Gourmet Traveller catches up with Noma Australia head sommelier Mads Kleppe.
I only had very little knowledge about Australian wines before starting work on the Noma Australia project. I didn't want to read up too much before I came to Australia the first time. I wanted to come with a completely open mind. I needed to learn about Australian wine, first and foremost. There are so many differences; the sun is different, the soil is different, and the approach is different from a lot of the producers we work with at home.
Secondly, it was very clear and obvious to me that Aussie wine needed to be our main focus. Australian wine consumers are among the most knowledgeable in the world, maybe even more than Italian or French people. They're very proud of their wine culture.
It was also very clear to me that the one guy to help me curate the beverage program would be (wine writer and presenter) Mike Bennie. We've known each other for a couple of years. Of course, we would've served delicious things here anyway, but I think the way we've done it would not have been possible without him.
I've tried to learn as much as possible on all the trips. From when I was first here in June 2015, I did some pretty crazy travelling around. I met with some friends in Victoria and the Adelaide Hills and Barossa, Patrick Sullivan and Tom Shobbrook, and I was taken around to see a lot of winemakers. I came home and I was super-impressed and super-stressed at the same time. I thought, "This is not enough. There's going to be a lot of challenges unless I go back for more." I did three more visits after that - meeting more producers and organising a lot of bespoke projects from distilleries and breweries.
I don't want to tell people what's right or wrong, but we need to do what's right for us - and that's to work with people, farmers and growers who have the same kind of philosophy and approach as we do as a restaurant, and as people. In Copenhagen we don't work with big commercial or conventional producers, so there was no way we were going to do that here.
There's been 10 months of planning in the wine list at Noma Australia. It's not very big, and the absolute main focus drinks-wise is on the wine pairing. I am pushing that because it will give (well, humbly, I hope it will give) a better and more complete experience.
The full wine list is split down the middle: half Australian wine, with two New Zealand wines, and the other half is European. The European wines are from what I consider to be very close friends. They're served on a daily basis back home and are producers I travel with and see many times a year. Including these wines is another way for our guests to meet our friends at home.
We have a really amazing non-alcoholic juice pairing, too. They're not just juices, but complex drinks with a lot of thought behind them as well, and cold-brew infusions that you can have outdoors afterwards. Tim Varney is roasting and sourcing all our coffee. It's going to p**s a lot of people off when I say it (and I haven't told Tim yet, but I'm sure he knows), but we're going to make the best coffee in Sydney.
One of the things I realised, just on my first trip, was that doing really amazing, unique, high-quality, tasty, delicious sparkling wine in the volume that we needed would not be possible. Instead, we worked on a bespoke drink with Ashley Huntington from Two Metre Tall in Tasmania. It's what the guests get when they come in and sit down as a first aperitif. It's called a snakebite. In Australia and the UK a snakebite would be a mix of the cheapest, sh*iest draft beer and cider together, and it's what teenagers would drink when they went to the pub. We've made our own snakebite. The base is a seven-year-old ale that Ashley made, mixed with a two-year-old apple cider, a two-year-old pear cider and a younger soured-ale. It's turned out to be really, really delicious. We've also made bespoke fizz with Edge Brewing Project in Melbourne, and a brown ale called the Landlord Australian Old Ale with The Grifter Brewing Co. in Sydney. That one was made using roasted macadamia nuts.
The Australian wine scene, generally, is still very focused on a technocratic, scientific approach. I really hope that's something that will change. Australia has these amazing young farmers and great winemakers, but it's so difficult for them to get a hold of leasing vineyards, or buying vineyards, because people don't want to give them up.
In Europe, or in Copenhagen, there's a much more evolved scene for so-called "natural" wine (a horrible word I don't use). It's just an infant here. There's an established core of mad guys doing interesting things in that scene - people like Shobbrook, Anton van Klopper and a few others, but then there's myriad young guns who've come up afterwards and who've really surprised me. Timmy Webber and his partner Monique Millton make wine under the Manon label. Tim has such a hands-off approach, sourcing a lot of the grapes from abandoned vineyards, which is really great. Also Gareth Belton from Gentle Folk wines, who Tim often works with, James Erskine and Jasper Button from Commune of Buttons. Also this Koen Janssens bottle: the Yetti and the Kokonut 2015 Sercial from Eden Valley. We drank six bottles of it the other night at The Unicorn. It's been really fun and inspiring to meet all these young growers and winemakers who are basically in their first, second or third year. For a lot of these guys, the experience of being on the list at Noma will change things for them.
For our guests to embrace our pairing and trust the choices we have on the list, the team has to have the same confidence and show the same passion for the wines as they do at home. We did our tastings outside in the sun, in a park, and with Mike Bennie sitting on a rug with us. We talked for hours about Australian wine, learning about Australian people and the history.
Noma Australia has been a great, great challenge for me as a person, as it has been for so many of our staff, for Rene, for Thomas [Frebel, sous chef] , for a lot of us. But it's been one of the most rewarding, too. I've had crab like I've never tasted before; tomatoes that have blown my mind; so many incredible new herbs, plants and botanicals. I don't know what I'm going to do when I go home - but all the fruit will pale in comparison.
Five years ago it would not have been possible to do what we do at Noma Australia, wine-wise, today. As a matter of fact, 99 per cent of Aussies spray their grapes to pieces with chemicals, so that's been tricky for us. We have succeeded, though: 99 per cent of the fruit we have sourced for the list is farmed without chemicals.
The menu is really f*ing mindblowing, too. I have the best job ever; I get to eat a lot of great food around the world, but it's not often that I get goosebumps eating something. Noma Australia is completely different to what we do back home. It's our mindset, our experience, our knowledge - but it's completely different. It looks different.
I have one piece of advice for people dining with us: have an open mind. What we're doing will be different for a lot of guests: what's on the plate, how it's being served, how the food looks and how it tastes. It's the same story with the wine. There will be things that visually you can recognise but when you taste it, it might rattle you. Keep an open mind and we'll do our very best to take people in and give them a big hug.