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Noma's Wine Director Pontus Elofsson on Natural Wine and Refusing to Carry Bordeaux

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Photo: Beinta av Kák Bech

Noma is possibly the only two Michelin-starred restaurant with a wine list that not only refuses to carry Bordeaux, but focuses on natural wine. For a restaurant of this caliber—that's attracting diners from all over the world—it's not only a rare choice, but one that is symbolic of just how much wine lists have evolved over the past half-decade. Restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen and Hibiscus in London are blowing the archetypal tome of Bordeaux and Burgundy to shreds, boldly insisting that a wine list, like a food menu, can have a point of view that need not include a list of greatest hits. Other restaurants have followed suit, though perhaps not quite as adamantly. Yet.

The man behind Noma's wine list is Pontus Elofsson. He first met René Redzepi at Restaurant Pierre André, where he was a chef's apprentice and Elofsson was the sommelier. Six months after Noma opened, Redzepi poached Elofsson to build the wine program. That was eight years ago. He is no longer on the floor, but has become an official caretaker, who Redzepi relies on to make sure that the philosophy of the list remains consistent under its future management. Elofsson's book about the wine program, At Noma You Get Wine With Clumps, is due out in Denmark at the end of September. In the following interview Elofsson talks about the name of the book, the philosophy of the wine program at Noma, why he won't carry Bordeaux, and the importance of "dramaturgy" in choosing wine.

So, first things first, what exactly does the title of your book mean?
It's something that a sommelier of a restaurant called Søllerød Kro said after one of his numerous visits to Noma. It refers to the phenomenon that can often occur in wines with no added sulfur. The clumps are in fact malo-bacteria that have formed into larger groups after the malo is finished feeding on unfermented sugars. The title also reflects the fact that the wines at Noma have become more wild and free over the years. So today, quite literally, you have a good chance of drinking wine with clumps.

Many of the wines, which one might classify as "natural wines", are likely unfamiliar to most of the diners coming to Noma. Has that been a problem?
No. It's actually been exciting because of that. People have been positive about the surprise effect of the wines, especially in a wine and food combination context. About 70-80% of the guests at Noma are choosing wine pairings, which allows you to present wines that the guest never would have chosen on his/her own. People often ask, "Should the wine be like this?" But I always say, "I understand if you think it's an odd wine, but withhold your judgment until the food has arrived." Most of the time people understand why the wine is there once they join it with the food.

Why did you choose to focus on natural wine at Noma?
It sort of developed over time. We knew we wanted to serve elegant wines with a lot of minerality and acidity—wines that has the same characteristics of the Nordic food served at Noma—that also had a strong sense of terroir. So we chose not to include the powerful wines from hot areas and focused on Germany, Austria, Champagne, Loire, and Burgundy instead. Around 2006 I started to realize the wines with the least amount of intervention, chemicals, and techniques involved had an energy and focus that many of the conventional wines did not. I also started to realize that the wilder the wine, the better it paired with René's food.

I know that now there's a budding natural wine scene in Copenhagen with many lists focusing on these wines, but what was it like back in 2006?
It was very rare. You're only the third journalist that I've spoken to about natural wines. So to see these wines on a list at a restaurant like Noma was rare then, and is still rare now.

For some it will come as a shock to find out that a restaurant of Noma's caliber does not carry Bordeaux. What's your reason for that?
There are three main reasons. The most important is that it does not match the food at Noma. These are full-bodied wines with flavors that don't match Noma's. The second reason is more ideological. Bordeaux is probably the biggest chemical factory in Europe; they use lots of chemicals in the vineyards and in the cellars, and to do that is to move away from reflecting terroir in an honest, unspoiled way.

And the third reason?
I really don't like the taste of Bordeaux. [laughs]

How has this been received by your clientele? Any outrage?
Many of the guests that come to Noma do their research ahead of time; they're aware that they are going to have an unusual food experience and because of that I think they're more open to an unusual wine experience as well. They know strange things happen at Noma, so the acceptance threshold is automatically higher.

I understand your philosophy on the wines—both stylistically and philosophically—that you choose to showcase at Noma, but what else do you take into account when choosing wine for the list or for a table?
Today a lot of producers are using the organic or biodynamic stamp as a quality stamp, which is wrong. There are a lot of shitty organic and biodynamic wines, so we're looking for producers who are concerned not only with how the product is produced, but how it tastes. So the commitment is really to find the best, most avant-garde producers in each category.

There was something a bit more abstract that you had mentioned about choosing wines to reflect the totality of the experience at Noma. Can you explain that a bit more?
Yes. You know when you write, how it creates a moment? Or in theater, how you consider all of these things that create the scene—the lighting, the set, the costumes? Well there are considerations when choosing a wine that aren't exactly related to the food or type of wine exactly, but the circumstance that the meal is in, the scene. In Swedish we call it "dramaturgy." For example, if I ask a girl for a date, I'll want to drink Champagne, but if I ask my business colleague we may have steak and drink Brunello. Understanding the circumstance that the wine is entering into is crucial to the process of selecting a wine.

How do you determine this? By reading the guest and the table from afar?
That's one part of it. The hierarchy of circumstance can begin anywhere. It can start with the season, the space, or the relationship between the people at the table. It's about being aware of how these factors play a role in the experience and allowing them play a role in choosing the wine.

Talia Baiocchi is Eater's Wine Editor. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi and over at Eater NY where she covers the treacherous world of New York wine lists via her Decanted column.

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