Five years after the first wave of natural wine bars unlocked the doors to a larger audience, the scene has evolved. We check in with four new wine bars about evolving trends and what to expect on progressive wine lists

Five years ago, drinkers in Singapore were just beginning to understand the terms “skin contact”, “orange/amber”, “pét-nat” and “glou glou” (literally “glug glug”, or easily quaffable wines) that arrived with the proliferation of natural wines in Singapore. Fronting that trend were the rebellious wine bars—Wine RVLT, Le Bon Funk, Bar Cicheti—all of which are still going strong. Nothing much has changed at these establishments: they still largely do not have a wine list (bottles are displayed with prices handwritten with chalk), deploy alternative music playlists, and offer mostly natural wines and fewer conventional ones.

Another thing that hasn’t changed: the ambiguity of the term “natural wine”, which is not codified the same way organic and biodynamic wines are, but are often placed in the same category. (See our sidebars for a quick refresher course on natural wines.) Meanwhile, a new crop of wine bars has sprung up, carrying mainly natural wines or blending them into their wine lists. The folks behind Fool, Casa by Remy Lefebvre’s Wine Room, Club Street Wine Room and Drunken Farmer tell us more about today’s wine bar trends, who the drinkers are, and what wines to look out for.

Still curious about funk

At Fool, the exuberant new concept by chef-owner Rishi Naleendra and group beverage manager Vinodhan Veloo, the wine menu aims to debunk the stigma of stuffiness around wines. In a retro-cool dining room, the gastronomic small bites are paired with a wide range of wines, sourced from more than 60 distributors. Here, you are as likely to order a conventional Bordeaux as you are a natural bottle from Loire—no one bats an eyelid if you like both. In comparison to five years ago, “people are a lot more well informed these days”, says Veloo. “Before, people would assume that if it was orange, it was probably a natural wine. Or if it had a funky label, the wine inside it would be funky too. But these misconceptions seem to have mostly cleared up.”

Over at Club Street Wine Room, operations director and head sommelier Amir Solay reckons that while audiences are now much more receptive and knowledgeable about natural wine, “there are some who still don’t understand it, especially the taste and the nose aspect of it, let alone the purpose”. That’s why he has sought out research to feature different spectrums of winemaking styles on the wine list, from amphorae‑aged and underwater‑aged to natural and lesser‑known grapes. Wines that are amphorae-aged, even if not made naturally, have an oxidative effect that may be similar to natural wines, helping customers understand and maybe accept more of the funk associated with natural wines. Underwater‑aged wines may have different results that range from higher intensity on aromas to even a slight salinity—again bringing customers to a new range of flavours that can help them learn more about wines other than conventional styles.

“It’s all about engaging our guests who are keen to try different wines, not only by variety or region but by the way they’re being produced,” says Solay. “Natural wine fits the bill—a lot of consumers are still curious about what natural wine is all about, so we just demystify it in our own little way.”

Don’t miss: Wine Crush: What Is Pét-Nat And Why Should You Be Drinking It?

Drinkers are getting savvier

“We see a lot of newbies ‘grow’ with us; many of them are now coming back asking to try more unique, funky wines and have been shopping on our wine retail website,” shares Cynthia Chua, founder of Drunken Farmer, under the Spa Esprit Group. The brand began as a travelling pop-up in 2019, starting out at Open Farm Community where it first converted the wine list into one that’s completely natural, to now having two permanent homes on Stanley Street and Joo Chiat Road. It imports an extensive list of wines, offering 80 labels on premise and more than 100 online, with one of the largest selections of orange wines (skin-fermented white wine) and pét-nat (pétillant naturel, sparkling wine made the natural way) in Singapore.

Where in Singapore does the environmentally savvy drinker go? Seeing a lack of this concept in the country, Casa Restaurant by Remy Lefebvre has launched a Wine Room to complement its restaurant space, where you’ll find an extensive list of natural, organic and biodynamic wines—which make up 80 per cent of the list. “It’s great that we can slowly move towards having these wines for their name or brand promise,” says chef‑partner Remy Lefebvre. Whether it is at a three-Michelin-star restaurant or a wine bar, people can easily enjoy a bottle of organic wine around Singapore. Wine bars are opening one after another and it’s just a matter of time before we find more restaurants like us promoting these specific wine lists.”

Understanding the millennials

While Drunken Farmer and Casa’s Wine Room embrace their reputation for natural, organic or biodynamic wines, Fool takes a different stance. Veloo explains, “With so many wine bars in Singapore, it has become a competitive space. So naturally, most have decided to focus on a specific set of instructions—a French wine bar, a natural wine bar, a fine wine bar. We’ve done something else. We set no boundaries other than these have to be wines that we’d also enjoy drinking.” The magazine-like layout of the wine list presents myriad themes, such as Betting on Climate Change and Syrah vs Shiraz—geeky yet fun. “If I had to be specific, I think I had millennials in mind when I was setting out to work on the Fool wine list. After all, I’m a millennial and I like to think I know what we like,” he quips. Standing out from the crowd As the scene has matured, natural wines have become much more accessible. In order to make a statement, there needs to be differentiation. Drunken Farmer, in addition to stocking more than 100 labels, has bottled its own exclusive Drunken Farmer label in collaboration with respected producer Lise et Bertrand Jousset—the Drunken Farmer Jousset 2019, a Chenin Blanc and Colombard from Loire.

Lefebvre made it a point to fight for rare allocations and add wines not usually found here. “A trend I noticed is that people are starting to look for rarer wines with limited allocation in Singapore by the wineries,” he shares. “At Casa, we’re very focused on Champagne and Loire Valley wines, and have a big selection of white wines to pair with our fresh and flavoursome woodfire cooking. I personally enjoy Portuguese and Corsican wines. I’d recommend wines from terroirs that have been making organic wines for a very long time, such as France or Austria. From our wine list, I would recommend Champagne Telmont (for easier drinking) and something like an oxidative savagnin from Domaine des Ronces for the more experienced drinker.”

There isn’t a definitive mould of the natural wine drinker today. Veloo concludes, “Natural wine drinkers also seem to be open to exploring more conventional wines. At some point, your palate is going to change and what you’re after will almost always evolve. What I enjoy drinking now is very much different from what it was just two years ago. Generally speaking, I believe most natural wine drinkers are now better informed and know what they’re after.”

In case you missed it: Meet the Master: Richard Hemming, Wine Communicator and 67 Pall Mall Singapore’s Resident Master of Wine

But what exactly are natural wines?

Natural wine is wine that is farmed organically in the fields and made with no or minimal intervention in the cellar. Compared to conventional wines that may use chemicals to control pests in the vineyards or mechanical harvesting, as well as additives or refining techniques in the cellar, natural wines subscribe to the philosophy of “nothing added, nothing removed”. Given the precariousness of making natural wine, its percentage of the market is tiny—but growing.

Proponents call the results of this stripped‑down winemaking style “living wine”, “raw wine”, “lo-fi wine” and other similar terms, in a bid to distinguish it from the mass-production techniques used today in winemaking. Given the wide variety of natural yeasts, fermentation processes and terroir expressions of these wines, the taste of the wine can vary from fruity and clean to funky and yeasty, not unlike cider or kombucha.

Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron in her seminal book, Natural Wine, notes that while no legal definition of natural wine currently exists, “various official-ish ones do, set by groups of growers in various countries, including France, Italy and Spain”. Producers of natural wine by and large hew to the ideals and principles of no additives.

Legeron continues, “For these growers, what they do goes well beyond the wine itself, it is also a philosophy, a way of life, which undoubtedly contributes to its profound appeal to people across the globe.”

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.