So, London is sitting back and relaxing (baking in a heatwave no less), after possibly one of the busiest weeks in the annual wine calendar – ever. We had two “natural” wine fairs running back to back, and merging seamlessly into the four day London International Wine Fair (which I didn’t attend). I’ve been trying to reflect on my personal position vis-a-vis “natural wines”, and how that may have changed after two such major expositions of this developing movement.
First, the terminology. OK, I know as much as anyone that “natural wine” is a clumsy term, but I fear we’re stuck with it. I’d like to talk about “low intervention” or “minimal intervention” winemaking, but it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. And whilst I commend Isabel Legeron and Doug Wregg for coming up with two more potential descriptors, I suspect that neither will catch on amongst consumers.
Second, the wine fairs: In truth, I hugely enjoyed both the Real Wine Fair and the Raw wine fair. Both had over 200 producers exhibiting, and both had their share of the natural wine movement’s heavy hitters – The Lapierres at Real, and Nicolas Joly at Raw, for example. To some extent, it was possible to select one fair or the other if you wanted to catch up with specific producers or distributors - although some found clever ways of manifesting themselves at both events. I slightly preferred the layout at Real – split between several rooms, it felt more manageable. Raw was monolithic, in one long space, although still managing to seem friendly and informal.
I have to commend Isabelle Legeron’s Raw fair for providing an admirably clear and transparent “charter” for all wines producers who were included in the fair. The natural wine movement could do with more of this transparency. The charter is reproduced on their website here. Raw actually went further, and listed, for every single wine exhibited at the fair, the total amount of sulphur dioxide (Sulphites) and the organic or biodynamic status of the vineyard – whether certified or not, and for how many years. This is precious information, that finally allows interested parties (such as myself) to make accurate comparisons, rather than relying on what PR agencies, distributors or even the producers themselves will try to get away with (not) telling you. And of course, this information is virtually NEVER on the bottle.
Third, my conclusions (for the moment) about the “natural wine” movement. I am increasingly aware that the perspective on this is radically different depending on whether you are a wine writer/blogger/consumer or a producer – or at least someone at the sharp end of winemaking. It’s all too easy for journalists, writers and bloggers to take a radical position, eschewing wines not made with indigenous yeasts, low sulphur or whatever. But picture yourself as the winemaker, contemplating whether to sacrifice your 10,000 bottles of Chateau de natrelle to a nasty bout of Volatile Acidity (acetic acid produced as an unwelcome by-product of fermentation) - or instead, to forsake respect from the hardline “naturalistas” and add a dose of SO2. Well established, big name winemakers can afford to lose half a vintage, but for smaller producers or those who have yet to hit the bigtime, it’s a dog-eat-dog business – and if adding a minimal amount of sulphur at bottling, or using a neutral cultured yeast for fermentation ensures that the wine makes it onto the shelves, it’s hard to argue against such pragmatic choices.
Let’s be clear – I powerfully believe winemakers should try their utmost to make high quality wines which express something about the “terroir” and have “sense of place”, with the minimum intervention necessary. And as a consumer, I’d like to be reassured that these wines contain as little as possible (preferably nothing) apart from grape juice. There is nothing more depressing than the mass-produced, chemical soups formulated to a price point (and that price point is still only just above £5 in the UK), for sale in a supermarket near you. But it is possible to become too ardent, to swing too far the other way, and to forget that good winemaking is about making the right choices – for the vintage, the grape variety, and to ensure the intended end result. There were times at the two natural wine fairs, where I felt I was tasting wines that were trying to jump on the bandwagon, at the risk of actually being drinkable or interesting. Who needs another “orange” wine (a white wine made with extended skin contact), if it is merely thin, cloudy and cidery. The interest with this style is when the winemaker achieves something complex and exciting – not merely because it ticks the “natural” box.
On that note – the wines. Here are some of my personal highlights (and there were many), from the tiny proportion I managed to sample:
Tasted at Real (20/05/12)
Domaine Charly Thévenet 2010 Regnie “Grain et Granit” (Morgon, France)
A deliciously soft, fresh red fruit bouquet, yet with serious intent, and a dry finish. Charly is the son of Jean-Paul Thévenet, one of the original “gang on five” natural wine makers from Beaujolais.
GRACE di Edvard Svetlik Vipava 2009 Ribolla Gialla (Slovenia)
A skin-contact white wine from Slovenia, with a rich body, and flavours of toffee apple and burnt plum. Complex and long.
Alaverdi Monsastery 2011 Rkatsiteli (Kakheti, Georgia)
I tasted a large number of Georgian red and white wines at Real, all vinified in Qvevris (the large clay amphoraes that are a key part of the Georgian wine tradition). Some were fantastically unapproachable, extraordinarally tannic and hard to get to grips with. The wines from Alaverdi Monastery were more delicate, none more so than this skin-fermented white, which had the most wonderful aromas of jasmine tea, and peach/apricot blossom.
Tasted at Raw (21/05/12)
Domaine Barmès Buecher 2008 Gewurztraminer (Steingrubler Grand Cru)
An extraordinarily elegant, mineral gewurz, with a delicate rose petal perforume, but none of the overbearing oiliness, excess sugar or “heat” that can be problematic for this style. I have to say, all the wines from this biodynamically certified, yet relatively unknown estate impressed me mightily. I sincerely hope they find a UK distributor off the back of the fair.
Chateau Tour Grise 2011 Ze Bulle Zero Pointe Blanc
A petillant (lightly sparkling) arrested fermentation Chenin Blanc from Saumur, and a more joyful wine I don’t think I have ever tasted – an explosion of crisp granny smith apples, semi-sweet but fresh and light. I could imagine drinking this on a sunny summer afternoon. Or for breakfast – this wine does for Chenin what Asti does for Moscato. Just wonderful – and organically produced, with next to no added sulphur, to boot. This domaine has many other excellent wines (including a fascinating vintage cremant from 2001), but nothing quite as cheeky as the “Zero Pointe” range.
Batič Zaria 2007
I really enjoyed discovering several of the Slovenian producers at both Raw and Real, but Miha & Ivan Batič were the pick of the bunch. I’m delighted that their wines will shortly be imported to the UK by Pacta Connect (their first non-Istrian producer, I believe). This is a rich, complex white wine, made with some skin-contact to give it a deep pink-tinged yellow colour, and lovely fresh apricot and plum flavours. I also greatly enjoyed the Bordeaux blend “Angel” 2007, a characterful, herbaceous wine.