3. Natural wine.
Each of these has a tendency to uncover deep-seated opinions and result in a heated debate. My usual instinct is to move the conversation into a different direction or defuse the situation before things go out of control.
But another Real Wine Fair is here and I am feeling a little bit brace. The UK wine world has come a long way in the past few years and now boasts two fairs that focus entirely on real wine: the Real Wine Fair and RAW. This can only be great news.
The problem is, I’m not actually sure what ‘real’ wine is. Nevertheless, I am fairly certain I know what it is not.
Anything poured from a bottle that you would normally find on the bottom shelf of the Asda wine aisle at an overpriced London cocktail bar is probably not real wine.
There are occasions when you should risk it and order the Australian shiraz and there are times when you should play it safe have a martini or a beer instead. At least you know what you are going to get.
With the wine, you know you are always going to lose. Whether it is the pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, shiraz or merlot, you can be certain that the only thing that they have in common with real wine is the fact they were made with fermenting grapes. Apart from that, they are watery, limpid and devoid of enjoyable flavours.
This was the case with my Australian shiraz the other week, a £7.50 glassful of grape juice that tasted as though it had been laced with rubbing alcohol and Varsol. Standard fare for a City of London cocktail bar where people go to see and to be seen, not to appreciate the fluid they’re pouring into their gullets.
I could have used some real wine that evening.
Not long ago the thought of ordering ‘real’ or ‘natural’ wine brought with it worries of oxidised, faulty bottles that were interesting for their curiosity value but not actually enjoyable to drink. Occasionally a local merchant would carry a bottle or two as an experiment, but they didn’t really gain much traction.
A particularly awful natural wine that I drank in a (now deceased) shop in East Dulwich has haunted my thoughts for the past two years. Could these natural wines achieve redemption? It seems so.
In recent months I have noticed a growing collection of natural and organic wines at my local shop, Highbury Vintners.
Whether they are organic, biodynamic, low sulphur or full-on ‘natural’ wines, the increased focus on producing good wines with minimal intervention and sustainable farming practices is reassuring.
Thing is, I don’t actually know where we draw the line between normal wine – that is the wines that don’t purport to be organic, biodynamic or natural – and those that are specifically marketed as being organic, biodynamic or entirely natural. I understand a great deal about them all, but I have seen far too many debates – too many arguments – to be under any illusion that I could describe them in intimate detail.
This is where I lose sight of what makes real wine different from every other wine. Is a wine not real if the grower has to spray once during the year out of necessity? Is a wine not real if they don’t use indigenous yeasts? At what point is a wine real and not real?
I appreciate that this is a serious debate for many people; wine made in large volumes for the purpose of being sold in the mass market is almost never a pleasant thing. The line I hear most often is that real wine is made with the least intervention possible.
When The Winemaker cultivated his grapes each year through blood, sweat and tears, then turned them into a wine that earned him a living. That was real wine. His vines weren’t sprayed excessively with chemicals. But he sprayed what was necessary when the conditions required.
When I was speaking to the owner of Highbury Vintners, I was astounded to hear that their selection of natural wines was the small group of good ones out of a larger group that contained many unacceptable wines. When we think of stepping into a wine shop to buy wines, we think we are going through a selection process all our own, but in reality the shop owner (if it is a good shop) has already done this for us.
On that note, here are a few real wines I have been enjoying lately:
This is a favourite wine of mine, made of a blend of carignan, cinsault and grenache. It is rich, has plenty of fruit and is reminiscent of the region. Not cheap at £19.50, but worth it.
Another wine from Faugeres, this is fairly funky but again brings with it lots of satisfaction. Think South of France influence, garrigue, a rich palate and plenty of fruit.
This is a producer that uses natural yeasts, keeps their sulphur levels as low as they can away with and avoids pesticides. This is rich and full of dark fruits with a tannic edge and an enjoyable earthiness. Despite its warm climate origins, this is surprisingly fresh.