The Illawarra has undergone a culinary transformation in recent years, with boutique and high- end cafes, bars and restaurants serving up an array of finely-polished, locally-sourced cuisine. Following suit, local wines from the Illawarra and surrounding regions are coming into their own and making a mark for themselves on the Australian landscape.
To find out more about the burgeoning industry, we spoke to two local connoisseurs, Erick Zevallos, owner of Wollongong’s The Throsby wine bar, and Simon Evans, owner and head chef of the lauded Caveau restaurant. They give us a locals guide to producers, trends and the best drops from around the region.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s your current role and how did you end up in it?
EK: I own and manage a small wine bar called The Throsby in Wollongong and also own The Black Cockatoo, a dive bar focusing on beer and spirits. I started out as a bartender in Staten Island, New York, at a place called Adobe Blues. The Bar Manager there, Peter Mullen, pretty much taught me everything I know. I also worked at The Meatball Shop in Manhattan, under the absolute best, Michael Chernow. These two places moulded me.
In 2013, Maddie – my fiancé – and I were living back in Sydney. We would go to Wollongong some weekends, and we always struggled to find a place with good wine and atmosphere. That’s when we start thinking we could open a place of our own. Maddie’s background is in events management; she used to work for The McGrath Foundation. In December 2014 we opened the doors to The Throsby, first small bar and wine bar in Wollongong.
SE: I am the owner, chef and sommelier at Caveau, which is a one Hat (Good Food Guides) and two Glass (Wine List of the Year) restaurant in Wollongong. On the wine side of things, I am responsible purchasing our beverages, matching wines to our food, writing the drinks list and training our staff. Being a chef, I spend most of my time during service in the kitchen, so my front of house staff led by Kirby take care of the actual service of our wine.
I have always liked wine. After becoming a chef and knowing I wanted to own a restaurant one day I always took an interest in it, but it wasn’t until 2014 when I actually started approaching it more seriously – tasting as much as I could and learning how it’s made. When myself and my business partner Tom bought Caveau in late 2016, it was natural that I took over the wine side of things.
The Illawarra has a growing food culture, but is less known for its local wines. Who are some of the standout producers from the region and its surrounds that we can look out for?
EK: For us, Nick O’Leary has caught our attention. His wines come from Lake George and we’re impressed by how they stand up against wines from more established regions like Margaret River and Yarra Valley. Ravensworth from the Murrumbateman region is also one of the top producers. Ari’s Natural Wine Co. and Dawning Day Wines are from the Southern Highlands, and they utilise fruit from Goulburn and Mittagong and other regions close by. Their wines look and taste beautiful.
SE: Our two most local regions, the South Coast and the Southern Highlands, can both be very tough for grape growing. The coast is hot and wet, which creates humidity and leads to mildew. In the Southern Highlands, spring frosts, rain and low temperatures can make it hard to bring a crop to ripeness. However, we’re also seeing a lot of young wineries that, with crops planted at the turn of the century, are starting to hit a great age and produce quality fruit more consistently. There are producers who have put a lot of work into understanding the region – planting the right varieties, in the right places, picked at the right time.
From the South Coast Coolangatta has a world-class Semillon. Cuppits have a beautiful property in Ulladulla where they produce a very highly rated Nebbiolo. In the Southern Highlands, more established wineries such as Tertini, Cherry Tree Hill and Centennial are producing beautiful Rieslings, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, as well as alternative varieties like Tempranillo and Arneis. As Erik mentioned, Tony Zafirakos from Ari’s Natural Wine Co. and Michael Archer from Dawning Day are making wine styles we haven’t seen in the Southern Highlands before, like ancestral method wines and skin contact whites. I’m really excited to see what they do in the coming years.
Are there distinctive qualities to local wines in the Illawarra, or from the surrounding Southern Highlands, that are unique to the region?
SE: The Semillon produced on the South Coast is quite similar in style to the Hunter valley, but being close to the sea comes with a slightly salty, minerality in its youth – a fantastic match with local oysters. As it ages, it develops a more nutty, smoky characteristic, and can even take on oaky characteristics after ten years.
Where the Southern Highlands really excels is with the quality of its aromatic whites that thrive in cooler climates, like Riesling, Pinot Gris, Arneis & Gewürztraminer. Also look out for sparkling wines made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as both varieties grow well there and can also make impressive wines in their own right.
What are some of trends you’re seeing in the wine industry, not just in the Illawarra but around Australia?
