When London’s first natural wine shop opened in Highgate, hardly anyone turned up on its first day. The staff sat twiddling their thumbs, smiling in embarrassment. To the best of our knowledge, it has since closed. What a difference a few years make. Now ‘natural’ wine is a trendy buzzword, and it seems Londoners can’t get enough of it.
Natural wines are celebrated at the RAW Wine Fair, a two-day event taking place on 19-20 May. (There’s also the Real Wine Fair, just before RAW). Such events are common in France and Italy, where the natural wine movement is much better established, but this is only the second year of what has now become the annual RAW Fair.
So what is ‘natural’ wine? It is wine that’s pure, unprocessed and environmentally friendly, made with minimal intervention and without additives (other than sulphite, but only sometimes, and in significantly less quantities than the regulations stipulate). Unlike regular wines, sugars and acidity are not adjusted, and excess water is not removed.
Natural wines divide opinion. Some experts dismiss them as flawed or faddy. However, when wine was first made 8,000 years ago, simply by crushing fermented grapes, it was naturally, well, natural. No vitamins, enzymes, yeasts or other additives were added.
Further controversy arises through lack of accreditation. One must rely on the winemaker’s own integrity. There are moves on the continent to formulate a legal definition of ‘natural’ and establish a quality charter. The RAW Fair has its own charter that the producers must adhere to.
RAW Fair was co-founded by Isabelle Legeron, France’s first female Master of Wine who goes by the nickname ‘That Crazy French Woman’ (more about that in our interview, below). This year’s event promises to be bigger and better, with respected names such as Ottolenghi on board – and Legeron’s own wine available to sample.
RAW Fair is at F Block, The Old Truman Brewery, 83 Brick Lane, E1 6QL. Sunday 19 May, 10am-6pm (both trade and public); Monday 20 May 10am-8pm (trade only 10am-5pm, public 5pm-8pm). Tickets: £20 advance, £25 on the door.
What is ‘natural wine’, and how does it differ from organic and biodynamic?
Natural wines are farmed organically and/or biodynamically, but the key difference is in the winemaking. Once grapes are harvested and taken to the cellar, natural wine growers try to intervene as little as possible. They see their role more as guardians — guiding a process that occurs naturally — rather than as trying to force the grapes or juice into particular moulds responding to market demands or trends. Most don’t use any additives in the winemaking, bar at most low levels of SO2, and they steer clear of gadgetry that manipulates the juice, like reverse osmosis machines, cryo-extraction and so on.
The one issue, though, is that natural wine does not have a legal definition as yet, and so can be open to the possibility of abuse. At RAW, we decided that the most important thing is transparency — which is all too absent in the wine world — and so all artisans showing wine at the fair have to declare all procedures used. This information is available to visitors online (a summary is also included in the fair catalogue), the idea being that people can then choose what is right for them. For example, if egg whites have been used on a particular bottle to fine the wine, then the wine will be clearly marked as fined with ‘egg whites’ and ‘not suitable for vegans’.
Why are you known as ‘That Crazy French Woman’?
It started in South Africa, where my TV show is broadcast quite regularly. One of the winemakers that I featured told me that he often gets stopped randomly in the street by people saying that they caught him on the show ‘with that crazy French woman’. My name can be a little tricky to pronounce, so I guess ‘crazy’ is just easier!
I’m not really crazy at all. It’s more about being outside the box, which I guess I am in wine terms. I like wine that is alive and unmanipulated, characteristics that are surprisingly hard to come by in modern winemaking. I don’t like wines that are worked: heavily extracted, oaky, manipulated, squeaky clean and boring. I like finesse and elegance, and wines that are full of emotion and personality – a bit like people. For this, the winemaker needs to take a step back, and allow his/her wines to go with the flow of nature. Being overly controlling ultimately limits the possibilities and expression of your wine.
As sugar and acidity in natural wines are not artificially manipulated, does the wine actually taste good, or can it be off-balance or ‘faulty’?
As with any wine, it can be faulty if it is badly done. But no, I would say that the vast majority of natural wine I come across is not only not faulty, but is deliciously complex and shows far more interesting taste profiles than conventional wine. To be frank, this isn’t really surprising either — if, as you would do in conventional winemaking, you kill off all your native bacteria and yeasts to then add lab-bred ones that have been developed to show specific aromas, you will necessarily have less complex aromatics than if nature — with its infinitesimal variations — is involved.
Why are natural wines dismissed by some people in the industry?
I have asked myself this question many times. These wines are produced in tiny quantities so they aren’t as widely available as most conventional wines. This means there is a bit of a lack of exposure and awareness where they are concerned.
Our modern palates have also been formatted to appreciate certain styles so that we have come to expect wines to taste or look a certain way, and anything that takes us out of our comfort zone can be challenging. The thing to remember is that our formatted palates are simply the result of technical winemaking developments, which have not really been challenged yet. I hope what we are doing helps to change things.
Do natural wines give less of a hangover?
Yes they do. This is only based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, but I certainly feel much worse if I drink conventional wine, especially pounding headaches. But again, this is hardly surprising as approximately 60 additives are allowed for use in winemaking by law, and none of them have to be included on the label.
