An investigation into how Copenhagen became one of the world's top hubs for natural wine and why that is both great and obnoxious. In two parts
Bord is back from its holidays, and coming to you today with the first part of what has turned out to be a two-part story on how Copenhagen became the natural wine mecca that it is. And on what that has meant, for better and perhaps worse, for the city.
Before we start though, let’s get one thing out of the way. Pretty much everyone who is serious about natural wine will tell you that they hate to call it that. They will tell you that the name is not accurate, for one: wine doesn’t grow on trees or spring from a mammal’s loins; it requires human intervention. Natural wine also implies that the other stuff—which we call, what? conventional wine? classic wine? traditional? The problems go on—is unnatural, even if the techniques used to make it involves only naturally-occurring ingredients. Much better, many will tell you, to call it ‘pure wine.’ Or ‘raw wine.’ Or low-intervention or authentic or living wine, although the latter always makes me worry a bit about what’s going to scurry out of the bottle.
The same thing happened with ‘molecular gastronomy’ (what cooking doesn’t involve molecules?) and ‘New Nordic’: the people who were the foremost practitioners or proponents of a thing all came to reject the thing’s most common name, arguing that it was too inaccurate, too restrictive, too stupid. And yet, it’s still the name most of us end up using because, let’s face it, we all know, more or less, what it means.
Admittedly, in the case of natural wine, it’s often less. The definition of the stuff is notoriously slippery, and controversial among people who like to argue about things like fining and sulfites. So we’ll just suggest that this question is exactly the sort of thing Google was invented for, and leave it at that.
Finally, a bit of housekeeping: we’ve been hinting at this all along, but by the end of this month, we expect to put much of Bord behind a paywall. So now seems as good a time as any to encourage those of you who want to support us in more than just spirit get on in there.
Either way, thanks so much for reading.
On one of those summer nights when the last of the day’s sunlight illuminates the city in a way that convinces you God herself would live in Copenhagen if she could, Mads Larvåg Mørch was pouring an unfiltered pinot blanc into small glasses. He and his business partner Andreas Christiansen had opened Vivant on Elmegade three months earlier with an eye to “bringing natural wine a little bit down to earth”, and it seemed to have worked: every outdoor table was populated by twenty-somethings in vintage t-shirts and artful haircuts. “Our audience is very Nørrebro: young, not the biggest spenders, very concerned about the environment, and they don’t want to put poison in their bodies,” Larvåg said. “What we wanted to do with Vivant was show them that natural wine isn’t only for people who know a lot about it. It can just be fun.”
At that very moment, dozens if not hundreds of waiters and bartenders motivated by a similar ethos were pouring similarly unfiltered wines in similarly modish bars and restaurants across Copenhagen. And however new it may have felt to the drinkers on Elmegade, it was the same ethos that had informed Manfreds when it opened over ten years earlier. And the same, it has to be said, that five years before that, had led a small band of importers to hold an impromptu party that would become, at least in memory, a kind of Edenic moment, when the world was new and all things seemed possible, for the natural wine revolution to come.
For a relatively long time now, Copenhagen has been one of the world’s great hubs for natural wine. As unlikely as that status may be for a city located in a country with no significant wine production of its own and, historically at least, a profound identification as a beer-drinking nation, what is perhaps most interesting is how much it depends on a perceived enemy. From snooty sommeliers in suits, to Parker drones pushing Super Tuscans, to ‘Taliban’-ish waiters denouncing any sulfite level over .00002 ppm, to hipsters who smugly attach an #IfYouKnowYouKnow to their instagrammed bottles, the natural wine scene here has been energized, and keeps on being energized by having an opponent to work against. And while that is hardly unique to Copenhagen—natural wine in all its glory and snark is by now a thoroughly international phenomenon—it does have some specific resonances here. In a city where the natural wine scene is both older and perhaps more community-minded than most, the various, ever-changing strains of Us vs. Them pose some uniquely local threats.
“Other than Paris and Tokyo,” says Alice Feiring, “It’s Copenhagen for sure.”
She’s hardly alone in that assessment. But from Feiring, who is a leading expert on natural wine and the author of numerous books and articles on the subject (as well as an excellent newsletter you absolutely should subscribe to here) the description of Copenhagen as one of the top three cities for natural wine carries extra weight. London, Sydney, Berlin, and New York all have significant natural wine scenes of their own, but when it comes to longevity and the sheer number of importers, bars, shops and restaurants relative to the size of its population, Copenhagen surpasses them. “Partly it’s the density,” she says. “There are so many places and it’s a small city--you’re not hopping from arrondissement to arrondissement. It’s one-stop shopping.”
But why does it have so many? In this first of a two-part series on how natural wine has changed Copenhagen—for better and for worse— we’ll focus on the origins of the natural wine scene here. There, in the first decade of the 21st century, among a handful of individuals and their often quirky passions, lie not only the roots of the city’s outsized status today, but the origins of so many of those aspects of the scene now that are particularly glorious, particularly annoying, or just particularly Copenhagen.
