Spotlight: Sydney

I have fond memories of living in Sydney in 2005 and 2006. Coming from England, the city’s lifestyle was eminently appealing. Runs from Bondi to Bronte for a dip in an ocean-filled pool etched into the cliffs. Long lunches, dominated by oversized sunnies and cold glasses of Chardonnay. Leaving the office with the sun still shining for happy hour bites at a street-side cafe, often with the glinting waters of one of Sydney’s myriad bays a few feet away. At the time, Sydney’s stellar places to drink and dine were pricey, lengthy affairs, reserved for business entertainment or special occasions when dressing to the nines was expected, and going out for dinner was more about passable salad or pasta and meeting people.

But while some things never change—the city’s waterfront setting is still as arresting as ever, visas are still a nightmare for anyone without an Australian passport—in the last 10 years, Sydney’s dining scene has evolved dramatically.

There’s been a shift from high-end to more casual in cuisine concepts, settings, and service style, with more restaurants exploring adventurous, fast, niche offerings in lieu of lengthy tasting menus. Delectable bar snacks are a staple, and sharing plates are becoming the norm.

Internationally acclaimed chefs are beating a path to Australian shores, with Sydney the main focus: while Heston Blumenthal offered his Dinner by Heston in Melbourne, Thai culinary authority David Thompson established Thai street food outlet Long Chim in Perth and Sydney, Jason Atherton set up Kensington Street Social in Sydney, and Noma co-founder Rene Redzepi shuttered the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen after his final service on New Year’s Eve to run a 10-week pop-up in the New South Wales capital.

Native ingredients are taking the dining scene by storm—Redzepi’s new Nordic approach to foraging has certainly injected new enthusiasm for exploring the wealth of foods growing around the city—and there’s been an uptick in consumer interest in home-grown wineries and their more experimental products. Natural wines are still popular, and as Australian wine producers continue to explore blends of exotic varietals, you’ll find smaller, wine-bar-cum-eateries in which to try them all over the city.

And both feeding off and fueling the excitement around Sydney’s dining scene is the passion of Sydney’s growing sommelier talent. After  left for New York, only two Master Sommeliers—Franck Moreau and Sebastian Crowther—remained in Sydney, but this year another nine Australia-based somms are going for their MS in London, five of which, including Paul Beaton, featured here, are taking it for the first time. And this tight-knit community of somms in Sydney say these shifts are only offering more chances to offer excellent service, Aussie-style, with no pretensions.

- Gemma Price, Travel Writer

Featured below are , MS (Head Sommelier, Rockpool);  (Head Sommelier, ARIA); Nick Hildebrandt (Co-owner of The Bentley, Monopole, and Yellow); , MS (Group Sommelier, Merivale); and  (Sommelier, Quay).

Which elements are shaping Sydney’s food and wine scene right now?

Sebastian: It’s pretty crazy what’s happening in Australia on the whole. One is a huge interest in produce from the consumer: where it’s from, how it’s made, the whole kit and caboodle, and it’s being driven a lot by more televised cooking shows—one of the main ones is MasterChef. People are rediscovering what’s happening on their doorstep, getting to know farmers, understanding what cool little products are in and around Australia, and in and around the city, that they can use in their restaurants. The same can be said of sommeliers and understanding where wine’s coming from—knowing the people that are growing the grapes and producing the wine itself.

Paul: Focus is moving away from fine dining. It’s been a gradual progression, but in the last two years there’s been a major shift—we’ve seen an explosion in casual dining with a fine dining attitude to service. Everything is quicker and faster. There’s been an explosion of small bars and wine bars, due to the relaxing of wine licensing laws in Australia. There are more small, shared-plate food styles, with more focus on different eclectic styles of wine to match and balance wine that’s coming into Australia, and certainly the wine produced here, with the food style.

Nick: Trends are very influential. So is social media. Ten years ago, there were very few imported wines, especially from regions other than Burgundy and Bordeaux. Natural wine was unheard of. Now, imports and natural wines are the norm, and the older, more established producers struggle for listings.

Franck: The trend is toward casual dining in more intimate, smaller spaces with great produce-driven menus and wine. There are more fun, quirky places with character.

