By Maggie Rosen
Published: June 17 2011 15:43
The increasingly giddy interest in natural wine has tracked the quest in food circles for authenticity, quality and quirk. For wine, this means a drink that is made from the grape, the whole grape and nothing but the grape.
Many in the wine world find this threatening, as it highlights all that is not natural about most wine.
Producers of even top labels use chemicals of all types in their vineyards, along with cultivated yeasts, powdered tannins and countless ingredients and manipulations to achieve desired flavour, colour and mouthfeel. The additive that gets the most attention is sulphur dioxide (SO2) – that is, sulphites used to control fermentation and prevent oxidation – to which many drinkers believe they are allergic.
In short, it takes a great deal of intervention to make a “perfect” wine, bottle after million bottle.
“In my opinion, all wine is not natural – but we sell this dream to consumers that it is,” says Isabelle Legeron, a wine consultant and educator who focuses on natural wine. “We show them gorgeous stories, rows of green vines – but we don’t ever question how that drink is made. There is no ingredient labelling, and you don’t know what goes into your wine.”
Eschewing the safety net of chemistry and corrective techniques means focusing on achieving a balance in the vineyard, being extremely vigilant over what is happening to vines throughout the growing season, and accepting that nature is not only boss, but knows best – even in the cellar.
Natural winemakers use wild yeasts, for example, which are capricious, whereas manufactured yeasts are bred to be dependable.
This kind of farming is not for everyone, and difficult to do on a large scale. But many find the results a refreshing change from the sea of mediocre corporate wine – like the unexpected jolie-laide who steals the scene from the conventionally beautiful film star.
Doug Wregg, sales and marketing director of Les Caves de Pyrène – one of the UK’s main importers of natural wine – was introduced to natural wine a few years ago while in Paris.
“I had never even heard of it, didn’t even know there were natural wine bars,” he says. “But I was just blown away by it. It was speaking in a different idiom.” To the jaded palate, the wine has a purity and finesse.
“It has a welcome edginess to it,” says Katherine O’Mara, owner of three-year-old Artisan and Vine, the first wine bar and shop in London to highlight natural wine.
“I find the flavours are clearer and purer, it has a freshness and energy that are absent in most wine. The wines actually taste to me like they were once real fruit, as opposed to fruit-flavoured sweets.”
Though new to many, natural wine is, at heart, what all wine used to be. And its practitioners comprise some of the most famous – Gianfranco Soldera, Domaine Leroy, Domaine de la Romaneé Conti and Jean-Louis Chave among them. But in most cases, they have not trumpeted this aspect.
“Great producers don’t want to be lumped with mere mortals,” says David Harvey of Raeburn Fine Wines. “‘Natural’ also suggests the faulty-funky, overly laisser-faire brigade, which the finer practitioners detest. And it suggests cheap price points and drunken youth, rather than wine lovers with good disposable income.”
If the natural wine scene in New York and Paris – and more recently Tokyo and London – is an indication, these producers have little to worry about. It is their clientele that packs Artisan and Vine, Bar Battu, Brawn, Green and Blue Wines and Terroirs (all in London).
At the higher end, restaurants such as Michelin two-starred Hibiscus in London and Bell’s Diner in Bristol, have devoted a portion of their list to natural wines.
Whether there are more faults or off-notes in natural wine than in more processed wine is a subject of spirited debate. Even those who consider the sometimes stronger, forthright flavours integral to the wine’s personality maintain that standards should be just as high as with more “processed” wine.
Peter Hogarth, wine buyer for Whole Foods Market, keeps his barrier to entry high out of necessity.
“There is obviously a slight concern that not all these wines are palatable for everybody, so we have to be careful about which natural wines we stock and promote,” he says.
Hogarth and others cite the restrained use of added sulphites in natural wine as one of the main defining factors, but by no means the only one.
“There are plenty of conventional wines that undergo natural ferment without industrial yeasts and are bottled unfined and unfiltered,” he points out. “So you could end up including pretty much everything, and the term then becomes meaningless.”
Lionel Periner, sommelier at Bell’s Diner in Bristol, says the lack of an agreed definition or certification protocol – such as exists for both organic and biodynamic production – requires a leap of faith.
“Because it is up to the producers to decide what natural means, you have to trust them,” he says. “You also have to trust your own tastes.”