Culture: The Natural Wine Movement Heads to Bali
For years, whenever sommelier Nico Lento would travel abroad he’d hand-carry bottles of natural wine back home to Bali to drink with friends.
The south side of the island—one of the more populous in Indonesia’s extensive archipelago—has long been known as a tourist drinking destination. But that beverage scene long skewed more toward heavy Bintang beers than cloudy, crushable wines.
As a country with notoriously high alcohol tax and tough import laws, it’s not so surprising. But Lento, his friends and colleagues have made it their mission to change that. These days, low-intervention wine fans can pick and choose from nearly a dozen venues that offer curated selections from around the globe.
As a natural wine lover himself, Lento had long pushed the island’s importers to bring these bottles into the country, to feature on the restaurant wine lists he’d been building across Bali for close to a decade. None were swayed, noting Indonesia’s humid climate as a barrier.
“But at the same time, those wines were going to Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, so what was the problem?” Lento asks. “It was more that they didn’t think of Indonesia as a natural wine destination.”
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The Region’s Rapidly Expanding Wine Scene
Bali’s wine market has been growing steadily for the past decade—it was just hard to find the styles Lento was after. In 2019 alone, Indonesia imported more than $18 million in wine.
Yet Lento was unfazed. After a friend put him in touch with restaurateur Christoph Darjanto, the duo founded the natural wine importation and distribution company Toto Wines and began bringing in small quantities of select producers, like Claus Preisinger, Domaine Mamaruta and Testalonga.
But for Lento, importing wines was just the start. When the pandemic struck, Bali’s tourism dried up as did work for anyone in hospitality on the island. With excess time on their hands, Lento and a crew of industry veteran friends—Isabella Rowell, Federico Sirito, Denny Bakiev and Vanessa Di Maria—decided to make their own wine. Together they launched the brand Lazarus Pulp and produced Indonesia’s first pét-nat.
“We were always thinking about what was missing and what we would like to do,” Lento says.
He and his team partnered with an Indonesian winemaker friend to import organic grapes from Australia and New Zealand to vinify in Bali. This likely offset the potential environmental benefits of the farming methods, but “we knew we could not go with a crazy grape that nobody knows, right? So, we said ‘Let’s do a Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc.’”
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They ended up with a wine they called the Alter Ego, an 11% abv blend, aged for seven months in bottle, to be sold under the brand Lazarus Pulp.
While its producers claim this pét-nat is the first natural wine made on the island, table and local grape varieties have been growing across Bali since the 1990s. However, the varietals that do well in Bali’s unique terroir are often unrecognizable and undesirable to many wine drinkers. Hatten, Sababay and other local wineries have been producing conventional-style wines from grapes like Alphonse-Lavallée, Muscat St. Vallier and the Javanese variety Probolinggo Biru for years. But these local wines, which share similar styles and flavor profiles, never truly resonated with wine aficionados—suggesting that the time is right for Bali to welcome new approaches to winemaking and wine in general.
A New Niche in the Island’s Hospitality Industry
In January 2022, Lento and his crew opened Indonesia’s first natural wine bar Mosto, ensconcing low-intervention wines into the architecture of Bali’s vibrant food and beverage scene.
“Both Lazarus Pulp and Mosto were created over pure good times and a whole lot of love and respect for the industry,” says Rowell, co-founder of both projects, and a longtime fixture on the Bali hospitality scene. “Six really good friends wanting to eat good food and drink nice wine together, really.”
Mosto’s wine list, which features cult-favorite producers from across both hemispheres, spurred other restaurateurs to zero in on natural wine. “Until Mosto opened as the first Indonesian natural wine bar, there were almost zero natural wines in Indonesia,” says Adam McAsey, co-founder of Project: Black, the hospitality group behind Skool and newly-opened beachside Electric Eel, establishments that emphasize low-intervention wine.
“Natural wine had already been a long-standing trend [abroad],” says McAsey, but guests—aware of its newfound availability in Bali—have recently begun asking for it by name. “The curiosity in the space here is apparent. We have no doubt that natural wine will continue to grow in Indonesia.”
There are now nearly a dozen venues offering low-intervention wines around the island. Shelter, a lively Mediterranean-inspired spot serves a selection of natural wines in an open-air, Javanese-style setting. Fed by Made, a buzzy tasting menu-only restaurant by three twenty-something Balinese chefs, pours Lazarus Pulp’s the Alter Ego, among other raw wines. Santanera, a sprawling three-story space, stocks similar wines by the glass and bottle.
Soon enough, natural wine fans in Indonesia will have even more bottles from which to choose. To complement their pét-nat, the team behind Lazarus Pulp will be releasing a line of still wines in the coming year. “It’s surreal to think they’ll be in the fridges soon,” Rowell says. “We can’t wait to see them lined up and get to know their personalities.”
Though this growing movement began on Bali, it’s spreading far beyond the tourist-trodden island. The demand for natural wines is seemingly booming all over Indonesia: Lento gets requests from about three new restaurants per day to work with Toto, which operates across the archipelago. It’s not just toursim’s influence driving the demand across the islands, either.
“In Jakarta, 100% of our customers are locals,” Lento says. “But they’ve been studying abroad or traveling. When they come back to Indonesia, they want to drink natural wine.”
Published: November 23, 2023