Natural inspiration

Natural wines paired with Mexican street food? How about with a skate ramp? Simon Woolf tracks Amsterdam’s singular natural wine scene as it evolves.

Glouglou, Amsterdam
Glouglou, Amsterdam

It’s neither a hotel, nor is there a golden pheasant on the premises, as the Dutch name suggests. But those are the least baffling facets of Amsterdam’s Hotel de Goudfazant.  

Located on a scruffy industrial estate in trendy Noord — across the river from the city centre — the huge, industrial space is one of the city’s most successful restaurants ever, packed since opening in 2006 and serving around 300 covers every Saturday night. Most surprising is what gets poured into all those thirsty mouths. Goudfazant sits at the heart of Amsterdam’s fast-developing natural wine scene, having switched its entire list in late 2014. 

The revolution begins

The other surprise is that Goudfazant achieved its ascendancy in flagrant disregard of almost everything in the unspoken HoReCa rulebook, as co-owner Niels Wouters explains. “We decided right from the start that we wouldn’t make agreements with any standard suppliers,” he says. “We didn’t want to do deals with drinks companies who forced us to buy clothing or cleaning products.” 

It was part of a move to bring drinks into parity with food. “Chefs won’t compromise their ingredients because of a tie-in or a sponsorship deal,” says Wouters, “but drinks had always been a bit behind in that respect. So the Goudfazant has no big-brand Dutch lagers, no Coca-Cola and no branded spirits. Everything from coffee beans to Amaro is hand picked and independently sourced.

The wine list started out as eclectic but relatively conventional. Wouters has little time for the fine wine establishment and its foibles. “I’m not a specialist but I always thought the wine world was pretty snobby. You’d see these guys in their 50s asking for the list and trying to pretend they were knowledgeable. There was always a lot of posturing.”

A visit to Paris in 2014, and specifically to Chateaubriand — one of Paris’s seminal natural wine venues — was pivotal: “I didn’t recognise anything on the list, but I saw a bottle of Tempier Bandol on the shelf so I ordered it. The waitress decanted it into an empty litre bottle, shook it violently up and down and then sloshed it into my glass. A fair bit of it went down the side of the glass too.”

After Wouters got over his shock at the entirely “not done” service, he started to enjoy the no-frills atmosphere, the youngish audience and the lack of snobbery. “The labels were more fun too,” he says. He came back to Amsterdam inspired, even if his business partner Frederic van de Laar — one of four partners, the other two being Rogier Monastery and Marco Birsak — wasn’t immediately convinced.

What changed everything was a couple who visited in September 2014. “The guy ordered a Sancerre 2012, but we were sold out and ont o the 2013. It wasn’t an expensive wine — to be honest it was industrial stuff. The customers tasted and refused the 2013, they said: ‘We really wanted the 2012,’,” says Wouters, who was sure they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. 

Taking the bottle behind the counter, he crossed out the vintage and hand-wrote “2012”. The waitress returned to the table and told the guests a bottle of the 2012 had been located. They pronounced it delicious and “much better than the 2013”. It wasn’t long before the gag was discovered: “She left the bottle on the table, concealed in a wine cooler. Later they wanted a second glass, took the bottle and realised we’d tricked them. Of course they were angry, I apologised and said it was a joke. They didn’t pay for the wine.”

It didn’t end there. The couple went to Amsterdam’s most important newspaper Het Parool and reported they’d been scammed. The paper ran an article entitled “Creative with the wine label” and there was a mild social media storm. Wouters was not only unrepentant, but after a “discussion with Frederic, we got rid of all our remaining stock and changed the entire list to natural wines a few days later. It was a statement.” 

The restaurant not only remained full, it even gained a new audience after the wine switch. “We said precisely nothing about it,” he shrugs. There was no PR announcement, no ethical statement on the restaurant’s website and barely a mention on the wine list of its radical intent.

The casual, informal exterior that Wouters and his team present is archetypically Dutch. The ethics underpinning the establishment’s purchasing choices are strong, but not worn on sleeves nor drummed up into marketing hype. Wouters does not take credit for innovating though, citing inspiration from two Amsterdam restaurants that had lead the way.


Alessandro da Fies is Dutch, with Italian heritage. He’d originally planned to become a professional poker player, but in 2011 acted as sommelier with two friends who launched one of Amsterdam’s first pop-up restaurants. BAK moved away from the Netherlands’ dated fine-dining concept and offered lighter, more inventive cuisine at an affordable price. By the time it found a permanent home in 2013, the wine list had become almost completely natural. “The wines are more outspoken, they’re easier to understand, easier for people to distinguish,” says da Fies. “All the serious small producers are making wine like this anyway.”

