Restaurant wine lists

For wine drinkers, probably the best thing that ever happened was opening up BYO restaurants. Some see the greatest benefit as money saved. But the real advantage, I believe, lies in quality of drinking. For the fact is, most restaurants offer a poor choice of wine. They’re what I call either defensive selections, based on what is not being discounted by retailers, or default selections made by the wholesaler easiest to deal with. What that means in either case is obscure wines, accidentally selected, delivering mediocre quality at a high price.

Wine lists, like the food offered, seem better than we found ten years ago, but in Canberra I still find the standard well below that of the best restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne.

I’ve yet to see a better wine list in Canberra than the one David Farmer put together with Michael Delaney for the Lobby Restaurant back in the early 1980s. It covered the best of Australian wine, current and mature, as well as a brilliant collection of classic French wines with a liberal sprinkling from the rest of the wine world. It was amongst the best lists in the country (probably in the world) at the time. Today you have to travel to Michael Hill-Smith’s Universal Wine Bar in Adelaide to glimpse its modern equivalent — and even that is not as exhaustive, although Michael offers some pretty exotic booze by the glass.

Lists as good as these give diners a spectrum of flavours almost unimaginable in today’s parochially Australian, homogenised wine scene.

The better wine list these days reflects the taste of the proprietor. When we find a restaurateur with the energy to track down what he or she sees as good, we end up with either an interesting or bizarre wine list (depending on our own point of view, of course).

Some restaurateurs choose better than others. Alby’s supplementary list at Barocca Cafe shows a sharp (if self-effacing) palate at work, and I have fond, if fuzzy, memories, too, of the odd good bottle produced by Jean Pierre at Le Carousel, Red Hill.

(John and Caryl Haslem’s new “Treasury’ cellar at Fringe Benefits, opening on July 4, offers not only an excellent selection of mature and maturing Australian wines, but stores it under ideal conditions as well — a first for Canberra. However, that’s a story in its own right for next week’s column.)

The slight rise we do see in the standard of restaurant wine lists we can put down to a number of forces. Consumers, of course, always demand value for money. But Australia’s all-pervasive wine culture now injects a demand for high profile, fashionable wines wherever food even pretends to be above average.

The commercially agile restaurateur dodges price criticism from customers and achieves profit margins by avoiding supermarket wines (and thereby many of the best value for money drinks in the country) and padding up with small-maker selections. Commercial necessity, though, is often leavened by a genuine love of wine by the restaurateur.

Rationalisation of manufacturing and distribution makes it easier to compile decent wine lists. Though many owners simply avoid big-company products, the cream of Australia’s small makers are represented by just two distributors, Tucker and Company and Fesq-Dorado. Add local wholesalers Harry Williams and the Oak Barrel and restaurants may easily cobble together a worthwhile small-maker wine list using just four suppliers.

July 10th, 1994

Provenance. That’s the key to an older wine’s condition. Where has it been? Am I buying someone else’s mistake? They’re the important questions to answer before plunging in from any source: auction, retail, or restaurant.We’ve probably all been burnt once — regretting a reputable wine that’s gone crook through bad storage.

The best solution, if you like mature wine, is to keep a cellar. Buy it young, mature it, then enjoy it at home or in a BYO. But cellaring is not always practicable. For that special occasion when a vintage wine is called for, most wine drinkers have no choice but to rely on a retail outlet or restaurant offering mature selections.

If more well-cellared wine were available, more might be sold. That’s what John and Caryl Haslem hope, anyway. After eight years offering some of Canberra’s best food, they’ve moved (and vastly expanded) Fringe Benefit’s vintage selections from a closet, established by Alby Sedaitis during his years of management, to a specially constructed, climate-controlled, on-premise cellar, ‘The Treasury’.

This is no ad hoc move — but a carefully planned major investment in storage, presentation, and stock all with high ongoing running costs. It offers Canberra diners a big, well-selected and changing range of wines of impeccable provenance — quite a bold move into new commercial territory — a big punt by the Haslems and one I hope pays off for them.

