Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sydney's Wine Bar Awakening

The wine bar scene in Sydney has taken off in the past couple of years. There seems to be a new exciting bar of vinous intent opening every other month, and as such it’s a great time to be a wine lover in this town.

Of course this wasn’t the case for a long time. Up until a few years back Sydney’s bar scene was largely devoid of interesting, intimate places to go for a drink. Prohibitive licensing costs meant that for a bar to be economically viable it had to be bringing in a reasonable volume of patrons. The result was an array of uninspiring drinking barns. In Sydney we were forced to look in envy at the fantastic bar scene in Melbourne. There during the mid 90s, licensing and planning laws had been brought in that encouraged the development of a vibrant small bar scene in the CBD. Visiting Melbourne at any point in the last decade, especially if you had a local to show you around, was to be able to immerse yourself in those interesting, intimate watering holes that Sydney lacked.

The turning point in Sydney, however, was the change in licensing laws in NSW in 2008, which saw the introduction of a $500 small bar licence for venues that seat 120 people or less. Since then there has been an ever expanding number of small bars opening up in and around the CBD. Many of these small bars are wine bars or wine focused. Ash St Cellars, De Vine, Love Tilly Devine, Time to Vino, and Wine Library, are all examples of interesting wine bars that have opened up since 2008.

Perhaps my favourite amongst this ever expanding and eclectic group, however, is 121 BC, a wine bar and cellar that has recently opened in Surry Hills. Entry is a from side street and what greets you is a small, longish room, with a simple, yet sleek design. The point of differentiation though, is the cellar off to the side. This cellar is a long, narrow room with a wall of Italian wine. There is a wonderful range from all over Italy, at multiple price points, including plenty of wine in the value range. There’s no wine list as such (although there are wines by the glass on a blackboard), and the idea is that you can wander into this room, peruse the shelves (take your time, I know I do each time I go in there), and choose a bottle to consume. If you want to take the bottle home you can, though if you want to drink it at the bar there is a $15 corkage.

Given the initial prices are more than reasonable, it’s very well priced all things considered. Moreover, the more expensive the wine you are having the better value it becomes in relative terms with that corkage staying the same. As a lover of Barolo, it’s great to see a number of sub $100 Barolo available (a rarity with any wine retailer in Australia), but what’s even more amazing is that you then only have to pay an extra $15 to consume it in a bar setting. While you may be thinking that paying $100 for any wine in any setting is expensive, it is nevertheless rare to see a bottle of Barolo in a bar or restaurant in Australia for anything less than $150, and as such 121 BC delivers some wonderful value. Whether I’m wanting to scratch a Piemonte itch, or explore wines from an Italian region that I’m less familiar, this wine bar has plenty to offer.

The running of the bar and cellar is all overseen by Giorgio De Maria, a Piemonte native, and a genuine and engaging host. Despite that fact he’s inevitably busy running the bar, he loves chatting all things wine, and last time I was there he even took time to draw a map of Piemonte and we got talking all things soils and sub-regions. A fascinating conversation for a wine tragic like myself.

While I’ve chosen to focus on 121 BC, a similar type of review could be written for many of the other bars mentioned above, with each having a point of difference, generally some delicious food, and most importantly, interesting and eclectic wine lists.

While there are perhaps other factors at play that have also encouraged this growth in small bars, it’s amazing to think what a difference a simple law change has brought about in the space of a couple of years. In reducing the barriers to entry, Sydney is now reaping the benefits with an increasingly vibrant wine bar scene. What was fairly bleak a few years back is now flourishing. Long may it be so.


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