Melburnians are fluent in Italian.
Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, and Chianti Classico are close friends. Ever since the arrival of Italian immigrants to the city post-World War II with their espresso machines, real tomatoes and salumi making, we have lapped up Italian culture.
After four COVID lockdowns in 18 months — the fifth arriving as I write — the love is still there.
“A customer drank Biondi-Santi one afternoon recently over a long lunch because he was meant to be visiting Tuscany,” recalls sommelier Kara Maisano, who oversees an impressive Italian wine list at her family’s Italian restaurant, Masani, in the Italian-crazy inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton.
Prosecco, whether Italian or Australian — yes, Australian makers can call the wine Prosecco, thanks to the Dal Zotto family who grew it before the Italians became protective of the name — flies off supermarket shelves and wine lists. Pinot Grigio is in the process of overtaking sales of Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese is giving Aussie Shiraz a run for its money, and Nebbiolo is fast taking on Pinot Noir as the new holy grail for red wine makers and drinkers alike.
The city revolves around food and wine, figuratively and literally. On its doorstep are five, cool-climate wine-growing regions, all of them specialists in the Burgundy twins: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The two grapes tend to dominate wine lists, which leads to inevitable comparisons with the originals. Dining out can prove expensive once you decide to play the local-versus-Burgundy game.
COVID is also playing a role in the sales of quality Burgundy, in particular.
“We seem to be moving plenty of high-end Burgundy and German Riesling,” says Dom Robinson, head sommelier at Attica, “and we’re opening more and more of those hard-to-find icon wines than we ever used to.”
Still, there are those willing to mix it up.
“The big sellers on our list are in two tiers, with our wine clientele divided straight down the middle,” explains Az Azman at Lûmé in South Melbourne. “One group rarely ventures outside the Burgundian pair of Chardonnay and Pinot. The other is quite open to trying some natural wines, as we do embed them amongst our regular major grape varietal pages.”
The word natural covers a lot of territory, of course, but styles from Europe — Georgia and North Italy take starring roles — star together with the new, cool dude darlings of the Aussie alt scene, the Basket Range winemakers of the Adelaide Hills.
The mention of natural or low-fi brings with it its own vocabulary. If you don’t understand it, the wines aren’t for you.
“We have been pouring a quirky Šmarnica from Slovenia of late with people loving it,” says owner Tanya Hanouch at Wolfe & Molone, in suburban Bentleigh. “It has this minty, grape Hubba Bubba nose and it’s quite a moreish wine.”
But then in Melbourne, wine language is a loose arrangement at best. Savvy, Chardie, Rizza, Sangio, natty, Nebb, Cab, Sem … get used to it. Australians abbreviate every word possible, including people’s names, and now they do it to grape varieties as well.
In a land of immigrants, Melbourne is its multicultural heart: home to people from 200 countries, speaking more than 233 languages. It’s reflected in the food, the wine, the lifestyle. There are wine lists devoted to anything but Australian produced wines. Knowing your Fiano and Grüner Veltliner from your Garnacha and Agiorgitiko is a rite of passage.
Aperitivo hour, at the top of Spring Street opposite the Victorian Parliament, might as well be in Milan, as the footpath bustles with waiters, dark suits, actors, theater goers dressed in Melbourne black, all stopping for an Aperol spritz or glass of Champagne at the City Wine Shop.
Down the road in trendy Brunswick Street or Smith Street, recently voted The Coolest Street in the World by Time Out’s readers, the beat is grunge meets working-class bars meets live music joints meets arty types. At 92 Smith Street, Collingwood, sommelier Liam McCurry presides over the IDES wine list of 132 wines.
“I think much of the thing that customers are picking up on with the natty, orange/pink thing — translation pét-nats, skin contact whites — is a movement away from extraction,” explains McCurry via an email. He adds that so much of the mainstream market is all the same, concerned with tasting notes and varietal/terroir characteristics. “Wines that offer freshness and interest without necessarily appreciable varietal character are intriguing and fun without pomp or the pseudo-intellectual d–k measuring of the Parker/Halliday, court of somms mob,” he adds, referring to wine critics Robert Parker and Australia’s James Halliday.
“The mention of natural or low-fi brings with it its own vocabulary. If you don’t understand it, the wines aren’t for you.”