SK: I find the move to ‘alternative varietals’ exciting. When Australia first started planting vines, we were using French varieties that weren’t used to our climate. Recently we’ve seen an influx of Mediterranean varieties that are much better suited to our hot and dry seasons and need less water (something that will be increasingly important in the coming years). Someone like Ashley Ratcliff from Ricca Terra Farms has been at the forefront of this transition, with wines made from grapes including Arinto, Nero d’Avola and Slancamenca Bela. Ashley also supplies other winemakers with grapes such as Amato Vino, Unico Zelo and Brash Higgins.
EK: think it’s obvious by now that the ‘natural wine’ movement is officially here, thanks to writers such as Mike Bennie and the crew at the Wine Front that champion small, minimal intervention producers from around Australia. There is an influx of young winemakers producing vibrant, gluggable wine with a minimal/hands off approach, which is fantastic.
Natural wines are definitely popular right now. What are some of the qualities of a natural wine that tasters should take note of?
EK: Generally, but not always, natural wines have a cloudy appearance. This is due to a lack of fining or filtering. Unlike what you’d expect from a ‘white’ wine, they’re more likely to be amber or orange in appearance, due to extended skin contact and/or oxidization. These processes can add to the aromas and textures of the wine. Another style of wine that falls under the ‘natural’ label is the Petillant Naturel. A French term meaning ‘naturally sparkling’, these wines are bottled before the fermentation process is complete, resulting in a bubbly wine. They are generally are fun to drink, juicy and refreshing.
I actually use the label ‘natural’ cautiously because some producers, sommeliers and wine advocates prefer the ‘minimal intervention’ label. All wine is natural and starts with fruit, but what is important – in my opinion – is that the fruit is grown without pesticides or herbicides and processed without sulphur or acids. These are things a customer can ask themselves when enjoying minimal intervention wines. To what degree did the winemaker go to make sure it is just fruit? If you’re interested in these types of wines, a great read would be ‘The Dirty Guide to Wine’ by Alice Feiring.
SE: Natural wine and the debate surrounding it has definitely proved divisive. It’s a shame, because there’s no definitive answer to what a natural or minimal intervention wine really is. The general consensus is that is has to have been organically or biodynamically farmed, have no additives (such as acid, tannin or stabilisers), no fining agents (such as isinglass, milk or egg), and no sulphur at bottling. But there are some wines that people would consider ‘natural’ that wouldn’t fit this criteria, and then there are some ‘traditional’ wines that would. We should be focusing on quality and transparency in the wine making industry rather than picking sides.
I think there’s a misconception that ‘natural’ is a style of wine; when really it’s more of a philosophy. Natural wine can be made from any grape and in any style – from lean, crisp and acidic, to juicy, funky, and murky, with a plethora of other flavours in between.
Apart from your own business, of course, what are some of the other places you’d recommend for discerning wine-lovers when visiting Wollongong and its surrounds?
EK: Babyface Kitchen in Wollongong would be my first pick. They champion mostly Australian and always minimal intervention wine producers. Caveau in Wollongong would also be a top recommendation. Simon is Level 3 WSET certified and going for his diploma in wine. He knows his wine and is very passionate about our local wine producers.
SE: The Throsby always have some really great wines, and they’re all available by the glass. Babyface Kitchen are at the forefront of minimal intervention wines, with some wines made in tiny amounts so not seen in many bars or restaurant. That being said, the standard of wine being served in Wollongong has really shot up in the past few years, so you can get a good glass of wine at lots of places around town now.
Lastly, as we move into the Autumn months, what are your recommendations for a warming drop, and what would you pair it with?
EK: We are currently enjoying Ravensworth 2018 Barbera, an Italian grape by origin but uniquely from the Hilltops region. This red is spiced berries all the way – not to dry and medium-bodied to ensure you can have more than one glass. We would pair it with the braised beef shin on toast with labneh and dill.
SE:Well being from Wales I don’t find autumn here particularly cold so you’ll still find me drinking chilled Semillon. For you Aussies, look for wines labelled ‘Syrah’, which is the French name for Shiraz but in Australia has been developed to be softer in tannins, medium-bodied with crunchier red fruits. Syrah pairs beautifully with native meats like kangaroo or emu, or other lean meats. Cobaw Ridge in the Macedon ranges produce one of my favourite Syrah’s from high altitude, organic-certified vineyards. Aussie Nebbiolo is also a great autumn wine, and there are some great drops from local wineries Cupitts and Tertini.