Every summer, a ship sails into Copenhagen harbor and heads straight to the local wine importer. It is no ordinary ship: a 105-foot brigantine powered entirely by the wind in its billowing sails, the Tres Hombres carries in its cargo 10,000 bottles of natural wine. When it docks outside of the cave-like storerooms of Rosforth & Rosforth, dozens of locals turn up to unload boxes of La Sorga and Olivier Cousin, then sit outside on the quay, watching the waves lap against the iron of Knippels Bridge and sampling the fruits of their efforts. Green transport and natural wine: was there ever a more Copenhagen combination?
The Danish capital takes both sustainability and drinking very, very seriously; it is working to become carbon neutral by 2025. Sometimes it does so simultaneously. Biking is the city’s primary mode of transport, where it’s not unusual to see people weaving slightly across the bike lanes as they cycle home late on a Saturday night, and most wine deliveries from importers and shops take place via cargo bikes.
The concern for sustainability helps explain why Copenhagen became one of the world’s great hubs for natural wine, but so too does the city’s restaurant culture. Both certainly mattered to Rosforth’s founder, Sune Rosforth, who soon after launching his business, began supplying a new restaurant that would go on to become the world’s most influential. “When the whole Nordic movement kicked off with Noma, you had all these wonderful chefs coming in with a very elegant, light, and fresh cuisine,” says Peter Pepke, sommelier and manager of the restaurant Esmée. “Traditional winemaking was still very much on — wines that were full of extraction, full of oak, heavy. So the wine and the cuisine just didn’t match.” Rosforth, which had begun by focusing on biodynamic wines but gradually evolved to what today would be considered natural, filled the gap.
Today, many of Copenhagen’s top restaurants now have exclusively low-intervention lists, and the number of wine bars that specialize in natural wine seems to grow by the week. “There’s so much wine and so many different producers and approaches to wine represented in Copenhagen,” says Devina Devine, the manager and sommelier of the wine bar Den Vandrette, whose list is especially strong on wines from the Loire Valley and Georgia. “If you go to five different wine places here you will see five completely different wine lists.”
One common characteristic among them is an emphasis on small producers. “We take it for granted, but now that tourists are coming back, it’s good to see it through someone else’s perspective,” Devine says. “They’ll come in and say ‘you guys are so lucky, is everywhere in Copenhagen like this?’ Things that are difficult to find in other places we get to work with every day.”
It’s not just the producers who are small; so too are many of the importers. Unlike the other Nordic countries, where alcohol sales are strictly controlled almost entirely by the state, Denmark makes setting up an import company relatively easy, so it’s not uncommon for a Dane who falls in love with the local vintages while vacationing in Sicily or Anjou to start shipping them home, and then — again, by bike — tool around the city with a few bottles stuffed into a backpack trying to interest sommeliers in their latest import.
In Jeppe Gustavsen’s case, the initial passion was for Burgundies, which he and his business partner Philip Laustsen began importing when they founded Lieu-Dit in 2009. Today, the company supplies a wide variety of wines — many of them natural and most of them exclusive to the local market — to many of Denmark’s best restaurants. Gustavsen sees a connection between the kind of food those places serve and the natural wines that are selling well. “Restaurants that are into natural wine tend to focus a lot on vegetables, and those go better with cold climate wines,” he explains. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in German wines, where there are some new producers, especially in Alsace, that are quite interesting.”
“There’s so much wine and so many different producers and approaches to wine represented in Copenhagen … If you go to five different wine places here you will see five completely different wine lists.”
Other wines on offer
But prosperous Copenhagen has always had a solid core of locals who prefer classic Bordeaux and big Italians. Coming out of the pandemic, that tendency has also become stronger. “I think it’s due to the wealth here,” says Gustavsen, “We’re seeing a lot of quite classic, and very expensive, wines sell in restaurants. Two or three years ago, we were selling a lot of Australian wines, but not so much anymore — I think because of sustainability concerns, people don’t want their wines to travel from all over the world. Now Burgundies are very, very popular, and wines from Piedmont.”
Still, the natural wine emphasis isn’t fading anytime soon, especially because so many of the city’s wine drinkers, to say nothing of its professionals, are young. “And young people are into natural,” he says. “There’s a whole generation of sommeliers and wine shop owners now who have never drunk anything but.”
Cat Kirkwood, manager of Amass restaurant, saw a lot of those young drinkers this summer, when guests would order bottles to take out into the gardens of both the restaurant and its casual offshoot, AFC. “The orange wine hype was still definitely a thing,” she observes. But as the innovative restaurant, which features low-intervention wines as part of its emphasis on sustainability, heads into the long Nordic winter, Kirkwood is also noticing a new willingness to experiment. “People aren’t turning away from the lesser known varieties anymore and just going for Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. They’re curious and when we put a native varietal or a field blend, they’re excited to try them.”
And like their cuisine, Copenhageners’ drinking habits are seasonal. During the warmer months, people drink in any open-air space that will have them — not just outdoor dining spaces like Amass’, but also parks, docks, and random stretches along the harbor, and they tend to go for easy drinking bottles, when they’re not pounding Aperol spritzes.
And then, with a short break for Beaujolais Nouveau celebrations, it turns. “After the summer craziness when everyone’s out and drinking nonstop, people get more serious in the run up to Christmas,” says Den Vandrette’s Devine. “It’s not all super glou glou. They’re interested in more complex wines, and they’re giving us more time and spending more. It’s my favorite season of the year.”
3 places to visit in Copenhagen:
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One of the city’s first wine bars to highlight biodynamic and natural wines, it remains a favorite both for its gorgeous Danish modern furnishings and personalized service. Instead of a menu, waiters inquire about guests’ preferences, then make recommendations based on their tastes.
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Owned by the importer Rosforth & Rosforth, the food at this cozy but serious wine bar is far better than it has to be and even carries echoes in a fabulous khachapuri of a highlight of the impressively deep wine list: its thoughtful selection of Georgian wines.
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Perfectly pitched to its young, diverse neighborhood, Pompette strips away any excess — like décor — to focus on wines that are reasonably and transparently priced. It offers one each of red, white, orange, and bubbles for 50 kr ($7.65) by the glass and adds just a 100-kroner ($15.30) markup to any bottle.