From the outskirts of Mount Gambier to a pub in the Adelaide Hills, you can find world-class wine in the most unexpected places.
I've long held the theory that where you find great and interesting wines you'll find great and interesting people. While researching the best wine offerings and experiences for this year's Good Food Guide we came across a set of great wine collections in unexpected places and unearthed a series of wine enthusiasts with unique back stories.
Sure, you expect to find weighty wine lists in the best city restaurants, but scratch away in regional areas and suburban back streets, and you'll be amazed at the collections of rare, expensive and just plain odd bottles on offer. Places where edgy contemporary tastes get down with dedicated and quirky personal histories; these are places to seek out and explore.
It's no coincidence that many of these collections are in far-flung locations, often regional and often isolated. In many cases they're a manifestation of personal circumstance, where those with an urgent need for great wine find themselves in a place they cannot get it. They recreate their own beautiful world of wine around themselves in order to survive.
Many have roots in grape-growing regions too, where once parochial tastes for local wines have become some of the most bountiful hunting grounds for exploratory and imported bottles. Today's winemakers are insatiably thirsty for other wines to benchmark against, inspire and just simply guzzle with mates.
So here we lift the lid on Australia's hidden wine collections, which tell the stories of the great people who have amassed and nurtured them.
There's another cellar hidden behind a bookcase.
The Victory Hotel
Old Sellicks Hill Road, Sellicks Hill, South Australia
Right down the southern end of McLaren Vale's vineyard amphitheatre is one of Australia's great wine experiences and you'd be forgiven for not realising it as you pull in and park between a Hilux and a panel van. Doug Govan bought the Victory Hotel in 1989, when it served a slow dribble of West End Draught and Ben Ean Moselle.
It still looks and feels very much like it always has, save for an extended dining room that peers out across vineyards to the Gulf of St Vincent. Coopers streams steadily from the taps, the pool table is in high demand and there's a flurry of burgers and fish and chips across the bar at lunchtime.
But underneath that pool table and the front bar is one of the most incredible collections of great wine in the country. Govan discovered an original cellar filled in with the bluestone rubble of an old pub wall they'd demolished in the 1950s. He converted it into a keg room in 1992 then into a wine cellar in 1996 to serve the increasingly busy pub dining room.
It became a thing of legend to descend and peruse the collection, emerging triumphant with your chosen bottle. Govan's always written a word or two next to his price tags, too, more in the style of an old-school wine merchant than a publican.
But Govan's love of great wine soon outstripped the available space below the pub and so in 2009 he created a new 125 square metre underground cellar with a long, 30-seat dining table as a centrepiece. He converted the original cellar into a room dedicated to the wines of cult Clare Valley winery Wendouree. You can't buy this stuff easily and their mailing list has a wait time akin to that of an Melbourne Cricket Club membership, yet Govan presents a collection of more than 1000 bottles of various Wendouree reds for purchase, a collection that rivals the winery's own museum.
There's another cellar hidden behind a bookcase housing top-end bottles and large formats. Rarities such as Penfolds Grange and burgundy demand better protection, and staff will accompany you if you're in the market for something special and holding plenty of cash.
Govan is a down-to-earth local and his Victory Hotel cellar is a reflection of his personal obsession with great wine that grew from humble roots. "I knew nothing about wine. One day I traded my double creme de menthe on ice for a glass of 1972 Rothbury Estate Semillon. I bought two dozen on the spot and I've never looked back," he recalls. They ended up at the Victory, where today there is in excess of 3000 selections and counting.
Liinaa Berry guides customers through the 2000-bottle cellar at the Crafers Hotel. Photo: David Solm Photography
The Crafers Hotel
8 Main Street, Crafers, South Australia
Investor and wine man Ed Peter and renowned publican Brett Matthews have created a magic pub at Crafers in the Adelaide Hills. They've completely renovated the place over the past two years and yet the bones of a great pub remain intact. It has a proper front bar, a drive-through bottle shop, a bistro with booth seating, a lounge bar and accommodation upstairs.
But it also has a glass-fronted walk-in wine cellar that is home to more than 2000 bottles, ranging from $50 to $11,000, and leading sommelier talent Liinaa Berry is on hand to walk you through it.
The rampantly cool Adelaide Hills wines are well represented here and accordingly, the pub is well patronised by the local winemakers.
Deeper in the collection you'll find a slew of first-growth Bordeaux, Burgundy from the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Guigal's trio of "La La" Cote Rotie wines and row upon row of other "power" bottles. The overarching theme is Australia versus France and is driven by Peter's love of the great wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. Berry cleverly overlaps those with the best local examples.
The wine cellar at the Crafers Hotel. Photo: Supplied
Fancy just a glass and you're in luck, with a staggering 50 wines by the glass, more than almost any other restaurant in Australia. There's little that is standard at The Crafers. The drive-through bottle shop is a packed room that looks much like any other. Peep a little closer and you'll notice it has Burgundy from Pommard and Puligny-Montrachet set among bottles from the coolest locals. The bottle shop manager is taking a wine-making course and is off to visit Burgundy. That certainly isn't the norm.
"What's been great is that a whole bunch of the wine comes from Ed's personal cellar," Berry says, "so a lot of the wines are very rare and you don't see them at the prices we offer them. We sell 10-year-old bottles of Corton Grand Cru from Burgundy for $99 a bottle, on the list, in a pub. You can't get that anywhere else, probably in the world!"
11 Toorak Road, South Yarra, Victoria
If you could calculate the per capita consumption rate of great Burgundy across every Australian restaurant dining room, this place would be in the Hall of Fame. For more than 30 years, France-Soir has served fairly priced French bistro classics alongside a leather-bound masterpiece of a wine list.
