Zepher Tours Video Review
The Coco and Vine team always love a good road trip, and for Sydney dwellers one of the coolest little road trips is up to the Hunter Valley. While the Hunter Valley is one Australia’s foremost wine regions, the awkward question inevitably pops up about who will be the designated driver. Yes, that poor person who escorts the crew around, and watches their trip buddies get happy on some of the best Semillon and Shiraz in the country, without getting to drink a drop. With Zepher Tours though, the role of designated driver is a thing of the past. Zepher Tours provide day trips to the Hunter Valley, with pick ups from Bondi through to 4 city locations, and one location on the north shore at Gordon. It’s an easy 2.5 hour drive up the Pacific Highway with a 15-minute break at the service centre on the highway.
On our trip to the Hunter Valley, we had Daniel as our host. Where some tours can quickly descend into a running commentary of superfluous information, Daniel provided with us with just the perfect level of communication that informed us of where we were going, and the highlights of the day. Each Zepher Tours trip to the Hunter Valley is limited to 20 participants and the itinerary comprises a visit to 3 wineries, a distillery, and one other food destination. Lunch is also provided and, depending on your budget, you can choose a dining option that suits.
What we enjoyed most about our day in the Hunter Valley was the diversity in the wineries. We started our Zepher Tours wine tour with a stop at Lucy’s Run, a little family-run winery. Our hosts at Lucy’s Run were Heather and Brad. While they have only owned this vineyard for 12 months, they have that unbridled enthusiasm of a couple who really love their craft. The cellar door is a rustic shed with a tasting room. Heather and Brad had a range of wines to taste, and complemented the wine with some tasting plates of food which included breads, cheeses, and spicy condiments.
First pour of the morning was a Lucy’s Run 2015 Verdehlo which was a subtle mix of tropical and citrus flavours and can be characterised as a bright and clean white wine.
Next up was a wine with a little story. Bejo’s Blush is Shiraz-based Rosé. Bejo is named after an Orangutan in Indonesia that the former owners supported. Heather and Brad continue with that support, with a portion of the profits from each bottle going to the Orangutan Foundation International Australia.
The wines were served with delicious labna and cheddar. The labna is smooth and creamy, and the cheddar is lightly sharp, but the wine cuts through the sharpness of the cheese and cleanses the palate.
Another Rosé follows, and it’s a 2015 wine with a voluptuous, sweet, and bright flavours. With pineapple notes and a grapefruit finish, it is the perfect wine to go with a curry.
After a light start it was time to delve into a wine that packed a little more punch. A 2013 Merlot uses the same grape as the Rosé, but with the skin kept on it yields a different, ripe plum flavour. It’s smooth and mellow on the palate. It would partner perfectly with lamb or a pizza.
Few years in recent memory have been as good as 2014 for wines. In fact, many in the Hunter say that it was the best vintage since 1965. The fruit yield was up 30% with just the right amount of rains and then the scorching sun at the right time for perfect ripening.
The 2014 Merlot by Lucy’s Run is a full-bodied wine with rich plum flavours. Definitely one to buy and cellar!
Moving on from the Merlots, we then tried a 2014 Shiraz. Not a slouch either, this medal winning wine is characterised by spicy white pepper undertones, and it is an excellent wine to partner with a red meat, like steak.
Rounding out our tasting was a dessert wine which is 2014 Verdehlo named Sophie’s Choice. It’s served chilled and is a sweet wine, but not sickly sweet. There are pineapple undertones and a fresh crisp taste.
By the time we left Lucy’s Run, the sun was high in the sky, and before the next winery, we made a quick deviation to Hunter Valley Chocolate Company. Sitting prominently on Lovedale Road, it’s a haven for chocolate lovers with every imaginable type of chocolate and fudge available. The Coco and Vine team were given a sneak peak into the chocolate making facilities, and we were amazed at the meticulous approach of the chocolate makers.
We sampled a selection of chocolates and were super impressed with rich and creamy flavours. Guest Coco and Viner Giulia sampled a dark chilli chocolate. Combine 82% cocoa with chilli and you have chocolate that is decadent, with a spicy finish that lingers and zings for a while!
