'Remember this wine. Memorise the flavour, because you won't come across it very often. That searing acidity. That saline quality. It's going to be a very hard act to follow," says Eric Narioo with a twinkly smile, as he pours out glasses of a golden, headily aromatic bottle to accompany our seafood starter.
It's a balmy hot summer evening and we're sitting in a chic gastronomic restaurant called Saturne in Paris's 2nd arrondissement, drinking a white Jura from Arbois-Pupillin in eastern France, a Savagnin/Chardonnay blend from Renaud Bruyère.
Narioo is not your standard wine buff. He is, specifically, an authority on natural wines, having founded importer Les Caves de Pyrene in 1988, and a clutch of much loved natural-wine-led restaurants in London, including Terroirs in Charing Cross and Toasted in East Dulwich. He's brought me here to Paris, along with Terroirs' head chef Dale Osborne, on a "natural-wine crawl", to show us that these artisanal wines don't merely pair with food, they enhance the experience.
Narioo orders Domaine de Peyra 2004 Gamay, an 11-year-old bottle from the Auvergne that, he tells me, was ahead of its time. This wine is the most distinctive colour – when held up to the light it glows an opaque scarlet, and it tastes wild, gamey almost, yet light and fruity. We drink it with duck breast with beets and walnut oil, and it brings vivid woodland flavours to the dish. Its maker, Stephane Majeune, went bankrupt and stopped making it. The 2004 was the very last vintage of this special wine, and the few bottles remaining are treasured.
"The strange thing is, 10 years ago, no one understood this wine. Now they love it, now the market is ready." Narioo sends a photograph of the liquid, held up to the light, to Ed Wilson, the chef with whom he started Terroirs and who now owns and runs Brawn in Columbia Road, east London. Within seconds, Wilson texts back "Gamay D'Auvergne".
That's what happens when you spend time in the company of Narioo, a man so knowledgeable and passionate about wine that it's hard not to listen and take note. He's on the cusp of launching a new restaurant in Melbourne, Australia – which has a huge natural-wine movement of its own – and is at the helm of a gang of evangelical natural-wine champions: people such as Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron, whose natural-wine fair in London, RAW, was a sell-out success this year; and fellow importers Raeburn Fine Wines and Tutto, who are banging the drum for provenance in wine as chefs have been doing for years with food.
Over the past decade, visionary restaurants on the World 50 Best list , including Noma, have championed the wines, and now a fresh generation of UK sommeliers and wine folk – at Brawn, Nopi, Lyle's, Hibiscus, Raw Duck, Verden – is basing its lists around them in London.
Yet, natural wine is still something you have to seek out in the UK. So, what exactly is it? As Narioo points out, there is no official accreditation. In his deep, rolling French lilt, he explains: "What we should really be saying is that there is wine, and then there is chemical wine. The term refers to wine made in a natural way."
The people who follow this route tend to be small growers, who work their vineyards sustainably, organically or biodynamically (according to the holistic farming philosophy of Rudolf Steiner), meaning they rely on wild, naturally occurring yeasts to ferment the wine, and don't acidify or add tannins. The farming is labour-intensive, promoting biodiversity and eschewing chemical fertilisers, with all of the picking and selection of grapes done by hand; the wines are often also made with indigenous grapes. Many of the wines are unfiltered and unrefined, and made with minimal, if any sulphur dioxide – the sulphites usually used to "preserve" wine.
This means the natural yeasts and bacteria are at work even when the wine is bottled; the result, typically, is unusual and wild or lively k flavours, and sometimes even a subtle fizz. Essentially, the wine is still "alive", which, according to Narioo, makes it a better match with food. "They help you digest and there's no rubbish in them," he says. "You feel great when you're drinking them – and afterwards. There's an old term in France, Le Vin Docteur. If you filter and disinfect your wines with sulphites you take away all that goodness.
"For natural wines, there are two ingredients: grapes and knowledge," Narioo continues. He should know: along with his wife Anna he runs his own natural vineyard, Vino Di Anna on Mount Etna in Sicily. "Ninety-nine per cent of the work is done in the vineyard; if you've got healthy grapes it's much easier to make good [natural] wines."
