GO­ING AU NATUREL

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Are nat­u­ral wines the next IT wine?

Skirt­ing at the edge of con­ven­tional wine is the ter­roir-ist cult of nat­u­ral wines. Is it hype or is it here to stay? June Lee seeks out pro­po­nents of the move­ment in Sin­ga­pore to sort out the myths and meth­ods for get­ting the best out of your ex­pe­ri­ence.

On one hand, you have Robert Parker fore­cast­ing on Twit­ter in 2014 that “The un­de­fined scam called ‘nat­u­ral’ or ‘au­then­tic’ wines will be ex­posed as a fraud (most se­ri­ous wines have no ad­di­tives)”. That is the view from ‘con­ven­tional wine’ drinkers, who find the style of nat­u­ral wine un­bear­able – wines that taste like flawed cider (a quote from Bruce Palling), smell like caged do­mes­tic pets (so says Jan­cis Robin­son), are cloudy and some­times filled with sed­i­ment and bits of skin, and so on.

Con­verts – usu­ally mil­len­nial, new to wines, re­bel­lious or all three – cite its drink­a­bil­ity, per­ceived health­ier val­ues, and earth-friendly, min­i­mal­ist ap­proach for their new­found zeal. That sets the stage for a hip­ster vs es­tab­lish­ment show­down, which has in­evitably en­tered a new phases of back­lash as more play­ers en­ter this small, in­de­pen­dent mar­ket and push the bound­aries of what makes wines ‘nat­u­ral’. We set out to gather opin­ions from pun­ters in this field, in­clud­ing Alvin Gho and Ian Lim from RVLT bar, Josée Yeo­mans from Le Bon Funk, Quintino Del­larosa from Del­larosa Wines, Philippe Chin from Open Farm Com­mu­nity, and Aditya Lamba from Peace of Vino, to present a snap­shot of how to get the best out of nat­u­ral wines, which­ever side of the fence you’re on.

NAT­U­RAL, BIODYNAMIC, OR­GANIC – WHAT’S THE DIF­FER­ENCE?

Most cus­tomers are still not clear on the dif­fer­ences be­tween the three cat­e­gories – and the gap can be quite huge, so it pays to be clear on what you’re ex­pect­ing. It should also go with­out say­ing that the three terms over­lap at will: there are wines that are one or the other, two but not the fi­nal, or all three in com­bi­na­tion.

Lamba likens nat­u­ral, raw or real wines to “un­plugged” wines, while Del­larosa goes with the oft-cited “liv­ing wine from a liv­ing soil” def­i­ni­tion. He urges a few tan­gi­ble pre­req­ui­sites, such as or­ganic or biodynamic viti­cul­ture with a min­i­mum of tech­no­log­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion, along with in­tan­gi­ble ones – “fun­da­men­tal re­spect and cel­e­bra­tion of the tra­di­tional, cul­tural and so­cial traits of the whole process from the land to the cel­lar”.

Nat­u­ral wines are (as yet) legally un­de­fined. If a pro­ducer claims to make nat­u­ral wine, then it ex­ists by self-procla­ma­tion. This is not the case for or­ganic and biodynamic la­belled prod­ucts, which are gov­erned by reg­u­la­tory boards and or­gan­i­sa­tions. Or­ganic wines are made from grapes grown or­gan­i­cally, with­out use of chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides or syn­thetic ad­di­tives, and may or may not con­tain a small amount of per­mit­ted sul­fites. Biodynamic wines are made from bio­dy­nam­i­cally grown grapes in a sim­i­lar process to or­ganic farm­ing, but with a wider suite of holis­tic prac­tices that cor­re­spond with nat­u­ral cy­cles of the earth, such as com­post­ing and har­vest­ing times.

I’M NOT DRINK­ING SUL­FITES, AM I?

Vary­ing amounts of added sul­fites, a nat­u­ral by-prod­uct of fer­men­ta­tion, is also per­mit­ted, con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief. While nat­u­rally oc­cur­ing sul­fites, or sul­fur diox­ide (SO2), are present in wine, added amounts are com­mon in winemaking and food pro­duc­tion. Dried fruit, for in­stance, may con­tain lev­els up to 1,000 parts per mil­lion (ppm). Chin points to the French web­site vins-sains. org which pro­mul­gates S.A.I.N.S – sans au­cun in­trant ni sul­fite as one of the strictest ap­proaches in the mar­ket. Many other guide­lines set 30mg/l as the up­per limit on SO2 lev­els.

