Punchin' Bottles


Christian McCabe gets through a fair whack of wine when sampling drops for his lively city wine bar Embla and its hushed upstairs restaurant, Lesa (both of which he co-owns with chef Dave Verheul).

“We taste a lot of wine each week and spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to add to the list at the restaurant,” says McCabe of the at-times offbeat selection, which changes a couple of times a week.

Now, he’s applying the same thinking at Punchin’ Bottles, a new takeaway wine shop that opened in mid-January on Russell Street, next door to Embla and Lesa.

McCabe’s teamed up with progressive Gippsland winemaker Patrick Sullivan and Eric Narioo, co-founder of wine distribution company Les Caves de Pyrene and natural wine bar Terroirs, both in London.

The bottle shop is a spin-off of the trio’s wine-distribution business, Puncheon Bottles, which champions sustainably produced and low intervention drops.

“We want to present interesting wines that’ll encourage you to think outside the square,” McCabe says. “We often get pigeonholed as a natural wine bar at Embla, but we’ve never said that about ourselves and it won’t be the sole focus at the bottle shop either.”

The selection is wide-ranging but favours local, independent and small-batch producers, which means bottles on the shelves will change a couple of times a week – just like the list at Embla.

It also means the last-minute search for something to drink at your favourite BYO diner just got a bit more interesting – in stark contrast to most other CBD bottle shops (with the exception of the newly opened Blackhearts & Sparrows at Ella, and bars and eateries with small takeaway wings such as City Wine Shop, Liminal and Denton Wine Bar).

“It’s not comprehensive ranging,” says McCabe. “What we stock is very much driven by what we taste, places we visit and winemakers who are charming us with their winemaking.”

One producer taking his fancy right now is Gentle Folk, where Gareth and Rainbo Belton are making easygoing but creative wines from a handful of small vineyards in Adelaide Hills.

And while the wines may be offbeat, the way they're described is more straightforward. McCabe talks me through a couple in that unpretentious Embla service style. A chardonnay (“a lick of oak really balances the acids well”), then a spicy pinot noir (“a soft opulence makes it a good late-night drinking option”).

There's also champagne from France, sangiovese from Italy and other familiar classics, but the emphasis is on the Aussies.

There are juicy, slinky drops from family-run Jauma in McLaren Vale, and wines by Ruggabellus in the Barossa, where the winemaker is inspired by the rugged beauty of the region and picks red grapes early (for more brightness) and favours whites with skins on (for a little more heft).

“There isn’t a checklist of what we’re trying to achieve,” McCabe says. “It really comes down to experience and our personal taste. And we’re all about engaging with winemakers who have good farming practices – that to me is important.”

Punchin’ occupies a former music store, with green linoleum flooring and a sole cactus in one corner. There’s a long communal table in the centre of the room with mismatched chairs, flanked on one side by a wine fridge and on the other by wine shelves.

But it won’t be here long. The shop has a short-term lease due to planned construction of a new hotel, which could see McCabe and his partners out by July. He says that if the concept in its current format hits the right notes, they’ll be looking for a permanent spot nearby.

“We might move somewhere else. Or we might decide we prefer running restaurants,” he says, laughing.

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Updated: January 29th, 2020

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