When superstar chef Neil Perry and renowned Riesling maker Jeffrey Grosset meet to eat and drink at Perry's Rose Bay apartment, the two men pay no mind to the stunning views of Sydney's iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House as they bustle around the kitchen. Perry is pounding chiles, garlic and lemongrass in a well-worn stone mortar for his spicy, creamy chicken curry—"the kind of thing you find bubbling in a blackened pot on fishing boats throughout Asia," he says. "This one's a cross between an Indian and Malaysian Nyonya–style curry, and very easy to cook." Grosset is setting out half a dozen wines, including a 2005 Grosset Piccadilly Chardonnay to accompany the chicken. "The 2005 vintage was a rather bold one, and the wine can almost be too dominant with food," he says, "but as you get into the elusive flavors of this curry, the Chardonnay keeps working with them."
The two men are well matched. Both Perry and Grosset are among a handful of Australians to gain recognition in the international gastronomic arena. Since 1989, when he opened Rockpool restaurant in the Rocks district of Sydney, Perry has gone on to appear in his own cult TV cooking shows and write best-selling cookbooks; he's currently working on his fifth book, Balance and Harmony, about his love affair with Asian cuisine, while working out the kinks at his new Rockpool Bar & Grill, an eminently fashionable steak house, in Melbourne. Grosset is widely acknowledged as one of the world's greatest white-wine makers, famous also for using screw-cap closures on his bottlings. As one of the more thoughtful winemakers of his generation, he is currently obsessed with the effects of climate change and biodynamics on wine.
The pair met in 1988 at Claude's (a landmark Sydney restaurant that has always attracted top chefs and winemakers, drawn by its intimate atmosphere), at a lunch that kept going late into the night. Perry was very close to opening Rockpool, offering a uniquely Australian blend of Asian and Mediterranean cooking, and the two men toyed with the idea of pouring a really spectacular house wine at the launch. "We both wanted to turn the concept of house wine as being of poor quality on its head," Perry explains. "I wanted top winemakers to make me my own special wines that not only represented great Australian wine styles but also perfectly matched my food. Most were actually more expensive than many other bottles on our wine list." But it wasn't until six months after Rockpool's opening that Grosset delivered his first batch of Rockpool Riesling; he still makes about 60 cases a year each of Riesling and Chardonnay for the restaurant.
As the curry simmers, Perry brings out a crunchy, flavorful salad of radicchio, roasted beets, pears, walnuts and Roquefort cheese. Banned in Australia for 10 years because it's made from unpasteurized milk, Roquefort has recently been legalized, and it's become very fashionable among discerning chefs. Grosset pours the first wine, the 2006 Grosset Sémillon Sauvignon Blanc. "The wines I picked today are all recent releases," he explains. "I don't rate older wines as being necessarily better than younger ones, just different." Then he adds, "I love the up-front tropical notes and bone-dry finish of this Sauvignon. It's not too big and works well with the salad."
With Perry's slightly spicy spaghetti tossed with briny clams and braised green beans, Grosset selects his 2006 Grosset Watervale Riesling. Grosset's Watervale and Polish Hill Rieslings are two of Australia's most sought-after bottles; their greatness lies not only in respect for pangkarra (the Aboriginal word for terroir) but also in their ability to give a uniquely Australian expression to the Riesling grape. Grosset's Rieslings are prized for their pristine purity of flavor, a lovely combination of citrus and minerality. "Riesling has a reputation for being relatively simple and a suitable match only for delicate dishes, but the Watervale is the opposite," Grosset says. "Its flavors are extraordinarily persistent, which means it can complement powerfully flavored dishes like this spaghetti."
Perry and Grosset are both ardent believers in the ability of Australian wines to pair elegantly with food. "Twenty years ago, Australian winemakers were making beautiful, rich, fruit-driven wines—bold wines compared with Old World wines, and not necessarily the most food-friendly," Perry says. "But there's been an evolution since then." Grosset adds, "Australia seems to be known for just good-value wines, but there's so much more happening. We're past the point of replicating European styles with our vines. The vines we have are unique to us now, even if they were European once."
For the last dish of the afternoon, Perry prepares a deliciously rich olive oil-and-Sauternes cake with roasted pears; Grosset pours the 2006 Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling, made by his partner, Stephanie Toole, also acknowledged as one of Australia's top winemakers. In 1993 Toole bought the Mount Horrocks vineyard, whose previous owners Grosset had once worked for, and the property now produces this wine (as well as a flinty Sémillon and a supple, savory Cabernet Sauvignon), which is quite simply one of Australia's greatest dessert wines.
It's now late afternoon and the two friends, who started their relationship over a similarly lingering meal almost 20 years ago, finish up. Grosset has to catch the last flight back to Adelaide to supervise the printing of some new wine labels, and Perry has to report back to Rockpool. Fully sated, the pair will meet again in the coming months to catch up, talk shop and eat and drink some more.
Andy Harris is an editor-at-large at Australian Gourmet Traveller and Gourmet Traveller Wine magazines.