There are many well-worn images of Amsterdam — jaw-droppingly beautiful canals, the seedy red-light district crammed with tourists, or coffee shops filled with pasty-faced weed smokers. But despite its reputation as a liberal, even debauched capital, the real Amsterdam is a compact and genteel place. Outside the heavily touristed center, the residents are most likely to be found jogging, cycling, or boating. Amsterdam-ers have also fallen in love with wine, as evidenced by the ever-increasing range of specialist wine merchants and atmospheric wine bars.
Wine is booming
Even the plague year and its multiple lockdowns didn’t put a dampener on the city’s love of the grape. During 2020, wine retail exploded both on and offline. Paulo De Almeida, co-owner of neighborhood shop, The Wine Spot, says, “It was like Christmas every day. Regular customers kept coming, but instead of buying one or two bottles per visit, they were buying six.”
While restaurants were closed, new bottle shops popped up like mushrooms. Chenin Chenin, Fiasco, and Craft Wine are three of the most promising newcomers. It’s a far cry from the days when the nationwide Gall & Gall chain, a tiny handful of indies, and a few old-fashioned “slijterijs,” or liquor stores, predominated.
Many of the latter have since closed, replaced by hip new natural wine boutiques and retail offshoots from the city’s many specialist wine importers. Amsterdam has turned to natural wines in a big way, with a younger generation of wine drinkers who wouldn’t be caught dead drinking the classics preferred by their parents.
Wijnhuis Amsterdam is an upmarket wine merchant in central Amsterdam. Co-owner David Oranje says, “Younger people have started to find their way to more adventurous things. They’re willing to shell out for something they haven’t heard of, a grape that they haven’t tried.” He attributes much of this open-mindedness to the natural wine movement. “They’ve been to a wine bar and tried a cloudy wine, then they come to us asking for something similar.”
The wine bar scene has also changed out of all recognition. A decade ago, the scant few specialist wine venues played to the traditional Dutch palate: safe choices from classic European countries, with an overriding focus on France. Or there was bargain basement Sauvignon from South Africa for the cheapskates — that trope about the Dutch being stingy does hold a grain of truth.
Now, the city boasts an ever-increasing clutch of down-to-earth natural wine boltholes such as GlouGlou, Bar Centraal, Bambino, and Binnenvisser. As Oranje puts it, “We’re not as avant-garde as Paris, London, or Berlin, but it’s a pretty lively scene here.”
A dining renaissance
Dining out in Amsterdam used to mean either cheap and cheerful or white tablecloths and over-priced Bordeaux. The only constant was candles on the tables and glacially slow service. But a new generation of sommeliers and restaurateurs has banished those stereotypes to the provinces. “Bistronomy” rules, as do vegetables, with quirky wine lists and adventurous pairings, plus that informality which the Dutch do so well.
Many of the newer openings focus entirely on natural or artisanal wine. Latin American cuisine is the latest trend: Coba, Bacalar, and MasMais are taquerias that all have small, carefully curated wine lists, while Nazka pairs Peruvian cuisine with a large and eclectic selection by the glass and bottle.
Niels Wouters is responsible for the wines — he wouldn’t dream of calling himself a sommelier or a wine director — at Hotel de Goudfazant, the popular restaurant in an old warehouse in Amsterdam Noord. He reports booming business in a wave of post-lockdown euphoria. “There’s so much energy, and the phone bookings have just gone crazy.” He’s also noticed that the Goudfazant’s customers have become more educated, and more willing to spend over the last two years. “Two young girls will share a €40 ($46) bottle of wine, and that didn’t happen before.”
He name-checks a rustic, lightweight Beaujolais that’s proving popular. And in terms of white wine? “Anything so long as it’s yeasty and unfiltered.”
Classics as well
It would be wrong to suggest that the whole city is knocking back glasses of cloudy natural wine though. Most everyday cafes and restaurants continue to offer the classics: Provençal rosé is big, and so is Prosecco; it’s so important that it is one of four benchmarks, together with white, red and rosé, used by the Dutch wine critic Harold Hamersma for his annual rating of Amsterdam’s best “terraswijnen,” or terrace wines.
Joris Snelten, CEO of giant importer Delta Wines, suggests that Hamersma has changed the game with his reports. Hamersma doesn’t just consider the wines, but also the ambience and the glassware. “No one wants to get a 5/10 rating in the newspaper, so it really helps push the standard up,” says Snelten.
