I looked at the bottle three times, picked it up, took a photo on my phone. Something didn’t feel quite right.
“This is simply a fabulous French no-nonsense natural wine…” screamed the label. And then further down, there it was again: “This wine is 100% natural as well as gorgeous to drink”. At €4.99 in Albert Heijn (The Dutch equivalent to Tesco), what exactly was this purported “natural wine”? I marched straight to the cashier, bottle and wallet in hand.
A few enquiries later, I discovered Slurp is a range of entry level wines sold (but not made) by maverick Dutchman Ilja Gort. Bordeaux vineyard owning Gort is the bad boy of the Dutch wine scene, revered by loyal drinkers, but loathed by much of the wine trade. Why?
Gort is a brilliant marketeer who doesn’t always let the truth get in the way of a good story. A self-made man, with a fortune earned from advertising jingles, he is clearly very shrewd. Since his 1994 purchase of a 15 hectare vineyard near St. Emilion, Gort has built a mini-wine empire which not only sells to Albert Heijn but also J Sainsbury in the UK. Pretty impressive.
Every facet of La Tulipe’s operation has a carefully crafted PR angle, down to Gort’s comedy French beret and eccentric moustachios. In 2008, Gort insured his nose with Lloyds of London, for €4 million. A fantastic publicity stunt. Then there’s the press release about why La Tulipe opts for synthetic pesticides instead of organic viticulture, or the fuss made of Slurp’s low alcohol content: “about 12%” according to the website. Well, the bottle I bought clearly states “13%”.
Enough of the marketing spin. What does the Slurp Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 taste like? Well, pretty good for €4,99. A cheap Languedoc Cabernet could commit many sins – overripe, unripe, too sweet, too rustic, but Slurp manages to be utterly inoffensive. There isn’t a lot of character – I’d defy an MW to pick out grape variety or region in a blind tasting – but the fruit is decent, and the finish has a smattering of tannin which keeps things fresh. The whole is easy to drink and excellent value at this price.
I guessed I was tasting a wine made with selected yeasts, a decent slug of SO2 and some filtering and fining to guarantee the starbright hue. La Tulipe confirmed all of these assumptions, but despite repeated requests I could not get them to give me the exact level of total SO2. They say “we aim for 20 to 25 mg / litre at bottling to be at 15 to 20 mg once bottled”. Readers with a technical background in winemaking can make up their own minds whether this is believable or not.
Slurp is clearly not a “natural wine”, at least in the sense that this phrase is now most often used. Yes, I hear you cry, there’s no legal definition of these words. And that’s exactly what Gort and his team are banking on. They can get away with putting misleading rubbish like this on the label, without any comeback – especially, the ever astute Wink Lorch reminded me, as the offending words are on what is technically the back label. The front label of a wine bottle, which contains information like alcohol level and volume, is much more tightly regulated.
Chateau La Tulipe de la Garde is the estate’s premium wine – a Bordeaux Supérieur, yours for £9.99 in the UK. I tried the 2011, which is decent if you like a ton of new oak swathing soft easy-going Merlot (don’t take my word for it – Decanter gave it a bronze medal). The consultant winemaker is a little known French chap by the name of Michel Rolland.
It’s easy to throw rocks at La Tulipe or “Monsieur” Gort, but this is missing the point – That the phrase “natural wine” can be so blatantly abused demonstrates the urgent need for legal standards in this area – something underlined by Isabelle Legeron in her interview with me earlier this year.
Decriers of “natural wine” as a term or category will be laughing up their sleeves, but consider this: a small minority of wine drinkers are genuinely intolerant to higher levels of SO2. Wouldn’t those customers have an expectation when they choose a so called “natural wine”, that they are also getting a low sulphur wine? In the UK at least, there are mainstream low and no added sulphur wines on the market (eg: Stellar Organics), and a customer base which chooses these products for health reasons. These customers would be grossly misled, and possibly even made to feel unwell if they chose a “Slurp” wine, thinking that it falls into this category.
The wine world doesn’t need more certification – organic and biodynamic already confuse consumers enough. But if wine labels were required to state the total SO2, which additives, fining and filtering agents had been used, consumers could make up their own minds about how natural the contents are - Surely preferable to having faux-French vignerons pull the beret over their eyes.
I purchased a bottle of Slurp Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 out of my own pocket, however the 2011 Chateau La Tulipe de la Garde was provided for review, along with technical data.
Thanks to Mariëlla Beukers for some background and insights on this subject.