Natural wine is a pretty hot topic within gastronomy and many contemporary restaurateurs around Europe have become obsessed with it. In Berlin and Germany though natural wine is still very much a new thing and not many people have even heard about it. I sat down with Jan Hugel, a man widely regarded as one of Berlin’s foremost experts within the topic, to talk about natural wines in Berlin and enlighten us what on earth the whole thing is about. After that he also gives us his tips on the best natural wine bars in Berlin.
“I discovered how fascinating wine was and I became obsessed with the topic”
The moment you start speaking to Jan Hugel about wine you know how much passion this man has for the topic. The born Berliner has spent the last 10 years educating himself about wines and with his latest project Kraut & Reben, the fine dining supper club he runs with Kristof Mulack, along with his regular stints at the wine bar Maxim, he has built himself a solid reputation in the Berlin restaurant scene.
In France the topic has a much larger history, as many of the small vineyards out of tradition produce wines that can be classified as natural and bio-dynamic
Jan was however not destined to become a wine expert. “I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol until I was 22. It just wasn’t my thing. But then I moved to Paris and I ended up making up for all the drinking I had missed out on.” The young Jan fell in in love with the French capital and its rich wine culture and when he eventually returned to Berlin he got into gastronomy. “One of my first jobs was at Chez Maurice in Prenzlauer Berg, they had a fantastic wine cellar and my time there was really an eye-opener. I discovered how fascinating wine was and I became obsessed with the topic.” From Chez Maurice he moved on to jobs at Neu and Bandol Sur Mer but always kept one of his feet outside of gastronomy with his business studies, keen to keep his options open and not having to depend on gastronomy financially.
It was during one of his many visits to Paris that he encountered natural wines, or vin naturel as it’s also often referred to. “Natural wines in Paris really kicked off around 2007/08 and suddenly everybody in French gastronomy was talking about it.” From France the trend spread across and beyond Europe, but as with many other gastronomic trends, natural wines never really made big headlines in Germany. Jan sheds some light on why his is the case “The topic of natural wine is a complicated one in Germany. It’s often frowned upon by German wine makers as it’s perceived as a break against the traditions of German winemaking, which everybody is immensely proud of. In France the topic has a much larger history, as many of the small vineyards out of tradition produce wines that can be classified as natural and bio-dynamic.”
“Mainstream wines are like heavily manipulated, digital recordings, overdubbed, tweaked, compressed, auto-tuned”
But one step at a time, what the hell does natural wine actually mean? It’s not a topic easily described, but I recently came across this brilliant comment in the #6 Fusion issue of FOOL Magazine by Australian wine maker Taras Ochota where he explains natural wines with the help of musical recordings: “Natural wines can be described as a low-fi, analogue approach in the wine cellar. Mainstream wines are like heavily manipulated, digital recordings, overdubbed, tweaked, compressed, auto-tuned; natural wines are like someone going into a live gig with a tape recorder and simply pressing record – it may not be as polished or perfect but it captures the true soul of a performance”. When Jan has to explain natural wines and how the average customer can identify natural wines from others, he usually points to the lack of additives “Essentially, natural wines are about adding as little as possible in the production process and letting nature do its thing. The most important trait however, is the lack of added sulfites and industrial yeast cultures. In addition you should look for wines that come from vineyards with a small, bio-dynamic production and a very sensitive winemaker overseeing the process.” This information is however nothing you will find on the label of a normal wine bottle. One of the largest problems with wines is most certainly the total lack of regulation when it comes to labelling ingredients for wine. You simply can’t tell the amount of added sulfites or other additives and therefore if a bottle is natural unless you know the background of the wine.
Jan Hugel very fittingly describes how the result of natural wine production can be very emotional: “For me natural wines are about the joy of drinking, about an explosion of emotions and feeling caused by complex aromas and unusual flavours.” And it’s true, natural wines can show tremendously complex und unexpected flavour profiles, especially also between different vintages from the same vineyard as you very clearly can taste the weather and similar conditions from that specific year. Industrial winemaking is focused on one thing and that is to make every produced bottle taste as similar as possible, year after year.
“Many people might be surprised how many “normal” wines fall under the category natural wines”
Jan explains how the art of winemaking in Germany, like so many other things, is heavily rooted in its traditions. “It’s just a very German thing to avoid uncertainties. We do it a bit more than other cultures. We also love everything technical and this thinking we have applied to our wine production. But the point is, wines should simply not taste the same. You should be able to taste the differences between the different years.” He also adds how the way German winemakers are educated in school plays an important role. “German winemakers grow up with adding sulfites to their wines. It’s just the way things are done right now.” And sulfites are just one example of the additives used, within large-scale wine production all kinds of additives are used during the production process, including enzymes, vitamins and industrial yeasts. Not to mention the all the crap (literally) that ends up in your wine bottle due to the widespread use of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides during the growing process.
Recently I’ve encountered plenty of wine traditionalists in Berlin who look down on the natural wine trend, saying how this is just another fade from abroad that will blow over, often reciting the classic stigma of “Who wants to drink cloudy wines with the bouquet of a baby diaper?” And while this might apply to the more extreme varieties, many people might be surprised how many “normal” wines fall under the category natural wines. “Traditional wine enthusiasts who look down on natural wines might even be drinking it on a regular basis, without ever knowing it.” Jan clarifies. “Maxim in Mitte is one of the few outspoken natural wine bars in Germany but many other wine bars and shops carry natural wines without advertising it.”
We’re merely at the beginning of a journey
I’ve myself encountered natural wines at many of the best restaurants across the globe and I find it to be a fascinating topic. It has widened my horizon and understanding of wine more than anything else and has made me a lot more
educated about the topic. Jan is sure that the natural wine topic will become a lot bigger in Germany in the years to come. “We’re merely at the beginning of a journey and the modern thinkers of the Berlin food scene are starting to fill their cellars with some fantastic natural wine bottles. I think the topic will really kick off in Berlin in the next years.” I like the sound of that and especially how quality and transparency seem to be such important topics within natural wine. And this brings Jan to one of his most important messages in the natural wine discussion. “People get it all wrong. The whole discussion shouldn’t be about natural wine. It should be about good wines. About ethics and quality thinking in the production process.” And I think we can all agree to that.
We wrap up our talk with Jan’s best tip on how to get better at wines. “Well, that’s fairly easy.” he adds with one of his big smiles: “Just drink a LOT of it!”. Well, all righty then.
Jan’s top tips on how to experience natural wines in Berlin:
Viniculture (shop) “Fantastic shop! Holger is one of the best natural wine people in town and supplies many restaurants.”
Passion de Vin (shop) “Amazing selection, one of the best wine shops in Berlin.”
Vins-vivants.com (web shop) “Very daring and interesting selections. The best mailorder of France selected by Alexander Zülch, a man who know his stuff”
Maxim (Natural wine bar and restaurant) “Very special place and one of the very few wine bars in Germany that only serve natural wine. When the international culinary elite comes to Berlin they go to Maxim.”
Hammers Weinkostbar (Wine bar) “Amazing little wine bar in Kreuzberg with a stunning selection.”
Nobelhart & Schmutzig (Restaurant) “Groundbreaking modern eatery with one of Germany’s best sommerliers at its helm.”
Kraut & Reben (Supper club where Jan is in charge of a natural wine pairing) “Might sound silly to add my own project, but Kristof and me have really created something special here and I highly recommend a visit.”