“Whoosh! Waaahh! Rheeee!” The man presses his hat hard against the top of his head with his right hand while his left clips the ends of his collar together, bringing them as close as possible to his neck. The cold wind blows in strong gusts, bending the tops of the mighty sheaoks all around. The twilight air is filled with a strange melodious symphony as the gale meanders its way through the dense foliage.
Unfazed by the strong wind, the man stands his ground and listens hard, mesmerised by the unexpected melody. Suddenly his face brightens up considerably. The trees in this deserted gully have provided him with the answer to his week-old predicament.
Since arriving less than a week earlier in Pokolbin, Frederick Wilkinson had been roaming the hills, mattock in hand, searching for the best place to plant his grape vines. At the same time, he’d been beset with the task of giving his plot of land a suitable name.
As the winds danced around the trees during that fateful nocturnal walk in 1866, Frederick finally made up his mind to call his family plot, Oakdale, in honour of the towering sheoaks that sang out to him in all their grandeur.
Journeying back in time
A little more than 150 years later, I find myself tracing the progress of Frederick and his descendants as I head towards the Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard Museum in Hunter Valley, located north of Sydney and regarded as one of Australia’s major wine regions, with a viticultural history that goes as far back as the early 1800s.
The museum is housed in the original Wilkinson winery, next to the sales gallery on the ground floor. Entrance is free and I strongly suggest investing some time to watch the audio visual presentation to get an overview of not only the history of the vineyard but also that of the entire Hunter Valley itself.
While there are various barrel and wine making tools and equipment on display, my interest lies in the history of the pioneering family. Looking at the many vintage photographs on display, I learn that the Wilkinsons, who originally hailed from England, were no stranger to Australia.
Their foray into Hunter Valley’s Pokolbin Mountains was actually their second visit to the Land Down Under after an aborted attempt earlier to farm in Tasmania and Victoria in 1852. Disheartened by a series of failures during their initial arrival, the entire family returned to England seven years later, in 1859.
The early 1860s saw a change in fortunes for the Australian wine industry. The English upper class began noticing the improved quality for the wines made in the continent and began drinking them in large quantities.
Meanwile, the Wilkinsons, who’d acquired viticulture and winemaking expertise in France and Germany years earlier, noticed this new trend and set sail once again from England. They landed in Sydney and subsequently made their way to Pokolbin in 1866.
The grape varieties that Frederick and his brother John first planted at Oakdale were Hermitage, Maderia, Riesling and Cabernet. While waiting for the vines to bear fruit, Frederick worked at Singleton as a vineyard manager. During that time, he married Florence Stephens. The couple had three children, Audrey, Zelma and Garth.
Frederick continued his struggles to increase his landholdings in Pokolbin and improve his vineyards. Over time, the rich volcanic soil gave back a return that justified his judgment and struggles. Sadly, Frederick died before he could see the full fruition of his enterprises. His untimely demise at age 41 due to a chill sustained during a cross-country ride home from work one evening in 1883 meant that the burden of running the farm fell on the shoulders of his sons, Audrey and Garth.
The diaries Audrey kept from the time he took over the reins of the farm as a young lad of 15 until his death in 1962 forms a remarkable record of not only the Wilkinson family but that of the the entire fledgling Hunter Valley winemaking industry.
The tour continues
Poring over Audrey’s daily records, which are on display, I learn that the pioneers led very difficult and challenging lives when they first started their venture. They were forced to make long drives with horse and cart just to obtain basic supplies from the nearest towns of Maitland and Branxton. On top of that, a visit to the doctor then required a 40 km carriage ride.
Audrey used up an entire page to express his relief when telephone services finally arrived in Pokolbin in 1912. Eight years later, he again used the same quantity of paper to describe the purchase of his first car, a Buick which had a top speed of 32 km/h!
Having completed the museum visit, I join retail operations manager Greg West on a tour of the property to check out surviving artifacts from Audrey’s era. These include adjoining sheds that once had underground cellars.
