Maud van Berlo has a nickname for the wines that she’s never developed a taste for: viese wijn.
“Like dirty wine,” she says with a laugh. Before natural wines became a driving force in her life, van Berlo wasn’t much of a wine drinker. Put off by the aroma of red wines, she’d opt for whites served very cold.
“When I first drank natural wine, I drank it for a whole week,” she says. She says she awoke each morning with the lively, wild taste of the wine that invigorated her enthusiasm.
That first experience shifted her understanding of what wine could be: exciting, unexpected, alive. She was drawn to the stories and sustainable mindsets of small-scale producers. Back in Rotterdam, she began to order natural wines from the closest shops in Amsterdam and Belgium. During a return visit to Roquebrun, Raimond le Coq, the wine bar owner, encouraged her to import the wines herself.
“He said, ‘You have a good nose, so just start in Rotterdam. You should do it,’ ” says van Berlo. “And at first I thought, no way.” To van Berlo, her jobs in social work and as a mother of twin daughters seemed hardly the proper résumé. Eventually, her husband, Rick, a seasoned entrepreneur, convinced her that the worst thing that would happen was they’d have a lot of wine. And so it began.
In 2015, van Berlo visited French winemakers and registered Blije Wijnen, which translates to “happy wines,” as Rotterdam’s first natural wine shop. She purchased cases of rosé and white wine from Languedoc-based Belgian winemaker Wim Wagemans of Domaine Le Bouc a Trois Pattes and shyly held a private tasting in her home.
After she had a booth at the Rotterdamse Oogstmarkt, a bimonthly farmers market, van Berlo noticed a shop vacancy on a quiet residential street in West Rotterdam. Two weeks later, it was hers.
When the curtains are drawn, soft light streams through the large picture window onto a rustic wood table stationed in the middle of the modest room. There’s a wall of colorful wine bottles to the left, a chilling fridge to the rear. Occasionally, you’ll find Joep, one of van Berlo’s two mop-haired Dachshund companions, snoozing on a plush pillow beneath the window.
The wine whisperers
A common thread that unites the winemakers represented in her 85-bottle portfolio is that they’re all fun. Van Berlo says she can’t work with people whose company she doesn’t enjoy, so it’s serendipitous that these small-scale producers, with their quirky zeal for unorthodox methods, can tease such beauty and energy from their grapes.
Take Rémi Poujol of Mas Costefère. He tends his Languedoc vineyards with the help of Suzy, his trusty plow horse, and seals his bottles with beeswax. Poujol also founded Brutal Wine Corporation, a tongue-in-cheek project begun by four growers who agreed to make a special cuvée without chemicals or sulfites. Twenty winemakers now participate, and each wine bares the same comically dramatic “BRUTAL!!!” label.
You can find Brutal wines at Blije Wijnen, which includes an offering by Brendan Tracey, a French-American 1970s punk rocker turned radio journalist, who left a decades-long career to study wine. Now a natural winemaker in the Loire Valley, the unconventional rocker even designs his own labels, like for his Gamay-Côt blend, Capitalism Rouge.
There’s also Daniel and Bianka Schmitt, the young German idealists behind Okologisches Weingut Schmitt. They strayed from eight generations of traditional winemaking in Daniel’s family to experiment with minimal intervention methods.
Nurturing the natty movement
Van Berlo builds relationships with winemakers with visits to their vineyards, appearances at natural wine fairs and invitations to Rotterdam for special events with local restaurant clients.
“If you care about things the way we do, about people and the process, when you meet a natural winemaker, you realize you immediately have so much in common,” says Genevieve Vachón, co-owner of bar/restaurant Kaapse Maria. With a natural wine program in mind for Maria, Vachón and van Berlo became fast friends.
“What’s so nice about Maud is…she knows her product, but she’s not going to make you feel intimidated,” says Vachón.
Kaapse Maria encourages customers to experiment in a relaxed environment, but joining the natural wine movement isn’t always easy.
Five years ago, Bistrot du Bac owners Magdalena and Remco van de Lagemaat introduced natural wine at the Parisian-style bistro. Unfamiliar with the extra care involved in natural wine production, customers balked at the higher prices. It was a shame, says Magdalena.
“We enjoy other wines, too, but with certain dishes, you cannot imagine a better combination than with natural wine,” she says.
Customers now gladly experiment with adventurous wine sourced by Blije Wijnen alongside Remco’s sophisticated plates.
“It’s the same thing when you listen to music,” says Remco. “Ah, this is great, I want to tell everyone about this song. It’s the same with the wine. . . That’s what we wanted to do here, and we did.”
With natural wine, everyone learns together: producers sellers and consumers alike. In the fledgling Rotterdam market, van Berlo and fellow enthusiasts look forward to the continued evolution.
“A lot more people know about natural wines in Rotterdam and the Netherlands than when I started,” says van Berlo. “And that is my goal—to make people aware that wine can be wonderful, surprising and lekker without chemicals—so we can save the earth and enjoy wine.”