The diverse flavours of Asia are sending wine lists in exciting and adventurous directions, writes Max Allen.
Leanne Altmann can barely contain her excitement. When the award-winning sommelier was putting together the wine list for Supernormal, Andrew McConnell's new Asian-inspired restaurant in Melbourne's Flinders Lane, she included a few adventurous choices - a smattering of sakes, a few natural, orange wines - as well as the more familiar selection of whites and reds.
"And people responded like I couldn't have imagined," says Altmann. "I thought the quirkier offerings would just be a bit of fun, but they've been walking out the door. There's been an absolute groundswell, particularly among people under 25. They're realising how sake and natural wines match so well with the oily textures and savoury elements and sweetness of a lot of the food."
Supernormal is the latest example of a growing trend in Australia: restaurants matching excellent food inspired by the diverse cuisines of Asia with exciting and just downright delicious wine selections.
Good wine lists are hardly a new phenomenon in Australian Asian restaurants, of course. Those bastions of Cantonese cooking, Sydney's Golden Century and Melbourne's Flower Drum, have long been famous for their big lists, top-heavy with Grand Cru Burgundy and grand Aussie reds. And Melbourne's Asiana won our Wine List of the Year award in 2004, thanks to the obsessions of its oenophile owner, Randolph Cheung.
The past few years have seen wine lists in newer Asian restaurants take a different tack, exploring the less well-known wines of the world - and other drinks such as sake and Sherry and soju - that are often far better matched with the food. Indeed, some of this country's best wine lists are now found alongside Asian menus.
In Melbourne's CBD, the wine lists at twin restaurants Coda and Tonka offer a well-chosen selection of classic and obscure wines to match the Vietnamese and Indian influences of the respective menus. And the punchy Thai food at Cookie is accompanied by one of Australia's most eclectic lists, with entertaining descriptions of almost every wine.
Sydney is similarly blessed: the matching of a wide variety of unusual drinks with the dégustation at Momofuku Seiobo - a cloudy orange wine with one course, perhaps, followed by an exquisite cider with the next - is thrilling; Billy Kwong's commitment to organic, biodynamic and sustainable viticulture has led to a mouthwatering selection of wines; and while the Merivale group's Mr Wong tips its hat to the big, top-heavy list, its Grand Cru Chablis selection is dwarfed by its (arguably far more appropriate) range of rieslings and other aromatic whites.
The phenomenon isn't confined to the major capitals, either. FermentAsian in South Australia's Barossa Valley is one of the best places in the country to drink wine (and eat stunning Vietnamese food), choosing from Grant Dickson's impassioned list, happily with some crazy-low mark-ups. In Hobart, Me Wah is peppered with the kind of artisan bottles you would expect to find in a Surry Hills wine bar, not a Tasmanian Cantonese fine diner.
One of the best examples of this trend is Moon Park, a new Korean restaurant in Sydney's Redfern. Its wine list was compiled by manager Abby Meinke and sommelier Ned Brooks, who used to work at MoVida and is one half of wine wholesaler Brooks&Amos, shippers and distributors of small-production wines. Although it's a single page, the list is rich in textural drinks: amphora-fermented whites, skin-contact orange wines, slinky rosés and a sour, milky makgeolli, a Korean "farmer's drink" made from rice mash.
"Korean food's all about strong texture and flavour," says Brooks. "Think about kimchi: all those tastes of fermentation, of lactic and acetic acid. So we chose drinks that complement that. And it's worked: if I'd given someone a glass of makgeolli at MoVida they would have thought I was mad, but here people love it. We sell more obscure orange wines by the glass than we sell well-known wines like Margaret River cabernet."
For Supernormal's Leanne Altmann, playing with unusual wines and other drinks beside the flavours and textures of Asia has been a revelation.
"My first love is Italian wines," she says. "Tannic, structured reds. But here, those wines just won't work well with the food. It's been so exciting to feel the freedom of exploring these other drinking options."