Mark Davidson, the North American education manager for Wine Australia, swung through town a couple weeks back. The Australian expat is now based in the U.S., but for many years he called Vancouver home. He was a key player in bringing London’s Wine and Spirit Education Trust courses to the city in the 1990s and taught a generation of Vancouver’s wine trade while tending to sommelier duties at various restaurants in town.
Along with Park Heffelﬁnger, cofounder of the Memphis Blues BBQ chain, Davidson was my first wine instructor, and his spirited, casual, and fun approach to wine was a key part of jump-starting my career.
In fact, I worked with him at the (now shuttered) Beach Side Café in West Vancouver for a time, back in the era of trip-hop and raves, a burgeoning concept called the World Wide Web, and servers with enormous pepper mills dusting diners’ plates in most restaurants around the city.
For more than a decade now, he has been in charge of upping Australian wine’s profile via seminars and master classes for the wine trade across the continent. Although these often entail detailed PowerPoint presentations tackling everything from subregions and varietal breakdowns to history lessons and lengthy tutored tastings, Davidson’s approach can also flirt with whimsy and revelry.
On a random trip to Los Angeles a few years back, following up on a recommendation by colleagues, he went out for a pastrami sandwich at a place called Langer’s Deli. The place looks like any one of a zillion classic diners out there, but it’s widely touted as having the best pastrami sandwich on the planet. Yep, not a place in Montreal or Brooklyn but in L.A.’s Westlake neighbourhood.
Having had the sandwich (dubbed the No. 19), I can attest that the pastrami—with sweet coleslaw, melted Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing on double-baked rye bread—is nothing short of perfection.
Davidson had a revelation, as he savoured bite after bite, that the meat’s aroma was reminiscent of Grenache, the famous red grape with homes in France and Spain (there known as Garnacha) as well as, yup, Australia.
There was enjoyable follow-up research on the pairing possibilities, and Aussie Grenache just seemed to take it to the next level. What followed was a few years of sitting down with sommeliers in cities across the U.S. and Canada and guiding them through a series of antipodean Grenaches as pastrami sandwiches were tucked into.
This is what happened here just the other week, as a group of us congregated at the American on Main Street, where Doug Stephen (the guy behind DownLow Chicken Shack and DownLow Burgers) did a little slow-smoked pastrami just for the occasion. Rumour has it the success of the sandwich at the event could see it start to appear as part of his regular roster of tastiness.
In the meantime, all I can say is this pairing is totally a thing.
With many Australian Grenaches being less extracted and oaky of late, they’re far from the gloopier versions we’ve seen in the past and now often lean a little toward the elegant structure of Pinot Noir. Perfect for washing down salty, meaty goodness.
So, whether you’re building your own or nabbing a couple of sandos from local places like Dunn’s or Solly’s, do give the pairing a go. It’s an ideal example of how perfect wine and food matches needn’t be fancy. Here are three favourite Australian takes on the grape.
Ochota Barrels “Fugazi” Grenache 2018
(McLaren Vale, Australia; $55–$60, private wine stores)
Proprietor Taras Ochota’s incredibly skilled hand has built a juicy and fresh Grenache from 70-year-old vines, with a gentle lashing of oak. It’s swimming with blueberries, black wine gums, cola, hibiscus tea, and much cheer. Recently spotted at Kitsilano Wine Cellar.
Alpha Box & Dice “Tarot” Grenache 2018
(McLaren Vale, Australia; $25–$30, private wine stores)
At our tasting lunch, I was jotting down characteristics of the wine, noting elements of root beer, blood orange, and floral components. A quick glance at the notes of Kelcie Jones, Chambar’s wine director, seated next to me, had me cribbing two words she’d written immediately. “Negroni wine”. She nailed it; the wine absolutely expresses that magical cocktail’s mix of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. Freakin’ gold. Recently spotted at Darby’s in Kits and Everything Wine on the North Shore.
Yalumba “Old Bush Vine” Grenache 2018
(Barossa Valley, Australia; $28–$33, private wine stores)
The OG of Aussie Grenache. Yalumba’s 125-year-old Grenache vines bring notes of balsamic reduction, blackberries, cardamom, and nutmeg. Multilayered and quite complex, it’s fantastic now but is also a rather affordable wine to lay down a few years. Recently spotted at Marquis Wine Cellars.