Natural wine, made without chemical fertilisers, pesticides, filters, machinery, wood barrels or added yeast, are gaining popularity in Hong Kong
"I just drink it and feel like I'm running through this field of butterflies and daisies. It takes you to another place."
That's not something you usually hear about a wine, especially from Alison Christ, a sommelier with a New York accent and tattoo-covered arms. But this is no ordinary wine - it's a Domaine Lucci Noir de Florette from the Adelaide Hills, made without chemical fertilisers, pesticides, filters, machinery, wood barrels or added yeast. It's a natural wine - in other words, a controversial but fast-spreading approach to winemaking that is quickly gaining fans in Hong Kong.
"You can really feel the love that goes into it," says Christ, who owns MyHouse, a Wan Chai restaurant and bar with a list of around 450 wines, the vast majority of which are natural. Christ first fell in love with wine when she visited Italy with her grandmother. She began training as a sommelier after she started working at her father's Italian restaurant. But it wasn't until she came to Hong Kong and met natural wine specialists Cristobal Huneeus and Karim Hadjadj that she fell down the rabbit hole of natural wines.
"It's a bit addictive when you fall into it," says Hadjadj, who along with Huneeus is a founder of La Cabane, a natural wine shop and bistro in Central. "You don't find the same emotion in other wines."
Huneeus adds: "You have a new dimension in terms of fruitiness, the terroir, the soil. With natural wine, the roots of the vines plunge deeper into the ground, so you get what we call the message of the water."
When La Cabane opened the doors to its Hollywood Road wine cellar in 2011, it was the first natural wine business in Hong Kong. There are now close to a dozen restaurants and bars with an extensive list of natural wines, including 121BC, Le Quinze Vins and Aberdeen Street Social. Huneeus says that after Japan, Hong Kong is the biggest market in Asia for natural wine.
Yet, many still find themselves mystified by the phenomenon - and for good reason. Though natural wines may be trendy, they are not well defined, and they are easily confused with other niche categories such as organic and biodynamic wines. Simply put, organic wines are made from grapes grown without artificial fertilisers or pesticides, while biodynamic wines go even further by eschewing any kind of mechanical processes, additives or preservatives. Natural wines draw from both of these categories, but some may contain small amounts of added sulphites - the Noir de Florette contains 20 parts per million of sulphur, about 10 times less than many conventional wines.
More than just eschewing additives, though, natural winemakers say they are making wine the way it used to be made, before mass-market consumption demanded standardised flavours and a shelf-stable product. Vineyards are kept small and vines aren't trellised or irrigated, to encourage them to grow as wild as possible.
"I remember being profoundly moved by some old bottles of Nicolas Joly's Coulée de Serrant Chenin long before anyone had heard the term natural wines - they had extraordinary vivacity and definition," says Martin Hudson, a certified master of wine with fine wine merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Natural winemakers say these techniques allow the grapes and the terroir to be expressed with more clarity than wines that have been engineered for stability and consistency. The downside is that they can be unpredictable and unstable; natural wines must be kept rigorously temperature controlled to prevent bacterial infections and oxidisation.
Their inherent quirkiness is often an acquired taste: many natural wines have more pronounced acidity and yeastiness than conventional wines.
Orange wines are particularly divisive. Made by leaving white wine grapes in contact with their skins and seeds for an extended period of time, they are bitter, earthy and sour, with a pronounced wild yeast character similar to Belgian beers like lambics. "It's funkiness, really - barnyardy, weird and interesting," Christ says.
Those are the kinds of characteristics that have made natural wine the bane of critics such as Robert Parker, who has called natural wines a "scam" that "will be exposed as a fraud".
"Many people believe natural wine has to be weird. It doesn't," says Charles Pelletier, the owner of Serge et le Phoque in Wan Chai, a Michelin-starred restaurant that has about 170 wines on its list. "They are all somewhere on the natural wine spectrum. Or as we say, they are well made." Most of Serge et le Phoque's natural wines pair well with food, like Domaine Rietsch's 2013 Sylvaner Vieille Vigne, from Alsace, which is crisp, floral and perfect for seafood. The restaurant's sommelier, Manon Barthe, recommends saving more eccentric tipples like orange wine for aperitivo hour. "With food it's a bit tricky, it overwhelms - but with cheese it's amazing," she says.
Pelletier says most of his customers don't realise they are drinking natural wine. "It's a bit of a trend, so we don't want to play it up," he says. "Wine is not a question of being natural or not. It should just be good."
MyHouse. 26/F, QRE Plaza, 202 Queen's Road East, Wan Chai. Tel 2323 1715. myhousehk.com
La Cabane Wine Bistro. 26 Hollywood Road, Central. Tel 2776 6070. lacabane.hk
Serge et le Phoque. Shop B2, 3 Wan Chai Road, Wan Chai. Tel 5465 2000