Restaurant wine lists too trendy
Something has gone very wrong with Australia’s top restaurant wine lists. From my viewpoint – and I’ve been on judging panels of wine list awards for 20 years – our top restaurant wine lists have lost their way.
This year, the leading wine list competition, Australia’s Wine List of the Year Awards, sponsored by Fine Wine Partners, announced dual winners of its top award. The two national award winners are Lake House, of Daylesford in Victoria, and Perth’s Rockpool Bar & Grill.
My main beef with the types of wine lists that regularly win these big gongs is that they are unbalanced – far too international, with almost embarrassingly small offerings of Australian wines.
My second beef is that they are top-heavy with the same sorts of wines – wines which are deemed desirable by a small coterie of sommeliers centred on Melbourne and Sydney. These are usually micro-boutique wineries, often obscure. No problem if they are excellent: the problem is they’re often not. The wines often seem to have been selected because of rarity and trendiness than their quality or value-for-money. Wolf Blass (tastings), Penfolds (tastings), Wynns (tastings), Lindemans (tastings)? Forget it. You’re lucky to see anything from these wineries on these lists, except for the token Granges (tastings).
Increasingly, these ‘top’ lists are choked with allegedly biodynamic or organic wines. Allegedly, because they aren’t always. Take Lake House. It lists Bass Phillip (tastings), Bindi (tastings), Kerri Thomson’s KT (tastings) and Kumeu River (tastings) as biodynamic. But they’re not. Bindi is a wonderful producer using minimal intervention in vineyard and winery, but has never aspired to be organic or BD, and has no plans to. Bass Phillip uses many BD practices but is not certified, and probably would not meet the criteria. If you’re not certified, you’re not biodynamic.
It’s also irritating to see on wine labels and wine lists “Biodynamic in conversion”. Sorry: they’re still not biodynamic.
Why the obsession with these wines? It doesn’t reflect a public obsession or even a significant public demand.
I’d guess at least a third of the wines on this 1,000-wine list are described as either biodynamic or organic. It’s obviously a major selling-point.
Many wine lists in our great restaurants such as Quay now have a section on ‘orange’ wines, that is, wines made from white grapes fermented on their skins. Again, this is a fascination of sommeliers, not the public. Some of these wines are okay, but many are plain awful.
The groovy wines that appear on these lists with uncanny frequency include Ruggabellus (tastings), Jauma (tastings), Ochota Barrels (tastings), Brash Higgins (tastings), Sami-Odi (tastings), Syrahmi (tastings) and Jamsheed (tastings). They are darlings of the sommeliers, and largely unknown to the wider public. Some of their wines are very good indeed, but are they representative of what’s available in the market or what the public would ask for? No. But their presence on so many lists leads to the same suspicion as the presence of reams of obscure imported wines. They are there because sommeliers love them, and not only that, they depend on a sommelier’s advice to sell them to the diner. This gives the sommelier a reason to be there.
It’s a standing joke in the wine trade that Hardys (tastings), Jacob’s Creek (tastings), Lindemans (tastings), Yalumba (tastings) and McWilliam’s (tastings) will sooner fly to the moon than be seen on fashionable restaurant wine lists. The usual justification is that price comparisons with retailers make these wines look so expensive that customers won’t order them. Could this be because restaurants routinely pile 150 to 250 per cent on the cost price of wines?
The organisers decided a few years ago to introduce a special award for the best Australian offering. This was in response to complaints of imbalance in favor of imports. One of the good things this year, according to competition chairman Rob Hirst, is that 63 per cent more restaurants nominated for this award than last year. The winner was Aria, Brisbane.
However, among the dozen or so lists that topped the competition this year (out of 370 entered) I found the cringe factor is still alive and well, with most being top-heavy with imported wines.
Rockpool Bar & Grill Perth, for example, is a massive tome, with 1,900 listings, but I counted less than 500 Australian wines. Take out the big verticals of Grange, Moss Wood (tastings), Cullen (tastings) and Henschke (tastings) and it’s much less. Does this cater to an Australian clientele? If you dine in a top French or Italian restaurant, don’t you expect to see an emphasis on the wines of that country? Why not here?
There are many more French than Australian wines, including the now-customary reams of Burgundies, and no fewer than 18 ‘Bourgogne blancs’. I can’t believe they’re necessary – in Perth, or anywhere in this country.
This list’s strengths are that it is well laid-out and designed. Yes, the content is encyclopedic, but just too international. Relatively obscure sources such as Greece, Slovenia, the Jura and Austria are well covered, better than some deserving Australian regions.
There are hardly any local or New Zealand sauvignon blancs and only a couple of WA semillon sauvignon blancs – although it’s a Perth establishment. Also hardly any pinot gris – the fastest growing category of all at present. But there are masses of obscure and eccentric wines, like French chenin blancs and sauvignon blancs, and the obligatory list of Didier Dagueneau Pouilly Fume, whose wines are on every flash restaurant list although they’re very expensive.
That said, there was a lot to like in the quality and range of the wines, including a very good list of half bottles.
In Melbourne’s Press Club list, balance is also an irrelevant concept. There are literally pages of Prum (tastings) and Keller (tastings) (German) rieslings, but a pathetic list of Australian rieslings. And the barest token of less well-known Australian white varietals compared to obscure imported equivalents.
At Press Club, as with many of these ‘top’ wine lists, I scratched my head why the obscure Sami-Odi (tastings) gets such wide coverage while the established top shiraz producers get a single listing, if that?
I try to put myself in the shoes of the average Aussie diner, and have to conclude that with some top restaurant wine lists, such as Sydney’s Bentley, there is often precious little that any normal person will recognize. It’s a bit irritating.
Between the obsessions with ‘orange’ wines, biodynamic, the Jura, Greece, Mount Etna and indeed, anything seriously obscure, the drinking diner is at the mercy of the sommelier. Maybe that’s their plan. But too many wine lists smack of someone desperate to prove that he or she has a global view of wine.
First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 19 Aug 2014.