Quiz winner floating on air

Hilary Coutts, winner of The Yorkshire Post Wine Quiz 2012, tastes grapes in the McGuigan vineyards of the Hunter Valley, Australia
Hilary Coutts, winner of The Yorkshire Post Wine Quiz 2012, tastes grapes in the McGuigan vineyards of the Hunter Valley, Australia
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‘Just before I sent my entry in, I saw McGuigan sparkling wine on the shelf in my local supermarket, so I bought a bottle to celebrate if I won.”

This may have been wishful thinking for Hilary Coutts from East Yorkshire when she tackled the Fiendish Wine Quiz over the New Year holiday, but she really did have a reason to pop that cork when her 100 per cent correct entry was picked out of the hat as winner.

“I couldn’t believe it when you rang me; I thought it was a friend winding me up!” she said. The prize for her two weeks of research was a trip of a lifetime to wine company McGuigan in the Hunter Valley of Australia.

To make the most of the summer weather down-under, we rushed flight bookings and within weeks of our first phone call I met Hilary and her husband Ian at the Sydney Hilton hotel for a glass of bubbly and a splendid lunch of scallops and grilled barramundi before heading to the Hunter Valley.

It was difficult to believe that we had left the UK in the midst of cold winter weather. Apart from a brief, torrential rainstorm, which met me on my arrival, Sydney and the Hunter Valley were basking in summer sunshine. What a perfect way to start a wine trip. Hilary and Ian had already been in Australia for a week by the time I got there, so they had caught up with jet-lag and were starting to build up a tan.

The Hunter valley is about a two-hour drive north of Sydney and it is the historic home of winemaking in Australia, first planted by the pioneers of Australian wine almost 200 years ago. Owen McGuigan was one of those pioneers, starting to work in the vineyards around 1880 to supplement his dairy farm income. His son Perc followed him into the wine business and made such a success of it that he was recognised as a Living Legend of the local industry. His two sons, Brian and Neil have followed in his footsteps to build one of Australia’s most important wine companies.

Now with vineyards and wineries in Mildura and the Barossa Valley as well as the Hunter Valley winery, McGuigan has grown both in quantity and definitely in quality.

The three of us, Hilary, Ian and I settled into our home for the next few days, a luxury villa on a rather swish golf course estate close to the winery, and immediately opened a bottle of McGuigan Sparkling Pinot Grigio Special Vintage Release 2010 to celebrate. This was my first visit to the Hunter for more than a decade and Hilary and Ian’s first time in the area.

Clustered around the small village of Pokolbin, and spreading almost as far as the Hunter River which gives the region its name, the vineyards and wineries are scattered across the valley, on pockets of basalt and iron-rich red soils. Sheltered by the Brokenback Range and with a warm climate that is challenging for its late summer rainfall, this is a region that demands careful viticulture to get the best results.

Semillon is the key grape in this region, which can be made into a youthful, zesty wine or aged to develop extraordinary complexity and honeyed-lemon flavours. Hunter Valley Shiraz is also important, achieving a delightful balance of complex flavours with the ability to age for decades. Other grapes grown in this region include Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot as well as Verdelho, a white grape that is grown only in tiny amounts around the world but one which does particularly well in the Hunter, giving flavours of honeysuckle and lime.

The following day dawned clear and sunny for our vineyard visit with winemaker Peter Hall. Despite being in the middle of vintage with tanks of wine bubbling away in the winery, Peter took time out to drive through the vineyards, stopping frequently to avoid the kangaroos which hopped away down the rows as we approached. Apparently they don’t damage the vines, so are not seen as a problem. We also stopped to look at the vines. Most of the grapes had already been picked since 2013 has been a hot year and the harvest was early, but there were just a few bunches that had been missed which we sampled. Fresh, aromatic and juicy these Muscat grapes were delicious.

Next we headed up the hill to look out over the whole valley. With a sheer drop in front of us and giant ants trying to eat us, it was important to keep our eyes on our feet, but even with these distractions we could see that the structure of the valley is more complex that first appears. The Pacific Ocean is close enough to give a maritime influence while the Dividing Range protects the plain. But there are other hills, sweeps of the land and in the distance the river, all having an effect. This is a lovely landscape, no wonder tourists flock here.

With lunch and a tasting at Tempus Two, another label within the McGuigan family, of which more next week, our first day in the Hunter was drawing to a close, especially since the next day was scheduled as a very early start.

Next morning in the grey light of dawn we continued our discovery of the valley, this time by balloon. As the sun came over the horizon, we floated above vineyards, kangaroos, lakes and forests, surprising early morning dog walkers with a “good morning” from the sky.

This was a fantastic introduction to the Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest wine region. But this is just part of the McGuigan operation, which spreads out across some of the best regions of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.

Next week, Hilary gets to grips with wine tasting, she makes her own blend, and gets to meet Neil McGuigan, International Winemaker of the Year 2012.