The New Normal – Your guide to a post COVID-19 Hunter Valley visit

Remember the days when you eagerly headed up the F1 to the Hunter Valley, a mere two-hour drive from Sydney, boot empty, friends in tow, ready to hit as many wineries as you could in a day and do some serious wine tasting?

Well, COVID-19 has put the hand-brake on much of that, and while the Hunter Valley is very much open for business, it’s a matter of planning ahead, and understanding the new Post COVID-19 wine tasting etiquette.

On the back of what’s been described as a trifecta of outstanding vintages (2017, 2018, 2019) came 2020… A vintage troubled by drought, tormented by bushfires, and then came COVID-19 which shut down the Valley for the best part of three months.

Regional travel restrictions lifted in June and with that came a flurry of winemakers and marketers working out how to best navigate the tricky but necessary legalities of serving and selling wine in a post COVID world. That’s not to mention the mass flurry of regional travellers keen to support the regions and get back out into the world.

The Hunter, being on Sydney’s doorstep, and the oldest and most visited wine region in Australia, is a great example of what post COVID-19 wine tourism looks like. And while it might take a bit of getting used to, it’s likely here to stay. We’re here to help you navigate what that looks like.

The new normal looks a bit different to the old, but it’s actually meant that some incredible new tasting experiences have come out of adversity. You can now book ahead (and its absolutely recommended that you do) for most of the cellar door offerings, and with each brand having to reinvent the way they run their cellar doors, it’s incredible to see what’s on offer.

With the 4 square metre rule applying just as it does to restaurants, and the requirement that all guests must be seated, comes the need to offer finite spaces for tastings at Cellar Doors, and with that has come the rise of the online booking system and paid tastings. Paid tastings have slowly crept into the wine tourism experience over the years, but now it’s a genuine need. With limited spots available to taste, and the huge increase in resources required to manage the hygiene and social distancing measures in place, there is no other way for these winemakers to exist. And we salute this decision, after all where else in the world can you go for a free wine, right?

In addition to the need to be seated, the law requires that wineries gather contact details from a person within your group attending a tasting be that by pre-registration or signing in on arrival, and are asked to encourage visitors to download the COVID tracker app if they haven’t done so. Operators are empowered to refuse entry to anyone who presents unwell, with cold or flu like symptoms or with a fever or temperature. They’re required to provide floor markings and designated order, pay, collect areas as well as single entry and exit points if feasible. There’s sanitiser, disposable utensils, single use spittoons, laminated or single use tasting lists, and no communal water on offer, and unless the winery has a commercial grade dishwasher on the premises, the glassware must be either disposable or yours to keep. It’s a whole new world.

So with the School Holidays and the peak period upon us, it’s essential that we’re all aware of the new etiquette when you’re planning your visit to the Valley. It’s trickier than ever to taste with kids in tow too so best to check ahead if you’re booking a tasting experience as many can’t accommodate kids under these new rules.

Our top tips for visiting the Hunter Valley this winter

  1. Book ahead, do your research on which kind of wine experiences you’re after.
  2. If you’re travelling with a group, check with cellar doors can accommodate your group size.
  3. If you’ve got kids in tow, check if children are allowed, or if there’s any activities for them to do while you taste.
  4. Please understand that these aren’t “our” rules, but they are state government restrictions placed upon us, designed to keep us all safe.
  5. Arrive on time for your pre-booked tasting experience.
  6. Allow the time recommended to best enjoy your tasting experience.
  7. Adhere to NSW social distancing laws.
  8. Stay home if you’re at all unwell.

Story by Kylie White