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Aløft

There's nothing new about Nordic interiors - blond timbers, concrete surfaces, warm, mid-century charm without the twee - and thank heavens for that. It's a style that augments the beauty of everything around it, in this case, gorgeous Hobart harbour, which makes up one whole wall. What is new here, however, is the food - by veterans of Garagistes, which once dazzled diners down the road, Vue de Monde in Melbourne and Gordon Ramsay worldwide. There's a strong Asian bent, but with Tasmanian ingredients. In fact, the kitchen's love of the local verges on obsessive - coconut milk in an aromatic fish curry is replaced with Tasmanian-grown fig leaf simmered in cream to mimic the flavour. Other standouts include a gutsy red-braised lamb with gai lan and chewy cassia spaetzle, pigs' ears zingy with Sichuan pepper and a fresh, springy berry dessert. While the food is sourced locally, the generous wine list spans the planet. 

Secret Tuscany

A far cry from Tuscany’s familiar gently rolling hills, Monte Argentario’s appealing mix of mountain, ocean, island and lagoon makes it one of Italy’s hidden treasures, writes Emiko Davies.

A festival of cheese hits Sydney

Kick off winter with a week of cheese tasting.

Farro recipes

Farro can be used in almost any dish, from a robust salad to accompany hearty beer-glazed beef short ribs to a new take on risotto with mushrooms, leek and parmesan. Here are 14 ways with this versatile grain.

Brae

Prepare to enter a picture of the countryside framed by note-perfect Australiana but painted in bold, elegant and unsentimental strokes. Over 10 or more courses, Dan Hunter celebrates his region with dishes that are formally daring (Crunchy prawn heads! Creamy oyster soft-serve! Sea urchin and chicory bread pudding!), yet rich in flavour and substance. The menu could benefit from an edit, but the plates are tightly composed - and what could you cut? Certainly not the limpid broth bathing fronds of abalone and calamari, nor the clever arrangement of lobster played off against charred waxy fingerlings under a swatch of milk skin. The adventure is significantly the richer for the cool gloss of the dining room, some of the most engaging service in the nation and wine pairings that roam with an easy-going confidence. Maturing and relaxing without surrendering a drop of its ambition, Brae is more compelling than ever.

Grilled apricot salad with jamon and Manchego

Here we've scorched apricots on the grill and served them with torn jamon, shaved Manchego and peppery rocket leaves. Think of it as a twist on the good old melon-prosciutto routine. The mixture would also be great served on charred sourdough.

Discovering Macedonia

Like its oft-disputed name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia defies simple definition but its rich diversity extends from the dinner table to the welcoming locals, writes Richard Cooke.

2017 Australian Hotel Awards: The Finalists

This year's finalists across 11 different categories include established and new hotels, all with particular areas of excellence. Stay tuned to find out which hotels will take the top spots when they're announced at a ceremony at QT Melbourne on Wednesday 24 May, and published in our 2017 Australian Hotel Guide, on sale Thursday 25 May.

Merlot redux

Single variety standouts (from left): 2014 Blue Poles reserve, 2013 oakridge, 2014 ruckus estate single vineyard, and 2015 norton summit by g. belton.

Single variety standouts (from left): 2014 Blue Poles reserve, 2013 oakridge, 2014 ruckus estate single vineyard, and 2015 norton summit by g. belton.

Long overlooked in favour of cabernet, Australian merlot looks set to enjoy its time in the sun, writes Max Allen.

"People told us we were mad to plant more merlot," says grape grower Colleen Miller of Ruckus Estate, a vineyard in Wrattonbully, just north of Coonawarra on South Australia's Limestone Coast. "But now winemakers come onto our block and taste the grapes and can't believe how good they are. And sommeliers taste the wine and they're blown away. They tell us they've never had an Australian merlot like it before. It's very exciting."

Ruckus Estate is just one of the vineyards helping to revive the fortunes of this overlooked grape. Merlot has fallen out of fashion over the past decade, but a growing number of producers, like David Bicknell of Oakridge in the Yarra Valley, refuse to lose faith in its quality.

"It's possibly the best variety we grow here on the vineyard around the winery," says Bicknell. "But it's a struggle to sell; merlot just isn't sexy. In good years like 2013 the merlot is every bit as good as the cabernet sauvignon here, which is why we bottle it separately. And we do okay with that wine at cellar door - when people taste it, they love it - but out there in retail and restaurants, there's no interest."

What's going on? Isn't merlot meant to be one of the classic grapes? After all, it's responsible for some of the world's most eye-wateringly expensive wines, such as Petrus. It's highly regarded in California and northern Italy. And in the hands of good makers in cooler regions such as the Yarra, Orange, the Tamar Valley and Coonawarra, merlot can - as David Bicknell points out - make wines that are every bit as good as cabernet.

The problem is that most of the merlot in Australia is planted in warmer regions, is cropped too heavily, picked too ripe and smothered in too much oak. And the resulting wines are flabby, jammy and vanillasweet. No wonder wine drinkers have lost interest.

"My perception of merlot used to be a wine with ripe, thick fruit, alcohol and wood," says winemaker Gareth Belton, now carrying a torch for the variety in the Adelaide Hills. "But merlot's actually quite a delicate variety: it doesn't have raging tannins, it can't handle too much new wood."

Belton sources merlot from two cool vineyards in the Hills: one at Basket Range and one high up at Norton Summit. He produces two wines with the fruit: one a merlot-petit verdot blend called Gnomes, and one a juicy, utterly delicious, single-vineyard straight merlot.

"There's strong red clay in the vineyard at Norton Summit," he says. "That's important for merlot, I think. We're not overcropping, we're picking a bit earlier. And people seem to be enjoying what we're doing; the Norton Summit wine was the first of my wines to sell out this year."

Low crops, a cooler site and clay soils are the key to the quality of the beautiful, perfumed Blue Poles Reserve Merlot, one of a few single-variety expressions of the grape in Margaret River worth tracking down.

"Merlot gets such a bad wrap here because it's seen as a second-rate variety after cabernet sauvignon," says Blue Poles' Mark Gifford. "In a region like Margaret River, where cabernet is so dominant, it can feel like merlot is the stepchild to a rich family. But if you keep the crops low and if you're cruel with irrigation - make the vines hunt in the clay for the water - then you can hopefully make good wine."

Another problem is clones . Most of the merlot planted in Australian vineyards is a clonal selection of vine material originally propagated in California, chosen for its ability to offer high yields rather than high quality. When they first planted their Ruckus Estate vineyard, Colleen Miller and her husband used this clone and found it difficult to produce quality grapes.

But at the end of last decade some new clones became available - selections from Bordeaux, Italy and Argentina. So when they decided to plant a "paddock up the back of the property on Rolls Royce soil with clay in among the limestone" at Ruckus Estate they chose these new clones, and from their first vintage in 2013 realised they'd made the right decision: the grapes developed finer, more complex flavours at lower ripeness, and made wine with a more savoury quality. Expect to see more interesting Australian merlots over the next few years as other growers explore these new options.

"It's been a tough road, convincing people to try a new $50 merlot," says Colleen Miller. "But we knew in our gut we had something special in the ground."

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Signature Collection

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2017 Restaurant Guide

Our 2017 Restaurant Guide is online, covering over 400 restaurants Australia wide. Never wonder where to dine again.

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