Sydney's best wine bars

The Harbour City is passing on the pie, stepping away from the schooner and heading to a wine bar instead. We’ll drink to that.

By Pat Nourse & Monique Lane
Happy only in pubs? The city's wine bars, packed to the gunwales with young and old extolling the virtues of the red and white with a very Sydney gusto, tell a different story. Sydneysiders can slip from boardies to bespoke in the blink of an eye, and while they like their pies and schooners, they're pretty comfortable with tempranillo and terrines by the same token. Here are 11 Sydney wine bars worth checking out.       
When you ask Matt Swieboda what wine by the glass is his favourite right now and he responds "I'm kind of excited about the Balland, coteaux du Giennoux 'Les beaux Jours' gamay pinot noir" you get a good idea of what the rest of the list might look like. It's a list dense with some of the most interesting and beautiful wines from around the world, with a dedication to the charm of Riesling. Swieboda's way with the grape has seen him working the floor at Quay, and, fortunately, now in a space of his own where mere mortals are afforded a drinking experience under his guidance. The tiny split-level converted stockroom in a Darlinghurst back-alley complements the drinks with the likes of cotechino with celeriac, cavolo nero and gremolata, and citrus-cured ocean trout. Love truly is a many-splendored thing.
How was the list put together? The wine list began with a simple insight: that contrary to popular opinion, people care less about varietal and region than they do about quality. Therefore I was completely free to list as many unusual wines as I liked from the more neglected regions of the wine world as long as each wine tasted great.
I felt that as long as we could guide the guest with broad stylistic headings, people could choose wines they were not at all familiar with and yet still be assured they would find something to their liking.
Then I started looking at the underdogs - riesling, the Jura, nebbiolo - wines unknown to a lot of our clientele, but which offer some of the best drinking available. These guys all got their own feature pages explaining their value.
Essentially, I wanted a list that could educate and entertain and provide even the most hardened wine drinker with something new.
What are you loving pouring right now? We're currently pouring magnums of a 2010 Cheverny called Les Ardilles from producer Domaine du Moulin. It's a blend of pinot noir and gamay from the Loire Valley in France. It's floral and a bit feral but exceedingly pretty. I could happily drink it all day.
Which wines would you be racing to save in a fire? If I could grab only one wine it would be the 2005 Von Buhl Pechstein Grosses Gewächs Riesling from the Pfalz in Germany. Pechstein is a very special vineyard with a very distinctive mineral flavour. It was probably the first wine I bought for the bar and will be special for that reason.
Where are the real bargains on your list? For me, dollar for dollar, Beaujolais offers the best value on the list. So many people still have bad memories from drinking terrible Beaujolais Nouveau that demand for the better wines in the region is still very low considering the huge leaps in quality that have occurred in recent years.
Your solid-gold marriage of menu and wine list is… If you try only one food and wine pairing this year, make it one of Pambula rock oysters with a glass of Goisot Exogyra Virgul, an incredibly dry and flinty sauvignon blanc from an appellation called Saint-Bris in Burgundy. Each component accentuates the best of the other so that both the oyster and the wine taste even more vibrant that they do on their own. It's magic.
10 WILLIAM Blink and you'll walk right past it; 10 William Street bears no signage, just a windowful of drinkers pleased with themselves for nabbing tables in the tiny converted terrace. The low-lit dark timber room has the signature raffish charm of its parent Potts Point restaurant Fratelli Paradiso, and the wine list has all the character to match. From 'reds of distinction,' such as a 2001 G. Quintarelli Valpolicella, to a page on 'orange, beige and cloudy wine,' the Italian- and- French-oriented wine list is a collaborative effort between sommelier Matt Young and owners Giovanni and Enrico Paradiso and Marco Ambrosino. The all-Italian food keeps step with bread and pasta made in-house (such as maltagliati with osso bucco ragú) and means you don't need (or want) to leave for dinner.
How was the list put together? Colliding organic chaos, think-tanks, and litres of great and not-so-great wine. A list free of cultural media. A place where we belong.
What are you loving to pour right now? Vini Viti Vinci Bourgogne made by Philippe Pacalet. What fun, what joy. It's a bottle of teenaged fun and angst.
Which wines would you be racing to save in a fire? Our precious magnums of Frank Cornelissen Magma '07. Ethereal, fragile and an absolute shoe-gazer of a wine.
Where are the real bargains on your list? Bargains are there to be searched for - they are never in your face. Stick your head in the bin and rummage.
Your solid-gold marriage of menu and wine list is… Capovilla Rhum with Amedei chocolate. "To die by your side would be a very nice way to die."
