Salud! A tour of Hunter Valley vineyards can take you around Europe, one glass at a time, writes Britt Lazarus.
I am sitting in a big, red double-decker in the middle of New South Wales' premier wine region. Our bus, more usually pictured in Piccadilly, London, is an incongruous sight in the Hunter Valley. But there is method in the madness.
We're on a grand tour of European-inspired wine cellar doors (I know: the Brits don't make great wine. But stay with me.)
The charabanc ride is intended to substitute for the wanderlust I and so many others have been wrestling with since borders were closed, quashing at least a year of international travel.
The idea behind the Taste of Europe tour is that you can enjoy European-style wines while still buying Australian - which helps our struggling tourism and wine industries.
Thanks to a stressful year full of lockdowns and bad news, many Australians have upped their alcoholic intake - including of fine wine. In fact, they've been flocking to cellar doors to imbibe. This has presented winemakers with a welcome flood of domestic tourists, but it has also brought a bit of a pandemic problem as wineries struggle to manage attendance numbers. Which brings me to my hosts aboard our big, red bus.
Social-distancing restrictions and a large number of domestic tourists have made it hard for wineries of all sizes to accommodate visitors that are passing by or dropping in unannounced.
The solution to this problem is Klook, an activity-booking web platform and app that will make a trip to the Hunter a breeze or, in my case, a European whirlwind. You can plan your trip in advance at Klook.com and save four dollars off each wine-tasting booked at several Hunter Valley wineries.
The first stop of our daytrip is the French-inspired Peterson House. It may seem decadent, but I highly recommend a very literal champagne breakfast at Peterson House. As a sparkling girl at heart, it is the highlight of my day. My regret at trading a sleep-in for this amazing ride is soon forgotten as the first fizz is poured. A perfect single line of bubbles rushes to the surface, emphasising the precision of the fermentation process.
Peterson has sparkling wine down pat and isn't afraid to show it off. My top tip: don't be afraid of the sparkling reds, not even the fortified tawny. When the host says they taste like Christmas Day, she isn't joking and neither am I.
The stairs to the top of the double-decker are a little bit taller and wobblier for those of us who indulged in the Parisian ideal of champagne for breakfast.
The next stop is Swiss inspired and has us pairing chocolate with wine. We each sit down to a perfect placemat of chocolates and lightly filled wine glasses - just enough for the recommend three sips, and one more to be sure.
"This is what I like to call a completely smashable rosé," says Lachlan Sinclair, one of the wine connoisseurs at Glandore Wines.
The table erupts in laughter as he tries to convince us that "smashable" is actually a very technical term he learned at wine school, and not just part of his Saturday evening plans.
Glandore Wines has forever changed the way I will enjoy a glass of vino with a meal. Not only is Mr Sinclair spot on about the rosé, but he opens my eyes to the way the food you pair with your wine changes its flavour.
From Swiss-chocolate heaven, we move on to a wine and cheese pairing and an Italian long lunch at Two Fat Blokes. It feels like a friendly Christmas lunch in any Australian backyard.
The informative and light-hearted tasting with our tour guide, Bill Hastie, who insists he only put on 60 kilograms to land his job at Two Fat Blokes, gives way to warm, friendly conversation over delicious house-made pastas, pizzas and salads.
The afternoon sun is peering in fast as thoughts of a siesta begin to play on my mind. But no time for that, we are up and off again. Next destination: Spain, or Iron Gate Estate.
By far the most picturesque location of the day, Iron Gate Estate feels like a world away. We sip our wines and listen to the soothing acoustics of guitarist Nano playing in the courtyard. The winery offers a choose-your-own adventure with our host tailoring our experience to each guest's tastes by explaining the qualities of each wine and offering a choice from two.
The biggest surprise of the day is a sweet shiraz. Yes, a sweet red that you should really try slightly chilled while in your pyjamas with a block of dark chocolate on a rainy Friday night.
We farewell Nano and jump back on board for a short trip along the bumpy Hunter roads to the last stop of the day: IronBark Hill Brewhouse.
A brewery set in a vineyard? Well, it's not an ordinary brewery. Inspired by German beer culture, IronBark Hill produces some interesting flavours in its Black Forest Stout or Hazelnut Brown Ale. A flight of four beers of your choice allows you to sample the range.
As the tour draws to a close, we trade the big, red bus for a minivan. I have indeed tried the tastes of Europe - but my journey home is only 90 minutes, a lot shorter than a 24-hour flight across the globe.
If you too are bursting at the seams for anything resembling a European trip, the Klook Taste of Europe Tour, complete with the big, red London bus, has availability on November 28. The tour departs the Hunter Valley Visitor Centre and tickets are currently half-price, at just $199 per person.
If you would rather design your own route, Klook offers instant confirmation on bookings for Hunter wine-tastings at just $1, a saving of 80 per cent on the $5 you'd usually be paying for each spot.
Pop onto Klook.com, or download the app, and use the code "WINETIME".
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