Sul­fites have of­ten been anec­do­tally fin­gered as the cul­prit be­hind ‘wine headaches’, but the sci­ence be­hind this has not been proven. Those who feel they are al­ler­gic or sen­si­tive to sul­fites, how­ever, can take note: as tan­nins in red wine help to sta­bilise the wine, less (added) sul­fites is needed in red than in white wine. Read the la­bels or seek guid­ance from your trusted nat­u­ral wine source.

HOW ARE NAT­U­RAL WINES SI­MUL­TA­NE­OUSLY AN OLD AND NEW CON­CEPT?

Nat­u­ral wines hark back to how wine would have been made cen­turies ago, when ripe grapes were al­lowed to fer­ment via wild yeast into an al­co­holic juice. Mod­ern ad­vances fol­lowed by widespread in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion in the 1950s led to a style of wine to­day that’s more pol­ished, con­trol­lable and largescale than ever. As Del­larosa puts it, “Our mod­ern taste has been de­fined by a stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of taste and wine pro­duc­tion, and max­imi­sa­tion of prof­its. What we drink most of the time to­day is a wine that has been pro­duced for mass con­sump­tion.”

In the 1980s, French wine­mak­ers Mar­cel Lapierre and Jules Chavet found them­selves at the fore­front of a loose move­ment that re­belled against the in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion start­ing in the 1960s. They were deemed ec­cen­tric rad­i­cals, but the idea took hold as sim­i­lar-minded farm­ers took up the task and started get­ting bet­ter at mak­ing wines with­out the con­ve­niences of mod­ern in­ter­ven­tion. Th­ese frag­ile wines, whether in France, Australia or Italy, due to the lack of preser­va­tion meth­ods would of­ten be con­sumed lo­cally and were em­braced by a new, younger au­di­ence.

By the mid 2000s, res­tau­rants and som­me­liers were lead­ing the charge, with Noma putting min­i­mal in­ter­ven­tion wines along­side their for­aged, back to na­ture cui­sine. The conversation since then has been firmly on the search for ‘au­then­tic­ity’. Nat­u­ral wine fairs and bars are now spread­ing across the world, though Chin notes it can go too far – “some­one called me a nat­u­ral wine som­me­lier the other day, and I have to say there’s no such thing! Any som­me­lier should know all wines, not just nat­u­ral wines.” Hav­ing just joined Open Farm Com­mu­nity (open­farm­com­mu­nity.com) re­cently. he’s look­ing to re­vamp the wine list and to bring in more wines to Sin­ga­pore, as founder Cyn­thia Chua is an en­thu­si­ast of the style.

Not ev­ery­one falls in love at first taste

Gho and Lim, who started in the wine in­dus­try in the ‘con­ven­tional’ sense, cited their first en­coun­ters with min­i­mal in­ter­ven­tion wines around 2011. Gho was work­ing in Shang­hai, while Lim’s then-com­pany ex­posed him to Lucy Mar­gaux wines, which he found “weird but ex­cit­ing”. Over time, they found that they en­joyed the flavours and drink­a­bil­ity of this style of wine, and by 2015 were in se­ri­ous thoughts about its vi­a­bil­ity in Sin­ga­pore. They opened Wine RVLT in Killiney Road in Septem­ber 2016 (be­fore mov­ing to the cur­rent lo­ca­tion in Car­pen­ter Street), mak­ing it Sin­ga­pore’s first nat­u­ral wine bar.

The lat­est en­trant in that mar­ket is Le Bon Funk (lebon­funk.com), which started in May. Yeo­mans, a Cana­dian na­tive who most re­cently spent a few years in South­west France, ob­serves, “Many peo­ple come in hav­ing had not so great ex­pe­ri­ences and are so pleased to see that nat­u­ral wines are not all just funky for the sake of it but beau­ti­ful wines made with a low in­ter­ven­tion­ist men­tal­ity.” It takes a few wines to get the ball rolling, but those who are re­cep­tive to the taste have been grow­ing. “What has im­pressed me the most, is how many peo­ple have come in ask­ing for big heavy reds and then taste a fresher red and later keep com­ing back in search of that fresh­ness that a lot of nat­u­ral wines of­fer. Peo­ple are dis­cov­er­ing that you can have the funk or not when it comes to nat­u­ral wines, they just need to be led in the di­rec­tion they pre­fer,” she adds.