10 William Street, Paddington, (02)9360 3310
THE WINE LIBRARY Sydney loves a good casual off-shoot, especially when the original is one of the best-liked restaurants in town. The team behind Buzo, Woollahra's mainstay smart-casual Italian eatery, opened The Wine Library around the corner in 2010. You get the feeling they might've just done it to have somewhere to send the people disappointed they couldn't get a reservation in the restaurant (or perhaps for somewhere to do a bit of drinking themselves) but that would be underselling that it is, in itself, a great bar. And what's a great bar without a working beehive on the roof and a glass-walled cured meat room? You can tell they're serious about their product, whether it's a plate of charcuterie, a bottle of 2008 Domaine Henri Milan 'Le Grand Blanc' or a drop of 2010 Folliard Morgon Cuvée Corcellette. Owners Traci Trinder, James Hird and Todd Garratt know what we want, and take great delight in giving it to us. All this and tinnies too. 
How was the list put together? The three of us have travelled and worked a lot throughout the world. Initially we brought back ideas from our travels and incorporated them into our list. Over the past 10 years we have built a cellar of wines we love. The list has three parts: one-third the popular mainstream, one-third the interesting or unknown, one-third the avant-garde or more challenging. It keeps it interesting for sommeliers and new wine drinkers alike. The main function of any list is to connect people to wines they love at a price they are happy with and we think our list delivers on that front. A wine list can be challenging for consumers, and the sommelier's role is vital in making customers feel confident in their choices. We feel the list itself, however, should put customers at ease by balancing the esoteric with the more understood wines.
What are you loving to pour right now? Dario Princic Jakot. It's a stunning wine from a producer that's going from strength to strength. Princic has an amazing ability to find razor sharp-purity of fruit, stunning aromatics. It's imported by Giorgio De Maria, a dear dear friend and one of the country's most talented, and driven, sommeliers.
Which wines would you be racing to save in a fire? It's a bit clichéd but Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for me. They are wines of immense personality and terroir. In good or bad vintages in Burgundy, the house produces wines of integrity and beauty. My first head chef's dog was called Tache: amazing chef (Dany Chouet), amazing dog. I'm not sure if it's influenced me but la Tache would be the first thing I'd grab on the way out. If I had time, I would sneak in a Case Basse Soldera 1999.
Where are the real bargains on your list?
Taras Ochota's Ochota Barrels wines are all exceptional value. His grenache is one of the best-value gems on the list. Great producer, exceptional value. Also Hoddles Creek chardonnay. Hoddles Creek is one of the Yarra Valley's best producers, and its wines are some of the best-value wines in Australia.
Your solid-gold marriage of menu and wine list is… There is one food-wine match that transcends all others for me, takes matching to a higher plane: Comté cheese and vin jaune. The Jura's perfect match. It's a classic combination for a reason: it works. The more mature the wine and the cheese, the better.
18 Oxford Street, Woollahra, (02)9360 5686
121BC is the perfect fit for Gourmet Traveller's 2012 sommelier of the year, Giorgio De Maria. The limited seating, all around the one bar, makes for an intimate, communal setting and means you get the full force of De Maria's sincere warmth, undisguised enthusiasm and impressive knowledge without having to crane your neck. An enoteca at heart, 121BC is divided into wine shop and wine bar, but on either side of the glass, it's all Italian. Buy in the store by the bottle at your leisure to take home (you can drink on the premises for a small surcharge) or hit the blackboard list for glasses from every one of Italy's regions. The blackboard also offers a short menu of wine-friendly Italian share plates such as balsamic-glazed ribs and buffalo mozzarella fried in bread crumbs. A fast favourite, 121BC feels more like a really great dinner party with seriously good wine and De Maria as the unflappable host, than any kind of public space.
How was the list put together? A lot of research first and a lot of fun organising the display. I always loved the idea of an interactive wine list made of bottles and labels.
What are you loving to pour right now? A new orange wine from Sardinia called Alvas by Panevino. When we opened in March 2011, people didn't know what an orange wine was, and now many people are asking for it. The orange wine from Sardinia is a blend of the local grapes vermentino, nuragus, semidano, vernaccia and retallada. It has a beautiful amber colour, a nose of Mediterranean herbs and spices, fragrant fruit, great texture and fine tannins on the palate.
Which wines would you be racing to save in a fire? I'd probably die in the fire because there are so many wines I'd like to save. Anyway, I would definitely make sure I saved two bottles: Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato (a nebbiolo) and Jakot, Dario Princic (an orange wine).
Where are the real bargains on your list?   