Like others, Feiring locates Noma as the source of the city’s wine revolution. But long before anyone in that place was trying to come up with a good pairing for skyr and wood sorrel, the groundwork was already being laid. For one thing, as the capital of a country with the largest number of wine importers per capita, Copenhagen had a highly-developed wine scene. “Already in the ‘90s there were some extremely knowledgeable and energetic importers,” says Mattias Kroon, a Swedish food writer who was one of the earliest observers of Copenhagen’s developing gastronomy scene. “And they often focused on organic or biodynamic wines. Not for identity reasons, but because at the high end those tended to be the best wines.”
One of them was Sune Rosforth, who opened his import business, Rosforth & Rosforth, under the Knippels Bridge in 1994. From the beginning, Rosforth--who had spent a year picking grapes in France and getting to know lesser-known regions like the Loire and Anjou—stocked a lot of biodynamic wines, but it wasn’t until it occurred to him that he didn’t want to sell wines he himself didn’t drink, that he made the decision to stop stocking conventional producers. He would be followed soon after by Stefan Jensen of Winewise, and Mads and Mia Rudolf of Pétillant. “Nobody called it natural wine at the time,” recalls Mia. “That only came later when it started to have a marketing effect. We were just choosing wines we liked, made by people we liked. It just so happened that all of them were natural.”
The name, in fact, wouldn’t come until about a decade later. But whatever it was called—”pure,” “raw,” “wine we like”— that kind of wine made up a big chunk of the bottles on the list at the extravagantly-named restaurant that Mads and a couple of his university buddies opened in 1999. One of those buddies was Anders Selmer, who had already developed an interest specifically in biodynamic wines. When Selmer went on in 2003 to take a job as restaurant manager at a new place opening across the harbor that aimed to develop a distinctly Nordic cuisine, he stocked the cellar with a lot of them. Which is how Pontus Elofsson, a singular Swede with the habit of occasionally slipping into a French accent, found it when, six months after Noma opened, he took over as sommelier.
Elofsson is credited by many—including both Feiring and Kroon—with being the source of it all, which is to say with initiating the evolution toward what would eventually become an entirely natural wine list. But he came at it from a classical background. “Pontus was a real 90s sommelier,” says Kroon. “That was what was so exciting about him--he had already tasted all the great stuff, he had real training and knowledge. He knew things, that’s why he could pick the good bottles; he had a very developed palate from the beginning.”
A palate, it should be said, that never particularly cared for Bordeaux. When Elofsson arrived at Noma he was interested primarily in biodynamic wines and with wines from cooler regions that better matched the food. That, in turn, would gradually lead him to the kind of low intervention practices that are the hallmark of natural wines. “Something happened as Noma’s cuisine developed.,” Elofsson says. |The distance between nature and the plate became shorter and shorter. And it became very obvious quickly that the wines that made a good match were the ones where the distance between the vineyard and the glass was equally short.”
Plenty of people in France were drinking natural wines with their quenelles and pissalidières, of course. But in understanding why Copenhagen became the hub it is, the distinctive flavor palette emerging at Noma and in Nordic cuisine— briny, acidic, vegetal, and above all, light—is critical. “René [Redzepi] came in with a very elegant, very light, very fresh cuisine,” says Peter Pepke, an award-winning sommelier and today the restaurant manager at Esmée. “And all the wines at the time were full of extraction, full of oak, heavy.” Feiring had seen a similar problem at Chez Panisse‚ what she calls a “blind spot” when it came to fine dining. “All those bombastic wines,” she says. “They just didn’t go with the food.”
It wasn’t just the flavors that clashed; so did the ideas behind the food. “At its best, Nordic cuisine displays fresh produce and lets it speak for itself,” says Jon Frederik Capoul, owner of Vinbonden wine importer and shop. “And that’s what natural wine does at its best.”
Under Pontus, Noma’s wine pairing gradually changed until by around 2008 or 2009, it was predominantly natural (it would take Elofsson’s successor, Mads Kleppe, who arrived at Noma from Norway in 2010 and was also classically trained, to take it all the way across the line). Along the way, some spectacular wines were served. “We used to have Overnoy on the wine tasting,” recalls René Redzepi with a bit of disbelief in his voice. “Crazy wines that are impossible to get today-- we would have them on the tasting for months at a time, and nobody knew about them. That’s how fast the world changes.”
Change indeed. As other local chefs began developing their own takes on Nordic cuisine and opening their own restaurants, they too would go all in on natural wines. “That was the Noma effect,” says Mads Rudolf. “In Paris, the natural wine movement came from below-- it was like the underground resistance. It started in small wine bars, places so basic they didn’t even have chairs—and it grew from there. But here, it came from the top. It started at the places with Michelin stars—Noma, Geranium, Kadeau—and then trickled down.”