Alex: Youth and mid-priced dining. Sydney isn’t exactly a cheap place to eat, but, within the last three to five years especially, the scene has exploded with smaller restaurants and eateries that have shied away from the strict formality of fine dining. A lot of the young guys and girls that were trained by some of the great fine dining chefs of Sydney just wanted to break away from the mold and cook food and serve wine that they and their friends wanted to get involved with on their days off. Sydneysiders eat out quite a lot, so education is generally coming from the time guests are spending in restaurants, good bars, and pubs.

How have Sydney’s recent food trends influenced wine lists and guest choices?

Sebastian: In terms of wine trends—again, more of a global trend, but especially in Sydney—we’ve seen a move away from bigger, richer styles—which five, ten years ago, people were all about, whether it was heavily oaked Chardonnay or reds from warm climate regions—to wines that are more elegant, with more finesse and lower alcohol, and which tend to be unoaked. With pickles and the house-made things people are making these days, [these types of wines] tend to be preferable, especially with lunchtime drinking.

Paul: Sommeliers are the like the new chefs. When the chef had the time, everybody used to want to meet the chefs. Now, it’s really about meeting the sommelier, and that’s down to [the somm’s] flexibility to meet different styles of food. I know there’s a big explosion in charcuterie at the moment, and that’s really exciting, as there are lots of classical, eclectic styles to pair with that food style. Lots of guys like Rene Redzepi from Noma brought foraging to mind, tapping into the resources and what we have here. And with it, we’ve seen organic, biodynamic styles coming to wine lists throughout Australia, too.

Franck: We’ve really had to look at more wines from around the world that complement the variety of influences in food—from natural wines and unusual varieties to interesting new countries making wines, such Romania and Slovenia. People really do listen to our recommendations. Malbec from Argentina is one of the most growing grapes of the moment.

Alex: It has certainly made it a little easier for us to break the mold of pairings and listings and opened up a whole new realm of flavor and textural pairing. The team at Black Market Sake really drove one of the major changes in Sydney. Matt Young, a highly respected sommelier in Sydney, set out with his partner Linda to bring back some of the most fascinating and inspiring sake from tiny producers across Japan that were so, so different from what we had access to in Australia. This was one of the first big influences that I saw in food and drink pairing, as it offered so many new opportunities.

How does the prevailing attitude toward Australian wines as compared to international wines affect your wine program?

Sebastian: At the moment, the trend is toward Australian wines and drinking local. Somms are looking less at the big boys and looking more at the ones making a few hundred cases or a few thousand cases, nothing particularly significant, and they’re not worried about the fact that they can have 48 bottles in some instances to showcase to their guests and then find another product.

Paul: Part of the program here is aged wines, balancing Australian wines and the rest of the world, wines with freshness, elegance, balance. International guests will always come looking for classical styles with regards to the wines by the glass program. [Australians] know we have such great wines in Australia and feel quite safe with their choices, so we’re trying to continue that education and show them there’s an array of great wines throughout the world.

Nick: My lists are made to suit my restaurants. There is a good mix of both Australian and international wines. Balance is always the key.

Franck: I think people are changing and Australians really want to try new wines, so we always need have something unusual on offer to challenge them. These [adventurous Australians] are drinking more Albariño from Spain and Fiano, Vermentino from Italy.

Alex: The current, younger generation of winemakers has come home from vintages worked across the globe and set up their smaller operations, enabling us to offer entire tasting menus that work incredibly well featuring only Australian wines. Visitors want to drink local, as do a lot of Australians, but people also want experiences and are open to new things.

What's the most popular category of wines on your list? Which wine trends do you think will be big this year?

Sebastian: With regards to reds, 10 years ago it was all about Cabernet and Shiraz. Now, Pinot Noir has a strong focus on wine lists and for consumers. With whites, over the last five years there’s been a big upsurge in Rieslings, away from richer-style Chardonnay. People are very open to trying the alternative varieties being planted by producers. McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley were always two big regions for the production of Shiraz and Cabernet, but more producers are making wines from Mediterranean-style grapes such as Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional.

Paul: From the Adelaide Hills in South Australia, which is cooler than the Barossa Valley, we’re seeing Pinot Noir. It’s so perfumed and aromatic; it has lots of elegance. There’s a real natural movement happening down there, people getting excited about doing less intervention with the wines, letting wines speak to that particular place. In Victoria, we’re seeing styles such as Syrah being made like northern Rhône styles from France, even though Australia has a warmer climate. More elegant, refined Chardonnays, such as Chablis styles from France, are being conditioned for Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and Geelong. For Rieslings, I think those from western Australia follow a classic style. Margaret River is doing wonderful styles, while the top area in Australia for Riesling would be the Clare Valley in South Australia.

