Only 10 years ago, sake in Australia was almost exclusive to sushi restaurants and ramen shops. Now the Japanese rice wine is poured at top restaurants in every corner of the country.
"Many restaurant owners and sommeliers are recognising the potential of sake as a match with food," says Masahiro Takahashi, a member of sake importers group Nihonshu Australia. "I'm sure there will only be more sake in Australian restaurants in the future."
Japan's export of sake to Australia increased by 12.6 per cent on the previous year in 2018 to hit a record high. The rice wine's growing popularity is just one example of diners' changing wine tastes and eagerness to seek out different drops in restaurants.
"Five or six years ago, people would come into the restaurants and order by grape name," says Glen Goodwin, sommelier at Sydney's Yellow and Monopole restaurants in Potts Point.
"These days, rather than just sitting down and asking for a glass of merlot, for instance, people are saying "I like merlot – what do you have that's similar?"
Leanne Altmann is beverage director for chef Andrew McConnell's restaurants in Melbourne, including Marion, Cutler & Co. and Supernormal.
"There's lots of people asking about different wines for different reasons," she says. "We have more and more customers asking about new-wave wines made with different techniques and new varieties of grapes."
Those reasons might include health concerns, in the case of preservative-free "natural" wine, or wanting to know how the wine is made, in the same way more people want to know about the provenance of their food, says Goodwin.
"There are a lot more fans of natural wine in 2019," he says, regarding wine fermented without commercial yeast and chemical additives, and often described as "faulty" or "funky" by its critics.
"You still get the old boys who are like, 'I don't want to drink any of that natural wine crap – where's the Rockford Basket Press?' but not as much. With Yellow being a vegetarian restaurant, most customers are stoked to drink vegan and sulphur-free wines."
Altmann says drinking less and better is "definitely" the most noticeable trend in Australian restaurants.
"It's not about getting on the lash, it's about drinking something delicious that enhances food and conviviality."
What's pouring in Australian restaurants right now
"It's an incredibly diverse drink and a beverage that's grown up around food culture," says Altmann. "You can play with its temperature in a way you can't with wine, so you can drink the same bottle of sake through a meal at different temperatures to enhance certain characters of dishes. It's fascinating."
Minimum-intervention natural wines have been growing in popularity for the last 10 years and show no sign of slowing down. "A lot more people are asking about natural wine, having heard about it but not quite understanding what it is, which is fair enough, given there's no set definition," said Altmann.
Cathy Gowdie, wine panel judge for The Good Food Guide, is happy to see an increasing number of restaurants delivering more detail about sustainably grown or minimum-intervention wines. "It's much better than parking them under an all-encompassing 'natural' umbrella," she says.
"With so many brands, labels and international varieties exploding in wine shops, there is also genuine interest from guests in rediscovering classic Australian wines," says Altmann. "Those family producers with a long heritage."
"The old school stuff is definitely coming back in vogue," says Goodwin. "Hunter Valley semillon with a bit of age is one of the most unique wines in the world and I will always be proud to have it on a list."
"A lot more Australian winemakers are trying to find the right grape variety for an environment and thinking maybe that variety doesn't have to be chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, shiraz or cabernet," says Altmann.
"They're looking at grapes such as montepulciano, vermentino and fiano – varieties that love warm weather and don't have the same requirements for water usage as traditionally grown grapes in Australia.
Altmann and Goodwin both recommend looking for wines made with alternative grapes in regions such as McLaren Vale, Riverland, King Valley and the Barossa.
"I'm certainly selling more magnums than ever before, especially to group tables," says Goodwin of the one-and-a-half litre wine vessel.
"Everything's more fun out of a big bottle, right?" says Altmann. "There are some wines that definitely taste better out a magnum, such as champagne, and leading up to party season we're buying as many rose magnums as we can."
The Good Food Guide 2020 Wine List of the Year finalists
Yellow, Potts Point
The focus throughout this list is low-volume, high-quality producers with an eye to sustainable vineyard practices. Sensible classifications by nationality and variety progress least to most weighty. It's especially on song alongside a vegetarian menu and, although it doesn't try to do everything, it feels complete and satisfying.
Jonah's, Whale Beach
A huge, encyclopaedic list, clearly laid out and exceptional for its extraordinary by-the-glass selection and its balance. Excellent range of old-world options and huge selection of Aussie greats with back vintages. A handful of alternative wine selections.
Neighbourhood Wine, Fitzroy North
A medium-length list with great personality and a handy key at the beginning to steer you towards (or away) from wines that are organic or biodynamic, aged in amphora or have had extended skin contact. It's far from all-alternative: there's also a strong list of burgundy and beaujolais, and an interesting sparkling selection. A great fit for the food and venue.
Cutler & Co, Fitzroy
As polished as the food and setting, this expansive list has a strong by-the-glass offering with very good premium selections. Strong French representation with lots of burgundies but a good across-the-board range from throughout Europe and Australia. Simple, clean layout, easy to read.
Longer than most indie-leaning lists, Franklin's has a clear sense of purpose and aligns perfectly with its approach to food, championing minimal-intervention practices and little-known producers and varietals. Good, even representation of different countries, with exciting sparklings.
Regional Wine List of the Year finalists
"We looked for regional wine lists meeting the same criteria as metro contenders, with the added expectation that finalists would in some way reflect what is described in the Guide as 'the unique qualities of the region'," says Gowdie. "That may give restaurants in winegrowing regions a bit of a head start, but it's far from essential."
FermentAsian, Tanunda, South Australia
Igni, Geelong, Victoria
Laura, Merricks, Victoria
Stillwater, Launceston, Tasmania
Summertown Aristologist, Summertown, South Australia
The Good Food Guide's third annual national edition, with hats awarded across Australia, will be launched on September 30 with presenting partners Vittoria Coffee and Citi. The Good Food Guide 2020 will be on sale from October 1 in newsagencies and bookstores, and is also available to pre-order at thestore.com.au/gfg20, $29.99 with free shipping.