Recently, featured within some wine blogs and columns, there have been many scribblings, much thought-provoking comments and even some hot air about the very hot topic of ‘natural wines’. Surely all wines are natural I hear you respond in astonishment? Well, my friends and fellow wine lovers, some of this fabulous fermented grape juice we adore so much apparently is not. Some wines available in the marketplace could even be described as being a glass full of chemicals. So what is all the fuss about? Why has this wine style, which apparently is ‘natural’ and has been made in this fashion for many years, suddenly received all this attention from wine experts and so-called wine experts. Are people just jumping on the bandwagon like they did with biodynamics and so on, yet without honestly and truthfully understanding the very nature of the subject? In addition, natural wines are being featured more prominently on wine lists. Some of which even have codes and symbols which denote the wine style. Does this make things easier or just add to the confusion? There is also an emerging culture of wine bars, especially within London, which are at the vanguard of the natural wine movement. For instance, we have Terroirs, Brawn and Bar Battu, to name just three. Incidentally, in my opinion, the latter has received one or two unfair and rather scathing write ups saying that it’s just a ‘rip-off’ of the former. I must admit I’m a big fan of all three places and would much rather go to them instead of a boring, homogenous and formulaic ‘wine bar’ any day.
Moreover, it is not by mere co-incidence that the wines, which feature heavily on their selections are sourced by the team at Les Caves de Pyrene. I’ve known Eric Narioo and Doug Wregg for many years and I think it’s wonderful that their “keep it simple” and “back to basics” approach, more or less like their wines, has now come around full circle. Like them or not, and let’s admit some of these wines are very extreme and quirky, ‘funky’ even, and not everyone’s cup of tea, yet you have to agree they have personality. Everyone has their own opinion and taste though. Natural wines do tend to polarise people. Most importantly, however, for most people, the bottom line is: good wine is good and bad wine is bad, irrespective of from where it comes and how it is made.
At the end of the day, (sorry for trying to sound like a French sommelier trying to sound like a French footballer), natural wines are the Marmite of the wine world. In other words, you either like them or you don’t – n.b readers from Antipodean countries please replace Marmite with Vegemite.
The other day, I had the pleasure of attending a masterclass and tasting of natural wines. The host was Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene (our champion), the venue was the excellent London wine merchant Vagabond Wines and the assembled attendees were some stellar names of the wine industry. Around the table we had Jancis Robinson MW, Tim Atkin MW, Gerard Basset MW and around 8 Master Sommeliers. I captured some good footage on my camera and will be posting an @rovingsommelier video blog via my You Tube channel on here shortly. Rest assured my friends it started to get very interesting and Doug was put through his paces.
We tasted through the range of white and red wines and a few of my suggestions are for you below. However, during the discussion a couple of interesting points were made. Here is a summary.
Doug Wregg: ”Natural wine challenges orthodoxy or ortho-dozy, as I sometimes call it. The movement combines, on the one hand, the forensic standards of Jules Chauvet, and, on the other, a jazz-punk irreverent sensibility and a nose-thumbing attitude to bureaucratic authority. Not for nothing are the ferments called wild yeast! The sense of freedom and lack of control is liberating in a world that insists on conformity. It is easy to understand why people are attracted to the bohemian mixture of seriousness-and-faux-seriousness. The growers possess passion and energy; they put their life into the wine and a crazy two-fingers-to-you label on the bottle.”
“Natural wine is akin to a new artistic movement, a pot of paint thrown in the face of those who believe in precious hierarchies. If the conventional hierarchy purports to be reason, then natural wine is a critique of reason. Think of it as a youthful reaction to being told what to do and how to think. When I studied English literature at school we were inculcated to believe in the great English tradition, an inevitable lineage of writers whose work could be aesthetically linked down the generations. Such certainties! The world turns and opinions change. I soon discovered textual analysis, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism and various other critical approaches and my views on art and literature began to change; I began to question what was considered right or reasonable.”
Gearoid Devaney MS: “Nowadays, some of the younger sommeliers have only been exposed to natural wines and are very enthusiastic and passionate about them, which is not a bad thing, but have not tasted the sheer volume of wine or anything else to which this could be compared.”
I completely agree with Gearoid, as like him, I have been a top-flight sommelier within London for many years, have great experience and have tasted many wines. However, I’m quite concerned by this ‘blinkered’ and naive approach by some of the younger sommeliers, who are fervently passionate about natural wines, yet know little else. For instance, it’s as if you have been raised on organic produce all your life and of course you should be able to tell the difference between that and something more ‘industrial’, yet you will also be surprised by this almost ’evangelical’ ignorance. Essentially, because they haven’t tasted many ‘regular’ wines, or cut their teeth like we did on such a variety and breadth, they believe that natural wines are of superior quality and better and ‘normal’ wines are bad and sub-standard. Moreover, we are all still learning, yet this confusion and spin exists and that’s just still within the wine trade.
