Good Food Guide 2013: Wine Awards

 

The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide is the bible of restaurant-goers in New South Wales. Each year, as well as chef’s hat ratings and special awards to restaurants, chefs and restaurateurs, several wine-related awards are given. These go to the best restaurant wine list, the best small wine list and best regional restaurant wine list, as well as the sommelier of the year.

The 2013 edition was launched on September 3; as I’m one of the judges, as well as the Herald’s wine writer, I wrote about each of the awards for the Good Living section.

WINE LIST OF THE YEAR: Ash Street Cellar, Sydney

Head sommelier for the Merivale group, Franck Moreau, is no stranger to awards. He was the Good Food Guide’s sommelier of the year 2010 and the first Australian to qualify as a Master Sommelier – the highest qualification in his profession. The quality of his wine lists, led by the epic at Est, is well-known, but this time we acknowledge a much smaller and more imaginative list at the diminutive Ash Street Cellar. With a little over 200 listings, this list is concise and easy to navigate. What makes it different is the way Moreau has grouped the wines, not in varietal sections but under style headings.

“Light, dry and citrusy” is for crisp, unwooded dry whites such as chenin blanc from the Loire Valley, chardonnay from Chablis, albarino from Rias Baixas, vermentino from Sardinia, and riesling from various regions.

“Textural with a touch of sweetness” means off-dry riesling, pinot gris and pinot blanc. “Aromatic, floral and spicy” stands for ribolla gialla from Friuli, Austrian gruner veltliner, falanghina from Campania and other esoteric whites.

“Crisp and grassy” denotes semillon, sauvignon blanc, Japanese koshu and others. “Richer with stone fruits and spice” and you get into deeper whites such as Slovenian pinot gris, Californian roussanne, a Jura dry white blended from savagnin and chardonnay, and a Pacherenc du Vic Bilh from the south of France. “Medium bodied, creamy and citrusy” includes chardonnays from southern Burgundy, New Zealand and Mornington as well as a white Cotes du Ventoux from the Southern Rhone.

And finally, under “Full-bodied, peachy and nutty” we find the fullest-bodied dry whites: chardonnays from Margaret River, Geelong and the Cote de Beaune.

This list is a real ‘discovery’ experience, taking us in hand and guiding us around the globe, with one of this and one of that, never even looking like repeating itself. If the list may seem a little light for Australian representation in the dry whites, it makes up ground in the pinot noirs, shirazes and other red varietals. But then, the aim of this list is to be as international as possible, spreading its favors thinly but widely.

Just as eclectic is the by-the-glass list, which is extensive, as befits the informal, grazing style of the restaurant. There are 39 wines, and all of the dry whites and reds (but not the fortifieds) are offered in four sizes: taster, glass, carafe and bottle.

This is a terrific wine list, small but roving far and wide, and I love the accuracy of the spelling and fidelity of description. But the clincher for our judging panel was the great value for money. This is truly a people’s wine list which few diners will find intimidating or out-of-reach. It is very much in the zeitgeist.

SOMMELIER OF THE YEAR: Rodney Setter of Sepia, Sydney

Why would you go out to a great restaurant and drink a wine that you could drink at home any day? You want to be introduced to something different, and at Sepia, there is a lot of ‘different’ wine.

Where else would you find a wine list with varietal sub-headings for pugnitello, louriero, xinomavro, grignolino, erbaluce, roditis and malagousia?

Yes, there’s plenty of chardonnay, shiraz and pinot noir as well – and riesling, lots and lots of riesling – but when you go to Sepia, expect the unexpected.

The man who makes it all work is head sommelier Rodney Setter. It’s all very well to have a cellar full of the weird and wonderful, but these wines must be hand-sold and competent staff must be on hand to explain each one. And, according to those who know him well, Setter has an amazing knowledge and memory for grape varieties and obscure wines.

“He is very hard-working, and very precise, diligent and committed,” says retailer Jon Osbeiston, of Ultimo Wine Centre, who initially helped Setter plan his wine list in the early days of Sepia. “Rodney is very thorough, and he’s always out and about at trade tastings, looking for new wines. His list has grown organically. He didn’t have a huge budget to play with in the beginning and it’s not an ABC of First Growths and other impressive, expensive wines. He had to find another way.”

