Raw, real or just natural? (Reflections on the Raw and real wine fairs of May 2012)

A brooding look from Alaverdi Monastery

A brooding look from Alaverdi Monastery

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.

Miha Batič clutching a glass of his fine "Angel 2007"

Miha Batič clutching a glass of his fine “Angel 2007”

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)

Stunning gewurztraminer with a very traditional label

Stunning gewurztraminer with a very traditional label

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.




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    • Ruth F

      I think any dogma taken to extremes is a bad thing. All things need to be considered, especially the taste of the wine. If it is not palatable, then no one will by it. The whole conversation around natural vs non natural wines in extremely interesting. It makes everyone involved – producers, consumers and writers stop and think for a moment or two.

    • I mostly agree with you. It is quite clear to me what natural wine is or should be though. Some wines at both events had to many faults, the rest is the question of wine drinker’s taste.

      • simonjwoolf

        Actually, I think “natural wine” is quite a slippery category – hence why it was important for Isabelle/RAW to attempt to define it. When you start to look at all the variables, in terms of productions methods, it’s a minefield.

        • Agree. In my book it is as little intervention as possible and then I decide which artisan is acceptable for me, but it is true that no official limit concerning interventions and additives exists. Events like VinNatur, ViniVeri, RAW, TheRealWineFair might slowly clear this out.

      • Natural is no more a category or quality filter than ‘from the Jura’ is.

        What it is, is a filter to discover wines of a certain ilk and approach.

        @isabellelegeron:disqus has done a good job of creating some guidelines in the vineyard and the cave, and encouraged transparency so you can see how the wine was made.

        Beyond that it’s all personal taste.

        People need words as icons to think and guide their decisions around.

        For me, an artisanal approach with clarity on how the grapes were grown and what was added,  are bookends. What is in between is your own sense of quality and taste.

    • ..oh. And after reading some of your older posts, I know why Grace form Edvard Svetlik impressed you. The wine is made with help of Tilia winery. I liked it too.

      • simonjwoolf

        Ah, that’s very interesting! I think it’s quite a bit more adventurous than the Tilia whites I’ve tried. Still love their Pinot though.

    • There is very little “New” about “natural” wine. For that matter, there is little about it that is ancient. It seems to me that the champions of this movement are copying what artisans have been doing around the world for 30 years, repackaging it, dismissing or not acknowledging the great winemakers that new all this before they even considered it, and calling it something new.

      It’s very poor form.

      • simonjwoolf

        Hi Tom, thanks for your comment.

        I re-read my blog post but cannot find anywhere where I referred to the natural wine movment as “new”. Was your comment in direct response to something I wrote, or just a general point? I’m guessing the latter.

        In any case, I would take issue. It’s not at all unusual for methods of production or styles to move in a certain direction for some considerable time, before eventually crystallising into a “movement”. My take on this would be that artisanal winemakers the world over, who may have felt hemmed in by the more hidebound definitions of “organic” or “biodynamic”, are now converging on the term “natural” as a way to speak to consumers and to categorise where their product fits in the market. Or, to be more accurate, it is wine merchants, journalists and drinkers who are converging on that term – many so called “natural” wine producers actually reject the attempt to be pigeonholed in this way.
        This is not to say that there’s anything new about it (you’re quite right on that point). But, what is wrong with coming up with a convenient term that allows us to describe where a winemaker fits into the grand scheme of things. “Natural wine” achieves this (albeit imperfectly), and differentiates their output from bulk producers. Yes, we could instead talk about artisanal wine, or use many other terms. It’s ultimately just a question of what resonates with the customer.You imply that the natural wine movement excludes those who have been making wine in this way for decades. Again, I think that is wrong. The Real and Raw wine fairs included a huge range of producers, including those such as Nicolas Joly, whose pedigree certainly predates the emergence of a natural wine “movement”. From my own point of view, I would just as readily see Domaine de La Romanee-Conti or Pontet Canet as “natural wines”  in that they are part of a trend which prioritises “terroir” and minimal intervention, over the desire to mould or confect a wine to a specific market need.

        •  Simon….It’s a general observation in response to so much being written about “natural” wine being something new and innovative, which of course it is not.

          I’ve written about this before. The term “natural wine” is fraudulent in every respect. That’s bad. But what’s worse is that those who use the term know it’s fraudulent yet still use it. That’s immoral.

