Are natural wines any good?
Bottles free of pesticides, sugar and dozens of other additives are now quaffed in the best restaurants
Thursday 12 May 2011
Thousands of imbibers all over Britain have a treat coming soon – the chance to glug, possibly for the first time, some natural wine at their favourite bar, restaurant or bottle shop and wake up with a much clearer head than they might have expected.
For whatever the pros and cons hotly debated by aficionados of the grape – natural wine is a contentious topic – no one can dispute it is far cleaner than your average bottle of red, white or pink. As in no chemicals, pesticide residues, sugar or any of the 59 additives the EU alarmingly permits winemakers to add to our plonk.
Natural wine is hardly a new concept. The commodity that started life as fermented grape juice thousands of years ago is essentially a natural product that has been corrupted big time over the past 50 years by the profit motive. In the rush to improve yields, create brand consistency and seduce an ever-growing number of consumers with heady overtones of oak, vanilla and other big flavours, most of the big producers have turned to high technology to fuel a multibillion-pound industry.
"We need a rethink," says Isabelle Legeron, the Master of Wine and former Wine Woman of the Year, who is the driving force behind a move back to natural wine. She believes the new initiative, which has persuaded dozens of outlets that don't normally stock it to get some in to introduce to their customers next month, is the best way to convert wine drinkers to her own evangelical beliefs.
"To taste a glass is to get a snapshot of what wine was like before being hi-jacked by fashion and consumerism," she declares, admitting: "I wasn't always into natural wine; I spent years getting to the top of my game in the conventional world. But when I realised that the wines that sang to me, that really resonated with the soul, were wines that were alive and had not been stripped bare by speed and the bottom line, it turned my world on its head."
It's a poetic way of speaking Legeron shares with the passionate winemakers who are happy to settle for a third of the normal vineyard yield in order to work in the way nature intended. "Everything grows for a reason – it's never accidental," says Bernard Bellahsen, tenderly pulling a wild shoot in the Languedoc vineyard which, until recently, he used to plough with a horse.
He reveres the horse, now living out a charmed retirement in a paddock beside the vines, his grapes, to which he adds nothing (many natural winemakers add minimal sulphur, a naturally occurring substance in the vineyard). In the name of biodiversity he has turned some of his land over to organic wheat, which he mills and bakes into bread for market every Friday to the pure strains of monastic chants emanating from a sound system which, along with the stainless-steel tanks, are the only evidence of technology on the Fontedicto estate.
I couldn't find any poetry in the red or white of this self-taught winemaker, though many flowery adjectives came to mind as I sipped an unexpectedly complex white from Clos Fantine in the Languedoc hills. Owners Carole, Corinne and Olivier Andrieu wax lyrical themselves about the organic vines they inherited from their parents and now work in a way most conventional winemakers would consider utter madness.
"Grass and weeds are our allies, not our enemies," Corinne explains, as we clamber through the knee-high grass, which is totally absent in conventional vineyards. Here, it is folded over and ploughed back into the earth to fertilise the vines – you won't find even the organic manure some natural winemakers use; only grapeseed extract and nettle tea get added to help the fruit along.
At Fantine, vines are planted in squares, rather than the usual dense, rigid rows, and Corinne talks of "liberating" the adjacent vineyard they have just bought from a neighbour by removing the farmer's careful trellis-work "as a mark of freedom".
Taste Clos Fantine's 100 per cent Terret (a local grape) and you find everything Doug Wregg, whose Terroirs restaurant won a Best UK Wine List award last year, says are the hallmarks of natural whites: "A mineral nose, with lots of terroir, and a complexity you don't necessarily expect from white wines." Conversely, he believes natural reds are best served young and lightly chilled to reinforce their freshness.
Terroirs and its sister, Brawn, boast an all-natural list Wregg concedes won't please everybody: "These are not oaky, powerful wines, full of colour like trophy wines, but they do have more freshness and acidity. The whites are more structured, and the reds are more pleasure wines to drink young and chilled."
Yet anyone who thinks, as they do in Bordeaux, that you need to rectify, add and generally mess around with grape juice in order to create great wines that age superbly, should taste the fine vintages made by Alain Chabanon and think again.
Ten years organic, he has, like other natural winemakers, started working biodynamically, tending different parts of his vines according to when the lunar calendar says it's an auspicious day for roots, leaves or fruit.