A bovale, cannonau and monica blend in funky packaging, a one-litre green bottle with a rustic screwcap. It's a simple wine with a great sense of place and it retails for $14 in the shop (this is a wine to take away because the corkage would be more expensive). But also all the upper range wines, which become very affordable because of the corkage concept. In so many places in Australia you can drink barolo or brunello at $80 to $90.
Your solid-gold marriage of the menu and wine list is… Gorgonzola piccante and walnuts with Marsala Vergine. Or dark chocolate with Bressan Schippettino.
Stuart Knox is the man behind the astute list, generous with variance and personality, at Fix St James. Fix is one of the few wine bars in Sydney's CBD and rates highly with the after-work crowd and wine aficionados alike. From sustainable 'house juice by the litre' to by-the-glass options like a 2009 Dard & Ribo Marsanne, Knox's list and affable presence make Fix an important benchmark for wine bars in this city. Fix is set up more like a restaurant, with bare tables and banquette seating, but menu offerings such as the 1.5-kilo Coorong Angus T-bone and the duck, rabbit and sausage cassoulet share well and fit seamlessly into a journey of vinous discovery.
How was the list put together? It's a somewhat loose affair. I have put the wine list together from wines I like to drink. There obviously has to be some balance, but on the whole it's made up of sporadic decisions based on tastings and reading.
What are you loving pouring right now? I'm currently having a bit of Australian amphora love. The Brash Higgins Nero D'Avola red and the Quealy Friulano white, both made in amphorae, are on high rotation.
Which wines would you be racing to save in a fire? If there's a fire, I'm racing for my collection of 2008s, the birth year of my first son. My second grab is the 2011s for my youngest boy, purely because they've only just begun releasing them!
Where are the real bargains on your list? Southern France and Southern Italy are delivering a lot of bang for the buck currently. The exchange rate helps, but they're just unknown regions so don't command high prices just for their existence.
Your solid-gold marriage of menu and wine list is… Set matches don't always work. When I match food and wine I'd rather take in the bigger picture. What other dishes are they having? What mood are they in? What's the weather like? Lots of variables. Having said that, our choc "Yogo" with Hamilton's Bluff Dolce Nero is a rocking combo.
If your idea of the wine bar is all deep upholstery, scrawled, gilt-framed mirrors and vintage wine paraphernalia, Bentley might just make you dizzy. Chen Lu, the same designer responsible for Billy Kwong's décor, deployed chipboard cut-outs, Eames print fabrics and gallons of glossy carmine paint to transform this former loose-boozer into a two-star restaurant to be reckoned with. The kitchen comes out swinging, too. Whether it's chorizo wrapped in crisp fried potato served at the bar with a tiny toothpaste-tube of harissa, or seared tuna with red-pepper jelly and Ortiz anchovies at the table, this is edgy, new-wave Modern Australian with a pronounced molecular bent. Tying the whole package together is Nick Hildebrandt's kooky and elegant wine list.
How was the list put together? "We try and represent good smaller producers whose wines are individual and have a certain degree of edge to them," says Hildebrandt. "We look for wines that really stand out from the pack. In addition, we try to educate our clientele by introducing them to new wines. The list is based on structure and balance. We source our wines through various channels including distributors, importers, auctions, private cellars and direct from the vineyard. We're also importing directly from Europe."
What are you loving to pour right now? "Our Champagne: the Serge Mathieu, which we import directly, is especially good. It has more layers of complexity than the bigger houses we generally see here in Australia. I'm also proud to pour the R Wines Gippsland gamay made by rising superstar winemaker William Downie. We were lucky enough to secure the Australian allocation exclusively for Bentley. It's bottled without any sulphur and reminds me of the small, artisan-style Beaujolais wines, which are gaining popularity."
Which wines would you be racing to save in a fire? "The wines that are really rare. Burgundy from Emmanuel Rouget, Claude Dugat and Prieure Roch or perhaps our vertical collection from Champagne-god Jacques Selosse and another rising superstar, Diebolt-Vallois. These are the wines that make our list what it is."
Where are the real bargains on your list? "The bargains are in the wines we've sourced directly, whether locally or from Europe. Obviously, the ones we import don't carry the middleman margin that makes these wines expensive in restaurants. We also work on a lower margin for our premium wines."
Your solid-gold marriage of menu and wine list is… "On our tasting menu we match Brent's black sesame and pea fondant with cult Loire Valley producer Clos du Tue-Boeuf's Touraine Blanc. It's one of those matches that works on so many levels."
Cnr Crown & Campbell Sts, Surry Hills, (02) 9332 2344
ASH STREET CELLAR The elegant achiever at the exuberant Ivy complex, Ash Street puts a cosmopolitan face on the local wine bar concept with boulevard-style densely packed laneway seating, Lauren Murdoch's resourceful, restrained modern Med menu and Franck Moreau's far-reaching wine list.
