It’s a small hotel in an out-of-the-way-town (pop. circa 450), but the Royal Mail is fast becoming a destination for culinary pilgrims. More than three hours’ drive west of Melbourne, the hotel is in the farming community of Dunkeld, the home town of multimillionaire Allan Myers. The son of a country butcher, he went on to become a barrister and philanthropist. Twenty-seven years ago he decided to buy the local pub and in 1996 it was renovated.
Myers’ gamble has paid off. In 2010, the Royal Mail was named restaurant of the year by The Age newspaper; now its extensive wine cellar has been similarly honored, receiving top place in Australia’s Wine List of the Year awards. The judges included Masters of Wine Andrew Caillard (Australia) and Deborah Meiburg (Hong Kong); American Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein; and Gerard Bassett from Great Britain, who is both an MW and an MS. All were “impressed by the clarity, depth and focus” of the Royal Mail’s collection.
The hotel’s former sommelier, Sebastian Crowther, received a separate award for his work on compiling the winning list. Crowther left in July, headed for London, where he will sit the grueling Master Sommelier diploma examination.
In the kitchen at the Royal Mail Hotel is Australian-born Dan Hunter, formerly head chef of Mugaritz in the hills behind San Sebastian, Spain – judged one of the best restaurants in the world. He has access to the 12-acre garden at the Myers family estate in Dunkeld, which provides organic and heirloom vegetables, herbs, fruit and edible flowers.
One critic wrote recently that Hunter had “turned the Royal Mail into Australia’s answer to El Bulli: it’s in the middle of nowhere and is generating a stream of acolytes.” Guests can choose either the omnivore ($179) or vegetarian ($147) menus, both of which include 10 courses. If they opt for pre-chosen accompanying wines, it’s an extra $121 per person.
The food and beverage manager at the hotel is Simon Freeman, an Englishman who “met an Australian girl in London, came for a year to travel and fell in love with the place.” He admits that some staff find it difficult to work in such an isolated spot, but as avid rock climbers both Freeman and his girlfriend love it.
So where do the patrons come from? A significant number are visitors from abroad, drawn by the restaurant's growing reputation, says Freeman. However, "The majority come from Melbourne and stay a couple of nights. Sometimes we get people from the other direction – from Adelaide – and occasionally from the surrounding towns, within a 100-kilometer radius of Dunkeld."
Because Dunkeld is close to a number of wine regions (Henty, Grampians and Pyrenees), the Royal Mail is the restaurant of choice for local vignerons. “They might be celebrating the end of the harvest, or have people visiting from overseas,” explains Freeman. “We get whole tables of winemakers celebrating.”
With 23,000 bottles in the cellar, representing 2750 different wines, the restaurant provides many opportunities for wine aficionados to extend their palates. The collection was given a jump-start by owner Allan Myers, who contributed part of his private cellar.
Freeman says Myers, “an avid collector,” has spent decades buying wines en primeur (before their commercial release and typically while still in the barrel). As a result, the 95-page wine list includes “the largest collection of Bordeaux and Burgundy in the Southern Hemisphere,” as well as “huge vintages” of the best Australian wines. Among them are 19 vintages of Penfold's Grange.
The wine list reveals an extensive back catalog of many prestigious wines. In the fizz department there’s a selection of Krug vintages, as well as bottles of Philiponnat’s single vineyard cuvee “Clos des Goisses” Champagne covering 1982 to 1999.
The best examples of Bordeaux include 17 vintages of Château Margaux starting from 1934; 14 vintages of Cos d’Estournel; and 14 vintages from Burgundy producer Domaine de la Romanée Conti’s La Tâche.
What does Freeman regard as the best bottles? “I’d have to mention the DRCs, because we are very lucky to have a great little selection of those,” he says. “Also, for me, one of the great strengths of the wine list is the depth in back vintages of Australian wines. You can’t find some of the wines anywhere else in the country; these are the only bottles left.”
It’s one thing to list 2750 wines, it’s another to have them all at hand. “Everything that’s on the list is available in the cellar,” says Freeman. “I’m adamant that we keep on top of it and it’s updated every day before service.”
Equally noteworthy are the relatively low prices charged for some of the best wines – made possible by the fact that they were bought en primeur and stored cost-free in Dunkeld. As an example, Freeman points to the 1986 Château Lafite Rothschild. On the Royal Mail wine list, it’s $1042. Elsewhere in Australia it’s priced at $1389, including an auction premium, while the worldwide average price on Wine-Searcher is $1795 excluding tax.
Another unusual touch is the location of the Royal Mail’s wine cellar, which is housed in a separate building just across the highway from the blue-stone pub. Freeman says when rooms were added to the hotel during the renovations in the 1990s, they were designed to have unobstructed views of the mountains. Fitting a cellar into the remaining space proved impossible.
The smaller selection of wines offered in the hotel’s bistro is kept on site, along with the wines chosen to match the main restaurant’s tasting menus. But staff still have to sprint across the highway, sometimes in the rain. “It’s only 40 meters over the road, but it does mean we have to pop over if anyone orders off the main wine list,” says Freeman.
Only the previous week staff undertook the mad dash. “We had some winemakers in and they went through the best white wines from the Loire Valley, including a Pouilly-Fumé from Didier Dagueneau, a real superstar who unfortunately died a few years ago, and a Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant – another iconic little vineyard which produces some of the best chenin blanc in the world.”
Freeman estimates the value of the hotel’s cellar at roughly $3 million. “It’s a bit more now, as we just had a big delivery of 50 cases of 2009 Bordeaux, worth nearly $200,000.”
As well as classic French and Australian wines, the Royal Mail’s list contains seven pages of riesling (“an extraordinary selection,” said the judges), 28 sherries and nine sweet wines from Burgenland, Austria. Wines from Napa occupy more than half of the eight American slots, including a 1994 Stag’s Leap SLV, and both the 1996 and 1997 Dominus Napanook.
What would Freeman drink if he could choose anything he wanted from the cellar? “The bottle I’ve got my eye on is a magnum of La Tâche from DRC 1983. It’s not a particularly renowned vintage in Burgundy, but it’s my birth year and I like it just for the fact that it’s as old as me. I’m hoping to come into the $9,000 it costs to buy it.”
*For more information on the wines mentioned above, click on the following links: