Part of a global shift toward more considered alcohol consumption, natural wine has increasingly made its presence felt in Asia – not only in hipster retailers and inventive bistros, but across more traditional restaurants that selected only conventional producers in the past.
While there is no formal consensus on what constitutes natural winemaking, natural or biodynamic wines are most often defined by low-intervention processes and a lack of additives. Despite its fairly recent rise in popularity, many winemakers assert it was the traditional way to make wine, preceding even conventional wine production.
Within Asia, Japan has had the longest footprint in natural wines, with over 30 years of consumption and shops dedicated to the category. Recent decades have seen other markets such as Shanghai and Taipei birth burgeoning scenes, each with multiple bars devoted to natural wine.
And more recently, Southeast Asia is starting to see the embrace of natural wine, such as in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. In the Philippines, too, Manila-based importers are growing. Among these is Bombvinos, which now sells and serves natural wine alongside a food menu in a ‘bodega’ in Manila, opened in August.
As expected, food capitals like Hong Kong and Singapore which offer a wide variety of dining and drinking concepts have their own players in the market.
“Natural wine has been a global movement for several decades now, and although Hong Kong has a long history of wine consumption, natural wine has been slow in picking up here,” says Cristobal Huneeus, co-founder of the Hong Kong bistro and wine bar La Cabane.
The earliest importer of natural wines in Hong Kong, La Cabane began retailing in its cellar in 2010, two years after the government lifted taxes on products with alcohol beverage content (ABV) below 30 percent.
In 2012 La Cabane opened its wine bar, introducing relatively unknown wine styles, including one of the first orange or skin contact wines by the glass in Hong Kong, in late 2014. “We felt that, as a global city, it was the right time to showcase natural wines,” Huneeus says.
While natural wine remains underrepresented in restaurants, Huneeus says he has seen an increase in interest over the years. Today their wines are present in numerous Michelin-rated restaurants, having gradually arrived on tables that were previously more “conventional wine-driven.”
Says Hunneus, “Hong Kong remains a classic market and loves big names and etiquette wines, so it is refreshing to see that there is a demand for new winemakers.”
In Singapore, sommelier-led bottle shop Clink Clink’s resident sommelier Matthew Lamb says natural wine represents a major growth segment in the beverage market.
“It has continued to grow year on year. With the growth in consumption, there’s been an accompanying knowledge growth. A few years ago, it used to be ‘the weirder the better’ – all under the name of natural wine – whereas now the story has evolved,” Lamb notes.
Clink Clink is the brainchild of hospitality group Lo & Behold, which operates more than 10 original culinary concepts in Singapore including award-winning restaurants and the natural wine bar, Le Bon Funk.
The group saw a window of opportunity as the Covid-19 pandemic peaked in the city in 2020. With over 10 years of managing beverage programmes at Lo & Behold’s restaurants and its access to global networks, Clink Clink bolstered distinct offerings at reasonable value. “We wanted to help everyone drink better at home. Singapore has an incredible array of wines, yet before the pandemic, it wasn’t always all too easy to get access to the full array of possibilities.”
“Off the back of the pandemic, the level of wine knowledge and overall interest in the wine world has skyrocketed. With the increased knowledge, there’s certainly been a trend of wanting to explore further and outside of the ‘tried and true’ regions or varieties. The explosion of demand for natural wine certainly ties in with this overall,” Lamb says. “In the world of social media, new producers can very quickly rise to prominence and there’s certainly a demand for people looking out for the next new thing.”