How Manchester embraced natural wine

Thanks to the vision and adventure of restaurateurs in the city, Manchester's natural wine scene is thriving. Joel Hart talks to some of its pioneers about introducing diners to low-intervention styles, while shining a light on five key venues to visit

Words by Joel Hart

All of the wine sold at Isca is natural, organic and made by small producers

In recent years, Manchester’s gastronomic culture has undergone significant evolution. Central to this transformation are two key factors: first, a move away from generic, international cuisines in favour of a modern-British culinary identity, characterised by some use of fermentation and a deep commitment to using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients; and second, the rising prominence of natural wine.

The beginning of this rise can be traced back to March 2018 when Erst, a natural wine bar and restaurant was opened in the formerly industrial neighbourhood of Ancoats. The restaurant has come to be celebrated for its flavoursome but precise dishes, as well as its focus on natural wine. In Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner’s glowing 2021 review, he took a predictable dig at natural wine while admitting the wine he had been served was ‘lovely’.

‘At the start, there were a few raised eyebrows over a few bottles but the demand is now stronger than ever,’ co-owner Will Sutton reflects. The approach to wine at Erst is, Sutton says, ‘to look at classic regions and styles but from producers farming in a way that isn’t killing the soil, with minimal additions whilst maintaining the identity of the region.’

Manchester natural wine - Isca
Caroline Dubois-Heys opened Isca in 2019 with a focus on natural wine

One other important key player earlier on was Isca in Levenshulme, a neighbourhood to the south of the city centre. In 2019, Caroline Dubois-Heys had begun working with natural wine as sommelier and manager of Where The Light Gets In, a restaurant in the satellite town of Stockport, which now has a Green Michelin Star. Looking for a new challenge, Dubois-Heys opened Isca.

Having developed a close relationship with winemakers and importers in her previous role, Isca was able to offer some of natural wine’s most celebrated names and played an important role in building natural wine’s reputation in the city. ‘It’s an honour to carry and share their work to people that will have an interest and curiosity,’ Dubois-Heys says.

Manchester is growing at such a pace that there is so much opportunity for new venues and new people to get involved

In the following few years, many of the city’s most celebrated new restaurants had at least something of a natural wine focus. Another Hand is one of them, opening two years ago on Deansgate Mews, born out of 3 Hands Deli, which opened during lockdown.

‘I only started learning about natural wine when we opened the deli,’ says Julian Pizer, one of the co-founders. ‘It just fitted with the style of what we were doing in the deli, which was all organic, beautiful cheeses and organic charcuterie from Wales, so it made sense to have natural wine, and it developed from there.”

Lockdown was a successful period for the deli in terms of wine sales and the reputation stuck. ‘Whilst a lot of people are coming here for the restaurant,’ Pizer explains, ‘a lot of people are coming here for the amazing natural wines that are paired with our food.’

They use around eight suppliers to find intriguing wines to marry with innovative dishes such as the butterbean cacio e pepe with coffee, Witheridge cheese and winter truffle, with the aim to add more. ‘For us it’s about constantly evolving,’ says Pizer.

Manchester natural wine - Higher Ground
Daniel Craig Martin, co-founder and head of wine at Higher Ground puts an emphasis on the role of natural wine with the restaurant's food

Higher Ground – which was nominated for The Good Food Guide Awards Best New Restaurant in 2023 – put a huge emphasis on the role of natural wine with its food. The team officially opened the restaurant around six months after Another Hand, following on from their existing venue Flawd, a popular wine bar attractively located along the New Islington canal.

At both spots, ‘flavours are bright and fresh, and that’s why I feel natural wine is a good fit for this style of food,’ says Daniel Craig Martin, co-founder and head of wine. ‘Wine made with as little manipulation as possible is part of the same philosophy, trying to create a wine in its purest form.’

Higher Ground put a huge emphasis on the role of natural wine with its food

The cellar is more extensive at Higher Ground than Flawd, with a bigger audience for more premium wines, but across both sites there is a focus on continental Europe, as well as lesser-known regions and grape varieties.

The aim, Martin says, is ‘to force people into a bit of conversation around the wine, rather than picking what they know or are comfortable with.’ This is leading to more demand, with many new openings popping up that focus explicitly on natural wine.

But Martin has goals beyond Manchester. ‘When we opened Flawd, one of our main goals was to continue to push for making Manchester a northern hub for wine,’ he explains, having arranged many tastings and fairs that have attracted wine buyers from across northern cities.

Manchester natural wine - Climat
Alongside an impressive selection of natural wines, Climat offers spectacular views over central Manchester

One restaurant that opened at a similar time to Higher ground is Climat, which doesn’t focus exclusively on natural wine but represents another way in which it is showcased in the city. On the top floor of Blackfriars House in central Manchester, Climat is a bright, airy restaurant with a minimalistic design and a long open kitchen, boasting the best views with which to enjoy food in the city. Winning Star Wine List’s Up-and-Coming List of the Year 2023 and shortlisted for Best Medium-Sized List in 2024, the restaurant works with more than 30 suppliers and mostly organic, lutte raisonée and biodynamic wines.

Climat’s cellar manager Oliver Fletcher wants to ‘choose wines that feel focused and terroir expressive,’ but they ‘aren’t driven by working with importers who’d claim to be exclusively “natural” or are attached to any dogmatic zero/zero approach.’ The by-the-glass list always features an orange wine but often includes those with less skin contact, with ‘the point to make with guests is that this is a historical aspect of winemaking in various regions.’ Other than that, there will always be several minimal intervention wines present, often representing vintage development, with the overall aim to showcase wines expressing their terroir.

Climat's bright, airy restaurant with a minimalist design and long open kitchen

The Burgundy focus – as indicated in the restaurant’s name  – is key to the inclusion of what might commonly be understood as ‘natural wines.’ ‘I feel like Burgundy is the perfect locus to express that the spirit of low intervention winemaking is the traditional and historic approach to winemaking,’ says Fletcher, highlighting the ‘light touch in winemaking, the profound care for their particular vineyard sites and the individual character that they can express.’

Like at Higher Ground, ‘the food and wine programmes exist in harmony,’ with the contemporary bistro-style food also guided by a sense of place. Still, the restaurant bills itself as wine-led, offering something novel. ‘To have a wine list that is over 400 references strong and ever-evolving, and always have someone on hand who can talk about all of it, alongside a rich and diverse by-the-glass list, feels unique,’ says Fletcher.

At the start, there were a few raised eyebrows over a few bottles but the demand is now stronger than ever

What Climat has added to the city’s conversation around natural wine is a more expansive understanding of the concept of natural wine, showcasing that ‘low-intervention wines can be aged, developed, and representative of these more known wine regions, and recognisable as classic styles of winemaking with typicity and terroir expression while still retaining a vivacious, energetic edge.’

Citing Climat, amongst many of the venues mentioned above and more, Martin says Manchester is already ‘a great city to drink natural wine in.’ But, he explains, ‘there is always space for there to be more and that’s what is so exciting about Manchester. It’s growing at such a pace that there is so much opportunity for new venues and new people to get involved and bring their own ideas and passion.’

Five of Manchester’s best places for natural wine

  • Erst
    9 Murray St, Ancoats, M4 6HS
  • Isca
    825 Stockport Rd, Levenshulme, M19 3PN
  • Another Hand
    Unit F, 253 Deansgate, M3 4EN
  • Higher Ground
    Faulkner House, New York St, M1 4DY
  • Climat
    Blackfriars House St Marys, Climat, Parsonage, M3 2JA