Melbourne wine guy Matt Skinner may be a comparatively young bloke as far as Australian wine icons go, but with a handful of wine books, an annual wine guide and a television series under his belt, he’s fast become something of an Aussie wine legend and an inspiration to young Australians developing an interest in wine and food.
What makes Matt special, aside from his impressive wine knowledge and global experience — he lived in London, where he worked as Jamie Oliver’s wine guy, and travelled all over the world — is his likeable personality and passion for Australian wines, which makes wine so accessible. If this laidback surfer and former skateboarder can be familiar with some obscure little winery in the back of beyond producing interesting pinots, then anyone can, so the thinking goes. And that’s a great thing.
We met Matt at Taste of Melbourne food and wine festival last year, after the Plumm Wine Experience, where he’d guided us through a tasting of Victorian wines, which was as much about testing out the stunning Australian-designed Plumm wine glasses as it was about the wine. We chatted to Matt about Melbourne, food and wine, his favourite bars, Victorian wines, and, um, well, skateboards.
Q. How does Melbourne’s wine and food scene compare to other cities?
A. I was born and bred in Melbourne but I moved way in 2002 to live in London for six years. Best thing I did when I was away was travel and explore other food and drink cities. I fell in love with Paris, with Barcelona, with San Francisco, and New York, but the thing the travel really highlighted for me — and during those six years I was travelling back and forth to Melbourne — was that it became really obvious that Melbourne, a city that had always lived in Sydney’s shadow, was quickly growing into its own skin. It became more evident, the more often I came back, that Melbourne was maturing, and there was this depth to Melbourne’s food and wine scene, and without sounding like a wanker, that there were layers to it.
Q. What makes Melbourne special?
A. I think we’re really lucky. We have a city that has this incredible ethnic diversity. I grew up in Melbourne’s southeastern suburbs and at my primary school we had kids from Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, Italy, and various parts of Asia. It was this mad mix, and there was no room for intolerance, and if anything happened it was sorted out in the school very quickly. You look at a map of Melbourne and those ethnic communities… the city is like a heart, and there are these veins that go out to these sort of ethnic pockets around Melbourne that have became so important and I think Melbourne benefits from that. Like a lot of great food cities around the world, that’s been a really important factor, that ethnic diversity. I’d rather have ethnic food in Melbourne than London. In London I lived on Brick Lane for two years and that was some of the worst Indian food I’ve ever eaten. There are amazing pockets in London but you really have to work hard to find them whereas in Melbourne you can find them without effort.
Q. What are the other factors?
A. I think the other thing that makes Melbourne so amazing is that we pay homage to our heroes and the people that were pioneers and champions in great food and drink culture in Melbourne — people like Mietta O’Donnell and Stephanie Alexander, people who were icons — but at the same time we continue to push, prod, and innovate. Look at the way the bar scene has exploded. People are willing to create a bar out of a cupboard box in Melbourne. We’re less about spend and the cost of fitting a space out and we’re more about resourcefulness and how we can turn nothing into something. It’s like in New York, there’s this great basement bar in the East Village that you access through a phone box (Note from Eds: readers, this is Crif Dogs, which we review here). Melbourne is like that too. It is also very egalitarian. The class system is nowhere near as entrenched as it is in other big cities, like London. We’re also obsessed with food in Melbourne — sport, coffee and food.
Q. What about Melbourne’s drinking scene?
A. Melbourne has an amazing bar scene. Melbournians are incredibly resourceful. The CBD* was dead ten years ago. Rents became so expensive in the suburbs and areas where there was already a proliferation of good restaurants and bars that a lot of young entrepreneurial people came back into the city. We were fortunate that we had this great liquor licensing that allowed flexibility — as opposed to New South Wales**, though that’s changing — and we were able to take these tiny spaces and disused rooms at the bottom of lanes that were once upon a time storage areas or garages and convert them. There was just this rash of amazing bars that popped up and continue to pop up and Melbourne has just very quickly developed this culture for its nightlife and particularly its bars, especially in the CBD.
Q. Let’s talk about Australian wine and particularly Victorian wine.
A. Victorian wine is going through a really buoyant time. I think there are a number of reasons why. One is the state of exports at the moment. The Australian wine industry is probably going through one of its toughest periods, due to the slow market in the UK and US, plus the strength of our currency. We copped a lot of negative press from the wine media in the US and UK three years ago, which all came at the same time. It’s really interesting because when they both started criticizing Australian wine, on both sides of the Atlantic, the momentum really grew. Australia had built its reputation overseas off these kind of clean, clinically well made wines, that spoke of where they were from — this warm, sunny place — were gave value for money, and escaped the regional red-tape that governed so many European wine-producing countries where you need to know about law to know what wine varieties were permitted to grow in what area. But that has also been our Achilles heal as well, because now people are conditioned to thinking that that is what all Australian wine is like and tastes like.
Q. But what’s the reality?
A. Well the reality is, particularly in Victoria, that our wine has never been better, the diversity has never been better, and the quality that we’re producing wines at has never been better. For instance, there’s this phenomenal group of guys called The South Pack. They are a little body of winemakers from around Victoria who are all small artisanal producers who don’t have the money to market themselves individually, so piled together as a consortium to market themselves as a group and they travel around the country doing tastings and you get to try all their wines. They’re doing mental stuff that really bucks the trend of conventional wine making with conventional varieties. They’re doing a lot of interesting stuff — a bit of natural wines, a bit of experimenting with non-indigenous varieties to Australia — it’s exciting times. The unfortunate thing for these guys is that they aren’t better known outside Australia, but they never have any trouble selling their wine here in Melbourne. There is so much love for these guys and so much support for them that what little wine they make sells out very quickly.
