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HONEY SPENCER - NATURAL WINE, NO DRAMA

I’m known as Honey, though it is actually my middle name. I am a sommelier and have been for the last 15 years. I am also the co-owner of Restaurant Sune on Broadway Market with my husband Charlie, a proud, yet forever frazzled mama to a 4-year old called Len and the author of ’Natural Wine No Drama’. 


Photo credits: Ania Smelskaya


I fell into wine when I was working in a graduate marketing position at Jamie Oliver and what I thought was my ‘dream job’. I’d been set on the idea of working for Jamie since I was a pre-teen. In short, I got the job but eventually realised restaurants were my calling and started to train to be a sommelier. I’m grateful every day for the opportunity to carve myself such a fulfilling career, full of rich experiences and the ability to use my body to work rather than sit at a desk. The natural wine chapter was kick-started not long after I’d qualified as a sommelier in 2013. Two women guests from Copenhagen walked into the wine bar I was running and over the course of the night convinced me to move to Denmark to learn about natural wine. The rest is history! Charlie and I bought two one way tickets and went to throw ourselves fully into the city and the world of natural wine. 



So much of us care so deeply about the foods we eat but often that outlook doesn’t extend to what we drink, especially in the case of wine. Part of that is due to the fact that you can hold a bunch of carrots in your hands and understand the difference between conventional and organic versions but wine is a liquid put into a bottle and as such is ultimately distanced as an agricultural product. There is also a deep-rooted mentality that wine should be static and taste familiar, I suppose in part this is because wine is expensive and it feels higher risk to chance it on a bottle that varies from what we’ve experienced before.


I think in general the rise of natural wine has not only dovetailed with our desire to improve what goes into our bodies, but also our acceptance and use of more esoteric flavours and tastes in our food. Fermented products like miso, kombucha, and kimchi are part of our lives now and we have opened our palates to the taste of them. A lot of natural wines challenge our palates in the same way and present so much more than just a bit of fruit, acid and tannin. There is salinity, umami, different ranges of acidities and textures, much like the foods we now embrace. Once you taste how interesting and multidimensional natural wines are, I can’t imagine going back.




It’s heartbreaking, but the science is also now starting to back up what many people have suspected for decades: contact with pesticides is directly linked to ‘issues’ such as cancers, autoimmune diseases and infertility. From an environmental viewpoint, soil, too, is living and contains millions of living organisms and microbial life that add nutrients to the soil and work to combat things like soil compaction. Pesticides (which involve a variety of compounds including herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, rodenticides, molluscicides and nematicides) deplete life in the soil, which leads to less nutrients in the soil (and subsequently our food). To make things worse, pesticides also run off into water systems such as rivers, causing havoc there too. I remember being in Champagne a few years ago and everyone and being told not to drink the tap water because it was too polluted by the pesticides used on the local vineyards. 


It’s important to realise that natural wine represents far less than 1% of all wine made worldwide, so it’s still a drop in the ocean, and worse, conventional farming accounts for over 98% of all farming worldwide which is a grim reality, but I’m hopeful that will start to shift. From my side, as a writer and sommelier, my role is to generate excitement and demand for natural wines, which plays a part in encouraging winegrowers to consider ways to improve their practices. Much of this involves dropping the historical pretence surrounding wine and just having fun with it and encouraging drinkers to do the same. 


I remember visiting a producer for the book last year called Meli Ligas. Meli’s domain is north of Thessaloniki and her family had been trailblazers in protecting an indigenous variety called Roditis which until that point had been dismissed as a grape only worthy of being put into blends. Meli’s family was convinced that with the right farming i.e eschewing the use of chemicals and developing the root of the vine to encourage it to dig deep into the bedrock, Roditis vines could make extraordinary wine, and they were vindicated. Their wines are so deeply saline and electric, and absolutely full of life. Their commitment to allowing nature to dictate their practices is wonderful, they generate their own power via solar panels, and have a room underneath the cellar for creating botanical applications for the vines which they use instead of synthetic chemicals.



Truly natural wine is an unbelievably tricky art to master, nowhere more so than in the UK. Our wet climate makes the reality of farming organically, or even regeneratively, much more complex due to the risk of things like mildew which can destroy a year’s crop. That is why there are so few natural winemakers here. Sophie Evans, who I write about in ‘Natural Wine, No Drama’, is a brilliant example of someone who is on the frontline of natural wine in Kent, along with Ancre Hill in Monmouthshire, Offbeat (who source from various counties in the south of England), Black Mountain in Herefordshire and Domain Hugo in Wiltshire. Will Davenport in Kent/Sussex and Albury are pioneers in organic and biodynamic viticulture (respectively),and although they are not committed to making natural wines in the cellar, they are worth tasting all the same. 


If you are interested in learning more about wine making here, Plumpton seems to be the basepoint for learning about wine in the UK, but even volunteering to help out with a harvest would be a hard and fast introduction to the world of winegrowing and winemaking! There are so many winemakers out there who never went to winemaking school, but focussed more on practical experience, especially as no two harvests are ever the same! Sophie Evans, for example went from Plumpton to work a harvest at Tillingham in Sussex then living in Vermont and Germany working in vineyards before she set up her own back here in the UK. 


In the meantime here are some of my top tips for places to appreciate wine:


Sune - Hackney, London

If I can self-rep Sune then let me! It’s a wonderful place to drink and learn about natural wines. My team is so playful and intuitive, it’s wonderful to see our guests enjoy wine the way they do at Sune.


Naughty Piglets - Brixton, London

My favourite place to drink natural wine in South London: Owner Margaux has an incredible cellar and her quarterly rotation of chefs is the perfect incentive to return on the regular.


Higher Ground - Manchester

An amazing produce-led restaurant in Manchester by Noma and Blue Hill and Stone Barns alumni. Their dedication to sourcing natural wines is inspiring and the whole experience will leave you feeling nourished and energised.


Montrose - Edinburgh 

The new wine bar from the folk behind Edinburgh’s treasured Michelin-starred Timber Yard. I love everything this talented restaurateur family does and their wine lists are individual and full of delicious treasures.


Natural Wine, No Drama by Honey Spencer (Pavilion, £25) is out now.


 

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