July 18, 2019
It’s around the time that the spa therapist gently smooths a concoction of vitamin C and freeze-dried shiraz onto my face that I start to wonder: how many ways can one enjoy the gift of nature that is wine?
SPA ANISE DAY SPA AT SPICERS VINEYARDS ESTATE
Quite a few, as it happens. At charming Spicers Vineyards Estate in the Hunter Valley, wine is truly the hero. It’s in the housemade shiraz salt on our table at dinner; it’s in the Champagne sorbet body scrub that preceded my facial; it’s in the vineyard that occupies four acres of the retreats’ postcard-pretty vines; it’s in the Little Hill Farm chicken with Semillon mustard sauce that I have for lunch at Botanica Restaurant; and of course, it’s in glass after glass of wonderful Hunter Valley wine that we enjoy over the course of an indulgent weekend.
RESTAURANT BOTANICA, SPICERS VINEYARDS ESTATE’S ON-SITE RESTAURANT
One of two Spicers properties in the popular New South Wales wine region, Vineyards Estate is a boutique hotel that truly delivers on that oft-overused expression. With just 12 suites and a team of discreetly attentive staff, it’s a five-star escape tasked with ensuring that you relax and enjoy yourself without a care in the world. This mission is accepted and delivered on by staff with gusto and panache.
And the wine? Well it all begins when you arrive at the estate, which sits at the top of a long driveway, past a vineyard planted with Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot. Later, we learn that local winemaker Nick Paterson (of Chateau Pato) uses the grapes to produce a Rosé and a Chardonnay under the Small Harvest label. Not long after checking in at the elegant, homestead-style main house, we are seated in Botanica Restaurant, a glass of Small Harvest Rosé in hand.
From our table, our gaze travels across the sweeping lawn to the vines and a blur of towering gums beyond, which give way to the brooding dark blue mass that is the Brokenback Mountain Range. Just then, the sun emerges from behind a cloud, lighting up the towering cliff face in shades of sandstone and green, the sky beyond providing a vivid cobalt backdrop. It’s a palette of colours that unmistakably spells Australia – we’re not in Tuscany or Bordeaux now, and nor, at any moment during our stay, would we want to be.
Through lunch and dinner at Botanica we are introduced to the talents of head chef Shayne Mansfield, a Sunshine Coast talent who has worked at London’s City Social and at Spicer’s flagship eatery The Long Apron at Montville under the tutelage of Cameron Matthews.
HEAD CHEF SHAYNE MANSFIELD
As we taste our way through the startlingly purple shiraz salt, the sustainable fish, locally cured ham, herbs from the kitchen garden, even spooning a foaming palate cleanser from tiny ceramic dishes handmade by the chef, one things becomes clear: Shayne is an ideas man, a fizzing ball of culinary energy who inspires his young team to great heights.
Our favourites? For starters, an artistic assembly of comté hard cheese, semillon-poached pear, truffled local honey and roasted walnut tarator. Nuggets of blue congo potato add contrast and an earthy crunch. Butter poached Fraser Isle spanner crab is an ethereal concoction of snow-white crab meat, floss-like shaved macadamia and lime green radish leaf emulsion.
COMTE, ARTICHOKE, SEMILLON PEAR, LITTLE HILL HONEY, ROASTED WALNUT TARATOR
Roasted swede with fennel and cured pork neck is a petite stack of intense flavours, the pork house cured in jamon Iberico-style and sourced from local pigs raised on a diet of pecans. Sustainably farmed Murray cod is faultlessly sweet and delicate, served with cauliflower crème, crumbed oysters and seaweed crackers.
Accompanying all of this are the exquisite Hunter Valley wines, to which we are introduced by Sara, the ebullient and knowledgeable restaurant manager. Shiraz and Semillon are the region’s key varieties and our journey through the wine list includes drops from Vinden Estates, Andrew Thomas (the 2018 Murphy’s Semillon is a must-try), Tyrells and Keith Tulloch, among many others.
