We don’t go out sans child anywhere near enough here at Australian Wine Review HQ, so when my lovely, long suffering partner and I get out together – and my 42nd birthday provided a great excuse – we go large.
And largesse was on the menu for Saturday’s dinner at Sydney’s Bennelong restaurant.
With the sun going down in an arc of golden light in the background, and a pile of random equipment for the filming of Ryan Gosling’s new film as an added obstacle course to get there, this was a birthday dinner for the ages.
Although, I didn’t start off that excited.
Yes, the Opera House location is epic. But Bennelong feels over-formal. Stuffy. A bit soulless. The wine list has made finals most years I’ve judged Wine List of The Year awards too, and I’ve never warmed to it. It feels safe. Expected. Deep enough for good scores, but not a list that makes me think ‘I need to go there’ (especially the uninspiring by the glass options).
But this dinner? The restaurant felt special.
The sashimi scallop dish below is a great example of why. Combining scallops, oyster cream, pickled white turnips and black vinegar laver it was an exercise in precision and delicacy. Something that non chefs (like me) can only really dream of.
Arguably of more importance, the service was applaudable. I was ‘that guy’ who whinged about my Chablis tasting like Sauv Blanc, who was then given bonus glasses of an actual, better Sauvignon Blanc for complaining. They handled it so well, with a sense of polished, the customer-is-always-right-even-when-he-is-just-a-grumpy-wine-critic sensibility that was commendable.
What a mixed bag of wine quality it was too.
Let’s dip in and look at the drinks!
For starters, it was an easy choice for a glass of Krug Grand Cuvée 170ème edition. Ahhh. We can finish the night there and I’ll empty a bottle thanks. The richness, the proud nutty volume from the oak fermentation and extensive lees ageing is so right. It’s so voluminous, so opulent and powerful. I’m a Krug sucker, and this glass was everything I want in a glass of Champagne. The end.
By contrast, a glass of Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve alongside it looked prickly and pokey, which doesn’t normally happen with the reserve-wine-heavy Charles Heidsieck. But today it was shaded by a gaping margin.
Buy the Krug, it’s worth the extra.
What came out next was befuddling.
Bougros isn’t my favourite Grand Cru (and ’19 isn’t my favourite Chablis vintage) but there was nothing excusable about the quality of the Maison Dampt Chablis Grand Cru Bougros 2019.
It was junk.
Early picked, with pyrazine leafiness robbing it of varietal character, it was sweaty and passionfruity and so damning in its un-varietal shittiness that I called for another bottle. But the next bottle was the same – weird, Sauv-Blanc-esque, leafy, stonefruity, thin, yet juicy shit. I well know that ’19 was hot and everyone picked early (and I’ve had plenty of variable wines) but man this was like an unwooded Chardonnay fever dream.
What’s most grinding is that I’ve been to the Dampt properties, tasted loads of the wines and know that they’re not usually this underwhelming.
Thankfully, the somm was on the ball, offered another bottle to try, then replaced (FOC) an actual Sauv Blanc for contrast – the Alphonse Mellot La Moussiere Sancerre 2021.
I’m not strictly a Sancerre drinker, but this tasted like what’s printed on the label. Proudly varietal, it’s a pointy-edged, gently-herbal, crisp and defined white of pungency and flavour. More on the ‘we take inspo from 2011 Marlborough’ herbal edged style compared to modern, leesy, ‘is this Chardonnay?’ type Sauv, but properly snappy and refreshing.
Well played to the wine team for sorting it out and placating me too.
Thankfully, the rest of the wines proceeded on course, if a little boring. There was a gently maturing, brick dusty and chunky La Serena Brunello 2016 that looked modern, a bit predictable, but polished (although not screaming Brunello, more open cherry fruited red), and a simple, easy Mt Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 2022 to finish (that was forgettable in its limey, mono- dimensional openness but still pleasant).
When the final spoonfuls of the signature Bennelong pavlova (with meringue sails inspired by the Opera House itself) was done, I was so glad that we went to Bennelong for my birthday. The food was superb (I can still taste the XO pippis in smoked bacon), the service reminiscent of what service was like before COVID took all the great restaurant staff away, and the evening was grand.
Like every parent of young children, however, I only wish Krug-fuelled dinners weren’t such a rare event.
So often, it’s me at some random wine function around the world eating an instagram-worthy dish with a pack of wine writers. The glitz! The glamour! The free pour fizz. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a fucking great life, but it can ring a bit hollow when I know my fam are at home eating bolognese from the freezer.
So I’m making a call now – I want more dinners to remember in 2023. More nights where I can still taste the food a week later. More meals where the wine (or beer or even fancy sparkling water) still lingers in my olfactories for weeks after its done.
Bring it on.
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Head to Adelaide and do Botanic and Magill Estate restaurants.
First time at Botanic the wines were a bit ‘hit and miss’ (especially Furmint and Barolo) much improved just recently. The Somm will bring other wines if you think the pairing sucks (replaced the 3 yr old barely decanted Barolo with a ten year old Signature)
Magill Estate is all about the wine – whilst food is very very good, the Icon pairing is outstanding (’86 707 in perfect condition last time I was there)