Da Fies is an astute sommelier, neither hidebound nor overbearing. “There are certain wines on the list that the staff know they have to raise an alert for,” he says. “If the customer orders Sébastien Riffault, we explain that it isn’t your typical Sancerre. The same with Dario Prinčič’s Pinot Grigio. But there’s plenty that can be enjoyed without any explanation.”

If BAK was the first of Amsterdam’s hip new “bistronomie” restaurants to offer natural wines, Choux was not far behind. The brainchild of sommelier Figo van Onna and chef Merijn van Berlo, Choux also evolved from pop-ups, specifically Repéré (late 2013 to 2014) and Foyer (2014 to 2015), before establishing itself permanently in April 2015.

Van Onna started out as a dishwasher at a beach club, aged 15. “They had a pretty good wine list for a beach club,” he remembers, “so I learnt about Pouilly Fumé, Sancerre, all the big appellations.” During university he started travelling and visiting wineries, but missed something: “I brought back bottles from everywhere but I didn’t really get it — there was no spark”. 

Repéré’s host venue sourced its wines from a large, mainstream distributor. Shortly after opening the pop-up, van Onna served a customer whom he would never forget. In 2014, Michiel ter Heide was the only Dutch wine importer specialising in natural wines. His shop, Vleck in central Amsterdam, was unique. “He tasted all the wines, because we had them all by the glass,” says Figo continues. “And he didn’t like any of them!” Ter Heide suggested that natural wines would pair better with the pop-up’s Nordic-influenced cuisine and invited van Onna to come and taste.

Heide poured the young sommelier a Gran Cerdo, a youthful, juicy Tempranillo that has become a classic of natural wine. “There was so much fruit, it was so different to what I was used to,” Figo recalls. He left the tasting already dreaming up a new wine list — and wondering how to get rid of the existing bottles. A few days later, his impatience got the better of him. “I rang up the distributor and asked them to come pick up all the remaining stock, and they did, a few days later.”

BAK and Choux were front-runners, whose enthusiasm rubbed off on Paul Witte, a writer and translator who had discovered natural wines. In April 2015 he changed career and opened Glouglou, Amsterdam’s first natural wine bar and a clear homage to Paris’s caves au vins naturel.

With a street corner location, generous terrace and bohemian atmosphere, Glouglou rapidly became popular with a young crowd of locals and savvy tourists. It dispensed with airs and graces: vintages, expensive glassware and precocious service are absent without leave. Although natural wines are the stock-in-trade, on a typical Saturday afternoon many of the guests will be drinking beer. They’re there to soak up the atmosphere — the gezelligheid, as the Dutch say.

Glouglou opened a sister operation, Bar Centraal, two years later, in the city’s Oud West. Then just months after Bar Centraal was established, two young DJs who had drifted into the HoReCa business decided they wanted to open a café before they turned 30. Bob Nagel and partner Maarten Bloem had encountered natural wines while working at FC Hyena, a cinema/pizzeria/natural wine bar spin-off from Goudfazant. As Nagel explains, it changed everything: “Wine wasn’t something that young people were into — you drank it with your dad or uncle. But natural wine is different. We were inspired by Glouglou and by the scene in Berlin and Paris. But we also wanted a real café, a place where young and old come to drink beer, wine or coffee.”

Binnenvisser opened its doors in 2017 and, like all its Amsterdam colleagues, is resolutely informal and without ceremony. “Young people have a blank canvas when it comes to wine so they love natural wine,” says Nagel. “Sometimes we get older customers who have a more preconceived idea about it, but I know what to pour that they’ll enjoy.”

The Dutch touch

There’s a clear Amsterdam style shared by all of these venues. It is neither as geeky as London’s natural wine bars, as militant as those in Paris or as studied as New York or Berlin. That younger Amsterdammers are taking to natural wine so enthusiastically shouldn’t be a surprise. The lack of formality or unnecessary pomp could have been tailormade for the Dutch psyche. 

The trend shows no signs of abating. An infrastructure of specialist natural wine importers has blossomed to keep the constant flow of new openings supplied. Inevitably, given Amsterdam is a compact city, there’s considerable cross-pollination throughout the sector. In 2016, two ex-employees of Goudfazant opened The SkateCafe, a warehouse with a skate ramp and vin nature served at the bar. The neighbouring Mexican street-food restaurant Coba followed suit. A friend of Bob Nagel’s who opened Europe’s first air hockey club is considering adding natural wines to his list.

It’s a far cry from 2011, when Amsterdam’s choices were mainly ethnic cheap eats or fusty Michelin star establishments, offering respectively nothing worth drinking and nothing affordable by mortals. Does Niels Wouters have any fears that this natural boom could bust? “No, because once people get into natural wines, they don’t usually go back to drinking anything else.” Wouters has no major changes in the offing: “Maybe we’ll become even more challenging, more difficult, I don’t know,” he says.

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