Nick: Lighter reds such as Gamay and Pinot and richer, more textured whites. Natural wines are still big, however “good” natural wines will be on trend this year—that is to say, natural wines that are without faults.

Franck: Pinot Noir. Lighter, elegant, pure wines are in demand. Chardonnay is back—people are looking for more texture and a richer style of wine. There are some really interesting upcoming wineries such as Commune of Buttons in South Australia, BK Wines in Adelaide, and wine regions such as Tumbarumba, NSW, and Tasmania.

Alex: I think it’s fair to say the Australian market is still really caught up in classic varietals of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz, with a big influence of Sauvignon Blanc and an interest in Pinot Gris, but their dominance is starting to abate with the rise of the "alternate varietals." Producers in Derwent Valley, Adelaide Hills, and Yarra Valley in particular are doing big things to change international perspective of what is generally seen as an "Australian style" by offering incredibly refined, delicate, and focused wines. I see the biggest thing to challenge these classic varietals over the next few years to be Grenache. Taras Ochota of Ochota Barrels, based up in Basket Range of the Adelaide Hills, is one of the main guys flying the flag here. The likes of Domaine Simha, down in the Derwent Valley just north of Hobart in Tasmania, is the most exciting winery in the country right now. Nav Singh and Louise Radman are making some of the most exciting premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the country, but also some serious dry Rieslings to rival the best of the Mosel. I would love to see more Riesling producers not be afraid of some residual sweetness to offer more texture—not to mention Sydney eats a lot of Asian food that is not shy on spice—and to continue to move away from big reds and aim for elegance.

When it comes to service in Sydney, what are the most important aspects? What expectations do guests have?

Sebastian: Guests, more than ever, are after an experience and are happy to go out and be guided. They have more confidence than ever before in what people in restaurants are offering, whether that be the sommeliers or chefs. People like authenticity. Ten years ago, you may have seen a fair amount of stuffiness in restaurants from serving staff. Nowadays, they expect that you’re down to earth, that you’re honest, that you’re not pretentious. You can provide great service at that level.

Paul: Being humble, always smiling, having a wonderful attitude really makes people feel comfortable, and with that you get a lot of trust to guide them with their choices on the wine list. Fundamentally, guests want value for money. I work at the top end with ARIA, so it is really expensive, but if you give them value for money, if you have that knowledge base and provide articulate, friendly service, I think Australians really like that. Service, for me, always has to be very polished and well executed, and being a great listener is a big part of our trade.

Nick: It depends on the restaurant and the occasion. In a big ticket restaurant, guests want guidance and some level of formal service; however, in a casual wine bar, things are much more relaxed.

Franck: Value for money is important, but it’s really all about the people. We need to create an experience for our guests so they can travel and enjoy something different.

Alex: The scene in Sydney is way too diverse to have a set procedure. I know for our service, we have some very clear and set standards, but our approach to each table and guest must, most of all, remain genuine and personable. We want our range of individual personalities to shine through and allow us the chance to create unique experiences.

What do you find characterizes the people working in wine in Sydney? What is the sommelier community like?

Sebastian: There are a lot of young people that are all very likeminded and are coming together, training and tasting, doing all of the things that push your skill and knowledge forward, but are a bit competitive with regards to exams. It’s a great community, inside and outside of work. People get along really well. I think people generally are interested in helping others get better and push the craft.

Paul: In the last five years, the community has become much bigger. I think there’s a real excitement with the sommelier culture—anyone can be a sommelier with hard work and dedication—and I would hope that the guys I’m training with right now are breeding a new culture. It’s very open, with great people. Franck Moreau and Sebastian Crowther are so generous with their time, and when you see how willing and hardworking they are, they’re setting the tone and the culture for new people coming through.

Nick: Most are keen to learn and genuinely interested in wine. The community is pretty tight knit. Everybody knows each other.

Franck: People are fun, enthusiastic, keen to learn, and professional. Everyone is supportive of each other, but it can be tough as everyone is so busy!