Don’ t go look­ing for cheap wine

De­spite their hip­pie, grungy or lowtech rep­u­ta­tion, nat­u­ral wines don’t come cheap – es­pe­cially in this part of the world. All five re­spon­dents cite the need for ex­tra care­ful han­dling and reefer (short for re­frig­er­ated con­tain­ers) ship­ping to trans­port the bot­tles in good shape. Add to this is the fact that nat­u­ral wines are usu­ally made in small quan­ti­ties, as it is sub­ject to spon­ta­neous meth­ods and labour­in­ten­sive tech­niques in the first place.

Says Chin, “I cher­ish th­ese small pro­duc­ers, as they’re mak­ing prod­ucts that mat­ter and that are bet­ter for the earth. Th­ese wines are orig­i­nal, dif­fer­ent, and tell a story about the ter­roir and the grape that gives you a con­nec­tion with the per­son who makes it. It’s a choice you make when you buy nat­u­ral wine, you’re vot­ing for some­thing mean­ing­ful.”

RVLT (win­ervlt.sg) main­tains some of the most ap­proach­able prices for nat­u­ral wines by hav­ing min­i­mal markups and also keep­ing things “loud, noisy and fun”. Peo­ple come in ex­pect­ing to drink from stemmed glasses, quips Lim, be­cause “Sin­ga­pore­ans are trained to drink in the box. They come to a bar and ex­pect it to be an ele­gant ex­pe­ri­ence.” In­stead, the ex­pe­ri­ence here is as raw as the wines, ap­peal­ing to a mainly 20and 30-some­thing clien­tele. Their 130 la­bels are of­ten re­freshed to keep things in­ter­est­ing for the cus­tomer who comes in ex­pect­ing new tastes, but they’ve also started work­ing di­rectly with about four winer­ies to carry those wines in the mar­ket.

Is the mar­ket reach­ing sat­u­ra­tion point?

The Sin­ga­pore scene is just start­ing, lag­ging be­hind other wine-cen­tric Asian coun­tries like Tai­wan, Ja­pan and Hong Kong. With an es­ti­mated 10 or so distrib­u­tors and only a hand­ful of ded­i­cated bars lo­cally, there seems to be room for growth de­spite some es­ti­ma­tions that nat­u­ral wines make up just 2 per­cent of the mar­ket glob­ally.

Peace of Vino, which op­er­ates un­der Straits Wines (straitswine.com), counts its nat­u­ral wine se­lec­tion at per­haps 10 per­cent of the range, with or­ganic and biodynamic op­tions still lead­ing the seg­ment. Lamba sees that there’s am­ple room for growth, es­pe­cially with high-end, in­flu­en­tial res­tau­rants mak­ing it trendy to have a nat­u­ral wine col­umn on their list.

Del­larosa, who started in Novem­ber 2017 (del­laro­saw­ine.com), is steadily in­creas­ing his port­fo­lio of French and Czech wines, buoyed by the favourable lo­cal re­cep­tion. He elab­o­rates, “In light of the health­ier char­ac­ter­is­tics of our wines, we have a fol­low­ing of pro­fes­sional women in the range of 25-50 years old. Their in­ter­est gen­er­ally starts from their health con­scious­ness and in­creases to other as­pects.”

Yeo­mans has this to say, “I think Sin­ga­pore is still in the early stages and there is al­ways room for growth – baby steps are im­por­tant so as to not sat­u­rate the mar­ket. Nat­u­ral wines are made in small quan­ti­ties, very de­pen­dent on weather and need to be han­dled with a lot of care. I feel they need to be han­dled by the right peo­ple who un­der­stand where they are com­ing from and have that con­nec­tion with wine­mak­ers to keep th­ese wines ap­prochable and un­der­stood. I would hope peo­ple aren’t just try­ing to make a quick buck off a trend. But I al­ways say the more the mer­rier, as long as the pas­sion and un­der­stand­ing for th­ese amaz­ing wines is there.”

Two Aus­tralian brands from Peace of Vino (Straits Wine) mark some of the ear­lier nat­u­ral wine of­fer­ings in Sin­ga­pore

A se­lec­tion of nat­u­ral wines from Le Bon Funk, the lat­est (and only the sec­ond such bar) by Lo & Be­hold

More se­lec­tions from Peace of Vino Open Farm Com­mu­nity is the lat­est restau­rant to em­brace the phi­los­o­phy of nat­u­ral wines along­side con­nect­ing com­mu­ni­ties with lo­cal farm­ing.

Philippe Chin (left), is a Cana­dian som­me­lier who re­cently re­lo­cated to join Open Farm Com­mu­nity; he’s al­ready fast friends with the founders of RVLT, Alvin Gho and Ian Lim (mid­dle and right).

A Slove­nian la­bel im­ported by Del­larosa Wines

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