The great thing about having a wine bar attached to a casual fine-diner with a cracking cellar is that you get access to all of it, but in a more relaxed and social environment. You’d be forgiven for thinking the big, leather bound list at Cumulus Up is full of untouchable museum bottles that you’d never crack for casual drinks. Not so. Flipping through, you’ll find a long but impressively engaging and easy to use guide to wine varietals (focusing mostly on Europe with a good Aussie selection), as well as cocktails and spirits, plus handy little inserts about featured producers or styles. The best part is that while those museum bottles are there if you want to splurge, most sit nicely in the $50-$100 range, well worth it if you’re after more than a glass or two.
For something to drink while perusing the list, opt for a Peach Spritz; a cocktail of rum, fermented peach and Aperol. It’s placed before us deliberately askew of its branded coaster so the Cumulus Up logo just pokes out from beneath the glass. Details are important here, like the fresh, dense bread, the linen napkins and the bright flowers on the tables. The drink tastes like a peach lolly you might find in an old-fashioned candy store. It’s on the sweeter side, without a lot of the funk or complexity you’d expect from fermentation, but if peach lollies are you go-to in the pick'n'mix, this is your drink. A Red Right Hand, by comparison, is a dry, bitter and complex combination of gin, vermouth and amaro that’s still light enough for summer sipping.
On a bright Friday evening, light streams in from big warehouse windows and the Bob Marley tunes relax the beautifully styled industrial space. If they were playing Vivaldi, it might feel stuffy, but despite the fine-dining pedigree here, they want to you to be at ease. Service strikes that wonderful balance between friendly and ultra-professional; accommodating without being sycophantic. As the room fills up, the high ceilings keep the noise contained, no one in the kitchen seems stressed, and bartenders chat and taste the wines of the day without ever dropping the ball.
A chalkboard announces “Off the List” choices for the day, including a honeyed and textural aligote from Burgundy, served perfectly a few degrees above fridge temperature. It’s a good match for a plate of heirloom tomatoes, tossed with croutons and dotted with black garlic purée that adds complex, rich umami. The steak tartare is a wonderful balance of salt, acid, and various textures, all lifted by the pungent green of fresh tarragon. In a city having a full blown second love affair with tartare, this is one of the better ones we’ve tried. This kind of cooking, where something classic is elevated by a few clever touches, is exactly what good wine needs.
If there’s one word that could describe Cumulus up, it’s balance; refinement without haughtiness, variety without intimidation; and quality without extravagance. It's a timeless venue that is still very muchone of the nicest drinking experiences in Melbourne.