Beyond its suitedness to the food, another factor that led to the relatively early rise of natural wine in Copenhagen was the eagerness of restaurants here to embrace new ideas (and yes, we do know that natural wine is actually quite old and that people have been making it this way for millenia. You know what we mean). “If you’re a sommelier in Piemonte, 95% of the wine you open is going to be Piemontese,” says Alessandro Perricone, who moved from Italy to Copenhagen in 2013 to become sommelier at Relæ. “It’s the same with the food: when they go to a restaurant they’re going to order vitello tonnato and when they’re home they’re going to cook vitello tonnato. It’s quite hard to change it even a little bit, because people have very strong ideas. But in Copenhagen, it’s wonderful, because the roots in gastronomy aren’t as strong, so people are willing to try new things. In the food and then in the wine, it’s much more about experiencing something new.”
Needless to say, not everyone shared that view. At the time, many advocates of classical wines, saw natural as a provocation, and expressed with gleeful outrage—lots of variations on “like licking the bottom of a hamster cage” —how undrinkable they found it. The Rudolfs found themselves frequently getting pulled into heated discussions, both on Facebook and off. “We always believed that people would eventually understand,” says Mia. “But in 2007, 2008, 2009, there was so much resistance. People were mad—I mean, angry.”
The Rudolfs say they did not return fire, and stuck instead to their explanation that these were simply the wines they liked. It may not have hardened entirely into the firewall it would become later, but the first us vs. them, had been drawn. “The irony is that most of the people who were arguing about it were drinking pretty good wine,” says Mads. “They should have been attacking the supermarket stuff, not us.”
They and their like-minded colleagues were conscious, however, of caring more about the agriculture behind the wine than many of their predecessors did. It’s normal now for a sommelier to take time off from a restaurant to go work in a vineyard, but that was not the case back then. “Sommeliers and wine importers might go to a big chateau and have tastings where they would just open some nice bottles,” says Rudolph. “Our generation did things differently: we went to the small farmers and picked grapes with them. The big change of focus was that we did the actual work and got our boots and hands dirty.”
They also collaborated. As the number of natural wine importers increased—both Krone Vin and Lieu-Dit would launch in 2009—they shared information, traded impressions, and of course, drank a lot of wine together. To hear them describe it, there was no competition between them, only community.
Still, there’s no denying that one of the things uniting them was who and what they were defining themselves against. It’s a cliché by now to call it punk, but it’s clear that the early proponents of natural wine would come to see themselves as pushing back against an establishment they took to be rigid, snobby, elitist. Their more relaxed approach—who cares if you don’t have the proper glass, who cares if you don’t know the name for the specific spot on your palate where you taste the minerality—encouraged the sense of a shared community. You couldn’t properly call it an identity yet--that would come later—but there was an ethos of sorts.
And maybe above all, there was the love of a good time. At a biodynamic tasting in 2005 that brought several winemakers they represented to Copenhagen, the Rudolfs and Rosforth needed to come up with something to do with everyone after. The normal wine world thing would have been to host a formal, multicourse dinner at the city’s poshest hotel, but that wasn’t them. Instead, they held an outdoor wine bar at the once-bohemian Café Europa, right in one of the city’s busiest squares. A group of buskers who happened to be passing by were recruited to play music, and as a crowd gathered, the growers started pouring their own wines for anyone who wanted a glass. “That was a fun evening,” Mads recalls. “So we thought, let’s do it again.”
They would. When the first Fri Vin took place in 2008, it owed an inspirational debt to that spontaneous party outside Café Europa that had taken place three years earlier. There were twelve growers this time--some of whom, like Frederic Gounan, are quite well known today—and they all stood outside in the rain on Vesterbrogade, wearing the black t-shirts with black print that Sune Rosforth had designed because he didn’t want it to seem too commercial and pouring their wines.
That event, which would go on to be held every two years, would itself become one of the factors generating Copenhagen’s reputation as a center for natural wine. And at least in its early editions--back before the tickets would sell out and there were so many people attending that they had to hire security guards--it would encapsulate the joyous, anarchic sense community that defined the early world of natural wine. “Many years ago, Sylvie Augereau (a winemaker and writer) said natural wine was not a movement but a tribe, and that always made good sense to me,” says Mads.
But tribes are small by their nature; when they get too big, they tend to fracture. In the coming years, Copenhagen would give birth to scads of new restaurants, bars, importers and wine shops that focused mainly or entirely on natural wines; the scene would become both broad and deep. And in the process, natural wine would become other things: a religion, some people say; a social signifier straight out of the pages of Pierre Bourdieu; a vehicle for capitalism’s worst impulses; an occasion—God help us all—for white boys to rap about cuvée. Again, all of these phenomena would occur internationally. But in Copenhagen, where natural wine first began taking hold some two decades ago, it’s hard to avoid noticing the special impact of those fractures. Even as the latest converts to it, like their predecessors, insist that they just want wine to be fun.
Part Two, next week