How was the list put together?
"I'm very much interested in boutique wineries around the world," says Moreau. "I prefer to focus on wines that are both interesting and unusual, while offering the customer great value for money."
What are you loving to pour right now?
"I'm delighted with a Brazilian cabernet, 2006 Miolo Quinta do Seival Cabernet Sauvignon from Rio Grande do Sul, at $12 per glass. I'm also pleased with the 2006 Anita Nittnaus Hans Blaufränkisch from Burgenland, an Austrian red wine, which is $15 a glass."
Which wines would you be racing to save in a fire?
"I'm particularly proud of the 1996 'S' de Salon Blanc de Blancs, and the 2000 Leroy Meursault Burgundy. I think the 2001 Marquis d'Angerville Volnay 1er Cru Champans is also a standout."
Where are the real bargains on your list?
"There is a particularly good sparkling vouvray, which is produced by Château Moncontour in the Loire Valley ($70). It's dry with a good texture and fine bead. For an alternative to sauvignon blanc, try the 2007 Rusden Christian Chenin Blanc from the Barossa. It's a dry-style white with some fruit and a crisp finish. In the reds, the 2004 Stonecroft Serine Syrah from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand reminds me of a nice Rhône Valley wine. Loire Valley red wines can also offer the buyer great value for money, although they can at times be misunderstood. I would recommend the 2005 Philippe Alliet Chinon Vieilles Vignes; it's $110."
Your solid-gold marriage of menu and wine list is… "For an afternoon break, it would have to be the cured meat selection with a glass of 2007 Descendientes de J Palacios Pétalos from Bierzo, Spain, but I think my favourite is the salt and chilli school prawns with aïoli accompanied by a glass of 2007 Yves Cuilleron VdP des Collines Rhodanienne marsanne from the Rhône Valley."
1 Ash St, Sydney, (02) 9240 3000
A flash new concept for Sydney, Wine Odyssey uses an automated Enomatic wine tasting system to offer 44 wines by the 25ml taste, 75ml half-glass or 150ml full glass. Grange - currently the 1997 - is among the selections, clocking in at about the dollar-per-mil mark. "I've got a wine list with 120 wines on it and a retail store with 300 wines, so I can change the selection of wines by the glass we offer on the machine within minutes," says sommelier Donna Freeman, late of The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay. "We always have a flight of sparkling, one of dessert and one of red wine - three dishes and three 50ml pours to go with them." The main Wine Journey Room tasting area is augmented by a tasting theatre and an 'aroma room' where you can sharpen your knowledge of Australian wine. The cellar is all-Australian, with an emphasis on small, independent and lesser-known producers alongside the nation's most famous labels. Craigow riesling and gewürztraminer from Cambridge in Tasmania, Orange's Printhie Wines, Optimiste petit verdot from Mudgee on the one hand and Leeuwin Estate Art Series chardonnay, Chambers muscat and Bass Phillip pinot on the other."
How was the list put together?
"We looked at the key Australian winemaking regions first - riesling from the Clare, Barossa shiraz and so on," says Freeman, "but after that I was interested in showing just how many different styles and grapes the Australian landscape supports - the Freeman rondinella corvina, for example. The response has been great and surprisingly enough, perhaps, it's not just tourists. There are a lot of Sydney business people who just come in for a glass of wine before they get on their ferry and try a few things. We have a membership program now, and a lot of return customers."
What are you loving to pour right now?
"I've got Ulithorne sparkling shiraz on there, from McLaren Vale, and I think it's one of the best sparkling shirazes I've tried, but it's quite polarising. The other thing I like about Wine Odyssey is that the wine comes first, so we've got our fantastic chef, Mark Beattie, and if I want a wine, I get it, and it's up to him to make a dish to match it, which is a great turnaround after all these years."
Where are the real bargains on your list? "The wines from Craigow, the 2003 Riesling and the 2005 Gewürztraminer, definitely. And also the 2006 Salomon Syrah Viognier from the Fleurieu Peninsula - I think that's really good value for money. I like to find European winemakers to show how they're using Australian grapes to make wines in a French-influenced style, say, or a Spanish-influenced style. That Salomon is definitely not a typical Fleurieu wine, for instance. It goes to show that sometimes it's about more than just terroir."
Your solid-gold marriage of menu and wine list is…
"The Optimiste petit verdot with the chargrilled lamb fillet with lentil dhal and infused curry jus. It's bigger than an amuse but smaller than an entrée, and every person who has tried that match in the red wine flight has said: 'That's the one'."