          The champions do not use the term to describe a category of wines. If they did that then they’d use another term that is more accurate. They use the term “Natural” because they know that in today’s marketing environment it is bit net positive with consumers. They further understand that using the term gives them the qualitative high ground given the associations with the term natural that consumers bestow on it. Finally, based on the overwhelming number of statements from “natural” wine’s champions that wines other than “natural” are suspect in terms of their quality, their effect on the body and their ingredients, we can see that the term is being used as a way to denigrate all but their own wines. None of this is deniable.

          • simonjwoolf

            I’m sorry but I’m going to have to take you to task here. Nowhere on my blog have I ever said that “natural” wine is, of itself, new or innovative. So I’m unclear why you’ve decided to comment on that basis. Did you actually read my post, or was the word “natural” sufficient for you to make assumptions on what the content might be?

            The rather extreme terms you use (“fraudulent”, “immoral”) suggest a less than objective assessment of this trend in the wine world. You clearly have an axe to grind. This is a shame as it makes any useful discussion rather difficult, to say the least.
            If you did read my blog post (which I doubt), you would have noted that I have a healthy degree of scepticism, whilst (like Arnold) being very appreciative of many of the wines which are co-opted into the movement.

            •  Simon, as I noted, mine was a general comment about “natural” wine, not a response to your specific comments about your specific skepticism, which is healthy.

              That said, I believe that deliberate misrepresentations can be categorized as “immoral”, if not fraud. Sure that conclusion isn’t at issue. The question is whether the champions of natural wine know what they are championing is not “natural” and still use the term. I think it must be clear that they do know this. They are smart people, if a bit immoral.

              The “axe” I have to grind derives from working in the wine businesses for 20+ years and now, for the first time, seeing winemakers of great value being denigrated via marketing by the “natural” wine champions. Such a thing has never happened before to my knowledge.

              As far as the quality these wines is concerned, I’m not interested in that debate as it is a perennial debate. Quality is in the eye of the beholder and for the record I’ve had some wonderful “natural” wines.

      • I disagree Tom.

        The value of the term ‘natural’ is neither dogma nor a pretense of old or new. It is a way to understand what you are buying. A filter.

        I love wine with a passsion. I also happen to be very interested in organic materials and non intervention as a method. Not exclusively or religiously. I just prefer the approach and the results on the palate.

        I came back from RAW with a dozen amazing new wine makers to explore further and to encourage the shops in NY to carry. Some were brand new winemakers, some icons that I had simply not heard of.

        Some cared about being natural. Some eschewed the term.

        But as a consumer with intent and as a blogger, I would never have gone to RAW without this idea of natural, nor would I have discovered these remarkable wine makers.

        To me that is all goodness.

        You might want to read my post on the shows where I’ve gone into why this filter of wine is a value for the marketplace.


        •  Hi Arnold. I read your excellent post.

          The “value” of the term natural is indeed as a filter. However, it’s a filter that is altogether fraudulent as there is very little about the excellent wines you tasted that is “natural”. However, there’s no denying the marketing benefit of the word. Further, I urge you to read how the champions of “natural” talk not only about their own wines, but about the rest of the wine world. There is an undeniable and distinct character to their commentary that places them in some sort of vanguard movement that is eschewing the rest of the industry that is mired in manipulation. The fact is, every “technique” they are employing in pursuit of their product has been practiced and largely perfected by artisan winemakers the world over who don’t characterize their wines in fraudulent ways.

          • Thanks for spending the time to hear my point of view.

            My world of wine is split…between the excellent producers who are mostly in Europe and the marketplace of the artisanal shops, wine bars and restaurants of NYC where I live.

            I vote with my dollars (where I buy) and my time (where I read and comment). 

            And for the buying part I am very fortunate to have a large retail world with a community of people who just love wine. And I guess in NYC, generally, we spend time supporting what matters to us rather than decrying what we don’t like. It’s a complex place and that is how we get stuff done.

            I hope you will share your opinions on my blog as well as you wish.

            BTW..Simon’s blog is one of my favorites so I’ll see you here again I’m sure. 

    • Hank

      “Natural” in the wine world is kind of like “alternative” in the music world. It serves to aid the consumer by offering a vague guide as to its contents. The one thing you know for sure is that it’s not going to please everyone.

      • simonjwoolf

        I actually think that’s a great comparison – and just as “alternative” can become rather meaningless if its overused, or be distorted to fit music which is often quite mainstream, so “natural” is subject to the same issues. But despite these problems, it is still useful. I like awaldstein ‘s idea of it being a “filter”. Filters are not perfect, but it is a useful way to triage a large selection of wines down to a few which may hopefully be more interesting and engaging.

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