SINGAPORE: Nondescript and low-key, Wine Revolution, or Wine RVLT, occupies a small, garage-like space that seats 30 on the first floor of a shophouse on Killiney Road. A striking, ruby red PVC curtain reminiscent of freshly-spilled Syrah hangs in the doorway framing the entrance to the bar, often rousing the curiosity of passers-by. Step inside, and you’re greeted by the familiar riffs of The Rolling Stones, and your eyes are immediately drawn to the wall of shelves on the left where there is an unexpected display of eclectic and unfamiliar wine bottles standing shoulder to shoulder.
“Some customers are overwhelmed when they come by. They don’t quite see it as a wine bar, and they don’t know what to do,” chuckled Alvin Gho, 36, one half of the brains behind Wine RVLT.
A cursory top-to-bottom scan of the room stops at the concrete screed floor which has clearly seen better days, evidently fallen victim to many celebratory spills.
Back to those bottles on display: This is actually the wine list. Just point, ask, mull over and take your pick.
“We’d rather have customers look at the bottles (instead of a menu) because there is a special connection when they pick one,” explained Ian Lim, 33, the other half of Wine RVLT. That’s not all. The bar’s casual, stripped-down approach to wine service is reflected in its choice of utilitarian wine tumblers over delicate stemware.
Wine RVLT is hardly your run-of-the-mill fine wine establishment. While the menu is not dripping with expensive Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Champagne vintages, what you will find are interesting wines made with familiar grape varieties like Chardonnay, Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a good starting point.
“Singapore’s wine scene can tend to be elitist; many people go for expensive Burgundies and Bordeaux. But we just want to make wines fun again, unpretentious and a bit more human,” said Lim.
So the wine that’s most requested?
“People always ask for Sauvignon Blanc,” Lim said with a laugh. “We carry wines that we like to drink. It’s all about discovery; we like to discover new wines.”
It is this constant drive to conquest the unknown that leads them to seek out new tastes, smells, styles and possibilities, in places such as New Zealand, or as unpredictable as Croatia.
Don’t be fooled by their easy-going and unassuming demeanours, though. Owners Gho and Lim are sommeliers by training, and both have been in the wine business for more than 10 years each. Ask them anything and you’ll quickly realise the pair are serious wine professionals who know their Paulliac from Puligny, Pouilly-Fuissé from Pouilly-Fumé – and everything in between. But in late 2015, they came up against a wall.
“We got bored with seeing the same labels everywhere in Singapore,” Gho said. So they travelled for inspiration, and found it in places with vibrant and exciting natural wine scenes such as South Africa, Australia, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Inspiration led to resolve and not long after, Wine RVLT opened its doors in September 2016.
THE WINES: NATURALLY GOOD?
Wine RVLT has about 50 to 60 labels at the ready on any given day, representing a good geographical spread of Old World and New World, and the menu is refreshed about twice a month.
“They (customers) will be able to find a bottle of wine they’ve never had before, even if they come in every week,” Lim offered. “The wine scene in Singapore is very safe because generally, Singaporeans follow trends. Wholesalers are reluctant to experiment with new producers because they worry that sommeliers won’t buy wines they can’t sell.”
“But for us, it’s about gut feeling,” Gho explained. “If it feels right, we’ll go for it. And our customers have embraced it.”
The duo aren’t going for exclusivity, either. Their goal is simple: To offer wines that you and I are not used to seeing on the wine lists around Singapore. That said, their recent wine selection has read like an enviable rolodex of coveted, natural winemakers highly sought after, like Domaine Jean-François Ganevat from France’s Jura region, or the Austrian wine estate Gutt Oggau located in Burgenland.
If this is all Greek to you, here’s the simple definition of natural wine, according to Gho: “Natural wine, at the minimum, uses grapes cultivated with organic or biodynamic principles in the vineyard. In the winery, there is minimal human intervention in the winemaking process, which means no preservatives or additives.
“It’s also about drinkability. That means if you have a glass, you’ll want a second. And if you have a bottle, you can have a second one, usually without too much of a headache the next morning.”
At this point, it might be useful to think about wine as a somewhat temperamental living thing. Its provenance, very simply, depends on its place of origin and how well it’s been cared for. This ultimately determines the condition of the wine. Many natural winemakers choose not to add preservatives like sulphur.
“It’s also the reason why these wines evolve quite quickly once opened and exposed to air,” Lim explained. This means the wines’ characters constantly change over the course of an hour or two.
The first thing you notice about natural wines is that they tend to be cloudy instead of crystal clear. On the nose, there may be a hint of funk (read: smells like a farm), which can take some getting used to, but there’s no mistaking a discernable edginess that jumps out of the glass – almost lively and energetic, as Lim described it.
“Natural wines also ironically tend to smell ‘grape-y’, which customers find confusing, because most wines don’t,” Gho continued. “On the palate, they are not too complex and easy to drink.”
While some might find it an acquired taste, the end result, in some cases, can be addictive, said Lim. “Once customers have a taste for the style of natural wine that they like, there’s usually no turning back.”
THE PHILOSOPHY: GREAT WINES WITH NO NONSENSE
The pair work with winemakers who practice sustainability in the vineyard and whose winemaking principles are true expression of their land or terroir, regardless of market trends.
“We believe in real, authentic wines. But we wouldn’t call ourselves a natural wine bar because our focus is really on raw and honest wines. Not all natural wines are good, neither are all conventional wines bad. A lot of people have the impression that we drink only natural wines, but that’s not true. We drink wines that we enjoy,” Gho clarified.
So would I ever be able to find something conventional at Wine RVLT?
“Yes!” said Lim. “If it’s exciting to us, you’ll see it on the shelf.”
Contrary to what the name of the bar suggests, Gho said they’re not rebels trying to shake things up. “We are not trying to put up a fight or go against the grain here. We are doing this simply because we love wine.”
REVOLUTION EVOLUTION: WHAT’S NEXT?
Barely a year old, Wine RVLT already has a steady stream of regulars comprising a diverse mix of locals and expats in their mid-20s to early 40s. Many of them are open to experimentating new offerings within a fair price point. There are also a few F&B industry veterans who are regulars here, happy to unwind after a long day with a bottle (or two) of unconventional juice.
And you heard it here first – Wine RVLT will be moving to a new home in the later part of 2017.
“The plan is to continually evolve over the next few years, discovering new wines and different styles. Who knows? We may not even focus on natural wines anymore down the road”, Gho said.
“To me, wine is about constant discovery. It got boring for a while when things stagnated, but we’re excited now with this bar and what we have to offer,” Lim concurred.
“Wine is the pursuit of the unknown, that’s what drives me. The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know, and that’s what drives my passion to know more”, Gho concluded.
I’ll raise a glass to that.
111 Killiney Road. Open Monday to Saturday, 6pm to midnight.