Cnr Harrington & Argyle Sts,The Rocks, 1300 136 498
Yes, this definitely redefines 'bijou'. But what The Shop lacks in size, it makes up for in charm. This flock-walled hotbox sells espresso by day and sates the vinous needs of a very local Bondi clientele by night. Owner Anthony Kaplan presides over a short-but-sweet list and a modest menu that suits this smallest of Sydney wine bars, far from the madding Campbell Parade crowd, down to the ground.
How was the list put together?
"The list is all about balance," says Kaplan. "It's about variety, region and price. I've tried to include as many different varieties as possible from regions around the world, while keeping within a certain price point - glasses between $8 and $12, bottles between $30 and $90. I read publications regarding wines, go to plenty of tastings and, most importantly, rely on customers' feedback."
What are you loving to pour right now?
"The 2008 Mesh Riesling and Scorpo Pinot Gris, the 2006 Magpie Estate The Fakir Grenache and Murray Street Barossa Shiraz 2005."
Which wines would you be racing to save in a fire? "I'm also especially proud of some 2006 Tassie pinots, Spring Vale and Winsted among them. In the event of a fire, always protect the Champagne!"
Where are the real bargains on your list? "The Ayala NV Champagne, 2007 Twofold Riesling, 2006 Philip Shaw Chardonnay, 2006 Poderi Colla Dolcetto and 2004 Dominique Portet Heathcote Cabernet."
Your solid-gold marriage of menu and wine list is…
"Antipasti, charcuterie and cheese are perfect wine food, naturally. Personally, I can never go past a late-harvest riesling and a cheese plate."
78 Curlewis St, Bondi, (02) 9365 2600
MILLE VINI After a drawn-out opening in 2008, Mille Vini has parlayed its Crown Street address, hefty wine list and swag of Italian attitude into a perpetually buzzy upmarket boozer from the same people behind Pizza e Birra. Simple anti-pasti and stuzzichini complement a Europe-leaning list decorated with saucy satyrs and other intriguing etchings. "We've  refocused as a team by introducing more obscure styles and upcoming wineries from both the Old and New Worlds," says sommelier Guy Vaillant.
How was the list put together?
"We recognise that our clientele are real food and wine appreciators," says Vaillant. "They're eager to try new things and learn about wine. That's why we have introduced lesser-known grapes such as greco, vermentino, albariño, negroamaro and monastrelle."
What are you loving to pour right now? "Tscharke Girl Talk albariño, Tapestry Cadenzia old-vine grenache and Don David tannat."
Which wines would you be racing to save in a fire? "I'd drench myself with wine to face the fire, but would definitely be saving some of my favourites - such as the Château Pichon-Longueville and Querciabella Camartina Super Tuscan."
Where are the real bargains on your list?
"The bargains are the Old World grenaches, the whites and the red varietals, as well as a pocket of unknown smaller Australian wines in the shiraz section. Beautiful wines at a good price."
Your solid-gold marriage of menu and wine list is…
"The Castelluccio Balio di Zola sangiovese with the lamb cutlet with rosemary potatoes and the rabbit tagliatelle with Don David tannat."
397 Crown St, Surry Hills, (02) 9357 3366
VINI Despite tripling insize since it opened in 2005, this Italian-focused hot spot has never lost its small-bar feel, and continues to keep it real with everyday enoteca pricing on its food and a refreshingly personal approach to wine. The list is all-Italian, notes owner/chef Andrew Cibej, with a couple of locally produced Italian varietals.
How was the list put together?
"We really try to represent Italy's regional and varietal diversity," says Cibej. "We've got wines from 16 regions and about 40 grape varieties."
What are you loving to pour right now?
"Gomba Barolo 2003, the Cos Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2006 and the Tasca d'Almerita Regaleali Bianco 2006."
Which wines would you be racing to save in a fire? 
"Nino Negri Inferno! But seriously, 1997 and 2001 Barbaresco by Produttori del Barbaresco. Any 2004 Barolo or Barbaresco and the Pieropan la Rocca 2006."
Where are the real bargains on your list? "The Migliori list, with its good-value big hitters, the house pinot grigio and the Marcarini Barbera d'Alba 2006."
Your solid-gold marriage of menu and wine list is…
"Ricotta panna cotta and Vigna del Papa vin santo; chocolate fig hazelnut tart and Cesari Recioto di Valpolicella; or squid-ink tonnarelli with blue swimmer crab and chilli with 2006 Cantele Alticelli fiano."
3/118 Devonshire St (enter via Holt St), Surry Hills, (02) 9698 5131
  • undefined: Pat Nourse & Monique Lane