Melbourne for wine lovers

Hell of the North, Melbourne

Patrick Rankine takes us by the hand for a long day's tour of his favourites among Melbourne's host of delights. You can find links to all the other articles in this series in Writing competition 2019 – latest

Good morning Melbourne. Australia, no matter where you come from, it’s been a long flight; you’re weary from travel (despite doing the Die Hard toe fist on the rug thing) but you’re ready for 24 hours of wonderment in one of the true gastronomic capitals of the Universe.

Breakfast: Sonny Ray Café 328 Auburn Rd, Hawthorn, VIC 3122

Everyone has their favourite, but Norm, Suzy and the team at Sonny Ray Café in Hawthorn are THE coffee institution. Forget venue names, much like the signature of Miles Davis’ horn, real coffee comes from the hands of the artist. Whilst Sonny Ray is their newest venture, these guys are true veterans of coffee in Melbourne and there is no better way to start your day. Ask for a Ristretto, Italian style and you’ll be treated to the most gorgeous, viscous, sweet, extract of Padre small batch, slow roasted coffee known to man. Raise your tiny cup in salute to the barista, and Norm will often have one with you, followed by a shot of delicious and succulent pear nectar. If you’ve never had this, you should! The ballet on your palate is something to behold.

Oh, they also do breakfast and lunch. As there is a big day ahead, this morning calls for the succulent duck benedict. Served upon a couple of layers of straight-from-the-baker sourdough bread, the tender, juicy shredded duck sits wearing a hollandaise coloured bowler hat of poached egg and garnished in a bit of green. Delicious and just the right level of carbohydrates for the marathon ahead.

Let’s call it Midday: The Alps 64 Commercial Road, Prahran, VIC 3181

Lyndon Kubis and his partners in crime, Renton Carlyle-Taylor and Mark Hopkinson were (and are) part of the new and now ‘real-wine’ wave of wine bar operators in Melbourne. Taking the bottle shop/off-licence premise (bottle-o to the Australians out there) and mixing that with an on-site wine bar, the lads have expanded from the first venue, Toorak Cellars, into Milton Wine Bar, The Alps, The Hills and into space with The Moon. Each venue hosts an ever-changing list of weird and wonderful by-the-glass offerings, as well as a nominal corkage to drink anything off the shelf in the house. Picky-bits are available in the usual charcuterie/formaggio/olives fashion, though at our destination The Alps one can also order pizzas from next door. Very handy once you realise you are a few bottles in and should probably eat. It’s easy to lose track of time here.

 The Alps focus is predominantly on wines from the Alpine regions such as Bourgogne, Jura, Savoie, Valle d’Aosta, Piedmont and Alto Adige to cover a few. This gives a lot of opportunity to taste and provides a unique perspective on terroir that is not often represented, especially with such vigour. Being part of the ‘real-wine’ movement means you will find a lot of minimal or low intervention wines, a lot of skin-macerated whites and fun fizz. There are of course many serious wines to be had and the local Australian growers are also well represented.  

All in all, there are well over 400 wines available to enjoy at the bar, at home, or somewhere in between.

Lunch: Neighbourhood Wine 1 Reid St, Fitzroy North, VIC 3068

The way the bar looks these days, you may wonder after finding the door, climbing the stairs and setting foot in the entrance if you accidentally entered a record store, but fear not, it is a magical wine-focused restaurant and it’s only the spirits part of the bar that is being taken over with vinyl. Simon Denman, Almay Jordaan and the team opened Neighbourhood Wine a few years back after Simon took a hiatus from his previous stint as wine guy at Punch Lane. The kitchen never fails to deliver a spectacular menu derived from seasonal local produce for lunch and dinner and they have won many hearts by offering a Sunday roast. Perhaps not as traditional in Australia as ‘ol Blighty, but welcome, nonetheless. When it’s not Sunday, you can turn up and enjoy the Long Lunch with bottomless house wine (which is quite fantastic).  

