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Perfect Match – Ocean Eight & Jerry Mai

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Words by James Vercoe.

The sheer diversity of cuisines available in this country make it a challenge for Australian wines to match with all the foods we love. Italian wines match with Italian food, for example, but how well do our wines stand up across our broad tastes? With the Mornington Peninsula’s Ocean Eight winery hosting a Vietnamese barbecue pop-up with Jerry Mai and her Bia Hoi team, we sent James Vercoe along to find out just how well the exciting explosion in South-East Asian fare pairs with top local wines.

Matching food with wine has taken place since grape juice first spoiled and fermented into the drink we love. Historically, local wines were consumed with local foods. This made a lot of sense. Think about Piedmont’s white truffles with Barolo, dry Fino sherry with lightly fried sea beasties, or Muscadet and oysters. The Georgians even invented amber – or orange – wine, which pairs with just about everything, so they could drink it no matter what they ate.

What about Australian wine? Ever since James Busby brought back all those cuttings almost 200 years ago, we have seen dramatic changes in what we eat, as well as what we drink.

Thankfully, indigenous Australian ingredients are becoming more prevalent, especially in the world of fine dining. However, they have not yet established themselves in our day-to-day eating habits. What has occupied our plates in the last 200 years has largely been defined by multiculturalism.

“I didn’t think that people would go for Vietnamese barbecue food as they have; it’s just been insane.”

The influx of migrants from all over the globe has continually shaped our dining habits. The Brits brought their roasts and pies, the Italians blessed us with pasta and pizza, the Greeks introduced us to lamb on the spit, and we’ve been spoiled with curries from India and the wonderful world of Chinese food.

And while we’re starting to see more African and South American cuisine appear in our neighbourhoods, the food of South-East Asia has perhaps made the most dramatic impact on the current generation. So, do our wines pair with South-East Asian food?

With the Mornington Peninsula’s Ocean Eight Winery doing a Vietnamese barbecue pop-up with Jerry Mai and her Bia Hoi team, I thought I would find out for myself.

As I drove – on what was the hottest day of the year so far – I thought about how much had changed for both South-East Asian food and wine in Australia over the last 15 years. Two coinciding revolutions that perhaps have more in common with each other than I had ever considered.

The standard mum-and-pop Vietnamese and Thai restaurants of the 1980s and 90s – which lovingly gave us the carrot in the shape of a flower – are now being complemented by new South-East Asian restaurants headed up by qualified chefs. They pride themselves on creating technically crafted dishes that balance sweet, sour, hot and fresh, and can be counted among the best restaurants in the country.

What is most impressive, however, is the way the cuisine has endeared its way into our everyday life. You can barely find a restaurant or café menu without at least one dish inspired by South-East Asia. At the same time that this gastronomic revolution took hold of us, our wine consumption and preferences were also changing.

A move away from heavy-handed oak, high alcohol and long extractions has led to more ‘drinkable’ medium-bodied wines that are fresh and approachable, which has drawn in a younger generation of wine drinkers.

As I approached the winery, Australian wine and South-East Asian food was starting to make a lot of sense.

 

“Hot spices can take away the fruit from the wine. Sweeter rieslings pair really well, but the textures and those really leesy characters of gris really work as well. It can’t handle loads of heat but can certainly handle subtle heat.”

Ocean Eight is a boutique 17-hectare Mornington Peninsula winery headed up by owner/winemaker Mike Aylward, who was 2011’s Young Gun of Wine. Aylward has previously explored pairing his wines with Asian food, teaming up with chef Adam D’Sylva (Coda, Tonka) for a delivery service over the COVID lockdown period.

So, when Aylward wanted to “liven it back up” post lockdown, he immediately thought that this kind of pop-up could work to bring people back to the winery, though not to the extent they have seen. “I didn’t think that people would go for Vietnamese barbecue food as they have; it’s just been insane.”

Aylward is extremely passionate about how well his wines – as well as other Australian wines – pair with Thai and Vietnamese food. “The Australian wine industry has got to start looking at that really closely and using it,” he says. “The menu has been changing every weekend. We have been matching our wines with each dish, which has been really interesting, and people have been asking what we should have with this… It’s a really exciting space.”

Ocean Eight produce chardonnay, pinot noir, rosé, pinot gris and a small amount of traditional method sparkling, which has allowed plenty of scope to pair with a variety of dishes. “Spice has been the trickiest part,” says Aylward. “Hot spices can take away the fruit from the wine. Sweeter rieslings pair really well, but the textures and those really leesy characters of gris really work as well. It can’t handle loads of heat but can certainly handle subtle heat.”

