“Great natural wine is a pure and virtuous expression of the place that the grapes have been grown in,” says Mike Bennie. He is a lot of things – a renowned wine writer, winemaker, co-founder of Rootstock, and perhaps the most cerebral human to ever wear a trucker cap with tracksuit pants while nursing a glass of Jumpin Juice’ pinot noir/pinot gris blend. He’s talking about the meteoric rise of natural wine and I’m trying to figure out why it’s blown up so much, but I’m hesitant to blame its ascent on fickle millennials or equating it somehow to avocados.
As regular diners will attest, natural wines have had an increasing influence over the city’s wine lists in recent years. Bennie tells me that Sydney is – alongside New York, Tokyo, and Copenhagen – pioneering the swing towards natural wine. “It’s interesting. It’s become so prevalent in Sydney now that it’s almost like all the best places have some form of natural wine on their list. People are shocked when they come here and find it in abundance in regular places.”
The term itself is broad, but Bennie classifies “natural” as any wine that is the product of organic or biodynamic vineyards. Anything that’s made with minimal human intervention, fermented only with the bacteria that the grape came into the winery with, and is bottled, unfined and unfiltered, with minimal to no sulphur.
Results vary wildly and yield flavour profiles that are considered unorthodox – or even faulty – by what Bennie calls the “technocratic genre of producers” – the traditionalists, so to speak. Wines with brighter acidity, savoury textures and unusual aromas are commonplace now, and Bennie speculates that as people have become more interested in where their food comes from, their thirst for something raw, local, and unrefined has grown.
“For me, process and provenance of anything consumed is of utmost importance … this is important in high-end gastronomy and is inherent in great dining, therefore wine needs to match that in equal stead,” says Bennie.
But there is nothing new about this approach. It is common sense that before appellations, regulating bodies, and connoisseurs, this is how humans drank their wine. For thousands of years all wine was natural. To call it a fad is disingenuous. And it’s not going anywhere fast. “Natural wine’s origins date back to the 1960s and ’70s and then of course pre-general scientific intervention in wine thousands of years,” says Bennie.
So, if natural wine is here to stay, here’s where you can get it.
Gone are the days when great, challenging wine was only available from stuffy fine diners. Here’s a loud burger joint with one of Sydney’s best and most comprehensive wine lists. Written on the wall in an Iron Maiden-style font, the list features leaders in Australian natural wine – including Bennie’s own label Brian – alongside VB tinnies. Some fried chicken with that Beaujolais?
10 William St
Ground zero for the 2016 police crackdown on quaint neighborhood restaurants, 10 William St is a wine bar first and foremost. The large, ever-evolving list of reds, whites, skin-contact orange wines and natural wine by the glass is chalked up on a blackboard near the front window. The team is eager for drinkers to try something new, and will happily suggest interesting bottles it has come across lately.
Rising Sun Workshop
The ubiquity of natural wine in Sydney is probably most evident at Rising Sun Workshop. This place operates as a number of different things. It’s a motorcycle workshop, a ramen joint, a specialty cafe and a restaurant. The atmosphere is surprisingly harmonious if not somewhat rebellious. Fitting then, that they only carry natural, low-intervention wines. The list is small but ever rotating and everything is available by the glass.
This venue is small and although the wine list is thoughtfully curated to fit snuggly into the converted shopfront, it’s brimming with the spirit of organic and biodynamic wines.
There’s something to be said about the success that natural wine has had as a democratising force on the fine wine industry. Here’s a neighbourhood pub committed to serving great natural wines in an accessible and versatile format. The intimate wine room is run by Icebergs and The Dolphin’s wine guru James Hird. It features 150 bottles; 35 by the glass; and a separate menu to match. Chef Sam Cheetham plates up bonito and foie gras crackers, alongside vin-jaune risotto with mushrooms.
Love Tilly Devine
When chef Tim Webber and sommelier Matt Swieboda (ex-Quay) converted the little storeroom of Best Cellars into Love, Tilly Devine, they made sure to nail it. Named for one of Sydney’s most ruthless 20th-century crime bosses, the wine list here has more than 300 titles, with plenty of natural and organic options. Their latest offspring, Dear Saint Eloise, is equally as good in Potts Point.
Fix St James
For more than 10 years, Fix St James has been a destination for wine. Named Sommelier of the Year in 2012, owner Stuart Knox has been lovingly plying his trade for 20 years, always with a keen eye for natural wines from small organic producers. The wine list here claims more than 200 labels, with many available by the glass.
As far as local cafes go, 212 Blu has earned itself bragging rights on account of its natural wine list. The tiny Australia Street venue stocks 15 wines, mostly available by the glass. Grab yourself a bowl of meatballs and a half-bottle of Bennie’s Brian “Field” from Tasmania – a riesling, chardonnay or a pinot gris blend – and soak up the sunny courtyard.
Brent Savage and Nick Hildebrandt – the pair behind Bentley Restaurant & Bar and Yellow – take their wine very seriously. Hildebrandt, a sommelier by trade, has curated a list that offers more than 500 wines with a heavy emphasis on obscure, organic and biodynamic labels.