Q. What will it take to persuade people as to how great Australian wine is?
A. There are people out there trying to sell the regional mix and tell people about our wine diversity, but it will take a while to fix as the damage that was done was so huge. In a short space of time they were able to undo a lot of hard work that many of us had done over the years to promote Australian wines. The ‘in the know’ people know how good Australian wines are. In a lot of good wine regions around the world, there’s been a lot of cross-pollination where someone from say Ribera del Duero or Rioja in Spain has worked in the Yarra Valley, so they know. But they’re the educated ones. It’s the general consumers — when they think of Australian wine all they think of is Rosemount Estate and Jacob’s Creek — who need to be educated.
Q. What wines should visitors to Melbourne try?
A. Because of our southerly location, in Victoria we do great Chardonnay and Pinot, and also Shiraz, but a cooler style of Shiraz. That’s where we’re having our biggest impact. That said, around the periphery there’s all kinds of great stuff happening. In Heathcote, you’ve got Kim Chalmers, who is part of the Chalmers family, and they’ve planted a vineyard where they’re growing Alma Negra, Nero d’Avola, Primitivo, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese — all these weird and wonderful things that they’re pushing and experimenting with. You’ve got phenomenal Riesling from down in Henty in really southern Victoria. You’ve got Crawford River. There’s amazing Cabernet from some producers out in the Yarra Valley who have got the older vines. Then you go up to the northeast of the state to Rutherglen and they’ve got these phenomenal old fortified wines, which is such an important part of our wine history. I reckon Victoria is probably the most diverse wine producing state in Australia and I think the most exciting. One of our strengths in Australia is that our history is short. So, who are Australians? Australians are anybody and everybody, and that transcends through our food and wine.
Matt Skinner’s Picks: Wine
Jamsheed, Yarra Valley
A young guy called Gary Mills is producing amazing stuff here.
Garagiste Wine, Mornington Peninsula
A fairly new producer and one of my favourites.
Mount Langi Ghiran, The Grampians
Dan Buckle is a young guy who is making some killer wines.
Ocean Eight, Mornington Peninsula
They’re doing terrific wines down there on the Mornington Peninsula.
Also from Heathcote, this is really great as well.
“There’s heaps of good stuff happening,” Matt says, “And the thing about these guys is that most don’t own their own vineyards; they’re young, they entrepreneurial, they’re buying in fruit from other vineyards, but they try to manage those vineyards through the year, so they might lease the plot of land and borrow someone’s winery to make the wines as well.”
Matt Skinner’s Picks: Bars
Siglo 161 Spring Street Melbourne
Beautiful rooftop bar — really opulent — they provide you with lovely blankets, so you can sit out there in the middle of winter, and there’s a great drink lists.
Cookie rooftop bar 252 Swanston Street Melbourne
This is my favourite bar. It’s on top of Curtin House and it’s phenomenal because you have this incredible cityscape around you. It’s a cool place to go and drink because there’s always a mixed bag of people, and that’s the thing I love about Melbourne, that you can always talk to someone from the west when you’re from the south.
Von Haus 1A Crossley Street Melbourne
I love this one too. It’s a great little space, and it’s typically Melbourne — you have to work hard to find it.
Madame Brussels 63/59 Bourke Street Melbourne
It’s kind of high camp. There’s astro turf and everyone’s wearing tennis whites and drinking cocktails. It’s another rooftop, a space that would be terrible as anything else, but is amazing as Madame Brussels.
Meyers Place 20 Meyers Place Melbourne
Another one of my favourites, on the same street where the waiter’s club is, it’s a bar that has no name. Designed by the Six Degrees architects, it’s one of their bars. It’s been there for 15 years, but it’s still great.
Sister Bella 22 Drewery Place Melbourne
A great bar that you have to look really hard to find, on a lane off a lane, which is such a Melbourne thing.
Croft Institute 21 Croft Alley Melbourne
This bar is really amazing, with a sort of speakeasy feel, deep in the bowels of Melbourne.
Matt Skinner’s Picks: RESTAURANTS
Cumulus Inc 45 Flinders Lane Melbourne
My favourite restaurant in Melbourne. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it’s an example of what Melbourne does best.
Mamasita Level 1, 11 Collins Street Melbourne
It’s great fun, and it’s open really late.
Izakaya Den 114 Russell Street Melbourne
A great Japanese spot, in the basement it’s also hard to find.
Bar Lourinha 37 Little Collins Street Melbourne
Another of my favourites. It’s owned by Matt McConnell, brother of Andrew’ McConnell (who owns Cumulus Inc). There’s an old Spanish woman in the kitchen. You can sit up at the bar and eat or there are a few other areas, and it’s also open late.
Movida 164 Flinders Street Melbourne
The original one is still the best. It’s small and I like their small tapas plates.
*CBD or central business district is what Aussies call their city centres or downtown areas.
**New South Wales (of which Sydney is the capital) is the state immediately north of Victoria.