Gris has become Aylward’s go-to for matching. “It’s quite textural with some nice oily characters, which then balance out that food. It sits behind those ingredients, so you still taste them, but then you get beautiful flavours [from the wine] behind that. And it’s quite versatile in matching with strong ingredients like coriander and lemongrass, ginger… not a lot of wines match with those foods.”

Aylward says that most Peninsula producers make their gris like they make their chardonnay. “Everyone is going for quality, not volume. When you’re making gris like that, you’re using barrels and lees to develop more character and flavour in the wines. Not many would be using new oak; you don’t want them to be oaky, but you want the barrel-ferment characters and the complexity that come with it, building the richness.”

One of the reasons gris pairs so well with Asian food is its combination of phenolics and acidity. Working together, they cleanse the palate, leaving you ready for the next mouthful. “Because of the cooler climate we get really good acidity from the Maritime influence, which is amazing,” says Aylward. “You’ve got the cool winds coming off the cool water acting like an air conditioner for the region. It’s quite unique in that way, giving us great acidity and fresh, fragrant wines.”

That acidity is also a marked feature in Aylward’s chardonnay. “We do a very lean style of chardonnay, which matches with the oysters Jerry’s been bringing through and also with the seafood dishes she puts up, which have been nice and subtle.”

The pinot has been paired with a lot of the meatier dishes. “There’s a lot of pork,” says Aylward. “Pork’s great with pinot, and the lamb as well, with all those spices, they go really well with an aged pinot that we have on. We have our reserve pinot, which is handling the lamb perfectly, and the pork with the Mornington pinot has been a great match, with those juicy red fruits. The wines have stood up really well with all the dishes, and anything that you can’t match with pinot and chardonnay, the gris just comes in. The gris handles everything.”

Jerry Mai, George Calombaris, Mike and Hollie Aylward

I also managed to wrangle Jerry Mai away from the grill to get her thoughts on pairing Australian wine with the food of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. “The wines they are making now are lighter, fresher, with more citrus characters and less dominated by oak. The freshness of the wines carries through the rich Asian flavours. The pinots, now, are really light and feel like they have more life in them. When you think of South-East Asian food, you think of life. It makes your tastebuds think ‘what sort of journey am I going to go on today’.”

Mai says she has been blown away by how well the wines and her dishes have worked together. “The pinot gris, I don’t know if intentionally or unintentionally, it feels like he has made it for Asian cooking. Even the chardonnay, it’s not buttery rich like the old school; it’s new, fresh and robust. When you have it with all these different zingy flavours, a, it doesn’t get lost, and b, it really carries the flavour through and enhances the dish.”

The Australian wine industry is currently going through a revolutionary period, experimenting with different varieties and more approachable styles. This can only be a good thing when it comes to matching our wines with the food of South-East Asia. Through the wines of Ocean Eight and the food of Jerry Mai, punters have had the chance to broaden their horizons in terms of what we can drink with South-East Asian food. While, of course, off-dry riesling will always be a great match with this style of food, at least now it is not the only one. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for a bánh mì and glass of pinot gris.

Ocean Eight Pinot Gris 2019

Wafting nose of lemon oil, cashew butter and pear blossom. Weighty and serious with real muscle. Lots of hazelnut-leesy goodness and a little struck match complexity from the solids. The phenolics clean up the oily texture and the whack of pink grapefruit acidity gives the wine a real freshness. This is a serious gris, textured, complex and compelling,

Ocean Eight ‘Verve’ Chardonnay 2017

The nose of this wine is pristine and precise. There is some serious tension here. Notes of lemon rind, lemon balm and toasted pine nut along with a hint of gun smoke, almost Chablis-esque. The palate continues along this line; there is a real linear drive with a powerfully balanced acidity. While there is some oak used it is certainly there to offer support and not take over. The wine is considered, delicate and elegant, and the finish offers up a phenolic lemon rind tang with a saline freshness.

Ocean Eight Pinot Noir 2018

A pale and dusty ruby colour with nose full of red florals and wild herbs. It is immediately savoury with decaying rose petal, cherry blossom and brown spice. As it flows through the palate there is a nod to the classic red fruit characters of Mornington pinot, but the wine’s focus is one of seriousness. The tannins are subtle and silky and the acid line clean. The finish leaves you with thoughts of wildflowers, red apple and briar.


Ocean Eight are a partner of the Wineslinger Awards.