By far our favourite wineshop in Mitte, Rocket Wine specialises in low-intervention / natural wines, and as an importer to some of Berlin’s best bars and restaurants too, French-Canadian owner Jean-François Roy really knows about each & every bottle he sells – as knows most of the winemakers personally. We wanted to know what it’s like to be in his shoes, running a natural wine shop in Berlin, so sent him a few questions…
What did you do before starting a wine shop and importing business?
I grew up on a vegetable farm close by Quebec city, Canada.
My grandfather started the little farm, which my father then took on as a hobby-job on the side. I have always been close to the work on a farm, and so felt a connection to the soil and vegetation. Between the ages of 20 and 30 year olds old, I was travelling a lot… and some of these travels brought me to the western side of Australia where I got addicted by wine.
Orange Tractor wine was the name of the vineyard I then ended up working on. Once addicted, I decided to plant some 1500 vines with my brother on our family’s land in Quebec. While the vines were growing I kept on travelling and working in different wine regions in France ( Languedoc, Rhone and Loire).
Inbetween this, I did my law degree in Quebec thinking I would be a great lawyer…. but, well…. my calling to be involved with wine was too big! So after my law degree I decided to move to Europe and kept on discovering wine in Germany, Austria, Czech republic …etc.
To get by, I mostly worked as a waiter my first few years in Europe… a job that I did a lot in Quebec when I was a student. One morning about 5 years ago, I thought I’d gather all the contacts I have in the winemaking natural wine scene (because I that point, that was already the only wine I would drink) and I decided to buy my first pallet of wine, which arrived here in Berlin and of which I then slowly started to sell them around town.
For those unaware, how would you describe what natural wine is?
On a technical view … natural wine is when a winemaker commits to understanding more about the world of fermentation (the development & play of bacteria, that transforms the grape juice’s sugar into wine) and decides to make wine without using any additives, unless to a very, very small amount sulphites.
But natural wine is also about curiosity, it is a common language, it is deep energy, it is commitment and it is a lot of hard work to create. It is about questioning yourself… and it is sharing.
So what are the main reasons wines like yours are not often found in larger wine merchants or supermarkets?
Larger merchants need control and security. They need to plan all their actions relating to buying and selling. But natural wines are everything BUT control and security.
Essentially, the quantity of the wine actually produced by most natural winemakers is way too small, and also varies drastically from year to year. So this would not fit into a big merchant’s business strategy. If it did, it would drive them crazy having to deal with such a inconsistent product. That is why people can only find natural wines in specialised wine shops or restaurants!
And to be honest, there is also way too much poetry and love in such bottles to let them sit on a cold supermarket shelf 😉
We personally at Oooh, Berlin are converted to drinking natural wines pretty much all of the time now, but it took some time to get used to… as at first they tasted so different to conventional wines we were used to. How would you describe the characteristics of a low-intervention wine compared to a mass-produced one?
A low intervention wine is a living product.
It is hard to describe or perceive it at first because it is hard to put a taste on something living … it is a more emotional thing, something that feels different when you drink the wine. It can make you smile, make you wonder, make you think of an old memory… well, I think this is what living is !
Some have also a different texture. That comes sometimes from the unfiltered element of it. A wine that has followed this fermentation process without any intervention of oenological products will very often be more digestible.
We often say that natural wine does not give headaches. Well, it is not completely true since these wines are still of course alcoholic! But it is 100 % sure that your body accepts and digests them way better.
The world of natural wine is huge and the best way is to taste to explore it, is to drink a whole lot of different wines. Make tastings yourself and form an opinion.
To start with, you can even contact us to find out when our next tasting is, as we host tastings and seminars in the shop for everyone to discover more.
It almost feels like most of the people in the world are missing out on natural wines, due to low-availability and travel problems. What do you think?
It is true that natural wines are a lot more fragile that conventional wines. We can’t forget that these wines still have a living process inside of them and they can get stressed. This means that transportation, including big differences in temperature can stress them for a while, which actually alters them unlike more conventional wines.
What we have to do is just wait a few days, weeks and sometimes months for the wine to get back to his normal stage.
This is why it’s so important that natural wine importers & gastronomes have to know their wines. These days, a lot of people around the world work well with this in mind, and by now it’s more normal that everyone helps to make sure the wine is happy and not stressed by the time it reaches your hands.
How does running a natural wine shop offering wines from small-scale vineyards differ to a conventional wine shop selling well-known brands?
I think what differentiates us from conventional wine shop is that we are part of this big family of natural wine which makes us be not only very close to the winemakers, but also our customers.
One main difference, is that someone who decides to work with natural wine has to go in the vineyard and get to know the winemakers – it’s not possible to just give a call and put an order.