Gerard Basset MW MS raised an interesting point: “Natural wines are now becoming more ‘mainstream’ and being listed in top restaurants, such as Noma in Copenhagen.”
I interjected, when he implied that these ‘famous’ and high-profile restaurants probably started to list these wine styles because they could be regarded as trendy, by the very nature of their high profile and worldwide acclaim. You see this is the situation we have here. When all these restaurants, such as El Bulli and Noma and so on start listing and/or making biodynamic or natural wines more prominent, it’s normally because of the marketing boffins, sponsors, PR and advertising people who have jumped on this bandwagon. Normally, it’s a fact that every winery, winemaker and anyone involved with a wine wishes to see his or her product represented on such high profile lists, because they have pride in what they do, yet most of the time it is done in such a way without any coherence or relevance and they just end up as being ‘trophy wines’. There is a certain degree of tokenism involved too. For example, a sommelier presiding over a huge wine cellar and list (normally of telephone directory dimensions) containing all the wines you would expect to find in such a restaurant may decide to present or highlight a small selection of natural or biodynamic wines on just one page. However, I really feel that natural wines should not be tarred with the same brush. Again, I passionately believe that these good, well-made wines are given more prominence because they do have a personality and deserve more exposure. In addition, Noma is a great example of a restaurant, which has embraced natural wines, for the right reasons, because the whole concept is a very integral part of their fabric and ethos. Unfortunately, it’s the marketeers and spin-doctors who blur our visions.
In addition, Claude Bosi’s restaurant “Hibiscus“ received some attention in the press recently because they have decided to completely re-vamp the wine list and focus on natural wines. Wine consultant, Isabelle Legeron MW, who has a great experience and expertise in this field has sensitively put together an interesting selection of wines, which all combine well with the cuisine and style of the restaurant. Over the years, chefs and their food, intricate and elaborate (or not) have gained ‘stellar’, sometimes over-hyped reputations, yet most of the time their wine lists lack personality and are boring. All the emphasis has been on the food and how it looks, tastes, from where it comes and how it is presented. At least now, wines, natural or not, are gaining more of the centre stage and attention and the balance is being re-dressed as a result and not to the detriment of the guests’ experience, but hopefully to enhance it and with genuine synergy. To use wine terminology, for me, this is real terroir.
Remember the sommelier is the facilitator of liquid enjoyment.
With all my sincerity, here’s a few recommendations of some wines I would like to encourage you to discover and enjoy.
From the Loire Valley, try the “Montlouis Sec “Minerale +” made by Domaine Frantz Saumon for a different style of dry Chenin Blanc and the sparkling “Petillant Naturel” from Breton in Vouvray. This is a flavoursome ‘cremant’ (known eloquently as “Pets Nats”) with much more personality, yet may polarise you. If you like your Sancerre wines then I would definitely suggest the wines of Domaine Henri Bourgeois, which will tick all your boxes. However, from the same appellation you can also discover something completely different with the almost exotic Sancerre made by Sebastien Riffault. The latter was shown at Vagabond Wines and ended up as being ‘quite controversial’.
The wines produced at Domaine Arretxea in Irouleguy right down near to Biarritz really stood out for me. Normally the whites are made from Gros and Petit Manseng and they really deserve to be discovered. This one is delicious! If you’re looking for something a little bit more special and flavoursome, I would definitely recommend the wines from Domaine Matassa. Within a short space of time they have already developed a mini cult status and especially if you prefer ‘Rhone style’ wines.
The whites and reds from Domaine Ganevat in the Jura showed very well and are good alternatives to white and red Burgundies. Essentially, they are produced from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines, from relatively old vines, yet have a real depth of character and complexity. Retailling just under the £20 price point are pretty good value in comparison.
I was quite impressed with a couple of Sardinian wines. The white Vermentino di Gallura “Gemellae” produced at Cantine Sociale Gallura and the old vines Cannonau (Grenache) “Vignevecchie” Rosso made by Gianfranco Manca at Azienda Agricola Panevino.
To generalise, I find that the former wine style, (Vermentino di Gallura) has recently become fashionable and is seen much over-priced in a lot of swanky Italian restaurants and are quite disappointing. However, this one at around a tenner a bottle is great value for money and is worth a try. Moreover, it was very refreshing to taste a refreshing style of Grenache, (if you ever find one please let me know) with plenty of balance and complexity and still at 12.5% alcohol. We all know how big and powerful some Grenache wines can be. This one from Sardinia really impressed me.
More wine reviews, blog articles, food and wine matching ideas and sommelier stories will follow soon. Follow my tweets and updates on Twitter @rovingsommelier
In the meantime the epicurean odyssey continues…