‘The Treasury’ houses wines collected by John Haslem (including a few ancient bottles inherited from his wine-merchant father) and devotes one corner to the Anders Josephson collection (see below). As well, there are locked bins available to clients — the idea being to store your own special wines under ‘The Treasury’s’ ideal conditions then pay rent in the form of corkage as each wine is withdrawn and served.

You can order from the wine list. But, better still, stroll into the cellar and make a selection in the flesh. Lighting intensity increases automatically as you enter and diminishes as you leave — ensuring wines don’t suffer from excess exposure to ultra violet light. The temperature sits at a constant 16 degrees and John, or Andrew Doyle, occasionally hose the gravel floor to keep humidity as high as the elaborate joinery can withstand. (High humidity helps keep corks moist and airproof.)

As the Haslem’s hatched plans for the cellar, they hired professional sommelier Andrew Doyle to help in selecting and managing the enlarged wine selection and preparing a complete new list of contemporary wines for the restaurant.

Andrew’s skills will be needed to make the whole concept work. He’ll be kept busy not just doing the nuts and bolts selections and maintenance work, but helping the likes of you and me match wines with our food and then seeing that service is up to scratch.

The new wine list offers a to-be-regularly-changed single page of white, red, and dessert wines with a special supplement of Canberra-district wines. This is a smart list, offering value and variety, including one older red and white. Prices range from $16 to $50 a bottle.

The main wine list offers a far bigger choice, categorised by grape variety (except with the sparkling wines). It seems to offer one of everything from every district. That, perhaps, is a weakness — breadth without any depth of the proven regional specialties. But this is just a beginning. I would also dearly love to see more imports. A surprise or two from France and Italy might add that little extra spice — perhaps an Alsace Riesling or a good Chianti, — something with a strong point of difference from Australian wine? Again, I find the pricing very reasonable for this standard of restaurant.

‘The Treasury’ list is packed with Aussie blue-chips — 10 vintages of Grange, 6 of Bin 707, 4 of John Riddoch and others. But there is a solid sprinkling of less intimidating older whites and reds like Bin 28 1984 at $32, 1984 Bin 389 at $50, and a run of Elizabeth semillons from $21.

The Anders Josephson collection (Josephson maintains a maturation cellar at Lake Macquarie and now wholesales worldwide) embraces not only the Aussie blue-chips but an eclectic range of mostly small-producer Australian wines and one New Zealander, Neudorf of Nelson. These add more depth to a remarkably good new cellar.

You can get a glimpse of the Anders Josephson collection at a special Fringe Benefits dinner to be held early in September featuring mature wines from Petaluma, Leeuwin Estate, Mountadam, Parker Estate, Lindemans, Rouge Homme, De Bortoli, and including 1969, 1976, and 1982 Granges.

The Haslems are offering us a feast of Australian wines properly stored and professionally served with outstanding food. The Treasury is a great asset for Canberra. I hope the demand is here to support it.

I see the wine list at Canberra’s latest buzz restaurant, The Republic, for example, falling somewhat into this mould. It rises above the ordinary without breaking new ground. It offers plenty of good wine, including a solid selection of mature vintages at reasonable prices. It contains wines from all states, then all but neglects two of our biggest and best wine growing areas, Barossa and McLaren Vale, and misses the rising star of chardonnay and pinot noir — Mornington Peninsula.

The rest of the world is conveniently forgotten, too — the only import being Champagne. But these are quibbles. Every wine on the list is a good one and prices are reasonable. And how welcome it is to find so many mature whites and especially reds — as well as staff who know how to serve them.

Full marks to The Republic, too, for offering a wide range of wines by the glass including several Canberra-District wines featured on the list. Noting district of origin of each wine on the list is another good idea. But lads, please note Sharefarmers Blend is not in Coonawarra.

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