A Very Wine Time

Step Out With Spa Esprit Group’s Cynthia Chua, And You’ll Drink Very Well

The restaurateur and serial entrepreneur now maintains one of the best natural wine lists in the country — and she wants to share the love.

Step Out With Spa Esprit Group’s Cynthia Chua, And You’ll Drink Very Well
Besides being a natural wine enthusiast, Cynthia Chua is a champion of the farm-to-table movement

Cynthia Chua is talking a mile a minute. We’re day drinking, but she’s going on so passionately about her latest love that her glass of Domaine Christian Binner Si Rose has hardly been emptied; it’s beautiful pinkish-coppery hue fills the glass. 

The entrepreneur who helped introduce a whole generation of Singaporean women to Brazilian waxing and helped make mainstream the farm-to-table sustainable food movement is animatedly proselytizing the merits of natural wine.

“The wines just breathe life. They’re approachable, easy to drink, and interesting. I’m not one who follows trends just because — when you drink, you must like the taste,” she says. “In my three years in Europe, I’ve found that natural wines complete my meal experience. So I started getting interested in how they’re made. It’s a story about handcrafted, small-batch wine vs. mass made; about respecting terroir; and about an outburst of young people coming together to value the tradition of how people used to make wine in the past. A creative person like me embraces the story, identifies with the artisans and appreciates the innovative process.”

Heads nod in agreement beside me. David Loyola’s too. The Frenchman has a reputation for curating what is widely acknowledged as Paris’s best natural wine list. A Le Chateaubriand alum, he’s also the owner of extra hip Aux Deux Amis on Rue Oberkampf — Chua’s and her partner Benjamin Darnaud’s haunt near their Parisian home. “You go to his place during Fashion Week, you won’t get in,” Darnaud, a chef, intimates. 

The trio are in town because Aux Deux Amis and Chua’s ever expanding Spa Esprit Group, including modern Southeast Asian restaurant Ding Dong, Open Farm Community and natural wine distributorship Drunken Farmer are collaborating on a series of events that celebrate good food and natural wines. 

And for an hour, they think they’re converting this drinker to the movement. Except, they’re preaching to the choir. 

Some of the wines curated by Eduardo Bayo, the wine consultant who heads Drunken Farmer
Some of the wines curated by and available at the Spa Esprit Group of dining concepts, including at far right, the Domaine Christian Binner Si Rose.

Natural wine is both exceedingly old, and the latest trend. Most point to the ’60s as the beginning of the movement led by the Beaujolais Gang of Four — Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Charly Thevenet and Guy Breton. Except what they did wasn’t new. They returned to the way their grandparents made wine before pesticides and chemicals became prevalent in agriculture after WWII. 

Definitions for natural wine are ambiguous at best, but the general tenet is that a vibrant, “living wine” starts in a healthy vineyard that is itself teaming with life (bugs and natural yeasts). And once in the cellar, additives (enzymes, vitamins, lysozymes etc) and modern newfangled gadgetry (reverse osmosis, cryo-extraction, spinning cone etc) are kept to the utmost minimum.

Even Domaine de la Romanée-Conti — which produces the world’s most coveted, and hence most expensive wines, farms biodynamically and use natural yeasts.

“Christian? Comment ca va?” Loyola answers his phone.

Pointing at the wine in our glasses, “it’s Christian,” he mouths to the rest of us. “Do you have a second? You’re on speaker, can we talk about your bottle of Si Rose in English?’

From his 10 hectares in Alsace, near the border of France and Germany, Christian Binner tells his handful of Singapore listeners: “Everyone loves the smell of this wine, it’s like roses, that’s why we named it that.” Made from Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris and macerated on its skins, it’s juicy, floral, and to me, this dual vintage (2017-2018) blend has a hint of lychee. The Binner family has owned vines in Alsace since 1770. Respecting the environment and the fragile cycle of life, Christian works the property without chemical products or pesticides.

“It’s a collaborative community that we are propagating. Christian calling as we’re tasting his wine is the perfect example,” says Chua. “People also love stories. There’s emotion attached to the wine.”

“This movement is more than wine. It’s about what you want to leave to the next generation,” Darnaud adds. As the man behind Viande & Chef in Paris, professionally, Darnaud is an advocate of high quality butchery and sustainable meat eating.

David Loyola
David Loyola, owner of Aux Deux Amis in Paris, which is known for its well-curated natural wine list.

But the world of natural wine isn’t all a bed of roses. Wine drinkers will readily point out that bottles that smell or taste funky, banyard-y, or just plain unusual outnumber those that are fruit-forward and pristine. Characterful notes are often intended and are the result of a winemakers’ creative expression. Though, without the use of artificial preservatives an off-putting wine could simply be one that’s gone bad — transit takes a toll on any living thing.

Too much funk is a flaw I start to venture. “I agree. Wine must be wine,” says Loyola to my relief. “If it’s too acidic, too volatile, or if it stinks too much, I still respect the winemaker, but I won’t buy a bottle for myself.”

“Are there very funky bottles that are hard to drink? Yes, that’s why curation is very important,” Chua offers. 

And she has just the man for the job. Eduardo Bayo, a natural wine expert from Montreal (but with Spanish roots) has been charged with curating the wine lists across her multitude of F&B concepts. He also heads Drunken Farmer, Chua’s wine distribution arm. And like her, Bayo can talk your ears off. But whereas talking wine with her is like chit-chatting with a girlfriend, Bayo has the certs to prove he’s a geek.

Eduardo Bayo, of wine distribution arm Drunken Farmer with the Lise & Bertrand Jousset Exilé
Eduardo Bayo, of wine distribution arm Drunken Farmer, with the Lise & Bertrand Jousset Exilé.

For a two-night only affair in late November, Bayo together with Loyola and chefs Matthieu Perez (Aux Deux Amis) and Miller Mai (Ding Dong) pulled together a list of wines to complement quintessential Southeast Asian flavours, such as red curry, buah keluak and green papaya. As food and wine pairings go, their menu was delicious.

The Lise & Bertrand Jousset 2017 Les Audouines Chardonnay from the Loire was hands down my favourite at dinner with its palate of lemon, pears and peach. (But don’t rule out that I may be biased.) Exilé, the lightly spritzy Jousset Pét-Nat (a style of making bubbly that predates champagne) made from Gamay grapes was so bright and pretty, it had Chua proclaiming “I feel like I taste life”. Of course, Chua has visited the Jousset farm before. 

Other wines included the sparkling Tète Au Bois Dormant made in the traditional method from Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay; Le Brutal de Jean-Mar, the first Brutal from Alsace; Chateau Masserau from Bordeaux; and a couple of Jurançon gems by Jean-Marc Grussaute at Camin Larredya.

All were Instagram-worthy. And none tasted funky (well, bar one — but only slightly).

“I wasn’t even a drinker before” Chua confesses. “But I chanced upon natural wine and I’ve found the story so compelling. When I discover things, I like to share. That’s how all my brands were started, and why one brand leads to another and another. And with natural wine, it’s not about cannibalising the market, but celebrating and welcoming the community, and at the end of it, bringing more people to wine.” 

“But we don’t need to change too many mindsets! It’s small batch, there’s not much to go around,” says Darnaud with a laugh.

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