‘This is wine’s acid house’

A small, fast-grow­ing net­work of mil­i­tant pro­duc­ers and bars are en­gag­ing a new au­di­ence with ad­di­tive-free nat­u­ral wine. Tony Nay­lor signs up for a tast­ing

The Guardian - G2 - - Food -

Steve Nut­tall is try­ing to mess with my head. The 35-yearold wine ex­pert at boho Leeds bar-res­tau­rant the Re­liance has ar­ranged a nat­u­ral wine tast­ing as a primer for the Guardian, and things are get­ting, well, weird. “That,” I of­fer ten­ta­tively, sniff­ing an or­ange wine, “smells strange – some­where be­tween sherry and cat piss.”

Nut­tall laughs. He is not of­fended. In fact, af­ter years of talk­ing in the po­lite lan­guage of tra­di­tional wine ap­pre­ci­a­tion, Nut­tall is rel­ish­ing the cul­ture around nat­u­ral wine, which en­cour­ages drinkers to trust their palates and speak hon­estly. Cà de Noci’s Notte di Luna re­mains enig­matic: tan­nic like red wine, but sur­pris­ingly acidic with some­thing cit­rusy in there, too. “It’s a bit pine-fresh toi­let cleaner,” I add, get­ting into the spirit of things.

We rif­fle through sev­eral more nat­u­ral wines – all made with al­most zero me­chan­i­cal or chem­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion – and they are cer­tainly in­trigu­ing. Ev­ery mouthful de­liv­ers lit­tle shocks and re­ward­ing chal­lenges. An en­try-level white, Mein­klang’s Szik­lafe­hér, smells oddly ripe, but its ap­ple and goose­berry flavours are un­usu­ally lively. A rugged Span­ish red, opened the evening be­fore – Nut­tall wants to il­lus­trate how sen­si­tive nat­u­ral wines are to ox­i­da­tion – has taken on a bizarre bready, pop­corn savouri­ness. Farnea’s Emma, an­other or­ange wine, is like a con­jur­ing trick, os­ten­si­bly full of sweet peach, rose wa­ter and tan­ger­ine flavours, but bonedry and pleas­antly medic­i­nal.

The rea­son for this flavour car­ni­val? Ad­di­tives – or the lack of. Us­ing added sul­phur, lab tech­niques and about 70 le­gal ad­di­tives, in­dus­trial wines are man­u­fac­tured to be sta­ble, con­sis­tent and, ar­guably, nar­row in their flavours. In con­trast, nat­u­ral wine is ad­di­tive­free, reg­u­larly un­fil­tered and utilises only a tiny amount – if any – of sul­phur. These are sus­tain­ably pro­duced, hand­made, wild-fer­mented wines that wear their idio­syn­cra­sies proudly and change sub­tly, bot­tle to bot­tle. It is high-wire wine­mak­ing and, as Nut­tall con­cedes, some are “shit”. But, for many, that un­pre­dictabil­ity is ex­cit­ing. “Sul­phur mutes ev­ery­thing; it makes wine or­derly, neat, considered. With [nat­u­ral], there are ex­treme highs and lows, but when you get one that re­ally sings, it’s whoosh …”.

Nat­u­ral wine has been fer­ment­ing in France since the 1970s, but re­cently such epipha­nies have turned it into a phe­nom­e­non. Wine Busi­ness In­ter­na­tional (WBI) es­ti­mates that nat­u­ral ac­counts for less than 2% of global sales, but, in hotspots such as New York, Copen­hagen, London and Paris – where a small, fast-grow­ing net­work of mil­i­tant bars sell noth­ing but nat­u­ral – it is very much a thing.

A thing that is break­ing na­tion­ally in Bri­tain, too. Leeds has two venues (the other is Ham & Friends) push­ing nat­u­ral wines, and the Re­liance will soon open a bar-shop, Way­ward. From Bris­tol’s Bar Bu­vette to Ed­in­burgh’s Good Broth­ers via Brighton’s Plateau or Ch­ester’s Covino, you can find nat­u­ral wine in most Bri­tish ci­ties. In­deed, Od­dbins re­cently an­nounced it will stock nine nat­u­ral wines in se­lected stores.

In 2007, UK im­porter Les Caves de Pyrene han­dled, per­haps, 15 nat­u­ral pro­duc­ers. Today, it dis­trib­utes 220, and sales are grow­ing fast. “Nat­u­ral wine drink­ing has in­creased ex­po­nen­tially and there’s an­other 15 to 20 smaller im­porters who spe­cialise in it,” says the firm’s Doug Wregg.

That rise is not solely down to flavour. Like craft beer, nat­u­ral is both a drinks cat­e­gory and a move­ment: a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sect in the van­guard of a rad­i­cal new wine cul­ture. This is wine’s punk or acid house, a gen­er­a­tional schism (in 2014, US critic Robert Parker called nat­u­ral wine a “scam”), in which

young drinkers are re­ject­ing the stuffy wine es­tab­lish­ment.

“Nat­u­ral very much gets away from that ‘se­ri­ous’ blazer-and-jeans wine world,” says Nut­tall, of a scene that takes in Wil­liams­burg’s Four Horse­men bar (owned by LCD Soundsys­tem’s James Mur­phy) and rap­per Ac­tion Bron­son. The pre­sen­ter of Vice’s F*ck, That’s De­li­cious, Bron­son re­cently launched his own wine, À La Nat­u­ral. “There’s been a mas­sive change in how wine is made, sold and en­joyed,” says Dan Keel­ing, co-edi­tor of No­ble Rot, a fanzine launched in 2013 as an ir­rev­er­ent wine equiv­a­lent of the Face, mix­ing grapes with art and mu­sic (it sub­se­quently spawned a res­tau­rant and wine im­port busi­ness). “There’s a new gen­er­a­tion who can’t af­ford or don’t want to en­gage in clas­sic re­gions such as Bordeaux, and nat­u­ral wine has en­joyed a boom be­cause of that.”

