Nature’s way

Image of Jancis Robinson

Let no one say that the British have no interest in natural wines, which some see as the next big thing in wine. Timed to coincide with the start of the annual wine trade fair at ExCel in London’s Docklands last week was not one, but two events – Raw and The Real Wine Fair – devoted to natural, organic and biodynamic wines.

Raw, in this its debut year, claimed more than 3,000 visitors, while The Real Wine Fair, in a much more central location, boasted more than 2,000 visitors over three days. Whatever the final numbers, it is clear that interest in the natural wine phenomenon is greater than this time last year, when 800 wine enthusiasts visited the single-day inaugural consumer Natural Wine Fair in Borough Market.

That first fair was a co-production between Doug Wregg, of importers Les Caves de Pyrène, and Isabelle Legeron, a Master of Wine who, alongside Wregg, is Britain’s most fervent proselytiser of natural wine. As is so often the way with zealots espousing the same cause, they fell out. Hence the two fairs were attended by many of the same people and even, in some cases, with duplicated exhibitors.

The exhibition space found by Legeron for Raw was by far the superior – once you had navigated the vintage clothes shops and too-cool-to-open cafés of Brick Lane and found the Old Truman Brewery. On the first floor was one vast, airy whitewashed room with the accessory of choice for wine tasters, a partially glazed roof allowing plenty of natural light. The temperature was right and the single room fostered a sense of community – until Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant, a biodynamics devotee who gave the second of the talks in the associated events programme, damned the natural wine movement to drinks business as “nothing more than a drawer in which to put all the winemakers who didn’t make enough effort to convert to organics and biodynamics”.

So what exactly is natural wine? This is a tricky one, as the individuals in the amorphous natural wine movement tend towards anarchy and deliberate resistance to any regulation. In very vague terms, they are against any additives to wine – even the sulphur which is wine’s natural disinfectant and usefully wards off harmful bacteria and secondary fermentation in bottle. The organisers of the two fairs came up with their own rules, whereby exhibitors had at least to follow organic or biodynamic viticultural practices (whether certified or not), pick their grapes by hand and restrict additives (including yeasts) to absolutely minimal amounts of sulphur. Precise sulphur levels for each wine were listed in the Raw catalogue, which, similar to that for The Real Wine Fair, was thicker than the average paperback.

Like Raw, The Real Wine Fair assembled a collection of decidedly superior, new wave food suppliers to satisfy the hunger that wine tasting generates, making me wonder why this doesn’t happen at more wine events, where solid matter tends to be either poor quality or nonexistent. But The Real Wine Fair’s setting, in the rather dilapidated basement of Victoria House, Holborn, was much less satisfactory – even though the producers tended to be more established. The separate smallish rooms recalled the catacombs of Paris, where an earlier French natural wine event had been held – except that in London, the wines tended to be too hot rather than too cold.

It is particularly dangerous for natural wines to reach high temperatures – above 20C or so – as they are relatively fragile. In fact, one of my beefs about them is the amount of energy that is required to keep them cool enough during storage and transport, which contrasts somewhat with their eco-friendly image.

I did not encounter any wines that seemed to have suffered heat damage during my limited tastings, but I did find a proportion that were just too “natural” for my palate. Less attractive characteristics include a similarity to bone-dry cider made from cooking apples, a lack of persistence whereby the impact of the wine in the mouth seems to fall off a cliff, and a worryingly high incidence of a smell that reminds me of caged domestic pets – hamsters?

I suspect acetyltetrahydropyridine, 2-ethyltetrahydropyridine and 2-acetylpyrroline are the culprits. An Australian-organised seminar on wine faults a few years ago exposed my nose to a fault known as “mousiness” caused by these compounds. Tellingly, it is associated with low-sulphur and low-acid wines, and while apparently desirable in bread, makes wines horribly tough and robs them of their fruit. As many as 30 per cent of all winemakers are unable to detect this fault, or so I was told. Perhaps there is a correlation between them and some producers of natural wine.

That said, there were some quite stunning wines at the fairs, and a complete absence of the sort of anodyne industrial construct that occupies great swathes of space in supermarket wine departments. And there was a host of exhibitors who have already made an admirable reputation for themselves without belonging to the fashionable natural wine movement.

There seem to be strong parallels between the development of natural wine and organic wine. When the market first became aware of organic wines, too many wines were presented as though simply being organic was enough; they didn’t necessarily need to taste good. The same seems to be true of some natural wines. In both cases, I would much prefer to have my tasting socks knocked off by how delicious a wine is before discovering how it was made.

I sympathise with the theory behind the natural wine movement, however. I do think the level of additives in many wines is higher than it need be and am strongly in favour of ingredient labelling, or at least some system of providing us with information on what each wine contains other than grapes. It is a strange anomaly that food, but not wine, producers are required to ’fess up in this respect.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of

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