A Packed House for The French Saloon’s Takeover of Craig’s Royal Hotel, Ballarat

Buratta with Figs

The pre-winter ice cold air is already blasting Ballarat, Victoria however the only things cool climate inside the opulent and very warm Craig’s Royal Hotel this Friday were the French and Australian wines. A packed house filled The Gallery Restaurant for Ian Curley’s French Saloon takeover; a staged dinner and wine challenge event – as a part of Plate-up Ballarat – where some of Victoria’s best wines were compared against premium drops from Champagne, Loire Valley, Chablis, Burgundy and Côtes du Rhône.

Featuring a selection of wines pulled from the hotel’s extensive cellar and complimented by more wines served by The French Saloon’s sommelier Russell Keightley, it soon became evident that while the Aussies certainly know how to make top shiraz, it was going to be a tough night for local winemakers aiming to beat the Champagne and other elegant cool climate French whites.

A packed house filled The Gallery Restaurant at Craig's Royal Hotel

A packed house filled The Gallery Restaurant at Craig’s Royal Hotel

Two canapés including a warm potato and horseradish blini with whipped cod roe and salmon pearls and fresh-baked Gougères au Comté, were paired with a NV Domaine Rolet Crémant du Jura Brut Chardonnay featuring surprising fresh fruit aromas of pink lady apple and nachi; and a 2018 Leura Park Blanc de Blanc which was leaner and perhaps more citrus influenced, also featuring a fine acidity. While both were clean and crisp wines, the biggest surprise was the striking similarity between the Crémant and a quality prosecco. If not for the slight breaddy notes we might have been fooled. It was delightful to discover a French sparking with such flair and youthful elegance.

The entrée Spencer Gulf Hiramsa Kingfish with horseradish gravlax dressing and bottarga confirmed the drive north to Ballarat was a wise choice. On pour, the 2016 Christian Salmon Sancerre (Loire Valley, France) was a delicate offering featuring a nicely layered palate evident of time on lees; soft floral aromatics coupled with a softly sweet melon fruit also featured. It was one classy wine to kick start the real part of the competition. An accompanying Australian: 2016 Oakdene ‘Jessica’ Sauvignon Blanc from the Bellarine was however a tough contender; similar in style with its subtle nutty aromas derived from barrel fermentation. Hints of tropical fruit and citrus paired well with the entrée side: the silk-textured burrata with radicchio and figs. By this time, The Gallery at Craig’s was a buzz with clinking of glasses, convivial chatter and live music: semi-acoustic jazz guitar backing a chanteuse singing a collection French folk classics.

Craig's Royal Hotel, Ballarat

Craig’s Royal Hotel, Ballarat

Ian Curley’s Ora King Salmon Tarator dressed with sesame yoghurt, candied walnuts and pomegranate was a light and delicate mid-course that showcased his ability to deliver delicious flavour pairings complimented with an array of textural delights. Two extremely similar wines: Jean-Marc Brocard Petit Chablis (France) and the award-winning 2016 Tomboy Hill Rebellion Chardonnay were almost indistinguishable, yet both stunning, perfectly crafted wines. In the end we felt the Tomboy Hill had perhaps a broader palate, but for this course the food stole the attention.

The main course duck cassoulet and and Lyonnaise sausage proved hearty and filling; and as expected were simple regional classics that offered room for the wines to shine. In terms of heroes, the French at this stage – we felt – might have had just about won the competition with the gamay-pinot blend Passetoutgrain appellation Burgundy wine: Jean Tardy Bourgogne, Vieilles Vignes (old vines). Stunning sour cherry and musk aromas burst from the glass and its mid-palate weight and soft texture made it an easy and deluxe drinking experience. Given its lifted aromatics, we felt it was perhaps a little unfair to pair this wine against local winemaker Owen Latta’s 2013 Eastern Peake Old Block Terroir Pinot Noir. Owen’s local pinot, like so many other Victorians, is such a different wine in style to the Burgundy. Darker mushroom and forest floor notes dominated, while its cherry flavours were not as pronounced as its French counterpart. To be completely balanced, it’s fair to say that Victorian pinot noirs are often wonderfully complex, earthy and unusual – almost brooding and moody. But this night the Burgundy seemed to have won.

But in a last dash to the finish line, Owen’s 2013 Eastern Peake Walsh Block Syrah proved the night’s final star contender, easily smashing the pants off the French Rhône hero wine: 2015 Maison Delas Les Launes Rouge Crozes-Hermitage. The French wine, true to form was more of an exercise in texture and mouth feel, but just seemed flat and lifeless in comparison to the Walsh Block Syrah’s brilliant dark fruit flavours and complex spice. This wine has a luscious well rounded mouthfeel with a wonderful front palate juiciness; also deeper bramble fruit and mulberry characters weight it lengthy finish..

Second generation winemaker Owen Latta was awarded 2018 Gourmet Traveller Wine Young Winemaker of the Year, then labelled as ‘the Ballarat kid that’s setting the Australian wine scene on fire’ and ‘one of Australia’s most thoughtful and daring winemakers’. Owen was on mic to explain more about his family’s local vineyard and of the types of wines produced within the region.

Craig’s Royal Hotel is Ballarat’s oldest and most spectacular boutique hotel. Immaculately renovated and restored, it offers guests a rare experience in comfort and style and feels more like a Tsarist Saint Petersburg Palace than an Australian Victorian-era hotel.

Chef Ian Curley of Melbourne's The French Saloon

Chef Ian Curley of Melbourne’s The French Saloon

Ian Curley’s food design is a permanent fixture of The Gallery Restaurant at Craig’s. Ian regularly visits and works with head chef Scott Alsop to help perfected new seasonal menus to compliment the hotel’s eclectic wine list that features both local wines and a cellar of aged international gems. The Gallery Restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days a week.

Craig’s Royal Hotel
10 Lydiard Street South, Ballarat
Tel 03 5331 1377
craigsroyal.com.au/events/the-french-saloon-dinner-wine-challenge/