Pointing to the century-old concrete vats basking under the glorious sunshine, West explains that the vineyard was at its zenith during the turn of the 20th century. “Things were going so well at that time until Audrey and Garth were forced to build new cellars each year.”
His gaze turning to a nearby grassy patch, which I’m duly informed once served as a tennis court, he continues: “It was also during that time that Oakdale products began collecting a series of accolades and awards in various shows and competitions. As their business prospered, the Wilkinsons began enjoying a better social life in the valley. Social engagements became more frequent with picnics and tennis parties regularly punctuating the week’s work.”
A cheesy affair
The brief wine tasting session that follows soon after piques my interest in the different cheese varieties used during the pairings. After several enquiries, I’m directed to a nearby establishment that’s reputed to have the best in stock.
The Smelly Cheese Shop, located within the Roche Estate Complex in Broke Road, is just a quick 10 minute drive from the museum. There’s ample parking space and the picturesque lake right in front of the shop will get you in the mood for a mid afternoon cheese-tasting session.
According to sales executive, Sara Moore, people from as far away as Sydney come to the shop especially during the weekends to stock up on local and imported cheese. “Apart from exclusive cheese ranges, we also offer a range of olives, meats, gelato and other cheese accompaniments,” adds Moore, before telling me that the shop also entertains online orders where purchases are shipped via overnight courier to Newcastle and the central coastal regions including Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
My cheese education starts with the basic triple cream brie. This classic soft-ripened cheese with a snow-white edible rind is made with protein-rich milk produced by local Brown Swiss cows. There’s a subtle buttery flavour in my first nibble. The additional cream that Moore asks me to try with my second bite definitely makes a world of difference.
I breeze through a further three types before falling head over heels with the feta cheese matured in sun dried tomatoes. This tangy and salty cheese made from goat’s milk is soft and spreads effortlessly on my cracker. The presence of the dehydrated tomatoes adds colour while reducing the acidity of the feta.
As I munch on the remaining bits of my cheese-laden cracker, Moore shares a light moment by linking the great poet Homer to the origins of feta cheese. In that particular epic, Odysseus and his men were said to have landed on the island of the Cyclops during their voyage home from the Trojan War. The Greek hero, who was also King of Ithaca, together with his crew from the ill fated Argo, entered a cave filled with provisions. Among these were cheese made from sheep’s milk.
“The technology used to make feta cheese, as described in Homer’s Odyssey, is similar to the technique used by Greek shepherds today,” explains Moore. Modern techniques involve the use of pasteurised goat or sheep milk coagulated with rennet. The coagulated mass is subsequently cut into pieces and placed in cloth bags to drain most of the remaining liquid. A little salt is then added to increase the salinity to about three per cent.
At this point the salted curd is placed in metal vessels or wooden barrels to mature for several weeks at room temperature. The traditional feta cheese makers favour the latter as the wood gives the cheese a unique flavour, Moore informs.
Despite enjoying this ‘cheesy’ affair, it’s soon time to leave. But before I do, Moore heads to a nearby refrigerator and returns with a dark purple jar with the words “Shiraz Paste” prominently emblazoned on its cover. Reaching for the cheddar cheese block, she cuts a small piece and puts it on a cracker. Part of me wanted to remind her about having sampled that unexciting cheese earlier but I decide to bite my tongue.
Coating the cheese slice with a generous dollop of pale reddish paste from the jar, she offers her creation to me. “Give it a try and tell me what you think!”
The verdict? Amazing. Somehow the sweet Shiraz conserve manages to introduce a whole new spectrum of flavours to the otherwise bland cheddar. Enthusiastically, I offer the beaming Moore a thumbs up sign.
Just at that moment I turn towards the window. The sun is just about to make its final decent into the distant hills. The sky is lit in a myriad of dazzling colours. Taking advantage of the early winter sunset, I bid my goodbye to Moore and make my way to the counter to purchase some freshly-baked bread, cheese and shiraz paste which I plan to enjoy by the tranquil lake with a sweeping view of the surrounding area. There, I will once again be reminded of the giant leaps of progress made here in Hunter Valley ever since the time when Frederick first heard the trees sing.