Alex: Like anywhere, there are some pretty big personalities. Luckily, most of them are amazing! Everyone is busy but not afraid to get involved and help the next generation coming through. Mentoring is such an important part of any industry and certainly wine is a big one!

What's the best thing about working in wine in Sydney?

Sebastian: It’s got a really great, relaxed feel to it. It’s friendly—you can easily go to different places and see people you know and get looked after. People like to catch up after work. People are close.

Paul: The lifestyle. The openness. The approach to wine. Just living in a wine-producing country with a great climate: we always have blue skies throughout the year, you never have to wear wintry clothes, and you’re by the water. There’s a real vibrancy of young people wanting to be better, and a real chemistry between sommeliers and winemakers. I try and do a vintage each year at a vineyard, keeping that openness and humbleness, realizing the hard work and dedication they put in.

Nick: The great restaurants and bars and the fantastic wine community all come to mind. It’s a rapidly growing industry.

Franck: It’s a fantastic lifestyle. It’s such an exciting time to be in hospitality in Sydney.

Alex: The diversity. Sure, we don't have the direct access to a lot of producers and wines that you may see in Europe and across America, but the local scene is really singing, and we continue to have some serious industry leaders bringing new goods out constantly. I really think we compete rather well with the rest of the world.

What would you say to a sommelier thinking about moving to Sydney?

Sebastian: There are always people looking for good sommeliers in Sydney—people with professionalism and qualifications. It’s as exciting here as it is anywhere in the world. For people on the CMS path looking to go on to do advanced MS exams, it’s a pretty great place to be. There’s a network of people sitting and tasting together, and we’ve got a sommelier association across Australia with events that bring the community together. And you get to work in the Harbor.

Paul: One hundred percent, you gotta try it. It’s a great lifestyle, the climate’s good, you’ll get the opportunity to travel through all the states—every state makes wine—and you get to see all of the different styles. Financially, it’s a great place to work, and we’re rewarded really well. And the work-life balance is really in sync.

Alex: The great thing about Sydney is the excitement surrounding the scene at the moment. You can get involved in a small 50-seater and have a rock star little wine list full of everything you want to drink and keep it moving. You can share your passion on a semi-casual basis with locals who are interested in what you want to say, or you can don a suit and tie and be a part of one of the amazing wine programs in a more fine-dining environment. Not to mention there are few places in the world where you can be running out of the surf in Bondi and be in a suit in the city starting work within an hour!

What specific restaurant or dining experience, other than your own, would you recommend to a food-and-drink lover as being quintessentially Sydney?

Sebastian: One called Acme near Kings Cross—that’s a young chef with a new age, funky, eclectic wine list, and tasty food to go with it. A great hotspot is Chippendale—used to be a pretty uninteresting place for eating and drinking, and now it’s like, boom. One called Ester, another Automata: two quite young chefs that have worked in some great places, with interesting wine lists and on-trend, local-produce-driven food.

Paul: Quay restaurant. That would be the top end, just for the experience—dining on the harbor side, where it’s all glass. Doing the tasting menu with wines is a highlight. At the other end, where I live in Paddington, there’s a small wine bar called 10 Williams Street. It’s really chill, really cozy. You can sit at the bar, you can have a cocktail, you can have wines by the glass; they creates an in-your-own-home dining experience.

Franck: The list is long. Rockpool, Love Tilly Devine, Ash St. Cellar, Master... Mr. Wong has the best ambiance and amazing food. Quay and Bennelong are among the best fine-dining places, while Felix takes me back to France! And there’s Fred’s, a hotly tipped restaurant opening in June.

Alex: If you bring someone to Sydney to eat and show off what we have to offer, you would be crazy not to eat something on the water. Icebergs down on Bondi is a pretty amazing spot and is an institution in Sydney, or a barbecue or picnic down on Bronte or one of our beautiful beaches. Otherwise venue-hopping from Newtown into the city is a pretty good way to get up to mischief and drink and eat well along the way. Go to Mary’s for burgers, fried chicken, and vespers with one of the coolest wine lists in the city. Hubert just opened an incredible dining room that looks like a rustic 1940s Parisian brasserie.

Many thanks to Sebastian, Paul, Nick, Franck, and Alex for sharing their thoughts on Sydney's wine scene and sommelier community!