vineyard, and he took us through the history, geography, meteorology, biology and biochemistry of the art. Then we went at had a look at the winery. This is biochemical engineering at its finest - huge, 40-tonne capacity tanks mounted overhead, liftimg machinery, vast tanks and pressure vessels, a laboratory and tasting facility. In December, its all covered in cobwebs. There's no wine fermenting, and precious little aging in tanks. We're thinking of going back in January or February, when the crop's being harvested and the the yeast is busy.
Once we were done there, it was off to the cellar door for a practical deminstration. It was after noon. Just. We tried a 2006 Semillon - young, green, unintegrated, but showing promise. An older Chardonnay was showing lovely buttery tones, with a pert acid finish. The Shiraz we tried was, objectively lovely, but had an odd smoky overtone that I found puzzling. Once we were done with the tour, we went to the cellar bar to try a few others. We goofed around with a couple of Semillons before drifting back to the Chardonnay. Then we worked our way from the lower-priced Shiraz (almost) all the way up the scale. Each one was deeper, richer and more characterful than the last. There are several graphs you could plot here. Blood alcohol against price would be instructive, for a start. I firmly believe that all credit card machines should be fitted with a breathalyzer. Six bottles of Chardonnay and six of the (sensibly cost-benefit analyzed) Shiraz will be arriving in Melbourne in Wednesday.
To celebrate, we repaired to the bar.
The Blue Tongue Brewery, named after the local lizards, produces a range of lovely beers, from a light lager through an excellent draught to a deep, chocolatey dark ale. The Sensible Drinker started with a speicialty - alcoholic ginger beer, while I embarked on a tap crawl.
Just outside the brewery and restaurant is a little mound topped with a gazebo. We commandeered it, and watdhed the world go by. Due to a slight disparity in drinking rates, the need for a refill arose. This time The Gradually Less Sensible Drinker had the tasting paddle - six shot glasses, each with a different beer. I tried the limited edition 2005 Vintage Ale - a dark, rich brew, reminiscent of a Trappist beer, with a wonderful whiskey overtone. Unfortunately, the tasting paddles comes as a deal - once you've picked the one you want, a free middie is included in the deal. Whoops. I think I had a dark ale, while The Not Very Sensible At All Any More Drinker had a Draught. Or a Pilsener. You expect me to remember?
From our vantage point we watched preparations being made for a wedding. It was the usual division of labour - bossy, efficient women doing the hard work while the men propped the bar up. It was a pleasant day, a bit overcast and rather breezy. We were making small bets about the timing of the forecast showers, while the wedding group became more and more apprehensive or drunk, dependent on gender.
Various tour groups stopped off for wine tasting and beer drinking. A number of coaches brought the majority. With a dash more style, others arrived by horse-drawn carriage. These offer tours of some local vineyards and restaurants. It looks like a lovely way to travel between sessions. We may well give this a go another time. One group won the prize for sheer style by arriving in a helicopter. Bastards.
Eventually we had our drinking sufficiently synchronised that we could stop for a bit. This was actually a relief. We went back to our room for a bit of a rest.
We emerged a while later for a stroll. We happened upon The Wedding at the critical moment. Rings were changing hands, vows were being made and soulful expressions of everlasting duration were witnessed. It was so cute. We went a bit soupy. I'm sure, one happy day, the bride will forget the howling gale that flipped her veil across her face as her new husband kissed her. At least the torrential thunderstorms held off until the reception.
After a hike in the increasingly threatening weather, we went to the bar for a pre-prandial snifter. We skipped starters and went straight for the meat. The More Sensible Again Foodie had the Shiraz with the steak, while I went for the Chardonnay with chicken. We shared a dessert wine with our ice-cream. Perfection.
There are rumours that more beer was consumed. I think I won the pool game, though. For some reason, my memory is unclear on the details.
I warn you fairly that there is more of this drivel to follow, but now I have a network connection again, you're getting the first dump.