Nat­u­ral wine is open and in­clu­sive, with its breezy mar­ket­ing (there is an Aus­tralian wine sim­ply called Bonkers) and its rel­a­tively mod­est pric­ing. This has dove­tailed neatly with a new re­laxed at­ti­tude in UK wine bars (Sager + Wilde in Beth­nal Green, east London, ar­guably kick­started this trend). They have en­gaged a new au­di­ence by serv­ing wines by the glass and at lower markups, fo­cus­ing on small pro­duc­ers and un­fash­ion­able wine­mak­ing ar­eas such as Cor­sica or Tener­ife, and in­tro­duc­ing chatty, bol­shie tast­ing notes.

Nat­u­ral wine does not do red tape. Mak­ers only use or­ganic or bio­dy­nam­i­cally grown grapes, but, of­ten with­out of­fi­cial cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, and most French wine­mak­ers work out­side the ap­pel­la­tion sys­tem. In­stead, they grow what­ever (her­itage, low-yield) grapes they like and make ex­per­i­men­tal wines that use an­cient, rough ’n’ ready tech­niques.

Mak­ers revel in the cat­e­gori­sa­tion vin de ta­ble or vin de France, his­tor­i­cally a la­bel for plonk, and tend to pro­duce fresh, young wines to be drunk now. So-called “juice” that is fun and glug­gable (glou-glou in French) is prized as highly as el­e­gant, com­plex wine. “It’s a punky, DIY at­ti­tude: who are you to tell us what we should think about wine?” says Keel­ing.

It is easy to over-ro­man­ti­cise this world of hippy farm­ers, part-time ide­al­ists and big char­ac­ters such as the Ital­ian Gabrio Bini. “A very charis­matic, stylish mad pro­fes­sor,” says Nut­tall. Pur­ple prose about wines im­bued with “emo­tion” reads like gullible hype. Sim­i­larly, lack­ing hard sci­en­tific data, the case for bio­dy­namic vini­cul­ture can smell – lit­er­ally, as it in­volves bury­ing horns of cow ma­nure and grow­ing by moon cy­cles – like bull­shit.

Nonethe­less, it is hard to be cyn­i­cal about these tiny, driven wine­mak­ers. “It’s not about money, and mak­ing re­ally good nat­u­ral wine is hard,” says Keel­ing. Sam Jary, wine­maker and owner of Pen­rith’s Black Hand Wine shop, ar­gues that the ef­fi­cacy of bio­dy­namic grow­ing is self-ev­i­dent. “Wine­grow­ers are work­ing ex­tremely closely with na­ture. Their liveli­hood de­pends on it. If bio­dy­nam­ics didn’t im­prove their grapes and wine, they wouldn’t touch it.”

Could such ideas be­come main- stream? Not im­me­di­ately. It is dif­fi­cult to ex­pand pro­duc­tion of nat­u­ral wine quickly. Many mak­ers choose not to. But there is scope for more pro­duc­ers to adopt nat­u­ral meth­ods, the big play­ers, too. “It’s gain­ing mo­men­tum,” says WBI edi­tor, Felic­ity Carter. “Pro­duc­ers who were ex­tremely scep­ti­cal are be­gin­ning to ex­per­i­ment with lower sul­phur and dif­fer­ent fer­men­ta­tion ves­sels. The day a big pro­ducer such as Trea­sury Wine Es­tates makes a nat­u­ral wine will be the day it goes main­stream. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if that isn’t far off.”

For the record, Trea­sury, which owns such brands as Blos­som Hill and Wolf Blass, has noth­ing im­mi­nent.

But watch this space, says Re­liance co-owner Joss Ainsworth. “This year, at one of Bordeaux’s pre­mier cru vine­yards, the sharp-suited gen­tle­man show­ing us round said they’re talk­ing about mov­ing to or­ganic [grow­ing], ‘be­cause that’s the trend’.”

Yet, a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of the wine es­tab­lish­ment still loathes nat­u­ral wine. They hate its im­plied moral su­pe­ri­or­ity (are other wines there­fore un­nat­u­ral?). They com­plain that there is no strict def­i­ni­tion of “nat­u­ral”; in­stead, wine­mak­ers abide by a loose, in­for­mal code. They scorn what they re­gard as its flawed, frag­ile wines.

While a trained master of wine may find ir­re­deemable flaws in a wine, oth­ers take a more holis­tic view. “Those ‘faults’ can ex­ist to dif­fer­ent lev­els and, in some cases, I’d ar­gue, they add to the wine’s char­ac­ter,” says Nut­tall. “Ad­vo­cates of con­ven­tional wine can’t han­dle that and can’t han­dle that some hip­ster kid on Lower Clap­ton Road is cel­e­brat­ing the wine for it. It fun­da­men­tally un­der­mines all their learn­ing and hard work.”

This wine, he con­tin­ues, “re­quires you to en­gage in­di­vid­u­ally with it”. That may be nat­u­ral wine’s most chal­leng­ing qual­ity. Not its flavours. But that it asks drinkers to think for them­selves.

‘There’s a mas­sive change in how wine is made, sold and en­joyed’

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