From family-run boutique winery, we made our way over to another family-run operation of Hope Estate, one of the biggest wineries in the Hunter. Hope Estate produce wines, houses a highly rated restaurant in Harvest, and is a popular venue for concerts. Not many venues can claim they have hosted a Rolling Stones concert, yet Hope Estate can proudly claim that privilege, with 20,000 fans filing into the estate in 1996 to party with one of the world’s favourite bands!
On the wine front, there’s 8 acres of grapes to draw on, along with vineyards in the Macedon Ranges Victoria, Broke and Donnybrook in Western Australia. Jude our host at Hope Estate, appropriately, starts with Opening Act, a 2016 Semillion and Verdehlo blend. It can be best described as a subtle, tropical fruit salad. Soft, with a lower alcohol content, it’s an easy drinking wine.
From a sweet start, we move on to a 2014 Chardonnay. Like the opening act, this too is an easy drinking wine, and it’s time in French oak barrels before being moved to steel vats, impart a buttery, vanilla flavour to the wine. The wine also has a slightly tart, citrusy note from the use of stone fruits.
Our final wine, before being whisked away for lunch, was a Hope Estate 2015 Rosé. Jude explains that for this wine, the skins are kept on for 9 days before being removed. Fresh, fruity flavours are what this wine is all about. You can taste the raspberry and strawberry undertones with every sip.
We were in for a treat as we made our way to the top of the Hope Estate winery for lunch. As a space, Harvest Restaurant really does take your breath way. Polished floors, an exposed ceiling with wooden beams crossing the indoor space, along with pretty chandeliers, creates a zen-like atmosphere . Then there’s the outdoor space providing a vista of row-upon-row of vines along with lakes and dams. A letterbox opening provides a sneak peak into the kitchen, as Executive Chef Mert Tansu and his team quietly go about championing local produce, and creating a visual and appetising feast for the guests.
While waiting for the first course, we sampled kalamata olives, and warm bread rolls with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Our first wine with lunch was a Hope Estate 2015 Semillion which was fresh and crisp with citrus notes.
Harvest puts on a special tasting menu for Zepher Tours guests. To kick things off, Chef Mert prepares an heirloom tomato salad with watermelon. On the surface, watermelon and tomato make a curious pairing but in expert hands, there’s a beautiful harmony between the sweet watermelon and the tart tomatos. The watermelon sits on a bed of olive brioche and goats fetta. Brioche invokes visions of fluffy mounds of bread, but here at Harvest they are delicate little crunchy pieces, that inject a level of richness and texture into the salad. It’s a beautiful looking salad that tastes just as good.
Our main is the risotto. After our entrée, we knew we weren’t going to just get a plain ole risotto, and we weren’t disappointed. This is another immaculate presented dish that is full of technique. Vibrant yellows, oranges, greens and reds are present. The chicken thigh, with its criss-cross charred skin, is visually striking and contrasts so well with the garnishes. If you need ideas on how to cook pumpkin, besides having it as a roasted vegetable, you should try this risotto dish. The risotto is made with a pumpkin puree, with rich swirls of caramelised butter blended in that provides a rich and sweet taste. Chef Mert even came out to talk to us about the dish and exclaimed “…butter fixes everything!…” Never a truer word spoken, I think! There’s also diced pumpkin and pumpkin seeds added to the risotto. The chicken used is a free range chicken, which is soft and tender. I am also a huge fan of the smoky flavours from the skin of the chicken. The heirloom carrots are also perfectly cooked. A well balanced main, that I would order again in a heartbeat.
Paired with the main is the Hope Estate 2014 Chardonnay that we had tasted earlier in our visit.
The final act is a pineapple with coconut panna cotta. As the panna cotta is placed on the table, we instantly transform ourselves into try-hard Masterchef judges and perform the ‘wobble test’. The Harvest panna cotta passes the wobble test with flying colours. This panna cotta is creamy and tastes of pina colada, just without the alcohol!