All of which appeals to chefs, restaurants and foodies – hence the increasing presence of natural wines. "It goes hand-in-hand," says Narioo. "Wherever in the world there is natural wine, there is usually good food. If it's a restaurant, whether high-end or something more simple, you'll find they're sourcing good bread and cheeses and artisan products for their menu."
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Paris, where today you'd struggle not to drink natural wines when you go out for something good to eat. We lunch at a tiny, gorgeously scruffy bistro called Le Verre Volé in the 10th arrondissement, famous for its selection of natural wines and a prime example of the "bistronomie" movement – a term used to describe casual bistros serving well-priced gastronomic food. Its walls are lined with shelves of wines, their individually designed, hand-stuck labels reflecting the character of the winemakers themselves.
Because the winemakers are operating outside official and heavily regulated appellations – AOC (or DOC in the case of Italian wines) – they sometimes don't identify themselves in a conventional way on the label. "The AOC system is a good idea, to protect the terroir, but it's not doing that any more, it's restrictive," says Narioo. "So lots of winemakers who are working in well-known regions aren't claiming appellation, but they're making the purest wine."
He orders a bottle of Fêtembulles ("party time with bubbles"), made by Jean-Pierre Robinot, which sports a psychedelic-looking label. As we sip the light, golden, fizzy Chenin from the Loire we hear how the winemaker, now in his sixties, sometimes mis-labels his bottles. "Sometimes you open it up and it's pink – it's Gamay!"
The following day we lunch at Le Servan in Père Lachaise in the 20th arrondisement with Michel Tolmer, an artist/illustrator who's been involved in the movement for years. His satirical graphic blog Mimi, Fifi et Glou Glou has been lovingly adopted by the natural-wine scene, thanks to its depiction of its eponymous characters' love of "les vins naturels".
We share whelks with basil and mayonnaise, boudin noir wontons and a bottle of rosé pétillant as Tolmer shows me some of his drawings, reminiscing about the nascent days of natural wine in Paris. "I remember a world before natural wine, when we were all looking for them and they hadn't arrived," he says. "They came in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to a new generation [of wine drinkers] who were curious and started to communicate with winemakers and say that they should be farming in this way."
Narioo explains how, when he started importing to the UK, there was resistance from restaurants and sommeliers. "All the sommeliers and wine journalists of my generation have a knowledge of wines from when they were studying them, so the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s were an era when winemaking was really controlled. The best wine was actually being made in the 1920s to the 1940s – it was all organic then, but then we lost that knowledge."
"So these sommeliers would be taking a risk by putting natural wines on their list – because they were different to these very controlled wines. That's why we opened Terroirs. And then people came, and they didn't know what they were drinking, and they loved it."
We return to London and Narioo invites me, along with a group of fellow wine importers and retailers, for dinner at Terroirs. Osborne puts together a complementary menu of simple food: sweet, juicy Scottish langoustines, meaty, piquant anchovies from Cantabria and clean, butter-soft native sea trout with brown shrimps.
The group is Alex Whyte and Damiano Fiamma of importer Tutto; Liam Kelleher from Noble Fine Liquor and P Franco in Hackney; and Raef Hodgson from Gergovie Wines and 40 Maltby Street – a new generation in their twenties and thirties. Each talks excitedly about the wine he has brought, and in our glasses we travel to the Jura with an oxidised Savagnin from Arbois; to St Joseph in the Rhône Valley with a bottle of beautiful organic Syrah; to the Yarra Valley in Australia, with a Sauvignon that tastes of macerated strawberries; and up to the volcanic Lake Bolsena in Lazio, central Italy, with an intensely mineral bottle of Le Coste.
In turn, Narioo brings out some wines from the Terroirs list, including his soft and drinkable Palmento from his own vineyard. We stay until 1.30am, and must drink more than 10 different wines. The next morning I have to be up very early. I wake up feeling fit as a fiddle, and no, I'm not still drunk – it must be the Vin Docteur…
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