Update: We attended this venue in December 2019 and some details may have altered since then.
Fitzroy North’s Neighbourhood Wine is. Matt Denman, Simon Denman and chef Almay Jordaan’s genre-bending wine bar has solidified itself as a local drinking and dining institution. The trio also opened Lygon Street’s slick Old Palm Liquor in 2019, but it’s their original baby that has burrowed deep into the DNA of the inner north.
With heavy red curtains at half-wink and disco on the turntable, sessions stretch long in this low-lit cocoon from reality, famously fashioned from the plush remains of an illicit ‘80s gambling den. Kick off balmy evenings with frosty nips of Maidenii classic vermouth or branch out with Mac Forbes’ 2017 ‘Tasty Locals’ vermouth, which transitions from an oaky, musky aperitif to a fresh, tart sipper as ice and lemon fuse in.
Unlike the sprawling, ambitious wine list, the food at Neighbourhood is a compact, daily updated offering of pared-back, pan-European dishes that’s less about cheffing than arranging and enhancing lovely produce. Snacks sing, from pin-thin seed crackers crowned with sticky raisin jam and a silky ruffle of Tete de Moine cheese to smoky, crisp-fried artichokes covered in vegetable treacle and crushed macadamia, a combo tasting deliciously adjacent to satay. And while mini English muffins are a little dense, there are few ills a thick blanket of crème fraîche and plump salmon roe can’t nullify.
But back to the wine. Despite resembling an antiques shop, this is a place for forward-thinking drinking, with nearly the entire list denoted as skin contact, organic, biodynamic, minimal intervention, aged in amphora or a combination of the above. If these are new waters for you, put your trust in the knowledgeable bar staff, who’ll expertly gauge your appetite for adventure before navigating a list as compelling as it is extensive, encompassing both international big hitters like Radikon and exciting local players like Lucy Margaux, Patrick Sullivan and Memento Mori.
By the glass, you can acquaint yourself with domestic takes on savagnin, an ancient varietal first grown in Australia only ten years ago. This fairly recent transplant produces crisp, seafood-ready wines here, and an unfiltered version from the Fleurieu Peninsula’s Scintilla enters the palate quietly before bursting with an orchard’s’ worth of lemon. Or you could dial it up with Good Intentions 2018 skin-contact pinot gris from Mount Gambier – if you’re not afraid of a bone-dry pinot gris with a savoury backbone. Both make compelling partners for spring-on-a-plate dishes like kingfish crudo livened with saltbush chips and saline pops of roe, or slightly tacky ricotta gnocchi swimming in a fragrant tincture of Amalfi lemon-infused oil, broad beans and toasted pine nuts.
Places like Neighbourhood Wine, Gerald’s Bar and Carlton Wine Room epitomise inner-north privilege. Here, locals live within walking distance of journey-worthy destinations they can treat like a second home for impromptu weeknight jaunts (with the warmer service reserved for regulars to match). Within these pastel green and timber-clad walls, it doesn’t matter what the weather or day is, you can be assured that the light will be low, the tables full, and the conversation flowing as freely as the wine.