A beautiful sliver of pineapple sliced wafer thin, then dried and candied, rests against the panna cotta. While it may look delicate, it’s quite robust. You also get a wedge of pineapple poached in late harvest Verdehlo wine, which results in a juicy and luxury morsel. The poaching process actually enhances the flavour of the pineapple. A pineapple reduction is swept across the plate and complements all three elements.
A 2014 Late Harvest Verdhelo is served with dessert. Its sweet but not sickly, with beautiful floral aromatics and citrus tones.
It was a delicious experience at Harvest, and Chef Mert has created a sensational dining destination in the Hunter Valley. A beautiful space combined with a well thought out Mediterranean inspired menu, it delivers on all fronts.
With our tummies full, it’s back on the Zepher Tours’ bus, as we head off to check out the Hunter Distillery. After tasting wines, it was time to get some spirits onto the palate. Our host Joel was a wealth of information. Hunter Distillery is locally owned and creates spirits including vodka, liqueurs, schnapps and award-winning Copperwave Gin. Tasting was fun with each drink presented in a test tube…very scientific!
We started with a range of vodkas which included :
- Apple – smooth
- Vanilla – bold, bitter and sweet
- Chocolate – sweet, with an acidic bite
- Caramel – like a butterscotch schnapps on steroids!
- Chilli – Hot and spicy, definitely one to try to last as you will feel the burn!
Next up was Schnapps and we tried two which included blackberry, which was sweet, and if paired with perhaps a lemonade, would have been perfect. The ginger Schnapps was refreshing like ginger beer, and not hot or overpowering.
Three liqueurs were available for tasting. The passion fruit was a crowd favourite, being sweet yet fresh! The choc-mint was akin to a mint slice, and finally a mango liqueur which was filled with tropical flavours!
With a spirited tasting behind us, and an education in the distillery process, it was time to head off to our final winery for the day. Leogate Estate Winery is a gorgeous property, and a popular spot for weddings. With a backdrop of Brokenback Mountain and opulently appointed buildings, I can see why brides would be rushing to book this place for their most important day.
As I walk through the front door, I am greeted with the distinct aroma of truffles in the surroundings, and I wonder what we had missed out on! We take a seat and Alex, our host, starts walking through the first of the 6 wines he has available for tasting.
Brokenback Semillon 2015 leads off the tasting with its fruity notes. A dryer wine is next up with a Leogate Brokenback 2015 3 Vats Classic Dry White. It’s a wine with a buttery flavour from its time in the oak barrels. There’s also an acidic kick from the wine and it would pair well with a salmon or pork dish.
The Frizzante Blanc NV is a sparkling white, with fresh delicious lime notes. It’s definitely a great little party drink.
From the whites we move to the reds, with Leogate 2015 Gatecrasher La Perouse. There is an interesting backstory to this wine. The 2013 season was a disaster for the Hunter region reds, and so grapes had to be brought in from Mudgee and Young to make wine. The label now lives on. The vigneron at Leogate blends Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot that yields a silky, smooth wine with flavours of blackcurrants delivers a balanced, rounded taste.
To finish the reds, we taste a Frizzante Rouge NV which, like the Frizzante Blanc, is a sparkling wine. It is fruity with the flavours of red berries and would partner well with seafood.
Our final wine we tasted on this Zepher Tours day out, was a dessert wine. Leogate produce a Brokenback 2015 Late Harvest Semillon. When picked late in the season, when the grape has a higher sugar content, it results in a sweeter wine. There’s a nice sweet fruity flavour yet not sickly sweet. There’s lemon notes to balance out the flavours. Indeed a sweet ending!
It was only appropriate, as we drove out of Leogate, that the heavens opened. Daniel though, expertly navigated us through Cessnock using the back roads to avoid the congestion of day-trippers heading back to Sydney. A relaxing drive down the Pacific Highway had us back in Sydney by 6:45pm. Zepher Tours really do make a day trip to the Hunter Valley a relaxing experience, without having to worry about the drive back. We experienced great wines and food, but importantly we were also made to feel welcome at each of the wineries with warm hospitality.
* Coco and Vine were guests of Zepher Tours