Trust me, I’m the sommelier – Quay’s degustation wine menu

We’re in Quay restaurant, watching the sea pulse through Sydney harbour on a miserably, cold, wet windy day. After the long drive from Canberra and cold walk from the Opera House car park, we’re comfortably settled, hungry and keen to launch into Peter Gilmore’s revered degustation lunch (a generous Christmas gift from our son and his fiancee).

We’ve studied the wine list online – an adventurous selection, compiled by head sommelier, Amanda Yallop. It gives us the confidence to go with Quay’s wine suggestions.

Our wine waiter for the day, Russell Mills, shows us the “classic” ($95) and “premium” ($175) wine matches – a half glass each of eight wines, selected by Yallop’s team to suit the eight dishes in the degustation menu ($220).

He says the wine team selects the wines on each list, then runs them past the cooking team for the thumbs up.

We decide to go with the premium selection all through the menu, but to try the first three whites from the classic selection as well.

Like the party game falling backwards, hoping someone might catch you, there’s a risk in trusting the wine waiter. But the potential reward is significant in a good restaurant with such a diverse wine selection. In this instance the eclectic selection, accompanied by the theatre of a new, unique glass with each wine, took us beyond our well-travelled path in the most delightful way.

What follows then is our impressions of the wine experience at Quay – the first three courses accompanied by two wines each, the first from the premium selection, the second from the classic selection. From there on, the wines are all from the premium selection.

Marco Felluga “Mongris” Pinot Grigio 2010 (Collio, Italy)
Moorilla Estate “Muse” Riesling 2009 (Tasmania)
Sashimi of Corner Inlet rock flathead, Tasmanian trumpeter, salt cured wild oyster cream, black lipped abalone, raw sea cabbage, nasturtiums, warrigals, periwinkles.

Sommelier’s aim: Dry, textured, minerally wines, not overtly fruity, to match a subtle, textural dish.

What we found: All of the above in the partially barrel-fermented Italian pinot grigio – a particularly fine example of the style, very much on the savoury side with rich texture, derived from the barrel work. It was my preference of the two with the supremely delicate food. Moorilla’s Muse, rated highly on the texture and minerality scale, but the floral and citrusy, maturing riesling varietal character pushed it towards fruity, away from savoury. This delicate fruitiness still worked with the food. Both wines were highly distinctive.

Pyramid Valley “Field of Fire” Chardonnay 2009 (Canterbury, New Zealand)
Krinklewood Chardonnay 2010 (Hunter Valley, NSW)
Congee of Northern Australian mud crab, fresh palm heart, egg yolk emulsion.

Sommelier’s aim: A sweet and delicate dish requires full-bodied but delicate wines like modern chardonnays with little obvious oak impact.

What we found: We’re supposed to be savouring the wine with the food, but who can help comparing the wine styles first, both full-bodied chardonnays but widely different in style. The New Zealand wine is older, produced without sulphur dioxide, fermented in large old oak and bottled without fining and filtering. Apart from the deep lemon-gold colour it’s youthful and fresh on the palate – full and ripe flavoured with funky yeast lees influence, but with assertive acidity providing backbone and freshness to the finish.

The pale-lemon coloured, green tinted Hunter wine shimmered with pure, ripe, white-peach varietal flavour against a subtle nutty background, derived from yeast lees. It’s a very even, very youthful wine and a total contrast to its New Zealand companion.

Both of the wines worked with the food, the Krinklewood predictably and conventionally; but Pyramid for its idiosyncrasy.

Domaine de Belliviere “Les Rosiers” 2010 (Jasnieres, Loire Valley, France)
Bellar Ridge Chenin Blanc 2009 (Swan Valley, Western Australia)
Gently poached southern rock lobster, hand-caught Tasmanian squid, golden tapioca, lobster velvet.

Sommelier’s aim: An opulent dish requires wines counterbalancing sweetness and acidity.

What we found: Again we couldn’t help comparing the wines (both made from chenin blanc) before trying the food combinations. The Western Australian wine fell down on the most important measure, in my opinion. Though fresh and clean and richly textured, the wine’s acidity proved no much for its sweetness. With the balance tipped to sweetness, the wine just didn’t work with the food for me. On the other hand, the perfect tension between sweetness and acidity in the Loire Valley wine couldn’t have been better for the food.

Bass Phillip Pinot Noir 2010 (Gippsland, Victoria)
Roasted partridge breast, teamed truffle brioche, confit egg yolk, new season white walnuts, fumet of vin jaune.

Sommelier’s aim: Not stated ­ – too excited about “Australia’s best pinot”.

What we found: We’ve visited Phillip Jones at Bass Phillip, tasted many wines over many years and the best are truly stunning, this one included. This was our wine of the day – pure, magic, ethereal, rich, earthy and fine. What wonderful company for this sublime dish.

Claude Courtois Or’Norm Sauvignon 2008 (Sologne, France)
Smoked and confit pig cheek, shiitake, shaved scallop, Jerusalem artichoke leaves, juniper, bay.

Sommelier’s aim: An adventurous wine to match the smokiness of the dish.

What we found: This is another idiosyncratic wine style made without sulphur dioxide and deliberately oxidised slowly in old oak for three years. This results in a slightly rusty coloured wine that retains clear varietal sauvignon blanc character while taking on other aromas and flavours familiar to lovers of sherry, vin santo and vin jaune. It’s an unusual wine for sure, the richness, high acidity and tart oxidative flavours sat comfortably with the delicate, smoky pig cheek. One glass is enough.

Spinifex “Tabor” Mataro 2009 (Barossa Valley, South Australia)
Pasture raised milk-fed veal poached in smoked bone marrow fat, shiitake mushrooms, raw buckwheat, young orach, land samphire, parsnip.

Sommelier’s aim: An earthy wine is required to carry the smoke and earthiness of the food.

What we found: A deep, crimson-rimmed Barossa red that at 15 per cent alcohol may have been too robust for the dish. But alcohol tells only part of the story – in this instance only a small part, as the deep, rich, spicy fruit flavours and firm but fine tannins easily masked it. It’s a full-bodied wine, but the full flavours worked harmoniously with the food – and how nice to finish the reds on full, earthy, satisfying note. It’s sourced from two old vineyards in the Tabor area near Tanunda.

Domaine de L’Arjolle “Lyre” 2007 (Pouzelles, France)
Guava snow egg.

Sommelier’s aim: A luscious but not overly sweet wine, with structure, and should not compete with the dessert for sweetness.

What we found: It was a good choice to sit the wine in the background and let this extraordinary, complex dessert remain at centre stage. We attacked it with childlike delight – pausing to sip the light-golden coloured wine. It’s made of muscat blanc a petits grains. But the luscious fruit flavour seemed more like melon than in-your-face, fruity muscat. And a reasonably high phenolic level added texture and assertive grip to the finish – cleansing the palate rather than adding more sugar.

Chambers Grand Muscat NV (Rutherglen, Victoria)
Jersey cream, salted caramel, prunes, walnuts, ethereal sheets.

Sommelier’s aim: The wine must highlight the dried fruit and sweetness of the dessert.

What we found: I don’t have a sweet tooth, but coming off the crunchy, icy luxury of the snow egg, we were converted by the teasing nibbles of chocolate and toffee ethereal sheets; and succumbed completely to the luxury of the cream, caramel, prunes and nuts physically holding them up. The incredibly luscious, olive-green rimmed old muscat became part of the dessert – a rare and outstanding example of sweet plus sweet actually working.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 29 August 2012 in The Canberra Times