Skip to content

Natty wine and oysters: the rise of natural wine in fine dining hospitality

For most of us, our understanding of natural wine is as hazy as the drink itself. What is natural wine? Why has an ancient farming technique become a trend? And how does it relate to fine dining hospitality in the North East?

Here, Rachel Campbell Hewson sits down with Martin Waugh, restaurant manager and sommelier at Hjem, and Matt Francombe, general manager and sommelier at Ophelia, to discuss the emergence of this trend and what it means for natural wine and fine dining in the North East.

 “If you can make wine well, you don’t need to use lots of additives, like if you’re a good farmer, you don’t just spray fertilisers all over your crops – you just know how to grow them”

What is natural wine?

Natural wine (natty wine, raw wine, naked wine, low-intervention wine) is made with pure grape juice and little to nothing else.

In the vineyard, producers farm organically and biodynamically, omitting the use of herbicide or pesticide and sourcing their workers locally.

Similarly, in the vinification (the stage of fermentation and processing the wine), winemakers omit the use of additives.

Nothing is added to the wine.

No artificial yeast, fish livers or egg whites for filtering or fining, except sulphur dioxide to stabilise – although the amount used is considerably less than in commercial wines.

Ironically, producing wine with low-intervention requires a complex time-intensive operation, meaning most natural wines are from independent producers and come in at eye-watering price points when compared with conventional wines of the same quality.

But it is the popularity of the natural wine movement which has left a bad taste in the mouths of experts and enthusiasts alike. Natural wine has become synonymous with funky, yeasty wines which are characterless, bland and acidic, more like apple cider than wine.

Ill equipped, poorly skilled entrepreneurs see the success of natural wine producers and attempt to replicate them, resulting in faulty, unstable wines. This has led to the conception that natural wine is simply a trend and not to be taken seriously.

But this is challenged by Martin and Matt, sommeliers and restaurant manager and general manger respectively at leading fine dining restaurants: Michelin star Scandinavian tasting menu Restaurant Hjem and Good Food Guides French Bistro Ophelia, who both boast a fully natural wine list and cellar.

Why natural wine?

The fundamental appeal of natural wine is in its ethics; in a world of mass production at any cost, produce made ethically and sustainably with respect to the environment and farm workers is the only choice for institutions like Restaurant Hjem and Ophelia, who pride themselves on sourcing locally, reducing air miles and minimising their carbon footprint.

This is not always the easy choice financially.

Martin says: “Like a lot of things made without preservatives, some natural wines will only last a day, meaning we have to use it on that day.”

“It comes down to how you ethically and morally want to run your business.”

“Are you prepared to take the hit to perhaps make slightly less money on a glass of wine that you know is well and responsibly made.”

“There’s a reason people buy organic vegetables and are now looking to drink natural wine because they know it is being made in a sustainable way, an ethical way.”

Matt adds: “If you go to these bigger, more commercial producers that have more additives, you feel you can get wines that are better value for money, won’t scare people off, that you can open and they’ll last the best part of a week.

“But at the same time, it feels important to make the honourable choice, you want to make it work.”

The instability of natural wine can be mediated by more concise BTG (by the glass) options and frequent changing of those options.

Martin says: “You just have to be more careful and think a bit more about how you’re running the wine programme; you can still make money, you can still give people a delicious glass of wine, but you can’t have as many open at the same time.”

Up to scratch

Many of the finest wines are already being made naturally or biodynamically.

Marcel Lapierre, regarded as the godfather of low-intervention wine practice, makes, in Matt’s words: ‘the sleekest Beaujolais’, following the philosophy of ‘nothing added, nothing taken away’.

Similarly, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which makes some of the most expensive red wine in Burgundy, uses traditional cultivation methods, all of which amount to the natural wine process.

Martin says: “People think natural wine is a new phenomenon but it’s not. The Romans and Georgians were making wine like this before the French even had vines planted.”

Matt adds: “They mistake it as something new and weird and wonderful but really it’s ancient.”

The future

The establishment of two fine dining restaurants utilising wholly natural wine lists suggests this may be a new trend in the North East hospitality industry, specifically in fine dining.

Martin believes that, especially in a tasting menu context, natural wines earn their place.

He says “If your food is going to be exciting and interesting then your beverage should also be exciting and interesting.”

But Matt relates the trend to the distinctive taste of North East independent business.

He says: “Nearly anyone I know who’s looking to open a small independent business is not looking to stock their place with mass produced crap.

“Fine dining is doing whatever it likes, it often just depends on the individual, on what they want to do but I think for small business, they are the ones leaning more into natural wine.”

This is evident in the natural wine offerings at House Bar or Block and Bottle, in Heaton.

Whether we will see a rise in natural wine in fine dining hospitality, only time and taste will tell.

But what is clear is that, in spite of soaring costs, at the core of North East independent business is a desire to operate sustainably and ethically to provide exciting new experiences to the people of the North East.

Martin laughs: “Really, the most sustainable way to run a restaurant is close it down entirely but restaurants are a special space, they bring people together.”

And what better way to come together than with exquisite food and natty wine.


Photography by James Grieves 

June 11, 2024

  • Lifestyle

Created by Rachel Campbell Hewson