Setter started at Sepia when it opened in 2009. His previous gig was at Altitude restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel. His Sepia list won accolades from the start, landing the Tony Hitchin Award for the best new wine list from Australia’s Wine List of the Year awards.

It was adventurous and original – and still is. I believe Sepia was the first Sydney restaurant to have Greece’s marvelous native dry white assyrtiko by the glass. Setter has long championed the wines of Greece and they are something of a specialty. But there’s also a raft of fascinating Italian stuff, and Japanese sake has become another focal-point – which is not surprising if you’re familiar with Martin Benn’s refined food. Benn encouraged Setter to learn about sake, presumably because he thought it would suit his style of food. Now he’s a proselyte for sake and Sepia maintains a small but tight selection.

Food and wine matching is a particular strength. If you order the degustation, you can have the matching wines by the glass for an extra $90.

Setter also offers flights of three themed wines, for $20, and the theme changes every month. Says Osbeiston: “The food and wine matches are superb. I once had a dessert matched with a Lillet rose, which was fantastic. I would never have thought of using that wine in that way.”

As a long-time judge of wine lists, I have to say Sepia’s is one of the most pleasing I’ve seen and its contents among the most compelling. There are just so many unusual and interesting wines. At 700-odd wines, it’s big but not massive, and you won’t find show-off verticals of Grange and Hill of Grace and First Growth Bordeaux. In fact, last time I looked there was only one Grange – but a properly mature vintage, 1978.

It might seem trivial, but to me as a writer it is important: the spelling is flawless. Even the best Australian wine lists are, sadly, often full of errors, but I couldn’t spot a single mistake in Sepia’s.

It confirms the view that Setter is a perfectionist. And, according to all who know him, he’s also a thoroughly nice guy into the bargain.

Setter’s understated yet attentive, good-humored, professional manner sets an example to others in his métier. He is ably assisted on the floor by Ben Brown, and the two fit seamlessly into the Sepia style, which is set by the couple at the top, Martin Benn and Vicki Wild. That is, polished, stylish and discreet, with no room for big egos. Here’s to that!

BEST SMALL WINE LIST: Spice Temple, Sydney

A wine list must always suit the style of food being served, and if ever there was a style of cuisine that tests the sommelier in this regard, it’s the spicy and sometimes strangely flavoured Chinese-based food at Spice Temple.

Quite by chance, I dined socially at Spice Temple a few days ago, and easily found four superb wines to share among six diners, which pleased everybody and were a terrific fit with the food. We had a rich, spicy Alsace pinot gris (Albert Mann 2010 Cuvee Albert (tastings)), a delicate and subtle Austrian gruner veltliner (Nigl Kremser Freiheit 2010 – tastings), a light-bodied, refined and superbly aromatic Tasmanian pinot noir (Freycinet 2010 ‘Louis’ – tasting) and finished with a slightly bigger red, a Heathcote shiraz from a French winemaker, to partner roast pork belly: Alain Graillot 2010 (tasting). A great food and wine experience, and I marveled at this excellent list so well chosen to match the fare.

This award is for the best wine list with a maximum 100 listings, which is a way of acknowledging that, while grand wine-list awards normally go to encyclopedic tomes, much smaller lists are what most people are likely to encounter when they dine out.

In many ways, designing a small wine list is more difficult than a big one, because every wine must earn its place. There should be no passengers. If a new wine is introduced, another must be dropped.

Sommelier Christian Denier and his team do a great job here. Lots of riesling, and more chenin blanc than you might expect – mostly from the Loire Valley – and also a goodly representation of pinot noir (alas, more Kiwi than Australian); also a smattering of well-chosen pinot gris, the finer kinds of chardonnay such as Chablis, and lots of the softer and fleshier types of shiraz/syrah – but very little cabernet – give an insight into the thinking of the sommeliers.

The list is also well designed, and each wine is logically described – none of this anti-capital letter attitude, or obscure arrangement of information which forces the diner the hunt for the relevant details. It’s all logical and user-friendly. Oh, and finally, perhaps most importantly, the quality of the wines is impeccable. There is a disturbing trend in this country to relegate the importance of quality in wine selection in favour of obscurity and trendiness. Not at Spice Temple. It’s a benchmark clever, small wine list.

