How Honey Spencer is finally clearing up natural wine


Natural wine is hardly a closely guarded secret, yet so few of us know much beyond its stylish labels and (sometimes) cloudy nature. Honey Spencer is one of the exceptions. Having dedicated her working life to understanding the beguiling, erratic world of the remarkable, untamed grape, the sommelier and co-owner of Sune, Hackney, has become a leading voice in the field – and now, she’s endeavouring to help us grasp it too, with her new book, Natural Wine, No Drama: An Unpretentious Guide. 

Natural Wine, No Drama: An Unpretentious Guide (Pavilion)
Natural Wine, No Drama: An Unpretentious Guide (Pavilion)

Drawing from years of experience, the publication is one of the first of its kind, aiming to demystify the largely uncertified category, one which relates to wine made from grapes the product of organic, biodynamic or regenerative farming, and fermented with minimal processing and additives.

Looking back now, at a time before she understood natural wine, Spencer admits that it wasn’t exactly love at first sip. “When I first tried it, I absolutely hated it. I actually felt quite offended by it.” Like the majority of people, she found it difficult to comprehend. “I'd recently qualified to be a sommelier and everything was making a lot of sense. I was learning all the rules and the formulas to follow and then suddenly I was faced with this very abstract and beguiling style of wine that I just didn't really understand, that wasn’t linear or static in any way. I couldn't put it in a box and say, ‘Oh, this is natural wine, expect this.’”

Nevertheless, Spencer’s curiosity prevailed. A decade ago she and her husband (co-owner of Sune, Charlie Leonard Sims) bought a pair of one-way tickets to Copenhagen, the epicentre of natural wine, where she set to work learning as much as possible. Soon, she found herself involved with Den Vandrette, Noma in Mexico and 10 William Street in Sydney before bringing her knowledge back to London, where she worked at establishments including Sager and Wilde, Evelyn's Table, The Barbary and The Palomar. “I think it was a really nice dovetail of my late twenties, to be able to travel and learn about natural wine, to fall down the rabbit hole in the way that I did.”

Now that she’s an expert, Spencer’s mission is to pull the rest of us in with her. “It’s completely different to conventional wine. I always describe natural wine as multidimensional, whereas conventional wine is a lot more flat, it’s a lot more linear. [The latter is] just blocks of flavour, blocks of acid, blocks of tannin, which make up a tasty profile, but that's all there is to it. I think the interesting thing about natural wine is that you've got a whole range of acidities and textures. I feel you can taste life in natural wine.”

Moreover, cracking open a bottle is always a discovery, she continues. “It’s ever changing. You can open a bottle of natural wine and the glass that you have at the beginning is not the same glass that you have at the end. It’s really fascinating and bewitching.”

For Spencer, it’s also a drink that goes hand in hand with food. “If you're someone who loves good ingredients and different cuisines, natural wine is something that makes perfect sense. It pairs so brilliantly with food, way better than conventional wines because there is a lot of nuance to it. There’s so much fun to be had and there are so many potential pairings that exist.”

In fact, she would even go as far to say that natty wine should be treated as a food in its own right. “Without the additives and processing, natural wine can be something that nourishes us. Foodies should embrace natural wines for all of their individual characteristics in the same way that we embrace foods for theirs.”

But what does she say to the people who believe natural wine is ‘faulty’, ‘unfinished’ or ‘a con’? “There's not enough natural wine to go around anyway, so I'm very happy for them to carry on thinking that, to be honest.” she laughs. “But I think I would challenge people to think about how manipulated you want a product to be.” Fundamentally, Spencer says it’s a matter of taste. “It's deeply personal, and I do understand why one might like a wine to taste a certain, predictable way. It's just what you go for, it's all a matter of perspective.”

Still, Spencer believes an increasing number of our palettes are adapting to the funk. “A lot of people say ‘Oh, this is not really what wine should taste like.’ But I think, in general, the palate is very much more open to natural wine today because we eat a lot of fermented foods like sauerkraut and miso, flavours which are very similar to that of natural wine.”

Within her “loving and compassionate” tome, Spencer hopes the knowledge she’s collected over the years will dispel any pretence around natural wine, making it less intimidating. Plus, she’s included recipes for suggested pairings from acclaimed chefs such as Mitshel Ibrahim and Nicholas Fitzgerald, as well as celebrating some of her favourite winemakers. “If you're not processing your wines in order for them to taste a certain way, it’s a high risk thing to do. It's very brave. I want to highlight a lot of the work that people are doing that reflects that bravery and evoke a sense of adventure,” she says. “I want people to feel that they could also go and visit winemakers and that this world of mine can be a world of theirs, too.”

Honey Spencer (Ania Smelskaya)
Honey Spencer (Ania Smelskaya)

What you won’t find, however, is a focus on sulphates, which Spencer says are largely misunderstood. “Historically, there has been such an emphasis on the use of sulphites and we've gone after the wrong guy for too long. What we really need to be talking about are pesticides and insecticides, things that are truly causing the planet and our bodies real harm.”

Waiting for your book to arrive? In the meantime, the best thing to do is get to know your local natty wine supplier, “an ally” who can take you on a journey and get to know your palette, says Spencer. Meanwhile, if you don’t like something, don’t be afraid to say so. “If you're not enjoying a wine, it's absolutely fine to take it back and say you’re not quite sure about it,” says Spencer. “There are a lot of great wine retailers who are really compassionate.”

Now, let’s just hope the bank manager is as understanding after our impending natty spending spree…

Natural Wine, No Drama: An Unpretentious Guide is available now. £25 (Pavilion)