A Weekend In Wine Country

Jackie McMillan
1st Jun 2024

There’s something magical about waking up in wine country to a total white-out with the fog slowly dissipating to reveal a lake of softly honking ducks, a series of rising hot air balloons, and golden light reflecting from the highest cliff faces of the Broken Back Range. The fact that you can view it all from a cosy warm bed makes it even better…

The Lane Retreat is set on Bimbagden Estate’s Palmer Lane vineyard. There are 60 luxurious studio retreats set in little clusters of three or four. Leaving work at lunchtime will have you up here from Sydney for a three o’clock arrival. Dump your stuff and jump on the Retreat’s private bus to the mothership - Bimbagden winery - to wash away the road dust with an exploration of their range ($20/head). 

Hunter Valley wines have changed a lot since my last visit to wine country. The area is famous for Shiraz and Semillon—neither are my varietals of choice—but the 2015 Bimbagden Signature Hunter Valley Semillon ($65/bottle) made a very good case for changing that. Made on fruit from the Palmer Lane vineyard we were staying in, its characteristic lemon and citrus is softened with buttery brioche from malolactic fermentation. It made this chardonnay drinker very happy. For those who love reds, the 2019 McDonalds Road Shiraz ($55) does everything you’d expect from the varietal, but you’ll really taste the work in the 2018 Signature Shiraz ($90) made on the fruit-forward Palmers Lane Shiraz. 

Sitting in the courtyard of the Bimbagden Wood Fire Pizza over a shiny copper still paves the way to try the winery’s Night Merchant range of sprits. The sandalwood-infused Night Merchant vodka ($78/700ml) was more appealing than the citrus-heavy gin ($78/700ml) that smacked me in the face with lemon myrtle. You can turn either into an Aperol spritz ($18) sundowner as you take in the view over the orchards that supply the very fruit you can taste in the gin. While pizza doesn’t quite achieve the airy standard we’ve come to expect in Sydney, baked eggplant ($26) with pomodoro, caramelised onion, jalapeño, rocket and mozzarella busts out a good combination against gloriously fresh leaves in a seasonal salad ($10) dotted with apple and Parmesan cheese. Despite the name, the spicy pepperoni ($26) with pomodoro, mozzarella and chilli flakes, offers the simplicity that a belly full of competing wines demands. Or there’s always woodfired pizza crusts with hummus ($16) and crispy chickpeas if you hit things too hard. A word in the ear of any staff member will see your chauffeur-driven chariot arrive for the short ride home. 

Shake off feeling dusty with a self-assembled breakfast of name-brand products—Paris Creek Farms bush honey and vanilla yoghurt over Brook Farm granola, or Pepe Saya butter slathered over Bob & Pete’s banana bread—as there are vineyards to explore. The lazy way to do it is to stay brand-loyal and use the free shuttle to get to Bimbagden’s sister property, Alter Wines. The standout of the entry-level range is, once again, Semillon: the 2019 Alter Wines Semillon ($38) to be precise. Though it was the ‘Late Harvest’ 2023 Semillon ($30) that won my heart with stewed stonefruit (they say lemon, crunchy apple and a touch of honey). Emma’s Cottage, which also offers cottage-style accomodation, will put together a grand deli board ($35) of cheese, charcuterie, and house-made pickles to stretch your tasting into a casual lunch. 

While you can take a range of tours to make the most of your time in the region, we chose to take advantage of the on-site bottle-shop and pantry, The Larder, and their heated in-ground pool. With a fancy signature experience ($160) featuring six Bimbagden wines matched to five courses at the estate’s flagship restaurant, Esca, on the cards, it felt like a more sensible preparatory activity. Esca’s well-crafted meal is a chance to see the wines you tasted yesterday in action: hold off any buying until you try them out with food. 

Across our meal, the 2021 Bimbagden Palmers Lane Semillon gave hints of sherbet against kingfish crudo with textures of mandarin, grapes, finger lime and pink peppercorn. Yesterday’s standout, the 2015 Bimbagden Signature Semillon, was again the best performer dancing across blue-eye cod, a mussel emulsion, dainty charred leeks and a squid ink tapioca crisp. The floor team showed personality and wine knowledge, with our local Cessnock waiter explaining that when he came to the estate three and a half years ago, he’d “only had one glass of wine, and it wasn’t a very good one.” Working here has developed him into having clear favourites, giving accurate descriptions, and collecting wine at home, proving immersion works. The rest of the wine list shows off the country’s greatest hits, going all the way up to special occassion without feeling extortionate. The only misstep was a deconstructed baklava where the over-crisp wedge of pastry made me pine for the original, and the rose-water and tangy yoghurt fought with the 2022 Bimbagden Late Harvest Semillon it was paired with. 

To recreate my trip, book and stay at The Lane Retreat before 31 August 2024 with the Cosy Escape Package ($243/night) for a two-night stay, and they’ll throw in breakfast provisions, a wood-fired pizza, a bottle of Bimbagden Shiraz, some choccies and a cruisy midday checkout 》