The dining menu always carries a suggested wine pairing for each dish, be it entrée, main or dessert and the wine by the glass menu is always 20–30 deep. For years it has been represented by relatively small grower-producers and dominated by lo-fi, minimal intervention, organic and biodynamic viticulture. Given the restaurants ethos of local and seasonal, Australian wines feature heavily.

The by-the-bottle list covers over 400 wildly delicious drops and once you see what Simon can get his hands on, you might be encouraged to convince him to let you buy a few to go. Since the word Unicorns is over used, let’s use Leprechauns, and there are many bottles of gold in this rainbow. Many bottles are actually in climate-controlled display cases, so instead of reading names on a list, pick up a glass to drink and take a walk around the place. A picture says a thousand words, or just ask the team to choose for you. It will be mind-altering.   

Dinner: Hell of the North 135 Greeves Street, Fitzroy, VIC 3065

Once you find Hell, the first thing you’ll notice is the amazing yellow door. In fact, it’s probably the best landmark to help locate this portal to another world. Adam Ferrante, Sean Marshall and Mark Grixti are the cheeky devils behind Hell, which is actually named after the gruelling French bicycle race and not the fire and brimstone below. The cuisine is French bistro-inspired and the kitchen is fired up for lunch and dinner from Wednesday to Sunday. The menu reflects seasonal ingredients, though normally you just need to ask for the first item on the list, Feed Me, then lean back in your seat and feast like a king. Of course, even with Feed Me you should order the squid ink doughnuts if you see them mentioned, and the best pommes frites in the land.

The beginning of any meal should be a civilised affair, and nothing is more civilised than an expertly-crafted cocktail. There is a special place in Hell where the classics are revered, so perhaps a Paper Plane or Whiskey Sour to open your appetite? Wine by the glass consists of 20–25 selections and aside from the still red/white/rosé which of course are expertly selected, you could be lucky enough for that list to include unusual delicacies such as Vin Jaune from Jura, Blanquette de Limoux from the Languedoc or some sweet VDN from Roussillon, Marsala from Sicily and the perennial favourite, Pedro Ximénez from Jerez. The PX is a must with the crème brûlée. These wines are notable because it is extremely rare for them to appear on menus by the glass. Their inclusion provides a great insight into the vision Mark has for the wine list.

Handwritten wine list at Hell of the North, Melbourne

The standard wine list includes about 100 bottles across various styles, but if you would like an extra special treat, ask for ‘the book’. Hell has a special hand-written wine bible for those who’d like to venture down the rabbit hole and experience wines that are truly revolutionary. Contrary to what you might expect, there are also some very reasonably priced wines in the book, so you should certainly feel comfortable about asking to have a look. A rough estimate would be about 300 tales in this compendium, each full of witty anecdotes about how it came to be in such a sacred text.

No trip to Melbourne is complete without a trip to Hell.

The Nightcap: Siglo 2/161 Spring Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000

This is situated on the top floor of the building that houses another Melbourne institution, The European. If you enter from the unmarked door in the little alcove to the left of the entrance, head up two flights of stairs past yet another institution, the Melbourne Supper Club, and exit onto the roof top. When it’s a reasonably warm evening, with a gentle breeze and a clear sky, the view is stunning. At this level you look directly onto the old Parliament building, which at this time of evening will be radiating an orange glow. You will also see the luscious green and gorgeous trees of Spring Street, and the spire of St Patrick’s cathedral pops up in the distance.

Take a seat at one of the white-clothed Parisian-style tables and unwind. There is a modest wine list sourced from the Supper Club but the specialities here are classic cocktails, aperitifs and champagne. Whilst the wine list may be modest, the spirits here start off young, but can get very, very old.

Siglo is also renowned for their devotion to and extensive selection of cigars. Old cognac and a fine Cuban to see the day out in style? Yes indeed.