WINE TASTING AT SPICERS VINEYARDS ESTATE IN THE HUNTER VALLEY
We’re keen to learn and soon begin to discern the qualities that make these wines uniquely Hunter in style and taste. Notes are furiously scribbled in the hope that the lessons stick even after we return home.
When all of that tasting gets too much, we retreat to our King Spa Suite, a spacious ground-floor accommodation where we revive our in-room fire – not because it’s cold but because we can. (Vineyards manager Adam Kluft later confides that, in response to guests’ requests, fires are no longer lit by staff; instead they are set for guests to light. City visitors, it seems, have caveman itches that need scratching.)
A plush sofa enables fireplace gazing (or TV watching), while beyond, the dreamy king-size bed awaits. In the large bathroom, there’s an oversized spa bath and pretty toiletries from Appelles Apothecary & Lab.
SPICERS VINEYARDS ESTATE KING SPA SUITE
Throughout the suite, stylish furnishings in neutral tones of green and taupe reflect nature’s palette and deliver a sense of restrained Australian luxury, with elegant lamps and pretty artworks adding a distinctly personal touch.
While the comforts of our home-from-home are difficult to leave, a visit to the Hunter does require some wider exploration, so on Saturday we head out to the Handmade in the Hunter markets at nearby Keith Sobel vineyards.
There are plenty of pretty handcrafts but this weekend is all about the food and wine so we head for the Bellbird Garlic stall and collect some black garlic. It’s fermented, not grown that way, and when we get home I use it to make what is hands down the best garlic butter I have ever tasted. Next to Bellbird is Beelish, which is drawing the crowds with its local honey, including a combination of roasted almonds and raw honey, and Fancy Nancy ceramics. Nancy’s bowls and plates are lovely, but it’s the charming green-glazed wine cups – so perfect for a Hunter shiraz – that catch my eye. They make a delightfully appropriate memento of our stay.
After lunch, I’m off to Spa Anise, Vineyards’ onsite spa. I’ve opted for the Signature Vino Spa Ritual, a dreamy two-hour affair during which the expert therapist Jasmine dispenses an intense body scrub with champagne and strawberry infusion; a fragrant, anti-ageing shiraz and vitamin C mask; a deliriously good head massage; and, afterwards, a glass of bubbles. You can have green tea if you like, but why deviate from the theme?
Not only do the products smell and feel divine, but there is something about the spa ritual that banishes tensions and worries. Jasmine’s assured and silent moves are mesmerizing, and I’d like to think I’m not the only client to drift off into a blissful sleep.
Walking back to my room, I pass the pretty outdoor pool and spa, beyond which lie more beautiful grounds to explore. Peace reigns and I catch a glimpse into the inviting lounge where staff are preparing a pre-dinner wine and cheese tasting for guests.
On our last day we use passes provided by Spicers to experience the guided vineyard tour at Tyrrell’s, gaining firsthand insight into what makes a traditional, independent vineyard tick.
While the Tyrrell’s name is famous, it is no corporate behemoth – rather, it is a 140-year-old family business where award-winning wines are produced in the same way as they always have been. As tour guide Scott Richardson says, this is no theme park among the vines.
WINE TASTING AT TYRRELL’S WINERY
“We are just the grumpy old man on the hill,” Scott says with a wry smile. “All we do is make wine. We don’t do chocolate, we don’t do food. We don’t do concerts. All we do is wine.”
Two hours later we depart, possessed of a much deeper understanding of winemaking, its history, its romance and its perils. We have tasted some marvelous drops and are full of admiration for the determination and skill required to survive as an independent winemaker in Australia’s challenging climate.
We depart reluctantly – feeling relaxed and pampered (and very knowledgeable about wine, thank you) and we know one thing for sure. Spicers Vineyards Estate has made us feel very special and we’ll be back, no question.
Words by Jane Scott.
Spicers Vineyards Estate