Natural Wines (and why I love them)
As posted on the Real Wine Fair website
Call them natural. Or call them artisan. Or minimal intervention. Or real. The people who love them, and indeed the people who make them, aren’t too bothered about definitions. They let the wine speak for itself. And although they only make up a minuscule portion of the world’s wines, they are causing a huge amount of buzz.
My love of natural wines (as they shall henceforth be called for clarity’s sake) began two and a half years ago at Terroirs wine bar and restaurant off Trafalgar Square, where the first sip of a natural wine touched my lips. It was clean and pure and difficult to describe, mainly because the flavours were ones I hadn’t encountered before. The wine tasted like the soil and air in which the grapes had lived, and it expressed a sense of ‘place’ more than any other wine I’d tried. This was no ‘cookie cutter’ wine made for a mass market and dripping with over ripe fruit and oak and cheap perfume. This was a unique specimen; weird and wonderful, and without a trace of makeup. I fell immediately in love.
Natural winemaking is more a philosophy than a ‘movement’ (as it has been dubbed). It’s a commitment made by a winemaker to grow his grapes with as much respect to the environment as possible, so that his vineyards will be there for his son and and his son’s son to continue to make wine. Therefore a natural winemaker works organically and usually biodynamically in the vineyards.
But he takes it one step further. For there is no point in working so meticulously in the vineyards and then ruining those beautiful grapes in the winery by throwing chemicals onto them, or masking them in new oak, or just generally fussing too much (as often happens with even the best intentioned organic winemakers). A natural winemaker tries to intervene as little as possible in the winery. He adds none of the chemicals found in the shockingly long list of legal wine additives, no fining or filtering or pumpovers or any of the myriad of other ways wine can be manipulated. He allows only the native yeasts found naturally on the grapes and in the cellar to ferment the wine, rather than adding in laboratory-produced ones. He believes that new oak barrels conceal the subtle nuances of the wine and so uses mainly old oak, concrete vats, or clay amorphae to age his wine in. And perhaps most controversially, he adds as little sulphur as he possibly can, and then only before bottling.
The result is a wine with a soul that sings of the land in which it came. Of course before I start waxing too poetical on you let me point out that, as is the case with wine in general, not all natural wines are good. When in the wrong hands, they can be as bad as any cheap plonk. But in the right hands, they can express pure unadulterated beauty.
Over two years on from my first sip at Terroirs, I have had the good fortune of tasting hundreds of natural wines, and meeting dozens of natural winemakers in their respective countries. I have witnessed how they work and why they choose to make wine in this way. I hope to use this blog to tell their stories, and to give you insight into what makes their wines so special.