Into The (Hunter) Valley


Not so many years ago, staying in the Hunter Valley meant death by chintz. Sleek, stylish and boutique were terms reserved for wines only.

So we searched and searched the Interweb ’til we came across a review in the Sydney Morning Herald on Tower Lodge. Small and boutique, it was just the sort of hotel we were looking for.

Tower Lodge Courtyard

Tower Lodge Courtyard

I’ll never forget driving up to what looked like little more than a huge terracotta box. But the (slight) panic was over once we stepped inside to a little Mediterranean oasis of fountains, hidden courtyards and modern country-home chic. We were in the process of selling our house while we were there – in fact we sealed the deal one midnight – so wine tasting took second place.

However, as we were checking out, one of the owners popped in to see how things were doing and asked us what we thought. His name was Len Evans, the man who many credit for making the Australian wine industry what it is today. When he asked us where we’d visited, we reeled off a few names with one notable absence: the Tower Estate Winery. We hadn’t left enough time to visit the place slap bang next door. But we promised we would next time.

So, seven years later (and sadly with Len Evans no longer around) and finding ourselves once again at Tower Lodge this January, we were true to our word and fixed up a tour of the winery. There was a little miscommunication. The front desk at the Lodge had asked for a tour but the winery had interpreted this as a tasting – unsurprisingly perhaps as the Semillon grapes had all just been picked and there were a few concerns about our health and safety as the pressing and transferring to tanks was well underway.

The label on a bottle of Tower Estate Chairman's Selection Shiraz CabernetLuckily, common sense prevailed, in the shape of one of the winery team, and we got our peek behind the scenes. It was incredible to taste the sweetness of the freshly-pressed Semillon juice, knowing how bone dry the end product would be. It was also a great relief to stand in the cool barrel room when the temperature outside was nudging 40 degrees C.

Tower Estate was established in 1999. Its aim is to make only limited amounts of each wine – you can buy some of the wines in the UK from Rick Stein’s shops in Padstow and by mail order. Rick Stein is one of Tower Estate’s owners.

While it is mostly Semillon and Shiraz that’s grown in the Hunter Valley, Tower Estate makes wine from grapes grown in some of Australia’s other premium wine regions, aiming to produce classic styles ‘from fruit sourced from the specific Australian region that best suits a particular grape variety and style’.

Naturally, we tasted as much as we could but we weren’t keen on putting any bottles in our suitcases, despite the packaging you can now get to protect them. So, we treated ourselves to a bottle of the Chairman’s Selection 2005 Shiraz Cabernet, blended from the best of each variety Tower Estate grew that year, and the last wine Len Evans oversaw.

Back at the Lodge, the team there decanted it, laid places at the large wooden dining table that dominates the main lounge and we savoured it with local cheeses, hams and olives. It could have done with more ageing, and we had been made aware of this when we bought it (Len Evans believed it would need at least five years). But it was a fabulous experience and a wonderful way to round off our second stay at Tower Lodge.

The Oriental Suite

Len Evans may have gone, but as well as a thriving Australian wine industry, he also left us his Theory of Capacity – a simple set of wine rules to live by. They are proudly displayed in the lobby at Tower Lodge and of course make perfect sense. So while I hunt for my photo of said rules, please feel free to pop over to the excellent Wine Woman & Song blog and have a read through them.

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