Why Sydney’s rich listers love the Hunter Valley

Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images.

Hunter Valley is Australia’s oldest wine-making region.

Viticulture in the Hunter, just two hours drive north of Sydney, dates back to 1820s when James Busby, considered both father of the Australian and New Zealand wine industries, was among the first to plant vines there, alongside George Wyndham.

Today, the region boasts a $520.6 million tourism and wine industry with over 150 vineyards producing some of the nation’s best wines, notably of the Semillon and Shiraz varieties.

It is one of nation’s strongest regional economies, thanks to natural resources such as coal, as well as tourism, drawing around 9.5 million visitors annually, making it one of the most visited regions in Australia outside of Sydney.

It’s also a prime destination for Sydney’s elite, including prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull inherited his father’s farm between Aberdeen and Scone following his death in a small aircraft accident. Turnbull has since added to his real estate portfolio in the Hunter region with around 20 pastoral properties in area, such as East Rossgole and Scotts Creek with some under his investment firm Wilcrow.

Then there’s the Packer family’s Ellerston Pastoral. The cattle and sheep station was originally bought by the late media mogul Kerry Packer and has since been run by other members of the family, including his son James. The country estate, located just north of Scone includes an 18-hole golf course — designed by British Open champion Greg Norman and Bob Harrison — as well as stables, tennis courts and polo fields. Kerry Packer is buried there.

The rural family retreat has since remained with the Packers and can be seen as one of the early investments made in the famous wine region.

The interest of the rich and powerful in the Hunter Valley is nothing new. Alan Jurd of Jurd’s Real Estate in Hunter Valley says the trend has “been going on since the sixties with all the major improvements to infrastructure that have continually brought Sydney closer.”

“City people love the aesthetics of Hunter Valley, the mountains and the wonderful backdrop it offers are something like out of southern Europe.”

Hunter Valley is also home to Australia’s richest woman. US-born billionaire Blair Parry-Okeden, lives a reclusive life as an heiress in Scone. The small hamlet in the Upper Hunter Shire of the region has a population of 4,624 people.

Despite having a net worth of $12.5 billion after inheriting a 25 per cent stake in Cox Enterprises — America’s third-biggest cable TV company — she continues to reside at Rockview Station. She also has a property in Mosman’s Balmoral Slopes on the Lower North Shore of Sydney which she bought in 1991.

Other big names in the mix include the late Bob Oatley of Oatley Wines’ vineyards and breeding property in Hunter Valley Edinglassie, as well as Australian film director Phillip Noyce, director of “Rabbit Proof Fence”, whose family owns a vineyard there.

Early days

Photo: Shutterstock.

Hunter Valley has not always looked this way.

In the late 1700s, when European settlers ventured there, much of the region’s value was based on its timber and coal for steamships, and the Newcastle penal settlement sent convicts to work on mining and timber harvesting, which prevented large scale settlement in Hunter Valley. It was only when that ended in 1822 that the region opened the possibility for settlers and the development of farming enterprises.

It was also around the same time the Hunter’s viticultural history began as vineyards were planted along the Hunter River between Maitland and Singleton. By 1840, the region had over 500 acres of registered vineyards.

The next big development came in the 1960s, when a number of Sydney wine enthusiasts developed an affinity for Hunter Valley’s vineyards.

Restaurateur Len Evans, who set up Len Evans Wines in Bulletin Place in Sydney, was one of the early pioneers in the Hunter.

Other “movers and shakers” included the late Max Lake who established a small boutique winery Lake’s Folly in 1963 , famed for its cabernet and chardonnay.

After selling the business they founded, Nutrimetics International, in 1997, Bill and Imelda Roche were lured to Pokolbin and spent some of the money on to develop one of the region’s major tourist attractions, Hunter Valley Gardens, with Bill Roche personally spending five years and an estimated $80 million developing the themed gardens they opened in 2003.

Rising popularity

Groovin The Moo Festival Hits Maitland. Photo: Getty Images.

Unprecedented growth in the Hunter Valley economy thanks to the tourism and hospitality industries have helped the area become a leading holiday destination for weekend getaways, day trips and short breaks attracting close to 3.1 million domestic overnight visitors as well as 6.3 million domestic day-trip visitors.

Less than two hour’s drive away from Sydney, it’s also a convenient place to drive out to on a Friday evening and spend the weekend.

“In the last five or six years, the upgrade in communication has allowed many to live here and work a couple of days in Sydney,” says Jurd.

“There are many lawyers and bankers who live here who can have face-to-face meetings with clients on nominated days and then work remotely in Hunter Valley for the rest of the week while still being productive.

“People from Sydney can easily finish work on Friday and then come to Hunter Valley for dinner and get up early Monday morning and make it to work by 8am.”

But it’s more than the geography of Hunter Valley and lifestyle which has lured in Sydneysiders. Jurd says that the property boom that Sydney has experienced still hasn’t hit Hunter Valley, and that prices are still very much affordable.

“$2 million doesn’t buy you anything ‘wow’ in Sydney. We recently sold a 40 hectare property in Lovedale with a pool and two homes so you can also receive secondary income. You can get something pretty good for $800,000, around 10 hectares or 25 acres.

“And at the top end of the market, you have properties like Sweetwater which is currently up for auction for $14 million.

One of the oldest vineyards in the area, the property spans across 48.88 hectares (122 acres) as well as 15.9 hectares (39 acres) of Shiraz, Cabernet and Semillon vineyard and will be going under the hammer at the end of March. It was originally listed on the market for $30 million in February last year but has since been scaled down to $12 million.

Polkolbin and Lovedale are still the hotspots of the Hunter region thanks to their aesthetics and proximity to restaurants, wineries and golf courses with Sydneysiders driving this interest, says Jurd.

Hunter Valley today

Elton John playing at Hunter Valley. Photo: Getty Images.

The decline of primary and secondary industries such as mining and agriculture has led to an increased emphasis on the tertiary and services sector making Hunter Valley a very different place.

And the biggest drawcard for Hunter Valley?

“Wine is definitely the biggest drawcard, we’re talking Semillon and Chardonnay,” Jurd says.

It now has more than 150 vineyards spanning Cessnock, Singleton and Polkolbin which have played a huge role in driving the region’s strong economic growth.

It also has the added luxury of being a quality retreat in close proximity to restaurants, activities, markets as well as concerts.

“People are coming not only because it’s beautiful, but there’s also a lot of things to do here. There are 52 restaurants, golf courses, concerts every season with world class artists and galleries — things to do that you don’t expect in other country areas.

“City peoples’ idea for going up for lunch is not to a bowling club with schnitzel and chips, they want something with more class.

“The food and wine is definitely comparable to the city areas — there are a number of hatted restaurants in the region,” says Jurd.

“In terms of accommodation, this is also comparable as well as schooling which can be just a quarter of the price of education in Sydney.

Over the last few years, it has seen a high-profile lineup of stars in recent years such as Crowded House, Lionel Ritchie, Leonard Cohen, Alicia Keys as well as the Beach Boys.

The Hope Estate in Hunter Valley was also the starting point for Elton John’s Australia tour in 2015.

“You would rather spend your weekend on a property with rolling hills in the background. For people sitting in the city and wanting to by, I would be inclined to buy because in a few years, the opportunity probably won’t be there.”