What most people don't realise as they sit in the long 80-seat dining room is that they are nestled below one of the largest and most carefully collected wine cellars in the world. Owner-operator Jean-Paul Prunetti is a Burgundy nut. He buys a lot, sells a lot and drinks a fair bit, too. The wine list is around five centimetres thick, comprised of 4.5cm of France's finest and a half a centimetre of everything else.
France-Soir has become a sort of unacknowledged club dining room for fellow Burgundy nuts and piece by piece Prunetti has converted almost the entire top level of France-Soir into a temperature-controlled homage to the most legendary bottles.
The likes of Raveneau, Coche-Dury, Sylvain Cathiard, Rousseau and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti are all here in force, alongside the newer stars of Beaujolais, legends old and new of the Rhone and a respectable nod to Bordeaux. Add to that a thoughtful representation of Australia's finest classical and new-wave makers and it's a wonder anyone ever remembers leaving the place!
An award-winning collection: the wine cellar at the Barn. Photo: Supplied
747 Glenelg River Road, Mount Gambier, South Australia
The only reason you would think about wine and Mount Gambier together is that it is the nearest airport to Coonawarra in South Australia's south-east. But on the outskirts of town is an award-winning collection of wine and a very good steakhouse called The Barn.
Owned and operated by Kent and Christine Comley, it is home to an impressive collection of more than 800 selections with another 600 off list. Their own grass-fed hereford beef feature on the protein-heavy menu driving red wine sales to a 90 per cent share of orders, which plays to the natural strengths of the local Coonawarra wines.
Kent Comley, owner of the Barn, sells plenty of Coonawarra red wine to match his hereford beef. Photo: Mitch Mott
Comley left the wine trade and joined the family business in 2007, where he quickly expanded a modest selection of local bottles to include great wines of the world such as Barolo and Burgundy. "We originally extended the wine offering slowly so we had more of the wines we liked to drink," Comley recalls. "Now we've crafted a tourist experience around the cellar but the ethos is still to stock the stuff we love."
Local Coonawarra wineries send their visitors to The Barn to sample aged Coonawarra reds: there are plenty of 20-year-old bottles on the list for under $200. They also boast rarities like Wynns cabernet sauvignon dating back to 1958 and 1966, bottles you certainly can't buy today in Coonawarra.
Relive the glory days at Stuyvesant's House in Crow's Nest. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
45 Alexander Street, Crows Nest, NSW
It's been there since the early 1970s and recently rose from the ashes of a devastating fire. I know, I know, wine collections and fires don't mix well, but most of the collection was stored far enough away to be out of harm's reach and for that we must be thankful.
Brothers Rudi and Max Dietz, maitre'd and chef respectively, have entertained mostly North Shore regulars for decades with their Bavarian-bent menu, famously entertaining front-of-house manner and legendary wine collection.
This list reads more like a Langton's Auction Catalogue than it does a suburban wine list, a fusion of high-end collector vibes with a dusting of deceased estate selections. You can have fun with this leder-bound list. If you love old-school Australian chardonnay, then tuck into deep selections of Leeuwin Estate Art Series, Scarborough and Rosemount Roxburgh. If your chardonnay taste steers more towards Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, then name your decade. Same goes for Dom Perignon, Krug and Cristal. It's bonkers!
Maitre'd and chef Rudi and Max Dietz at Stuyvesant's House. Photo: Supplied
Save room for the 3500-strong main course of reds, which date back to the 1950s. Wines such as Penfolds Grange come in the form of a deep back-vintage collection. You'll also find many a red burgundy from the famous 1978 vintage and at least a dozen 1982 Bordeaux. The $15,000 Chateau Petrus 1982 may well be alongside a Kaiser Stuhl Red Ribbon shiraz 1982, which you can roll the dice on for a mere $150. Heck, if you want to relive the glory days and drink Lindemans Pyrus 1986, then this is your place.
Order sausages, a schnitzel or even a suckling pig and settle into this incredible world of wine. Prices aren't cheap but many of these bottles are indeed priceless and, if you look hard enough, there are plenty of wines hovering in the temptation zone. You have been warned.
The RE Store
231 Oxford Street, Leederville, Western Australia
Founded on Italian roots that run back to the 1930s, this Leederville store has a sibling in Northbridge. Both are legendary purveyors of all things Italian and tasty to Perth and beyond. Their continental rolls are some of the best-tasting and best-value lunches or snacks on offer in Perth, their cheese game is strong (as you'd expect), they make fresh pasta daily, stock fresh Manjimup truffles in season, offer quality smallgoods always and pull a very loyal crowd.
More recently though, you're as likely to bump into Perth's most switched-on wine buyers and collectors at the Leederville ReStore as your nonna or godfather. The celebration of all things Italian remains unchanged but more recently this place has carved out a reputation as a temple to great wine from all corners of the world.
Owned and operated by Moreno Berti, the wine store is home to a progressive selection of great drinks, be they wine, spirits or beer, and it is not just Italian-accented. Berti has embraced all tastes, in particular the new and natural, and buys from the likes of Sydney-based wine importer Andrew Guard.
Importantly, it gets behind the best Western Australian wines and once every year or so holds a famous clearance sale that makes room for the next wave of the new, the wacky, the brave and the great.
The Good Food Guide goes national this year with hats awarded across Australia. The Good Food Guide 2018 will be launched in October with our presenting partners Citi and Vittoria and will be on sale in newsagents and bookstores.