NCH/SMH - NEWS - Hungerford Wines in the Hunter Valley,   General Manager, Adrian Lockhart in the barrel room.
Adrian Lockhart's Hungerford Hill winery is benefiting from a rise in overseas visitors. Photo: Marina Neil

Esther Han, Rachel Browne

Once they came for the Rock and the Reef but international tourists are increasingly likely to add a winery trip to their Australian holiday itinerary, the Chinese driving demand.

While domestic tourist numbers to the Hunter Valley have flattened over the past decade, the number of international visitors has surged.

Cellar doors from Hungerford Hill to Hope Estate are experiencing a boom in Chinese visitors, who are now the second biggest international tourist group after the British.

Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association general manager Gus Maher said local wineries were benefiting from the strong sales of Australian wines overseas.

''International visitors to the Hunter Valley have increased exponentially over the past 15 years because Australian wine has penetrated into so many more international markets,'' he said.

''Those markets nicely coincide with tourism markets, particularly China and South East Asia. The UK and the US have started to wane a little but that decline is more than compensated for by the increase in Chinese visitors.''

Figures from Wine Australia show that China has been the fastest growing export market for Australian wine for several years, steered by the country's burgeoning middle class.

''Make no mistake, there is a very strong market in China for quality wine,'' Mr Maher said. ''There are a lot of Chinese with sophisticated palates who do really understand their wines.''

Tourism Research Australia data shows that international winery visitors have been increasing five times faster than total international visitors since 2000, growing at an average annual rate of 5 per cent. The proportion of Chinese winery visitors has increased from 7 per cent to 10 per cent over the past three years, putting them behind visitors from the UK (17 per cent) but ahead of the US (9 per cent), New Zealand (8 per cent), Singapore (8 per cent) and Malaysia (6 per cent).

Chinese visitors nominate food and wine as one of the top three factors they consider when selecting a holiday destination, according to a survey last year by Tourism Australia.

The Hunter Valley remains the most popular region for international winery visitors, followed by Margaret River and Swan Valley.

Visitor numbers are reflected in strong cellar door sales for Hunter wineries, which grew by 16.8 per cent in 2012.

The state's cellar doors will come to Sydney this week with the NSW Food and Wine Festival, to be officially launched on Thursday.

Mr Maher said the Hunter's 140 cellar doors remain a strong drawcard with tourists keen to try before they buy.