BEST REGIONAL WINE LIST: Aubergine, Canberra

There is always discussion over whether candidates for the regional wine list award should have more regional wines, or fewer. What is the right balance? Can the offering consist entirely of local wines? This is easy to do in a major wine region like Margaret River where there’s so much good wine; harder in, say, New England where the choice is more limited. You do need a range of wine styles, grape varieties and price-levels. Not many regions produce it all: sparkling, big reds, lighter reds and fine dry whites.

Most of the better ‘regional’ lists are partly regional; one solution is to have a separate regional section within the wine list.

Aubergine restaurant, in the Canberra suburb of Griffith, ticks all the boxes for us. It’s a cosmopolitan selection, as you’d expect in a city like Canberra, but also has a decent representation of local Canberra region wines – which can of course be excellent.

At or near the top of each varietal section is a local wine, sometimes several, as in the case of shiraz, for instance. And there’s an impressive selection of 15 vintages of one of the local heroes, Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier (tastings), which has its own page.

And there’s a feature page of Champagne, focusing on ‘grower’ Champagnes (eg. Agrapart (tastings) and Jerome Prevost (tastings)), providing some information about each. It’s very well done.

This is an excellent list, without being a blockbuster. Indeed, with just 270 listings, it’s easy to navigate. That total includes a convenient quota of 22 half-bottles.

Aubergine manages to achieve very good depth and balance across the world of wine, and prices are very reasonable.

A test of an interesting wine list for jaded hacks like myself is whether some wines jump off the page as being something I would like to try myself, if I was actually in the restaurant and ordering. At Aubergine there are plenty. The Vacqueyras Blanc from Montirius at $80, for example. And the Plageoles Nature sparkling mauzac from Gaillac ($85), which I have tasted but which is a rarity on an Australian wine list.

Alongside good international suggestions there is also a strong Australian component, which I applaud.

Another important factor is ease of usage, and this list is easy to read, quick to scan, and logical. I actually enjoyed reading it, and there was nothing quirky about its layout that irritated. Some of today’s wine lists seem to be keen to look different just for the sake of looking different. But nothing beats a sensibly laid-out format. At Aubergine, reading from left to right, you have the vintage column, then the maker’s name, then the name of the wine, then, in italics, the grape varieties. Then in the next column, the region of origin, and in the final column, the price. Too easy, and yet you’d be surprised how often this formula is messed with.

This is a list I warmed to: reading it made me want to go there and experience the place.

How our wine lists have changed

The wine lists of our best restaurants are always changing. The wine business is dynamic; fads and fashions come and go. Trends may be stimulated by economic factors such as the strong Aussie dollar (which favors imports), a recession, or changes in eating-out habits. This year, so-called ‘natural’ wines are in growing evidence, especially in small wine-bars and some top-end restaurants, such as Quay. Grower Champagnes are also big. Many wine lists now have a separate section for these artisan wines from makers like Andre Jacquart, Jacques Selosse, Agrapart, Larmandier-Bernier and Egly-Ouriet.

An extension of the small/family/artisanal-is-good syndrome, is the tendency to highlight wines made from organically or biodynamically grown grapes.

The trend of recent years towards imported wines continues, fuelled no doubt by an exchange-rate favorable to importers – of which there seems to be a new one every week. This makes for an exciting and ever-changing menu of wine for the drinking public.

The down-side is that Australian wine is getting a raw deal in some restaurants. No-one would suggest that local wines should be favored just because they are local, without regard to quality, character, price or level of demand, but if you visit a top restaurant in France, Germany, Italy or Spain, they’re usually proud to feature the wines of their own country.

There is a certain boredom with the familiar in our wine trade. On the other hand, however, new wines from young Australian winemakers are very much in favor. Common themes are ‘alternative’ grape varieties, fashionably low alcohol strengths, and reds (and even some whites) fermented with whole bunches – including stalks. And, as mentioned already, minimal manipulation (‘natural’) wines. As always, trends fuel debate, stimulate creativity and keep us all questioning our assumptions about ‘quality’ – and what is desirable in wine.

Cutting-edge wine lists, driven by smart sommeliers, are now well ahead of the conventional retailers. To discover what’s new and voguish in wine, you really have to dine out in our more adventurous eateries.


 

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 4 September 2012.

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