Achieving a world-class wine list can be a challenge in a place like Australia, where limited access to distribution can lead to difficulties in procuring wines from other countries. It is that much more laudable, then, that Sophie Otton, 40, has created one at the Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney, Australia’s first and only Wine Spectator Grand Award winner. Only 15 months old, the restaurant has a wine list with regional breadth and vintage depth—not just among Australian wines but also Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône, Vintage Port and Madeiras—previously unseen in the country.
Through a wine-involved friend, Otton got her first job in the trade in Adelaide, at the Universal Wine Bar, where she worked for seven years under the tutelage of master of wine Michael Hill Smith. Her career has taken her to retail outlets, wineries and restaurants, including Shaw & Smith, Two Hands and a group of Melbourne restaurants including the European and the Melbourne Supper Club, where she was the wine director. She relocated to Sydney in March 2009 to oversee the team of 10 sommeliers at Rockpool Bar & Grill when it opened. Wine Spectator spoke with her about the restaurant’s 3,700-selection wine list, underrated Australian wine styles and what she likes to drink at home after a tough day on the job.
Wine Spectator: Can you tell us about the decisions you made in compiling the list that Rockpool has now?
Sophie Otton: The core of the list is essentially a collection that is owned by David Doyle, who is one of our [restaurant group’s] directors. It’s a collection he has spent 25 years putting together. I think it has probably always been his desire to open a restaurant as a channel for selling that wine. We have a degree of limitation in the Australian market: one, in terms of allocations, and two, in terms of older vintages. The great asset that does make our list comprehensive and unique in Australia is the fact that [through Doyle] we have access to these wines that we normally couldn’t get here. Often, they’re wines that are not available in the market at all. They’re not even imported. This list offers the wine drinker here a lot of exposure to things they wouldn’t normally see.
WS: When Americans think of Australia, they usually think of Shiraz, but your list explores other homegrown varieties as well. What are some Australian wines that you think are particularly exciting right now?
SO: In terms of style, producers seem to be backing off in terms of alcohol and fruit. They’re looking for more moderate [wines], more European in style, but with an Australian context. Some are following a more natural, less interventionist style. We have a reputation of making a kind of clean, correct wine, so there’s a bit of a breakaway toward more interesting, wilder styles. People are drinking a lot more Pinot Noir than they used to—a lot. At the moment, the most interesting Pinot Noirs are less fruity and more structurally orientated, with a degree of complexity. Examples of that are Kooyong from Mornington. Gary Farr has been making fabulous Burgundian-style Pinots; Bannockburn and William Downie have as well.
In terms of alternate varieties, the Adelaide Hills are doing a lot of Nebbiolo. People are working with Italian varieties, but they’re the sort of things we have to guide people to. We have some lovely old-vine Malbec. One of the classics, unique to the Clare Valley, is the Cabernet-Malbec blend, which we recommend with the beef program here because it has the structure but it also has the perfume. Grenache is something that’s particularly underrated. We’ve got great resources for it. It can be a lighter, more confected style, or it can be a dark, broody, earthy, rustic but muscular style. For the whites, Riesling, particularly with some bottle age, and aged Sémillon. It becomes this delicate, nutty, honeyed, hot-butter-and-toast flavor. They’re remarkable wines, and they’re dirt cheap. In terms of Shiraz, in the Hunter Valley, at Thomas Wines, they are doing some lovely, very smart, very eclectic Shiraz and Sémillon. In Barossa, there’s a whole new guard of youngsters doing exciting things, such as Pete Schell at Spinifex and Tim Kirk [of Clonakilla], in New South Wales.
WS: Are there any particularly difficult menu items at Rockpool Bar & Grill to pair with wine?
SO: There is one: the sautéed Spanner crab with globe artichoke and soft white polenta infused with Fontina cheese. Artichoke can be problematic. I look for something that’s not fruity, a more savory white, but it needs to have body, things like Marsanne with a little bit of bottle age. White Bordeaux works really well, but it needs to have the wood and it needs to have power to compete with the intensity of the Fontina and the artichoke. The wines have Chardonnay weight, but not Chardonnay flavor.
WS: Rockpool Bar & Grill is a new recipient of the Grand Award. Were you aiming for that or did it come about organically because you were creating a wine list that you wanted to have depth?
SO: Both, definitely. David Doyle was born in the States and is very aware of Wine Spectator. He felt that his wine list had the merit and the weight to enter. For him and for myself, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction in that achievement. And this acknowledgement coming from outside the country is really important in terms of it happening for the first time in Australia. It shows that it can be done. We’ve only been open for 15 months, so people don’t know that we’re here and that there’s this amazing wine list. But once the word is out, [Rockpool] will be a destination for wine.
WS: When you’re at home after the workday, what do you like to drink?
SO: [Laughs] Either Champagne or beer. A lot of times I just want to have a beer straight after work. Because it’s not wine.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions