Short restaurant wine lists

Author: Max Allen
Photography: William Meppem

Small is the order of the day in restaurants, with tight wine lists showcasing boutique drops, writes Max Allen.

One of the most exciting trends in Australian restaurants is the proliferation of very short, very good wine lists. It's particularly prevalent among newcomers to this year's GT restaurant guide: many of the hottest places offer only a handful of wines - maybe 20 or fewer, including sparkling and sweet - but all are exquisitely well chosen, tempting, delicious and oh-so-right for the ethos of the establishment.

At Bang in Sydney's Surry Hills, for example, spicy Bangladeshi street food can be accompanied by just a dozen or so wines, all Portuguese (a quirky nod to the centuries-old links between the two countries).

At Nel Restaurant near Central, the list features only around 30 wines - 10 of which are offered as the wine matches for the dinner d├ęgustation. And at Chaco Bar in Darlinghurst, there are 15 sakes on offer, and just 12 wines, including three from Japan - and I want to drink all of them.

I feel the same way about the dozen wines at Milk & Honey in Mullumbimby; the 20 wines at Three Blue Ducks in Byron Bay, available by the glass or carafe; and the 20 or so wines (each listed with a detailed, tantalising description) at Fleet in Brunswick Heads.

In Melbourne, the 40 wines and 20 sakes on offer across all styles at Minamishima are a perfect reflection of the focused, precise, minimalist approach to the food; at Franklin in Hobart the list of 40 wines reads like a rollcall of the hipper end of the natural-wine world; and at Africola in Adelaide, the two-dozen bottle selection - classics from Stellenbosch rubbing shoulders with cult wines from the Barossa - is wonderfully in keeping with chef Duncan Welgemoed's homage to both his homeland in South Africa and his adopted home in South Australia.

The wine program at Africola is put together by Welgemoed, sommelier Matt McNamara and bar manager Andrew Cameron.

"It's a snapshot of Duncan's family history," says Cameron. "So we're supporting the wines made by the local producers that he's become friends with, as well as introducing people to both newer South African wines from Swartland and old-school wines such as Meerlust. Which is fun. We get expat South Africans who see those wines on our one-page list and say 'How did you get that? I haven't seen that for 20 years'."

Cameron explains that while there may only be around 20 wines on the list, the selection changes regularly, meaning more producers get a chance to sell small quantities of wine - and customers and staff are constantly finding something new to get excited about.

"You don't need a big list," he says. "I don't think you need two sauvignon blancs, for example; just put one really good one on and then, when that runs out, put something similar but different on so that people can try something new. It's about the art of conversation: doing something different every day so that when regulars come in there's always something new to talk about."

For Astrid McCormack at the tiny Fleet, having a list of 20 or so wines is partly driven by practicality.

"We just don't have much storage space," she says. "And because of the temperatures here and the kinds of wines we're selling (mostly in the natural spectrum, with very low or no preservatives), I'm very aware of the need to handle them properly, so I buy small quantities and turn them over very quickly. Also, a lot of the producers I deal with only make tiny amounts of some wines, so they might only be able to sell me a case of this and a case of that."

As a result, says McCormack, the list at Fleet changes perhaps two or three times a week. As she is mostly sourcing direct from the producers - and composing an evocative note for every new wine as it appears - it's a lot of work for such a short document.

"Some days I think, why am I doing this?" she says. "But I've been amazed how much diners have engaged with the wines. And I think the effort has paid off: it's helped people connect with the wines and really understand the stories behind them."

For Andrew Cameron at Africola, connection is what a small, flexible list is all about.

"I moved here from Brisbane so that I could have these exciting winemakers on my doorstep," he says. "And that's why people go out to eat and drink in restaurants - for those connections, for the stories."







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