When is wine real and when is wine not real?

ID-100146926When it comes to discussion topics, there are three subjects I try to avoid:

1. Religion

2. Politics

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:

Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres 2010

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.

Clos Fantine Faugeres Tradition 2011 

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.

Chateau la Villatade NoMa Minervois 2011

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.





Not going out: A lament for London wine bars


A quick thought today about wine bars in London.

Out of the blue on Saturday night, a friend’s text message interrupted my slumber: “Okay, Gordon’s Wine Bar is officially crap,” he said.

Uh oh. Surely he has it all wrong, I thought?

Until recently, I would have defended Gordon’s Wine Bar and given harsh words to anyone who described it in such vulgar terms as “crap”. Surely such language should be reserved for that will that comes out of the barrels at a Toby Carvery rather than the cellars of a bar staffed by people who have at least a vague understanding of how proper wine ought to taste.

My instinct was to tell this friend he was wrong. That he needed to lighten up. That he needed to embrace this London institution for its charms, its foibles and, ultimately, its fun side. It’s rough and ready. Dark and romantic. Cozy and comfortable. Surely?

Perched on the edges of the Victoria Embankment between Charing Cross and Embankment stations, the sheer volume of people walking past means it absorbs customers as quickly as their bloodstreams absorb Rioja.

Mention you’re going to Gordon’s and people’s eyes will perk up with fond memories of previous bouts of debauchery in its vaults  and unspoken desires to be going there with you that moment.

But for some time now I’ve felt Gordon’s has a couple of serious problems. It’s always heaving. And the wine isn’t actually all that great.

A busy bar is good for the bartender but murder for the drinker. In Gordon’s case, its location and a lack of other visible options means everyone on a date or having after-work drinks falls in there naively thinking they can cozy up in a corner and sit out the evening.

Instead they contort against a wall or sit shivering over the sangiovese on a brick wall outside.

Just as a glass of warm wine sends my blood boiling, little is less enjoyable than drinking wine that matches London’s frigid spring breeze.

Then there is the wine list. Good on them for offering a list with a wide rang of modestly priced wines. But just look at that list. Go on the website and download the PDF. What is that lurking on its pages but off-licence wine in the name of Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon? £17 for a forgettable bottle that goes for less than £8 in your local offie.

Or how about El Coto White Rioja? Yet another £8-or-less bottle, but selling for £21.

We want a bargain, but it isn’t a bargain if we’re being given run-of-the-mill bargain-basement wines for more than twice their value.

Where else do we go? There is Vinoteca, of course, but beware it gets busy too. But at least their wines command the prices they charge.

If you’re after an Italian wine bar there is Negozio Classica with outlets in Notting Hill and Primose Hill. Rather than rough and ready it’s slick and modern. But the wine is good. The food as well. But really, it is a place you go only when you find yourself either in Notting Hill or Primrose Hill. Or if you live there. But if you’ve spilled out of work or are trying to get to know your date a bit better, they might not be within reach.

Whenever I ask friends to name the best wine bar in London, I am given a flurry of options. You can look on Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages for her listing of wine bars, or you can check out a similar list of UK wine bars compiled by Matt Walls on Tim Atkin’s website.

More recently I’ve been impressed by the simple coffee shop-cum-wine bar known as Notes on St Martin’s Lane. The fact I lost track of what we drank and how much is testament to how much I enjoyed it. If my memory were complete, it would mean I stopped things short and cut my losses.

But the bar everyone seems to rate is Cork & Bottle on Leicester Square. I’ve heard more praise than put-downs. It couldn’t frustrate me more than Gordon’s, could it?