Is natural wine produced in commercial quantities, or is it just hobby drinking for wine buffs? Where can we buy good bottles in London?
It is produced commercially, and it is available all over London. You can even go into old traditional establishments like Berry Bros and you will find plenty of natural wines. Dedicated wine shops that I can suggest include: Antidote (they are a restaurant/bar but all their bottles are available to take home too), the Victualler, and Ottolenghi, which is hosting the official RAW web store this year (it is also available off the main Ottolenghi page). It is online until the end of May and includes a selection of 30 wines from growers coming to the fair. Also, Noble on Broadway Market, and 259 Hackney Road.
What is the purpose of the annual RAW Fair?
RAW celebrates wine with emotion that has a sort of living presence — think farmhouse cheese versus pasteurised, reconstituted cheese-like products – and showcases growers whose fundamental farming and cellar philosophies make living wines possible. It is open to all growers, whatever their size, who comply with our charter of quality. We even have a tiny producer coming from the south of France, for instance, who only has one wine and all his bottles are hand-blown and extraordinarily beautiful!
RAW is a platform for celebrating proper artisan wine that aims to bring people together: the extraordinary men and women who produce it, their importers (and potential importers — come on, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, let’s see some RAW wines on your shelves!), the wine associations to which they belong, the trade professionals who want to write about them or stock them, wine enthusiasts who like drinking them and generally anyone who is curious just to see what it’s all about. I guarantee once you start drinking natural, you really won’t want to go back.
We’re also leading the charge for transparency in wine. We believe that in an ideal world any processing and additives will be clearly communicated to the drinker so that you know exactly what is in your glass. RAW is a first step in this direction and we’re proud to be leading the way.
What do you personally love about natural wines, and what can visitors expect at the exhibition?
I love the fact that they taste more alive. They have a vibrancy and deliciousness that you simply can’t replicate in more mass-market wines.
I also love the texture of natural wines. Most have not been fined or filtered, so nothing has been taken away. They are more whole and complete, and you can definitely feel that added dimension in the wine. It is more sensual, perhaps creamier in mouthfeel, more rounded. It is a bit tricky to explain in words! Best to come taste for yourself.
Tell us about the wine you yourself have produced.
My wine comes from Georgia. It was farmed organically and vinified in kvevri (also sometimes written ‘qvevri’), which are giant clay pots buried deep underground. It is a Caucasian tradition that dates back some 8,000 years. And what is particularly special is that, although the grapes used (rkatsiteli) are a white wine grape variety, my wine Lagvini is bright orange! This is because the juice is left in contact with the grape skins and stems for months — much like a red wine. The result is delicious — even if I say so myself. It has an orange blossom-like nose, and is very apricoty on the palate with touches of savoury notes like dried sage. And perhaps, most surprisingly of all, it is tannic!
What are the highlights of the RAW Fair – the ‘definitely do not miss’ aspects?
Oh my goodness, now that is a tricky one. 169 of the world’s best wine producers will be at RAW to meet and taste with — that certainly has to be the main highlight, but there is tons of other stuff to see, do and taste as well. For example, there’s a Swiss botanist who harvests fruit for his ciders from abandoned apple, pear and quince trees, some of which are several hundred years old (!); there are tables dedicated to rare junmaishu sake; beer from Bermondsey, including a brew which is actually based on an old Truman Brewery recipe; a proper tea tasting bar, and more orange wines than you can shake a stick at.
And that’s not even starting on the killer food stalls, like smoked salmon from Stoke Newington, cheeses aged in south London, and the wonderful Elliot’s who are doing a pop-up wood fired grill on the RAW patio. This fancy BBQ is being done in collaboration with the infamous Lord Logs from Crystal Palace, and uses single species wood that is a byproduct of managing ancient English woodland, which gives particular flavours to the meat and veggies being grilled.
Talks/tastings-wise, we’ve got the great chocolatier Paul A Young doing a chocolate and wine pairing with me, and big wine names like Jancis Robinson MW (the FT’s weekly wine columnist) who is doing a tasting and book-signing with her co-authors; as well as The Guardian’s wine correspondent Fiona Beckett, who is doing a RAW cheese and RAW wine matching. British artist Hannah Collins is also going to be at the fair for a book signing and pop-up exhibition of her work, tracing the provenance of 30 iconic ingredients that were used in El Bulli cooking.
Which London bars and restaurants do you recommend for drinking natural wines?
I would definitely recommend Elliot’s next to Borough Market — I design the list there and we are one of a tiny selection of places in London that offers a totally natural wine list.
Tell us about your ‘secret London’ – the hidden gems that you’d want to shout about from the rooftops.
Picnics on the Thames’ beaches at low tide. Hardly anyone uses them, and they are one of the best hidden treasures of London, particularly if you choose ones with slightly complicated access.
And my favourite BYO Thai (although I am not sure if they are really BYO or if I have just imposed BYO-ness on them), The Pie Crust near Stratford, who are apparently a greasy spoon by day but convert into a delicious Thai restaurant by night, and are run by a Thai family that has been there for decades.
Article and interview by Sejal Sukhadwala