In the heart of Taipei, a new wave of wine bars is captivating both seasoned oenophiles and casual patrons, with a particular focus on natural wines.
When former teacher Peggy Lin took her dogs for a walk one evening last year, she spotted a newly opened bar. Curious, she poked her head through the door and liked what she saw so much that she stayed for a glass of wine. Since the bar welcomed both her and her pups, they soon became regulars – Lin with a glass of wine in hand and her pets by her feet.
“I liked how this place was not pretentious – you can just walk in wearing flip flops,” she says. Not long after that, Lin quit her classroom job and began working behind the bar.
Lin’s new workplace, named Salon et Tutu (reviewed below), is part of a wave of new wine lounges that have popped up in Taipei in the last few years. Salon, which opened in October 2022, A Glass or Two, open since November 2021, and the sommelier-owned Can Nature, which opened in March 2019, are just a few examples. A common thread among these establishments is their focus on natural wines.
According to National Geographic, the term “natural wine” is loosely defined as “wines that are made without the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, with minimal sulfites, and using wild yeasts found in vineyards rather than those manufactured in a lab.” Natural wine tends to be produced by small, family-run vineyards, and the product can look and taste quite different from standard varieties. The wine is often cloudy and funky, resembling homemade cider or kombucha. Natural wines typically have a lower alcohol content of around 10-11%, in contrast to the 12-14% commonly found in conventional wines.
The opening of these new venues, and their increasing focus on natural wine, reflects Taiwanese people’s growing interest in the beverage – not just as something to consume at home but also to enjoy with friends in social settings.
Certainly, wine consumption in Taiwan has been growing over the past few years. According to market research provider Euromonitor International, the market size of still grape wine (not including sparkling or fortified wines) rose from NT$11.9 billion (US$379 million) in 2018 to NT$14.7 billion (US$470 million) in 2022.
The domestic boom in natural wine – which is also experiencing a surge globally – has been ascribed to its reputation for being healthier. “I think natural wine has become so popular because people want to drink something without so many chemicals,” says Salon et Tutu Founder Anita Su.
Over at Dancing Elephant Wine Bar (reviewed below), Cofounder Luo Tienfu equally credits growing interest in natural wine to its positive reputation. “I can’t say it’s healthy,” he says. “No alcohol is healthy. But natural wine is less harmful for your body.”
Dancing Elephant, which opened in 2015, originally emphasized Spanish wines but has since switched its focus to predominantly natural selections. Luo jokes that many of his customers simply choose wines based on the appeal of their label, and small natural wineries often get creative with their designs.
Vivian Yang, cofounder of Taichung-based Weightstone Vineyard Estate & Winery, believes that the 2018 launch of the first Michelin Guide on Taiwan helped plant the seeds in people’s minds for exploring different kinds of wine.
“When the Michelin Guide started coming out, more people became aware of dining out and pairing their food with wine,” she notes. Traditionally, people just went for famous brands or bolder, stronger wines. Now Yang says younger people are more willing to try new kinds of wine, including lighter wines, which she describes as “more refined” – a description she also uses for her own wines, although she’s quick to point out that she does not claim that they’re natural.
Her company’s success is a testament to Taiwan’s growing interest in wine. Yang founded Weightstone with her father in 2009, and they started selling their first bottles in 2017. One of Yang’s wines won silver at the Decanter World Wine Awards a year later.
Historically, Taiwanese were taught to prefer red wine. If you look up older media coverage on the subject, you will find authors lengthily describing the perceived health benefits of red wine over white. The latter is labeled as “cold” in the Chinese medicinal sense and thus considered unsuitable in the winter season. But bar owners say that view is changing too.
Yvette Yi, one of the three Taiwanese women behind A Glass or Two, says that most of her customers prefer white wine. Yi also highlights an emerging trend for orange wines. Orange wines are skin-contact white wines, which means they are made by fermenting white grapes with their skins, similar to the process used for red wines. This fermentation process results in a distinct flavor profile, as the skin contributes pigments, phenols, and tannins.
Whether you’re a fan of natural wine or prefer a glass of the more recognizable stuff, you’ll be glad to know Taipei has an expanding list of excellent venues. Expect to pay around NT$300-500 for a glass or, slightly more economically, upward of NT$1,000 by the bottle.
Below are four of the best places to drink wine in Taipei, but the following get an honorary mention: Can Nature (for natural wines), Nekko Bar (for wine and cat petting), and Graft (for wine with Hong Kong food).
If you like to dress up silly and drink wine
Salon et Tutu
92 Anxi St., Datong District, Taipei
The word cozy was invented for Salon et Tutu. This small and intimate wine bar, housing approximately 60 varieties of natural wine, is tucked away in the historical neighborhood of Dadaocheng. At night, the lamps cast a warm, welcoming glow, while gentle jazz music plays from a speaker, creating the perfect atmosphere for imbibing wine. Owner Anita Su says she designed the bar, which has only been in business since October 2022, to make you feel like “you are stepping into a friend’s living room.”
Staff are friendly and knowledgeable, allowing customers who are unsure of what they like to sample a few labels before buying a glass or bottle. Su, who more than likely is to be found behind the bar, is quick to assure those who are not fans of natural wine that more than half her natural stock looks and tastes more like conventional assortments – clearer and less hazy. She demonstrates with a small glass of Chasselas from France that has a sharp, syrupy bite with a whisper of sour, funky tones. In contrast, Tu-Tu, an Italian orange wine, is cloudy and punchier with a tangy fizz.
