To pair or not to pair

At the newly refurbished three-hat Sydney restaurant Quay (pictured), there are two options for the 10-course degustation menu. (Photo: Quay Restaurant)

A great meal is improved by great wine. But not all of us are well enough versed in wine to choose the appropriate bottle to partner any given dish of food.

Which is part of the reasoning behind restaurant wine-pairing menus.

An added reason is that unless you’re a large table of many mouths and stomachs, it’s impractical to buy a separate bottle for each course. Especially if you’re eating one of the currently-popular degustation meals, with up to 10 courses.

Unless you’re a large table of many mouths and stomachs, it’s impractical to buy a separate bottle for each course.

I seldom feel inclined to opt for wine pairings. Often, I find they’ve been designed to a budget, which means there is not one wine that is really out of the box. They might all be perfectly serviceable, but if I’m eating great food, I hanker for at least one glassful of great wine at some stage. I’d rather have fewer wines, and funnel the dollars into a small serve of one great wine.

At the newly refurbished three-hat Sydney restaurant Quay, there are two options for the 10-course degustation menu: regular (AUD $185) or premium (AUD $275). Either way, it sounds a lot to add onto an already expensive night: the 10-course menu is also AUD $275, so the Premium pairing would double the tab to AUD $550 per head. This sounds expensive until you compare it with similar grand dining experiences in other countries.

(For those who are on the wagon, there is a Temperance Pairing wine menu at AUD $95.)

Former head sommelier Amanda Yallop has been promoted to head of wine for all seven Fink Group restaurants, and she’s been replaced as Quay head sommelier by her former assistant Shanteh Wong. These women know about wine and how it works with food.

I think they’re on the right track.

A few examples. Delicate dishes are always more difficult to get right than robust ones, which have wider degrees of tolerance (eg. a full-bodied shiraz can go well with most hearty red-meat dishes). The remarkable deconstructed oyster dish, ‘oyster intervention’, worked well with the crisp acid and gentle sweetness of the delicately fragrant Markus Molitor Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2015.

One of the climactic dishes, in my view, was the ‘hand harvested seafood’ with its subtle anchovy overtone. I tried two wines here: the 2016 Muthenthaler Spitzer Graben Grüner Veltliner, from Austria’s Wachau region, and the 2017 Sigalas Assyrtiko from Santorini (borrowed from the regular pairing list). Both did justice to this splendid dish.

It would be hard to imagine a seafood dish of any type that would not work with the great 2005 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon, and so it was with the ‘southern squid with Lady Godiva squash seeds’. Sheer bliss.

Shaw + Smith Balhannah Vineyard Shiraz 2015 was paired with ‘Maremma duck with black garlic, aged mirin and ice plant’. The duck was extraordinary and the wine – while perhaps a shade young for the job – a fine partner.

The final question for me is this: if I was dining there as one half of a couple, would I buy either of the wine pairings?

If I was in a ‘discovery’ mood and looking for new experiences, yes. How else do you discover Graci’s superb Etna wines? A Portuguese loureiro? A delicious garnacha from Commando G in Spain? Not to mention beautiful Japanese sakes?

Otherwise, I might punt for Champagne by the glass, a bottle of outstanding white Burgundy to drink with the first half of the menu, then perhaps a mature Burgundy or Barolo with the duck, pork and optional cheese courses.

You could do that for a similar price. Eg: a couple of glasses of Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV (AUD $33 each) to lay the dust, a bottle of 2012 Patrick Piuze Les Preuses grand cru Chablis (AUD $295) and a half bottle of 2013 Mongeard-Mugneret Vosne-Romanée (AUD $198), or similar. Total: AUD $559.

Not everyone has the patience or experience to deal with a wine list with 700 listings, which is what the sommelier is there for. Otherwise, shoot for the wine pairing menu.

*Disclosure: Huon dined at Quay as the guest of proprietor Leon Fink.

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