He also treats the plants to a natural proprietary preparation which has to be stirred 60 minutes in one direction, 60 minutes in the other before spraying in a specific two-hour window in the cool of the evening: "Creating a vortex informs the water – and the water informs the vine," he says, mysteriously.
It may sound like mumbo-jumbo, but Chabanon's wonderful "Trélans" white and several of his reds have made it to Hibiscus, the two-Michelin-star restaurant that has stuck its neck out by converting 85 per cent of its list to natural wines. "It totally matches our food philosophy to have wines with a story, whose provenance you can really talk about," says the restaurant's owner, Claude Bosi. "But it's not just a talking point; these wines taste fantastic, too. Their producers are so passionate, they wouldn't release them if the quality wasn't there.
"I do keep some of the big-name Bordeaux and burgundy that certain customers expect, but others, who are well prepared by our sommeliers about what to expect, love the natural wines we recommend, and I would never go back."
Xavier Rousset, co-owner of another fashionable London restaurant, Texture, couldn't disagree more, though he does list a few natural wines: "I'm not a massive fan, because they command a premium – you have to be very hands-on in looking after the wine – but the quality isn't always there.
"It's a bit like molecular gastronomy – if you're not very good at it, it's a bit of a mess. Some of the natural winemakers are just trying to push the boundaries set by their fathers, and in my opinion 70 per cent of them do not succeed; I've bought a few bottles that I've regretted."
The fact that additives are required to "rectify" each new harvest to create a wine whose taste untutored drinkers will immediately recognise, means supermarkets (with the exception of Whole Foods Market) will not be jumping on the natural wine bandwagon any time soon, though you will find some natural stock at Selfridges. "We do have quite a few bottles, and I think the closer to nature the wine can be, the better," head wine-buyer Dawn Davies says.
"Although sulphur is a natural preservative that has been used for years in the drinks industry, the problem comes when sulphur is overused to cover poor winemaking regimes. But there is a thin line where low or no sulphur wines can taste nutty and oxidative and a bit samey."
Whether punters embrace the concept in the run-up to London's Natural Wine Fair will depend on what the sommeliers and retailers taking part in Natural Wine Fortnight decide to choose for them to taste. It needs to be some of that well-made, seductive stuff out there to persuade them to seek it out once the sampling opportunity is over.
But the health benefits can't be underestimated, says Legeron, who believes her father's premature death from cancer was down to the chemicals he painstakingly applied to his vineyards. It set her off on her mission "to help people see they can choose delicious wine that isn't pumped full of rubbish, that is stable, age-worthy and doesn't cost the earth. I personally don't drink anything else." Those who wake up virtually hangover-free after their first experience may well think it's worth taking the time and trouble to follow suit.
What's in your wine
In place of the wild yeasts that occur naturally in vineyards, lab-bred industrial yeasts are now widely used, as well as added sugar, which bumps up the alcohol level.
While sulphur occurs naturally in vineyards and is used in small quantities by many natural winemakers, sulphur dioxide derived from petrochemical or other synthetic sources may also be used, sometimes in high concentrates, with no labelling requirements to inform consumers how much they are ingesting.
Tartaric acid may be used to acidify, gum arabic solution to improve mouthfeel, calcium alginate to clarify, saccharose to "enhance" and oak chips to "elaborate". Isinglass, silicon dioxide, gelatin and ferrous sulphate are also on the list of 59 permitted EU additives.
Natural wines to try
Domaine Alain Chabanon Trélans, made from 55 per cent vermentino grapes with 45 per cent chenin, is a luscious, golden white with overtones of citrus and spice, which stands up to blue cheese as well as making a perfect partner for fish. £29, www.artisanandvine.com
Les Boissières, a blend of 90 per cent grenache with five per cent each mourvèdre and carignan, from the same winemaker, fields aromas of the wild thyme and lavender growing on the nearby Languedoc hillsides. A spicy, damsony red. £28, www.artisanandvine.com
Clos Fantine's Valcabrières, a white of 100 per cent terret, has complex overtones of honey, apple and sherry. Great with oily fish and bouillabaisse, it will also stand up to pork fillet. £18.49, www.lescaves.co.uk
Sébastien Riffault makes far from classic Sancerre in the Loire, heartland of natural wine production. His delicious Akmenine is characterised by raw minerality with quince and ripe apple notes. £19.49, www.lescaves.co.uk
For details of the Natural Wine Fair, 15-17 May, and participants in Natural Wine Fortnight, visit thenaturalwinefair.com
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