La Cabane was the first wine store in Hong Kong to import natural wines back in 2010. Co-founder and restaurateur Cristobal Huneeus explains how the scene has changed over time, what makes wine ‘natural’ and how he judges a bottle.
A little background
Cristobal Huneeus — the co-owner of La Cabane and Bayta — has always had a thing for wine. The restaurateur, who is half-French half-Chilean, grew up in France and later traveled around Japan as a marketing and events manager. He didn’t find his way to the wine industry until he moved to Hong Kong six years ago, only to discover a dearth of natural wines.
How’d you find yourself in Hong Kong?
My wife and I were based in Japan for a few years, and we made a conscious decision to move to Hong Kong nearly 6 years ago. I was interested in getting involved in the food and beverage industry, and met with business partner Karim Hadjadj who had started promoting natural wine in Hong Kong. When we started six years ago, it was non-existent.
Anything in particular you miss about France?
I always miss my mom’s rabbit pate en croute and every time I go home, she makes it for me — it’s shredded rabbit with pate in a crust. Inside you find some spices, herbs, and gelatin made from the bones of veal. So good!
My mom does what we call “cuisine bourgeoise”: it’s traditional, sometimes heavy, using cream and butter and wine of course. But since she has traveled a lot, she makes it her own and doesn’t follow the recipe. Her bookshelf in the kitchen is dedicated to cookbooks from around the world.
What’s the difference between biodynamic wines, and natural, and all the rest?
If we break down it into three simple principles: you’ve got organic wine, made of organic grapes. This can be natural, non-intrusive or just normal commercial; then you have biodynamic, which means you grow your wines following the concept of the tides and moon cycle, and you grow it in a way that’s in tune with nature. Some people call it sorcery; others will just say that you should take these things into account. Then you have the vinification aspects: natural or biodynamic wines don’t use any chemicals to grow the vines. The concept of “pure fermented grape juice” describes natural wine quite well — organic-grown grapes and a natural-wine making process.
What’s special about natural wine?
Before knowing that it was done in any natural way, I was drinking natural wine. What I like with natural wine, is the specificity of varietals. With the changes in winemaking in France in the last 200 years, France has lost a lot of what the Italians still have: the original grape varieties. Whether you go to Puglia or Emilia Romagna, you have a valley where grapes only grow there. In France, we had that for a long time but then we lost it to the big five international varietals.
For the last 20 years, a lot of these local specificities have come back and winemakers have, for example, tried to show that pinot d’aunis grows better in the Loire Valley — and it’s seen as a grape with no value or interest, but now it has come back and is getting more respect.
And what are some other ways winemakers are making their wines?
A lot of people are just used to a product that’s called wine. It’s been industrialized and I’ve been in countries where you have 5 kilometers of vines with machines in the middle spraying various products on them. Spraying them all year long, 10 times a day, just to kill every germ and insect. To do what? To produce a huge quantity and end up with massive production that’s trash.
What wines are you excited about right now?
There’s the traditional but not-as-known countries of wine – such as Georgia. Not Georgia in the US, but the country. It has 5,000 years of wine history. The local grapes there, some are very ancient. They are special, very unique – and funnily enough not a hard sell because they’re a curiosity, and wine geeks want to try them!
How do you judge a wine?
To me if it’s good it means you can finish the bottle on your own and want to start another one!
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.