GOING AU NATUREL
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