Back in May 2011, London’s Borough Market railway arches played host to a much talked event known as The Natural Wine Fair. The brainchild of five specialist wine importers and French MW Isabelle Legeron, its roster of around 120 producers of ‘natural wine’ was unique in the UK, and would have been hard to equal anywhere else. From 2012, Legeron created her own independent event, renamed to the now familiar Raw Fair.
Eight years later, the landscape has changed beyond recognition. As many wine growers will confirm with frustration, the issue now is trying to figure out which natural wine fairs to skip – there are so many. Not only have underground get-togethers such as La Dive grown massively in stature, new events have sprung up like mushrooms across Europe – Salon des Vins S.A.I.N.S in France, Vinnessum and Border Wine in Italy, ViNoSo and Soif in Amsterdam, Karakterre in Vienna, not to mention Raw itself expanding to Berlin, New York, L.A. and Montreal.
The original Raw Fair London now has to compete with hundreds of other events worldwide. As I headed over to attend the eighth edition, the thought bubble above my head might have read: “Can it still cut the moutarde?”
Austrians AWOL, Georgians aplenty
Raw Fair London is still comfortably one of Europe’s largest natural wine fairs. 2019’s edition comprised 162 exhibitors (10 more than 2018) from 15 countries. There’s always quite a bit of churn, with some growers dropping out and new ones replacing them. Austrian producers seem to have fallen out of love with Raw – there were just three this year, albeit including two giants of the scene: Gut Oggau and Meinklang. Some of their colleagues had defected to a competing event organised by Austrian specialist Newcomer wines, together with The Winemakers Club.
An impressive row of 11 Georgians included many new faces. Giorgi Natenadze was back with new vintages of his utterly unique wild grapes, as were Chateau Khismi and Nikalas Marani (Zura Mgvdliasvhili). Anapea Village, a Kakhetian family producer with new vineyards planted in 2013, impressed with a spectacular Khikhvi (great to see that this rare but very high quality variety is now getting more love and being replanted) and a barely less wonderful Mstvane 2017. Two Saperavis were also excellent, and only their Kisi seemed a tad unstable. These wines, their first bottled vintage no less, really show that with traditional qvevri wines, fruit quality is everything. They have a bright future if they can achieve wines of this stature in the years to come.
Georgia is still a pretty patriarchal culture, so it was great to meet two female winemakers this year. Baia’s Wine is the project of Baia Abuladze, who is based in Imereti, and learnt her craft from her grandfather. Her sister Gvantsa showed the wines, which were typically delicate and restrained in comparison to Kakheti’s more full-on skin-contact style. A 2018 Tsitska-Tsolikouri blend (qvevri sample, not yet bottled) was particularly impressive, with concentrated fruit, spicy tannins and a silky texture. Gvantsa, herself studying agronomy, has also made a red wine from the rare Otskhanuri Sapere variety. It’s a little raw at this stage, but should be an interesting one to follow once bottled.
Anastasia Akhvlediani is another young winemaker, responsible for an excellent line of qvevri wines (together with co-winemaker Irakli Gamrekeli) at the Artana Wines estate (co-owned by both families), in Kakheti. Her stand was confusingly labelled “Ai Gvino”, which is the legal trading name of the winery, but not the brand that appears on the bottles. Two vintages of her Rkatsiteli were both charming and typical, the 2015 a particular surprise with great, grippy tannins but a feather-light 10.5% ABV. Akhvlediani doesn’t just follow the same formula each year. Her 2015 had six months of skin contact in qvevri, but the riper 2016 needed only two months with skins to achieve the desired effect.
Oranges across Europe and beyond
Also new at the fair were Domaine Tatsis, based in the Goumenissa region in Northern Greece (just next door to Naoussa). I didn’t fall in love with Stergios’ overly evolved red wines, but his three oranges were individual and delicious. Roditis 2015, with 30 days of skin contact, took on honeyed, herbal notes and had great structure. Its twin “Resin Flavour Roditis” adds some pine resin (a la Retsina) to excellent effect, the subtle pine-needle aroma adding more lift to the nose. The hands-down favourite at Morning Claret towers was however the Malagouzia 2016 (also 30 days on the skins), with the variety’s distinctive aromatics and voluptuous peachy fruit, and a really electric freshness.
Ancre Hill‘s distinctively labelled Orange Wine (a homage to a very famous Stanley Kubrick film) has popped up in a few Instagram feeds, I finally got to try it in the flesh together with its maker David Morris. The 2017 is mostly Albarino, with a smidge of 2016’s Chardonnay fleshing out the blend. It’s delicious, full of fresh orchard fruits with a herby, chamomile-tinged nose. If Wales can grow Albarino this good, why aren’t more people trying it? As David reminded me, the climate is not so different to the variety’s homelands in Galicia. If anything it’s less wet!
Heading to Oregon, Hiyu Wine Farm have their biodynamically farmed vineyards at the beginning of the Columbia river gorge which rises to over 1000m high. Their Falcon Box 2016 white (field blend) had astounding freshness and the kind of pure fruit definition that I expect from places like Alto Adige. It was, in a word, stunning. No less impressive was the very quietly spoken proprietor’s beard! Sadly I didn’t get his name.
Talking of Alto Adige, two new (to me) growers put a smile on my face. Thomas Niedermayr and his father’s work with disease-resistant hybrids (PIWI-Sorten, as German-speakers say) is quite fascinating, and the wines are far more than mere curiosities. So much so that they demand their own article, coming soon to orange weekly.
Grawü is a made-up name for the wines of German Dominic Würth and his Italian partner Leila Grasseli. Inspired initially by drinking a bottle of Puzelat’s Clos de Tue Boeuf, Würth made his first vintage in 2013. All wines are made from white varieties, with a few days of maceration. As with Hiyu, they have a distinctive alpine purity – it’s as if someone just focused everything much more sharply. Pick of the bunch was definitely the Grawü 2015 blend (Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Grigio) with three weeks skin contact. Exotic, enticing wafts of passion fruit and guava are beautifully balanced by the grippy structure and it continues to a long, luxuriant finish. Quite possibly wine of the fair.
Finally, the tiny Agricola Marino (1.5ha), from south-east Sicily (south of Vittoria) impressed with a wonderfully ripe yet tangy Catarratto 2018. Three days of skin contact give it some textural interest and stop it becoming heavy in any way. In fact the concentration and intensity give no clue that the business end of this wine packs a mere 12.5% ABV. This is the second vintage, definitely a project worth following – the red blend of Nero d’Avola and Pignetolo (?) is also great fun.
Still rocking in the (SO2) free world
Raw fair London was chock full of interesting, little-known producers, many exhibiting for the first time. The amount of new talent on show makes this fair a playground for natural fans, wine importers, retailers and somms. That said, there is still plenty of negative reaction to Raw’s controversial new policy (as of 2018) to charge wine trade professionals £15 a day for entry. Some of the disquiet centres around the detail that journalists and press are still admitted for free.
My opinion? Wine professionals who find it hard to justify spending the price of three pints (two if they’re craft!) on an event with 160 growers and close to 1,000 wines to sample must either have dire cashflow or a strange set of priorities. And what if Raw decides to charge journalists in the future? I will gladly pay this token sum, just as I do at La Dive, Les Pénitentes or Salon Greniers Saint Jean.
Raw still pushes all my buttons in the best possible way, holding its head high amongst the multitude of natural wine meetups that now take place in every corner of the globe, during every month of the year. If there was a thought bubble above me as I left the fair, it would simply say “Two days very well spent”.