Drinking Victoria with Pat Sullivan and Christian McCabe

Published on 27 November 2019

Photo: Patrick Sullivan (left) and Christian McCabe (credit: Elika Rowell)

Your guide to what's in the glass from those in the know.

Winemaker Pat Sullivan and sommelier Christian McCabe are among this state’s most discerning drinkers. Sullivan makes delicious wine and puts it in bottles so pretty you want to keep them, while McCabe has been responsible for many a sore head after a night spent at The Town Mouse, Embla or Lesa.

What happens when you combine their tastes into a convenient bottleshop-sized package, smack bang in the middle of the city? Melbourne’s BYO restaurants get their payday, for one thing, while wine-lovers can also rejoice. Punchin’ Bottles will be a chance to access the wines that Sullivan and McCabe import through their business Puncheon Bottles, as well as get face-to-face with winemakers at the occasional in-store tasting. The store ­– a former music shop that will be redeveloped later in 2020 – is set to open on 15 January. Here’s a peek into what’s exciting Sullivan and McCabe in the world of drinks.

The last truly delicious thing I drank was:

Pat Sullivan: I think it’s all about the context. I was in Bangkok last week, eating some of the hottest and most delicious food of my life at 100 Mahaseth. I looked across the table at my friend, Bill Downie, who was beading with sweat from the pure intensity of the chilli. We both picked up our super-cold beer and took a big mouthful. I can’t say if it was the satisfaction of eating at a restaurant that was wonderful like no other, or that the Singha beer had some sort of magic power, but that beer was truly delicious.

Christian McCabe: That’s a hard one as I’m lucky to taste, and in many cases drink, a lot of delicious things each week. But the wine that most recently made me stop and concentrate so I won’t miss a thing was a Sancerre made by Sébastien Riffault in the Loire Valley in France. A wine like this takes you back in time and really takes you on a journey. His wines were some of the first wines that really made me excited, and seven or eight years after my first taste I still treasure the opportunity to drink a bottle. As I write this, I’m thinking about it again and wondering whether I can find another bottle to drink tonight!

The last Victorian wine that surprised me was:

PS: Hurley Vineyard pinot noir. I visited the cellar door last weekend with my wife and two very young children. It took me about 30 seconds to taste through the three wines and realise that the 2016s are something special. They’re light, expressive and powerful. I looked outside and into the vineyard: the attention to detail and care was immediately apparent.

CM: Patrick Sullivan’s latest release of single-vineyard chardonnays. Chardonnay is a grape that can either show off winemaking or show off terroir, and in Australia we seem to have made it largely about winemaking, which is not something that interests me much. His latest release is easily the most pure and expressive line-up of chardonnays that I’ve ever seen in Australia. Hopefully we see many more growers releasing wine like this.

As far as I’m concerned, the defining place to get a drink in Melbourne:

PS: Probably in my time, it’s City Wine Shop. Aside from the great wine list, for me it’s about the benchmark that this venue has created for food and wine culture across Victoria. Whether it’s a wine importer, winemaker, restaurateur, viticulturist or distiller, they’ve all done their time behind the bar at City Wine Shop.

CM: Surely it must be City Wine Shop. I actually don’t drink there that often, but the Supper Club back in the late ’90s and early 2000s was a revolution in wine drinking. I saw many a sunrise through that front window. To sit on the footpath out the front of City Wine Shop is for me a quintessential Melbourne experience: you’re in Europe but you’re in Australia and it feels like it’s been there forever.

If I were to choose a Victorian drink purely on the strength of its label, I’d go for:

PS: Sailor’s Grave beers. Amazing artwork and it is what it says on the tin!

CM: I don’t know whether he still makes the wine but I nominate Bill Downie’s Mornington pinot noir, colloquially known as “Stool on Stool”. Getting Reg Mombassa to paint a picture of a piece of shit on a piano stool rejoicing in the morning sun is such an awesomely frivolous use of a legendary artist’s talent.

The Victorian spirit I’m digging the most right now is:

PS: Grappa is gaining pace. I can’t get enough of the stuff. A local guy called Mark Dunemann has been taking the grape pressings from a few of us local winemakers and turning it into some pretty special grappa. Certainly one to watch out for.

CM: In my line of work, the last thing I need is to redevelop a taste for hard liquor, so I don’t necessarily know what I’m talking about. The best thing to happen though lately has been the rise of small gin producers. There are so many, and like any bubble, there is a heyday when there is a new one each month: this is a special time for the consumer, until the commercial realities of keeping something viable take hold. As with anything in this world, if you like it and want it to stick around, then support it.

When someone hands me a wine list in a restaurant, I:

PS: Look for the dry white wine section.

CM: It depends on the situation, but if you’re the kind of person who likes to spend an hour deciding on the first bottle of wine, do your guests a favour and order something to drink while they wait. Since I spend a lot of my life thinking about the right drink for the right occasion, I probably have a fair idea about the type of wine I think we should drink in that moment so it’s actually not that hard to zero in on the zone I want in the list, then find a good producer that meets the budget. If I’m somewhere where I know they know what they’re talking about, I probably won’t even look at the list so much as get some recommendations so I can try something new. Budget is a funny concept in Australia: it’s as if saying “I'd like an $80 bottle of wine” is somehow a euphemism for “I earn not very much money”. But it doesn’t have to be that way and sommeliers really appreciate having a clear direction, so don’t be afraid to say you want something good that’s under $100. Nor is price very often an indicator of quality or the amount of pleasure to be had in that moment.

There’s no better value on a wine list in this state than:

PS: Henty riesling. I’m super fascinated by the place. Rich volcanic soils, decent rainfall, cool even seasons. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a wine from the region that wasn’t good.

CM: The wines of Central Victoria. Generally made from so-called alternative varietals by small producers working an uncool region, these wines tend to have low mark-ups and are generally chosen because whoever is writing the wine list really believes in the wine. Yes, we can get wine from all over the world here in Melbourne, which is something special, but most Victorian wine barely makes it out of Victoria, so we’re really lucky to be able to drink these as often nobody else can.

For me, the most inspiring person in the Victorian drinks world is:

PS: Mac Forbes. He’s diligent, focused and uncompromising. When everything and everyone was against him, he took the hard road because it was the right thing to do. It has been an inspiration to watch somebody that believes in something enough and is willing to work hard to make it possible.

CM: Patrick Walsh, director of wine distribution company Cellarhand. The guy is a legend and, in his career, has brought a lot of good wine into the mainstream. It’s because of him that you can go into most outer suburban restaurants and buy a good bottle of local riesling or a well-made grenache, or whatever you feel like, and in some ways this is more special than going somewhere that’s trying to take wine seriously and getting a good bottle.

Punchin’ Bottles opens at 124 Russell St, Melbourne on 15 January. Follow @punchin_bottles for updates.

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