OZ Somm Bars.

Where to drink in Sydney.

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Text and Photos by Michael Engelmann

Two years ago, when I moved from San Francisco to Sydney, it was hard not to notice the parallels between the two cities: Both are on a bay, have a famous bridge, a cosmopolitan vibe and, for those lucky enough to call either city home, a great way of life.

 

It was Sydney’s wine scene that captured me, though. When I joined the team at Gary Danko, San Francisco’s wine scene was changing, with new wine bars, great wine lists and a new generation of sommeliers. Wine-focused restaurants were popping up everywhere and San Franciscans were responding positively, becoming more wine savvy and, if anything, wanting more.
   When I came to Sydney to work at Rockpool Bar & Grill, I realized I was arriving at the beginning of a similar movement. A new generation of wine bars, sommeliers, wine importers, consumers and winemakers was on the rise. This wine-culture revolution was in large part the result of licensing laws that had been passed in 2008. These laws slashed the red tape for budding small-business owners and cut down the application fees for licensing small bars.
   These changes paved the way for sommeliers to open their own wine bars, places that have become venues for introducing an ever-wider range of wines to locals. The current strength of the Australian dollar has also helped a new generation of importers like Andrew Guard and Tim Stock (both former sommeliers) to bring in wines Australians hadn’t had access to before. All of this has changed the way Sydneysiders look at and buy wine—and has made the city a terrific destination for wine lovers.



Fix St James
Stuart Knox, aka “the man with the red shoes,” opened his wine bar and restaurant in 2006 in the central business district (or CBD) after returning home from a stint in England. Fix St James reflects its energetic, clever owner with a cheerful feel and smart dining area and bar. This place offers one of the most diverse wine selections in Sydney. Whatever Knox finds that he likes to drink (be it more classic or orange/natural/biodynamic) goes on the list, and he’s skilled at finding unique, interesting wines from within Australia (favorites include Eden Road, Shobbrook and Ruggabellus). Once 60 percent foreign wines, the list now boasts 60 percent local producers. He is there every day happily chatting up customers about wine, sharing the story of why he chose something to go on the list and making recommendations. Sommeliers and winemakers come here to discover something fun and interesting to drink, as well as eat whatever specials the kitchen has on that day (do not miss the smoked eel soufflé if it is available). Along with Jason Hoy, Knox is credited with starting the first ever Summer of Riesling Down Under in 2011.



121BC
Hidden in a backstreet in Surry Hills and a little bit difficult to find, this small, dark place brings Italy’s best to Sydney. Giorgio de Maria landed in Sydney in 2011, after sommelier stints in Italy, Ireland and Japan. He opened 121BC Cantina & Enoteca as an Italian wineshop with adjoining wine bar. He is easily one of the funniest people in the trade, as well as one of the most knowledgeable, and yet he is also one of the humblest people you’ll meet. His interest in natural and biodynamic wines is clearly evident in the wine selection (Panevino from Sardegna, which he imports himself, is a favorite), although classics are also available. And his rotating by-the-glass offerings (chalked up on the board behind the bar at very reasonable prices) cover all 20 regions of Italy. If you find anything you like in the bottle shop, you can drink it in the bar for an extra $15, along with some great Italian-style food. Regional or varietal tastings are held on Monday nights and Saturday afternoons; for example, recent tasting have presented a dozen different wines from Etna and from Valtellina, focused on nebbiolo and showcased orange wines. Just make sure to go early, if not right when they open, if you want to get a seat.



10 Williams Street
I really enjoy this place. A cozy wine bar in the Paddington neighborhood, it has a great vibe, some of the best music (especially when sommelier Matt Young is in charge of the playlist) and a great selection of very well priced wines. The list ranges over 250 selections, managed by co-owner Giovanni Paradiso along with Young (who also owns Black Market Sake, the importer of the terrific sakes on the list); they also offer 20 wines by the glass in constant rotation. Italy is a focus, as are “naturally” made wines; there are great, terroir-focused French wines (Thierry Allemand, Ganevat, Francis Boulard), as well as boutique and emerging Australian producers such as Sami-Odi. One of my favorite times to go is on relatively quiet Saturday afternoons when I can enjoy a glass or two, listening to the great soundtrack and admiring the wine drawings scrawled across the walls by past visiting winemakers and customers.