Su explains that the “tutu” part of her bar’s name is not a nod to Tu-Tu the wine, but rather the gauzy, frilly skirt worn by ballerinas. Hanging at the back of the bar are about 20 tutus that customers are invited to wear while drinking their wine.
“I wanted to make [drinking wine] less serious,” says Su. The tutus are a way to dispel the outdated belief that wine drinkers are snobs and to infuse a sense of fun into the overall experience. “Anyone can drink anywhere or anytime!” Su exclaims. And that certainly applies at Salon et Tutu, which opens at 10 a.m.
If you like your wine conventional
Will’s Wine Collection
202-1 Da’an Rd., Section 1, Da’an District, Taipei
Tel: (02) 2784-6878
The relaxed atmosphere of this downtown wine bar was so enjoyable that I forgot to make notes about it until just before it was time to leave, at which point I was already the worse for wear from consuming the better half of a bottle of red.
My drinking partner and I shared a rich, weighty Shiraz Cabernet from the Australian wine producer Penfolds – a perfect foil to Taipei’s wintry weather. The only downside to Will’s is that wine is not sold by the glass. However, among the bottles on offer are 300 varieties from eight countries. Options range from bottles under NT$1,000 to vintages many times more expensive for those who know their vineyards and have the means to indulge.
From the outside, Will’s looks like a wine shop. But once inside, you notice a central bar with stools. A door at the back leads to a purplish lounge area with seemingly comfy sofas. We remained in the bar area to stay close to Guaiguai, the owner’s lovely black dog with an energetic tail and a cushion bed full of toys.
The friendly owner, Peter Lee (Will is the bar’s wine importer), says he debuted his wine collection 15 years ago, making him a pioneer in Taipei’s wine-drinking culture. As the night drew on, the space filled up, mostly with locals, and the bar really came into its own. By that time, the bottle had been drunk and we didn’t have the stamina to stay for another. But we will certainly be back.
If you like your wine strictly natural
A Glass or Two
191 Keelung Rd., Section 2, Xinyi District, Taipei
This narrow bar has a pleasing, cloister-like ambience with its many long, arched mirrors and high ceiling. The gray-green walls and warm spot lighting soften this effect somewhat. There’s a comfortable sofa set up at the back, plenty of padded stools at the bar, and a couple of tables next to the streetside window, affording views of the section of Keelung Road next to the Liuzhangli MRT station.
A Glass or Two is in the business of natural wines, and the cellar’s offerings are lined up attractively against a backlit wall next to the bar. The staff are accomplished at introducing their stock. You can buy a bottle, selected from three whites or three reds, by the glass or in a trio to embark on a wine-tasting flight.
As the evening progressed, the bar filled up, mostly with young women. Their contented chatter lent the bar some ambiance, as the music was too low to be anything more than white noise from where we were seated. We chose a glass of dry amber wine from the Pheasant’s Tears vineyard in transcontinental Georgia. It had a gingery orange-peel bite and a sour aftertaste, reminding me more of a cider than a wine.
If you like your wine with live jazz
Dancing Elephant Wine Bar
No. 2, Lane 106, Alley 8, Section 4,
Bade Rd., Songshan District, Taipei
Tel: (02) 2742-3188
This quirky corner wine bar has also succumbed to Taipei’s craze for natural wines, with about three-quarters of its stock being natural wine options, according to Cofounder Luo Tienfu. A bit out of the way on Civic Boulevard, it has limited seating inside but a few marvelous benches outside for balmy nights of sipping. The bar was started by Luo, a drum teacher and player, and his student, a Spanish wine importer, in December 2015.
Originally centered on bottles from Spain, Dancing Elephant later turned to natural wine in 2018. The name is a nod to the writing of Taiwan’s most famous wine connoisseur, Lin Yusen, who once described a particular Spanish vintage as tasting like a “dancing elephant” – supposedly elegant yet heavy, explains Luo. The bar boasts an extensive wine cellar with hundreds of different bottles, including Taiwan’s Weightstone. Live jazz (with Luo on the drums) springs up from time to time on weekend evenings to add some groove to the grog.
Taiwan Wine on the Upswing
Things are a lot more sophisticated these days than when the most famous Taiwan-grown wine was called Red Rose and needed to be diluted with soda and a bucket of ice to be drinkable. Now there is an abundance of wine companies, the award-winning Weightstone being one of the better-known. The label is stocked by major wine merchants such as Domaine Wine Sellers but can also be enjoyed in several Taipei wine bars. Dancing Elephant and Can Nature offer the label by the bottle, and La Copa Oscura by the glass.
Weightstone grows three different types of grape. Black Queen (red) was introduced by the Japanese during the colonial era, Golden Muscat (white) is an American variety brought over by the Taiwanese government several decades ago, and Taichung No. 3 (also white) is a Taiwan-developed grape. Weightstone has since rechristened the latter as Musann Blanc. To date, Weightstone is the only vineyard in the world to produce a wine with this grape variety. All its wines are exclusively sparkling except for Musann Blanc, which is also produced as a still wine.
Please drink responsibly.