Pure pleasure?

Image of Jancis Robinson

First organic, then biodynamic, and now “natural”. The latest in holier-than-thou drinking, natural wine has invaded Britain surprisingly recently. The British pride themselves on being in the vanguard of new wine fashions. Uruguayan Viognier? Turkish Öküzgözü? Bring them on. But as far as “natural wines” go, we have been seriously behind the curve, starting to import these wines made with minimal interventions only in the past five years or so.

France is the cradle of natural wine, so the French are way ahead of us in this respect. Thanks to pioneering work by the likes of idiosyncratic New York wine importer Joe Dressner and former Brooklyn restaurateur Arnaud Erhart, there has been a flourishing natural wine movement in the US for more than a decade. And the Japanese, the most enthusiastic importers of natural wines, were ahead even of the Americans, embracing natural wines back in the mid-1990s. This is because there is something about the Japanese physiology that normally makes it difficult for them to metabolise alcohol and, especially, sulphur (soufre in French), the all-purpose fruit disinfectant.

There is no official definition of natural wine. Indeed one of the defining characteristics of the movement is a sort of deliberate and delighted anarchy. In my experience its adherents would rather revel and party than define and organise. No tennis club ethos here. The closest I can find to any specification of natural wine is that drawn up by Douglas Wregg of UK importers Caves de Pyrène, which has done most to introduce the British, at last, to natural wine.

A natural wine, Wregg suggests, is designed to present the character of the place, grapes and growing season responsible for it as faithfully as possible. It is likely to have been made in small quantities by an individualist, grown either organically or biodynamically (although it may well not have been certified as such – way too heavy, man), but it will furthermore have experienced the lightest of hands in the cellar. No added yeasts – just those present in the vineyard and cellar. No physical manipulations such as pumping oxygen through the wine to soften it or filtering it to rid it of alcohol or water – no make-up, no Botox. Naked wine. No added sugar, acid, tannin or preservatives – other than minimal levels of sulphur. Sulphur is a natural by-product of fermentation, so all wines contain some, but in general the reds will have under 10mg/l and whites under 20mg/l of sulphur dioxide, less than a tenth of the maximum levels allowed.

Given that asthmatics react badly to sulphur – like struck matches, it catches the back of the throat – why do conventional winemakers use it at all? As Pliny the Elder’s Natural History shows, sulphur has been used since Roman times to preserve freshness, prevent browning and deter harmful bacteria in fruit-based drinks. The small print on any container of fruit juice or dried fruit shows just how ubiquitous is sulphur dioxide, also known as preservative E220.

Because of their low sulphur levels, natural wines are extremely fragile. I recently visited one of the leading lights of the movement east of Tours in the Loire valley, Thierry Puzelat of Le Clos du Tue-Boeuf, who has been making wines naturally for the past 15 years. He says he has to be very careful to keep the wines cool and always uses refrigerated transport, aiming to keep the wine below 14°C to stop it refermenting, going cloudy or developing off-flavours. Indeed, critics of natural wine argue that keeping it cool can consume wasteful amounts of energy, a charge dismissed by Puzelat as minor in comparison to the harm done to the planet by agrochemicals. “At first we had lots of accidents,” he admitted ruefully, in his convincingly natural – not to say ramshackle – cellar. It contrasted with his neatly ironed black T-shirt adorned with the slogan “A bout de soufre”, presumably chosen carefully for the 40th birthday celebrations later that day for Arnaud Erhart (who closed his groundbreaking Brooklyn 360 natural wine bar three years ago).

Puzelat was also quick to point out that he and his fellow naturalists, many of them clustered in the Loire, Beaujolais and Languedoc-Roussillon, were moved to change their methods less by ideology than by selfishness. People like him and trailblazers such as the Bretons of Chinon and Marcel Lapierre of Morgon simply wanted to make wines that they could drink in quantity without any physical ill-effects.

It was personal taste that motivated UK importers Caves de Pyrène, too. As Wregg explains, “The search for terroir and flavour integrity probably altered our pattern of buying. I think that we began to look for wines to excite and please us in equal measure.” By 2007 or so they were seeking out the natural wine fairs in France such as La Dive and La Remise, and touring the natural wine bars of Paris that provide such a useful showcase for natural wines, many of which qualify only as vins de table, so far outside the accepted norms of an appellation contrôlée tasting committee do they tend to be. By late 2008 Les Caves de Pyrène had opened their own fairly natural wine bar Terroirs in London.

Having tried many of their finds both at their trade tastings and at Terroirs, I find myself bemused. I love the theory behind natural wines, but in practice I find them frustratingly unpredictable. I have never had a natural wine that I would put in the top hundred wines I have tasted. They tend to best represent youthful frankness and simplicity rather than the grandiose complexity of a wine long-aged in bottle. Successful natural wines have a personality that sets them apart from the commercial mainstream, but some can be all too reminiscent of cider that’s gone off.

That said, I’m sure the natural wine movement is here to stay – prominent wine writers Alice Feiring in the US and Jamie Goode in the UK are writing books on the subject – and I feel confident that the proportion of hits rather than misses will steadily increase, unless we indulge them by encouraging faulty examples.

My wine of the week: Mastroberardino, More Maiorum 2000 Fiano di Avellino

At a recent tasting of wines from Italy’s new association of top producers, the Istituto del Vino Italiano di Qualità – Grandi Marchi, one of the strongest performers was from well outside Italy’s conventional clusters of fine winemaking.

Mastroberardino in the hills east of Naples showed three stunning reds carrying their flagship denomination Taurasi, but also the most extraordinary 10-year-old dry white that was still delightfully fresh and, considering its age, surely seriously underpriced. Mastroberardino routinely release their top Fiano both young and after many a long year in bottle – the UK importer Casa Julia is only just moving on from the 1999.

The ancient yellow-skinned Fiano grape was almost extinct by the mid-20th century but the Mastroberardino family rescued it and propelled it into such a cultish position that by the beginning of this century it had been embraced enthusiastically by growers from Sicily to South Australia.

It seems to thrive in the high altitude province of Avellino where Mastroberardino’s vineyards are located. The Mastroberardino, More Maiorum 2000 Fiano di Avellino (drink 2009-2012) was really interesting: smells of honey in an attic, slightly dusty but not old, and with lovely acidity.

It deserves some pretty mild-flavoured food with it, perhaps with a note of salt. I could imagine it going well with a few shards of parmesan, or perhaps a little prosciutto.

For more reviews and tasting notes go to www.jancisrobinson.com, Louis Roederer International Wine Website of the Year

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.