That’s because these artisan winemakers want to know where their wines are gonna be and who is going to present their hard work. Likewise, once you know the winemakers personally you can’t just sell their bottles as any most standard wines sold in lots of other places all over – you feel like you have the mission to share their message.
Some readers may be aware of ‘Orange wine’, but unsure of what it is. How would you describe the production process of it?
This is what is commonly known as a ‘skin-contact’ wine, and it is essentially a white wine made like a red wine. So, a red wine is red because the skins of the red grapes macerate with the juice for days or weeks, or even months.
The orange colour in these wines comes from the white grape skin macerating in the juice for a period of time.. and the final colour or hue of the juice depends of the variety of the grape, but also the vinification environment of it.
You’re also an importer selling to lots of great restaurants and bars in Berlin. How do you feel the restaurant scene in Berlin is changing with the rise in demand for natural wines?
The scene is changing. Not too fast, but in the right direction for sure.
This is great, as long as natural wine in Berlin does not become too trendy. The reason I say this is because trends don’t not last long, and natural wine is more important than something that just passes like a fad – these wines and the people behind them really have to be understood.
One reason for this is that there are a huge amount of positive aspects & working methods that make our own future of food and environment better, which others should be aware of.
You are also the driving force behind Wine Rush, an event bringing respected natural winemakers to Berlin to showcase their wines to industry and enthusiasts, a little like the RAW events. This must have been very difficult to organise right?
Yes, Wine Rush is my baby !
It started with the idea to create an event that involved a lot of natural wine importers in Berlin, that each share the way I feel about these special wines.
Since lots of people responded well to the first events we initially hosted when smaller, its now a big bigger and with it’s growth permits us to directly invite the winemakers to come to Berlin.
All winemakers coming to the city are represented by an importer, so this is a great way for the winemakers to actually meet the people who love drinking their wine, and showcase to new people too.
Plus, it helps the local importers have a great reason to invite their winemakers to visit the city and meet up with clients who buy their wine. In addition to this, winemakers usually sell their wine much better than the importers and so the public or clients can fully understand their ethos, ambition and the meaning behind each bottle.
This helps Berlin to have access to wonderful winemakers, who are also wonderful people. I love them all!
In regards to organising it, it takes time and a bit of silliness to get right.
All Wine Rush events so far were very magical, even the very first one which was tiny. But I don’t see these events as a cash machine or judge them by the amount of people that come to them. For me, the success comes from if people like the wines and there is a good amount of energy in the room. As long as the quality and energy is there, it is a success.
But of course this is also very dreamy to see it only that way, as organising such events cost money and requires a huge amount of energy. I guess I have enough energy though!
So when will the next Wine Rush be?
Im working hard to have it in April 2019, in a new location. This was also the goal from the beginning, to always change location. New locations bring new vibes, and uncertainty (which I like!)
What are your favourite wines in the shop for the winter /spring season now?
Red : Eveil du Loup 2015, Combe aux reves, Buguey, France.
This wine has such a silky and charming texture. It gives you wings. It’s a wine made from Poulsard (with 120 year old vines ) – Gamay and Pinot noir aged in old 500 litre oak barrels. All of his wines have a richness and lightness at the same time. The lightness comes from it’s minerality and the richness comes from the old Opa of Poulsard. The old vines provide less grapes and so juice, but instead makes for a very concentrated juice which gives it this character.
White: Vermentino 2016, La graine sauvage, France
This has everything I like in wine! It’s fat, crisp and with good minerality. It is made of Vermentino grapes that grow on “schiste soil” ( the soil found in the Mosel region in Germany). It is like a nice walk in the park when there is the first snow of the year, when everything around you is beautiful…. you know, when it’s almost too beautiful that you don’t want to stop walking but at the same time you have too because you’re cold! It is not one of those easy-drinking wine to simply glug down, it is a wine to take time with and that makes you think deeper about it.
It is a beautiful wine that I love so much, that I can drink huge amounts of it, but it gives me too many emotions to do so 😉 Some times wines are hard to describe … which is why they are beautiful !
Pet-Nats are quite the rage in the natural wine world these days. For those unaware, explain what the process is to make them?
The method used to make Pet Nat is called Methode Ancestrale: it is a old method (before Methode Champenoise, the method of the champagne ) which is easier to make, but involves more risks for the winemaker.
The process requires bottling the wine before the fermentation process is over. The wine will then continue to ferment in the bottles and create carbonic gas ( which is what gives it the bubbles )
It is more risky for winemakers, because we can never know if the fermentation will continue until properly finished.
If it does stop as planned, it gives a sparkling wine that is still slightly sweet… most Pet-Nats have a few grams of residual sugar and thats one reason they are very easy drinking, and addictive !