Wine Library
The Wine Library, a European-inspired wine bar that opened July 2010 in Woollahra, is the latest hit from the trio Traci Trinder, James Hird and Todd Garratt—well known for Buzo, their Italian restaurant around the corner. Open seven days a week, it’s filled with industry folk but especially on Sundays, as Wine Library is one of the few wine bars open that day. They come here for good reason: awesome wine selections (from cult to eclectic to up-and-coming producers); great, well-priced food (favorites are the house-smoked salmon, meat balls, fish fingers); fun music and awesome people. Not a bad combination! It is hard to look at the wine list and not think about Terroir in NYC—it’s just as fun to read (gotta love the cheeky Jay-Z and Ron Burgundy references throughout the list). And they hold terrific events that explore the culture, food and wine of regions with unique and fun by-the-glass offerings. Recent events have been centered around Piedmont, Jura and Chablis.


Felix Bistro & Ash St. Cellar
I met Franck Moreau, MS, when I first moved to Sydney. Not only are we both French and both in charge of large wine programs but were we were also preparing for our Master Sommelier examinations and would often train together. Moreau moved to Australia in 2004 and, since 2005, has been the head sommelier of the Merivale group, the Sydney hospitality and entertainment group behind Felix, a beautifully designed, classic Parisian bistro in the CBD. When you walk in here it is hard not to feel like you’ve stepped into a bistro just off the Seine. I like coming here for the selection of mostly French wines and food. There is a particularly good selection of Champagne and wines by the glass. One of my favorite dishes is the lamb pie, especially with a glass of Henri Bonneau Les Rouliers. Moreau imports some of the wines exclusively for Merivale so it is a great place to go and drink things you won’t necessarily be able to find elsewhere. Ash St. Cellar, also part of Merivale and located just across the alley from Felix, offers wine selections from over a dozen countries, with many wines available by the glass and a good small menu.


Oak Barrel
I discovered this wine shop the first time I came to Australia on a wine trip with Josh Greene (editor of ). During the trip, I’d found a number of rare wines I wanted to bring back to the US to show my friends, and this is the place I bought them. Julian Abouzeid joined the Oak Barrel as wine buyer a couple of years ago, bringing with him an exciting and refreshing selection of wine (boutique and organic), beer, cider and spirits. He stocks everything from iconic producers such as Wendouree or Craiglee to newer projects like William Downie, Mayer, Jamsheed or Ochota Barrels. Make sure to check the website for their weekly tastings.



Love, Tilly Devine
Named after Sydney’s most notorious female crime boss of the late 1920s, Love, Tilly Devine is a small wine bar hidden in an alley in Darlinghurst. I remember coming here when I first moved to Sydney and Matt Swieboda, the sommelier and co-owner, was pouring one of my favorite German producers by the glass: Zilliken. I think I ended up drinking a bottle on my own and he and I quickly became friends. Riesling is a big focus on the list (four pages fully dedicated to this noble grape) but it also boasts many artisanal, low-input, terroir-focused wines from Australia and the rest of the world. The by-the-glass selection is particularly good. A small selection of oysters, cheese and small plates is also available. During the most recent Tour de France, Swieboda followed the race by pouring wine by the glass from each region along its route.


Bentley Restaurant & Bar
Bentley offers delicious, modern Australian food in a relaxed setting with one of the best wine lists in town (700+ bottle selections and 25 wines by the glass). While this Surry Hills restaurant offers a lot of hard-to-find, rare and cult wines, it is also a great place to taste a new generation of Australian wines (Lucy Margaux and Jamsheed are both making wine for them). I love looking for the hidden gems on this huge list—and have fond memories of a 1988 Vouvray from Foreau and a 1983 Cornas from Robert Michel. Sommelier and owner Nick Hildebrandt has also created one of the best marc selections in town (Chevillon, DRC, Pibarnon...). Hildebrandt also opened Monopole, in December 2012, in the Potts Point area. A wine bar, it’s built around a significant wine list and a large range of house-cured meats and shared plates. Considering that this is my neighborhood, I never need to venture far for a good glass.