A new era
Victoria’s hospitality scene can be divided firmly into two specific periods: before John Nieuwenhuysen and after.
Nieuwenhuysen was a professor of economics at Melbourne University when he was commissioned by the Victorian government to review the state’s Liquor Control Act of 1968. Before John Nieuwenhuysen, hotels — often large beer palaces and little else — had a powerful monopoly on the serving and sale of alcohol. The quiet Melbourne professor released his report in 1986, arguing for deregulated liquor laws, proposing a European-style approach. It was brave, revolutionary stuff.
His vision was for small, local corner wine bars and restaurants where wine could be consumed with, or importantly, without food. In this brave new world, customers could choose to order by the glass or bottle and buy bottles to take home. Alcohol could be sold seven days a week, too. Unheard of.
In 1988, he got his wish when many of the recommendations passed into law.
Ahead of its time, Melbourne flourished. Today, most medium-size lists host at least 20 wines by the glass, and small tastes of wine under Coravin are taking hold. Sakes by the glass are also gaining traction. The freedom to experiment is everywhere.
At award-winning Attica, head sommelier Dom Robinson is willing to open almost any bottle on the list to serve as a half bottle. Wine flights, a taste of three or four wines with a specific theme, are also offered, which means sommeliers can introduce new tastes more easily. Oxidative styles from the Jura are having a moment, as are Loire and South African Chenin Blancs, and Sicilian whites. And then there’s the skin contact phenomenon.
“We’ve had a great response to young wines which show the cavalcade of aromas and hyper-fruited aspects that come from macerating wines on skins,” says Liam O’Brien at Cutler & Co. “We also sell a bit more savory, more grippy, more composed benchmark styles like those from Ruggabellus, La Castellada, Gravner, etc.”
And in between the pét-nats and all, there is the rise of the cocktail and gin bars. Just as John Nieuwenhuysen predicted.
5 places to visit in Melbourne:
Stand at the bar, take a seat at the long table, or better still, grab a seat out on the footpath where all of Melbourne passes you by, from the homeless guy selling The Big Issue to theatergoers, actors, banker types, tourists and the odd politician. Heavily European — sister restaurant, The European, is next door — the wine list generally features a grower Champagne by the glass, an Italian superstar, and a bevy of super cool makers. The menu is equally European in style, from steak au poivre to grilled ox tongue.
This is old school Melbourne, pure and simple. A wine bar that almost single-handedly changed the way Melbourne approached wine, Jimmy’s opened in 1935. The Watson family are still behind the bar, dispensing sherry by the glass, along with staples from North-East Victoria, one of Jimmy’s favourite wine regions, together with Coonawarra, South African Chenin Blanc, or full-blooded reds from the Pyrenees — the region in Victoria not Spain. In a patriotic flying of the vinous flag, expect sparkling Shiraz and plenty of the great Aussie blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, known as — what else — Cab Shiraz.
Take a walk on the well-heeled side. Once you cross the Yarra River, the houses become more expensive, the streets a little tidier, the lifestyles more moneyed and luxurious. Set amidst it all, The Botanical Hotel has been a center of the good life since 1960. A modern, multi-million dollar refurbishment suits the elegant, European-style wines that feature on the 800-strong wine list. Matched with the local, fresh seafood and grass-fed Gippsland beef is an equally strong selection of Victorian wines.
Melburnians go to Cumulus for Andrew O’Connell’s food and stay for the wines. In the city center, between graffiti-strewn laneways and hidey-hole gin bars, Cumulus brings its individual style to a wine list that combines a listing of top Burgundy and classic styles, together with the textural white varieties that have recently smitten the city. The list also includes Italian varieties, both local and from Italy, as well as the odd Spanish Albariño and Greek Assyrtiko.
Six hundred wines, 28 by the glass, with a seat in the sun overlooking Port Phillip Bay and St. Kilda beach, and life seems pretty good. Stokehouse never tires the eyes or the taste buds. Start with a Beach Bird cocktail, a tiki style drink. Move into a Victorian sparkling from Chandon, an outreach of the Moët et Chandon empire. From there on in, it’s a choice between a Jura or amber Italian from Campania, groovy local field blends, or Austrian or Sicilian reds. And as the sun slowly sets … a Rutherglen Muscat should do the job nicely.