You’re also off travelling, meeting low-intervention winemakers and helping out with the harvests too. What have been some memorable moments on our wine travels?
Actually the most memorable moments doing this for me is always just sharing time, food and wine with the winemaker. Getting to know very passionate people is always very inspiring,
I believe you have to visit winemakers to really understand & fully appreciate their work, and why such wines are so very special. Alternatively, at least try to go to an event like Wine Rush… so you have a chance to grab a little bit of their passion and talk to winemakers face to face.
Whilst we find the wines great value for their artisanal production and massive flavour, last time we were in… we spotted a wine you would only sell for 850 euros – tell us about that?
Hehe! The bottle cost 850 euros … because I do not want to sell it !!!!
There are only 3 bottles left in Europe, and it is the wine that I made in Quebec with my brother and a very talented Cider maker (Emile from Le Somnambule). As I answered earlier in a previous question, I planted some vines with my brother about 10 years ago.
Last year we decide to turn our grape production (which is tiny!) into wine, and we did it well and 5 natural wine bars in Quebec city and 2 in Montreal were very impressed by it – and us too! I was back there last October for the second harvest and we’re doing 3 different wines this year. The good news is my brother might come for the upcoming Wine Rush and bring a few sample with him! We’ll see… 🙂
Educating the general public about your natural wines is obviously part of the job, how do you go about getting people more interested in low-intervention wines?
It can be a challenge, but it’s easier when customers are interested, curious and not scared to try something…. or more importantly not scared to be disappointed as well: Not all wines are made to our individual taste and it is totally ok to not like a wine. On the other hand it is also okay to love a wine so much that we do not know how to describe it and feel like we just want to scream with joy!
The best way for unaware readers of this interview to learn more, is to simply ask people who are involved with natural wine in some way. Remember, you can always come by the shop and ask for the upcoming tastings we have going on, as an introduction to these wines will give you some confidence about them and you will realise that this natural wine world is so rich and so simple. Essentially, just be curious.
One of the reasons we like a lot of natural wines is that most of them are unfiltered, which gives them a fuller, almost juicier texture and mouthfeel…
But why do you think no conventional wines do not tend to keep their wines unfiltered, even if they still add sulphites and other additives to their wines?
Interestingly, as wine drinkers we assume that unfiltered wines are always very cloudy. This is actually not always the case, as often unfiltered wine are almost as clear as filtered wines.
It is worth keeping in mind however, that unfiltered wines, both in texture, flavour and look are very unusual to those unaware of natural wines.
So of course, most consumers used to conventional wines are confused when they see a cloudy wine, as it’s unexpected and could be seen as a wine-fault in their eyes. It’s not what the conventional wine market knows or expects.
Perhaps this is another reason conventional winemakers don’t tend to do it.
Also, for a winemaker, the level of filtration (or lack of it) it is a whole new world to learn about, as you are also taking away part of the living element of the wine. This COULD also react differently when bottled as apposed to when in the barrel.
This means when making wines unfiltered, there is much more risk taken on in the cellar, and most winemakers do not like risk, so this is another reason why many conventional winemakers (often making hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of bottles of a wine) may also avoid it.
In your opinion, if a well-known commercial brand like started doing a natural wine that actually was genuine, would it be a good thing or a bad thing for the natural wine scene?
Mmmmhh, that’s hard to answer!
I really think it wouldn’t matter too much, as a big commercial brand wouldn’t have the same purpose or reasoning to make it in the same way. The natural winemakers do it for the love of it, not for the money. I don’t think you can bring love into a wine that is made in a commercial way. I really don’t. Love can be tasted too !
What is the hardest part of running a natural wine shop?
Well I like my job very much and all the interesting people I meet, but I guess sometimes it is a bit difficult to find a perfect balance between private wine drinking and public wine drinking, as my job.
Sometimes I really enjoy just opening a bottle ( ideally in a nice restaurant here that offers natural wine ) and I just like to drink it without saying ANYTHING about it, just embracing it, which I don’t often get to do in my line of work. So working in a natural wine shop, this sort of embracing just being with the wine, does not happen very often.
And what advice would you give to someone thinking of starting a natural wine shop in Berlin?
Do not lose hope! Berlin is a hard scene, there are so many opportunities to discover natural wines everywhere, but you often have to travel to get to them. This is how you can learn more, but you need to be curious and ask around.
Also know your wine makers and don’t bullshit !
Where do you like to eat/ drink in the city?
Complete the following sentence “For me, Berlin..”
..is very stimulating and colourful. It’s full of very good natural wines which are not as expensive compared to all other big cities. So open your eyes and be curious!
Be sure to pop into Rocket Wine next time you’re in Mitte – there are some truly remarkable bottles there and if you’re experienced or brand new to the world natural wine, the team there can help recommend some great options for your tastes!