The skill of a sommelier is not in finding wonderful, expensive wines to put on a list. That's the easy part. The real skill is in finding modestly priced wines that offer plenty of bang for their buck. By Christine Salins.
This is where the knowledgeable sommelier can truly demonstrate talent. The key is to get to know the smaller producers who are doing interesting things but not charging stratospheric prices.
Seek out finely crafted wines that are worth every penny of their modest price tag. Find the hidden gems that offer a wow moment without the top-shelf price.
We've found some good value drops to help you on your way, all of them retailing for around $25 or less.
1. Hahndorf Hill Wines 2012 GRU
Cassaly Fitzgerald, sommelier at Appellation at The Louise in the Barossa Valley, is proud to have this Adelaide Hills Grner Veltliner on her list. The Austrian variety is particularly food-friendly and Austria's Falstaff magazine rated this one as the best outside of Austria in an international tasting.
Fitzgerald says guests are increasingly interested in emerging and alternative grape varieties.
"Guests seem to be looking for wines that will not only complement their dish selection but also capture their intrigue," she says.
Amongst more than 600 wines on the Appellation list, Hahndorf Hill 2010 Blaufrnkisch red is also a standout.
2. Lark Hill 2013 biodynamic Viognier
Like Hahndorf Hill, Canberra District winery Lark Hill produces excellent Grner Veltliner, but the real bargain of Lark Hill's line-up could be its Viognier. With its floral aromas and hints of apricot and ginger, this is an attractive alternative to Sauvignon Blanc. Everything at Lark Hill is done biodynamically with great dedication to detail, making this one to seek out.
3. Briar Ridge 2014 Signature Karl Stockhausen Semillon
This classic Hunter Semillon is on the list at Hunter Valley restaurant, Muse. Winemaker Gwyn Olsen was Gourmet Traveller Wine Young Winemaker of the Year in 2014, coincidentally in the same year Muse chef Troy Rhoades-Brown won the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence Young Restaurateur of the Year award. Olsen made this Semillon in conjunction with Hunter Valley Living Legend, Karl Stockhausen, who prefers a fuller, richer style of Semillon. Think lemon curd, lime and lemon sorbet notes.
4. 42 Degrees South 2011 Chardonnay
Tasmania may be one of the country's coolest wine regions but on restaurant wine lists it is hot, hot, hot. Philippe Conry, manager of Tokonoma, one of Sydney's finest Japanese restaurants, recommends this keenly priced, elegant wine from the Coal River Valley. It tastes slightly nutty, has generous stone fruit characters and a deliciously long finish.
5. Devil's Lair 2013 The Hidden Cave Chardonnay
Western Australia's Margaret River region also produces enviable Chardonnay. Yields were low in 2013 and this one over-delivers on all counts, with glorious perfume and spice, good depth and a vibrant palate. Winemaker Ben Miller is particularly pleased with it. "(It's) really good at the price point," he says.
6. Hanging Rock 2013 Macedon Ranges Pinot Noir
The fruit for this seductive wine is essentially estate fruit that didn't quite make it into Hanging Rock's top tier Jim Jim Pinot, yet both wines were made in small open fermenters with much the same attention and precision. Its sweet berry flavours make this wine one to savour, and its limited production makes it desirable for the price.
7. Angullong Wines 2013 'Fossil Hill' Sangiovese
Australian diners are enjoying a love affair with this Italian variety. It accounts for 5.6 percent of red wine listings in Australian restaurants, up from three percent in 2014, according to Wine Business Solutions. Angullong's Ben Crossing says demand is being driven by consumers who expect more choice. Sommeliers are responding by "looking for varieties that offer interest to their wine lists – wines with good flavours and structure that better complement food." This medium-bodied wine from Orange, NSW, was matured in French oak and is very smart.
8. D'Arenberg 2010 The Cenosilicaphobic Cat Sagrantino Cinsault
What's with the name, you might ask? There was once a cat at D'Arenberg that had a taste for wine but was stymied by his concerned owners, leaving the cat with a severe case of cenosilicaphobia (fear of an empty glass). Seriously. About as serious as this dark, dense wine with dark cherry and chocolate flavours is. Tasted with the slow-roasted pork belly at d'Arry's Verandah Restaurant, McLaren Vale, this is a terrific wine from a terrific vintage.
9. Rufus Stone 2013 Heathcote Shiraz
Shiraz thrives in the mineral-rich soils of Heathcote, Victoria, producing intense colour, aromas and flavours yet a lovely elegance for such an affordable wine. With flavours of cherries, spice and all things nice, this is a big, soft wine that richly rewards.
10. Tenute Girolamo 2012 La Voliera Negroamaro
Imported from Puglia, Italy, this wine on the list at Chiswick at the Gallery, in the Art Gallery of NSW, is laced with cloves, spices, ripe berries and a hint of licorice. It is quite soft and goes beautifully with Italian meat dishes such as the slow-cooked lamb shoulder that Chiswick is renowned for. Matt Dunne, head sommelier for the MorSul group that runs both ARIA and Chiswick, travelled to Italy to seek out interesting small producers, and this was one he found. A beaut discovery.