Austrian wine also enjoys a major profile, with the Austrian Wine Marketing Board confirming that the Netherlands is now a more important market than the entire U.S. This is not as surprising as it sounds. The Dutch love to go skiing, and western Austria’s resorts are reachable by a long car journey. During après-ski, the Dutch discover the joys of Grüner Veltliner. Romania is further away, but a Pinot Grigio from the giant Cramele Recas winery has become a bestseller, shifting millions of bottles every year. Its $4.50 price point is a key part of the appeal.
Amsterdam-ers find their nation’s domestic produce less attractive, perhaps because it’s pricey. Yes, the Netherlands boasts around 120 wineries, two of which are within the city limits. If hitherto there has not been much love for their output in the capital, that too is changing. An enterprising American couple run Benelux Wine Co., a specialist bottle shop in the middle of the pretty Jordaan district, while the Michelin-starred Rijks restaurant, part of the world-famous museum, has a sizeable list of Dutch wines.
Don’t forget the beer
Beer is another matter. With 800 breweries in the Netherlands, and over 50 in Amsterdam alone, beers in every imaginable style feature on the drinks menus of cafes and restaurants, from humble to top-end. Craft beer is massive, but true hipsters have moved on to cider and co-ferments. Sour beer wunderkind Tommie Sjef makes a couple of grape/beer hybrids which sell like hot cakes to Amsterdam’s craft beer and natural wine lovers. These tribes seem to overlap more and more.
Another factor that keeps Amsterdam’s wine scene buoyant is the high proportion of expats. They make up as much as a tenth of the city’s roughly one million inhabitants, and tend to have deep pockets and more wide-ranging wine tastes than the locals. David Oranje estimates that they make up around a third of his customers. “The Americans will happily spend €25 ($30) on a bottle and then ask why everything is so cheap here,” he laughs.
Perhaps the tourists still look for “a smoke and a pancake” or queue up to visit the Heineken brewery, but Amsterdam has forged a love affair with quality wine that doesn’t look like it will end any time soon.
3 great Amsterdam wine hangouts:
The genius of this atmospheric, always-buzzing bar bistro is that it’s managed to retain the feeling of the building’s original incarnation — a “stamkroeg,” or pub — but with elegant modern cooking and artisanal drinks.
There are zero pretensions, no tablecloths, and no fancy wine descriptions. The wine list is a grab-bag of joyful and mostly inexpensive natural wines from all over Europe. By-the-glass selections are generally easy-going. Binnenvisser is not specifically for wine geeks, but for anyone who wants a quality glass and a good vibe. Old-school hip-hop and funk provide the atmosphere, and the cooking is largely plant-based, but with meat and fish options for those who like their protein.
The Binnenvisser team has also opened a second location, Corner Store, in trendy Amsterdam Noord.
This temple to great wine, food, and coffee has been at the top of its game ever since its opening in 2017. Daniel Schein, originally from Sweden, is both owner and wine-geek-in-chief. The minimalistic but somehow cozy restaurant is dominated by a wall of wine — the glass-fronted cellar, which showcases a fanatically sourced, varied selection of mainly European wines. Natural wine fans are well looked after, but Schein is not slavish to this or any other religion. Quality and authenticity are the watchwords.
The by-the-glass selection changes often, and is usually supplemented by a Coravin by-the-glass list, allowing some finer wines to be available too.
The food concept has changed and evolved. The current incarnation is a seven-course tasting menu cooked by Vietnamese Belgian chef Túbo Logier. It’s refined but not overcomplicated.
Opening at the beginning of a pandemic was never going to be easy, but this high-class modern Peruvian restaurant has not just survived but prospered. Sommelier Antonello Nicastri offers what must be one of the most adventurous wine pairings in the entire Netherlands. Ever tried a Dutch Frühburgunder with your ceviche? Or how about a glass of Assyrtiko with a divine dish of grilled mullet?
It’s possible to have a huge amount of fun just by sticking with the by-the-glass list, but the bottle selection is also wide and varied. There are plenty of classics, including exciting grower Champagnes and a clutch of well-chosen Burgundies and Bordeaux. But when there’s also rosé sparkling from Croatia, Criolla reds from South America, and a delicious Furmint from Austria, it’s worth being a bit more adventurous.
This is not a cheap place to eat, but considering the exceptional standard of the cuisine, service, and the wines, it is worth the money.