Saturday, 20 June 2015

Left feeling a little RAW...

The second of my wine excursions to London in May was a real eye-opener. Wanting to broaden my knowledge, I signed up to attending the RAW Artisan Wine Fair and having never tried natural wine before, I naively assumed it would just be like buying an organic courgette - tastes like a normal courgette, just give it a good rinse first!

In the strictest sense of the word, natural wine means that nothing is added to or removed from the wine during the wine making process - no sulphites, finings, filtration, sugars, foreign yeast, staves, chips or pH adjustments. In my mind - no way of maintaining a consistent product. That can be explained away in a retail environment in some flowery way like "each wine has its own character", but the lack of anything to preserve the wine and stop its oxidation means that every bottle is extremely volatile. The RAW Fair, created by natural wine pioneer Isabelle Legeron MW, aims to bring together the best examples of these natural wines from around the world.

The biggest issue that I immediately noticed was where RAW chose to bring these wines together. Yes, the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane is hip and edgy just like the wine on display, but the venue had no air conditioning - a disaster waiting to happen with such fragile wine. Walking into the brewery I joked "it's like a greenhouse in here, that can't be good for the wine?...". Secondly, and I appreciate that it was Brick Lane - the venue was crawling with smartly-dressed, but extremely imposing and intimidating security. It made the whole atmosphere very uncomfortable. It's a wine tasting... Compared to the EWP tasting the previous week, which I've already blogged about, it was such a contrast. In my opinion, it was just an epic, epic mistake on venue selection by the organisers. It has to be said though, that the atmosphere was absolutely buzzing, with everyone seemingly excited to be involved in such a successful event. So many of the producers were incredibly passionate about their product and extremely eager to chat, in a much more approachable and real way than at a stereotypical wine event.

Many of the producers that I spoke to were seeking wholesale representation in the UK, which I can see being a real struggle for them under the conditions provided. Their product will spoil quickly if stored at too high a temperature and in my opinion they're already fighting a losing battle with the wine's presentation already questionable, being unfined and unfiltered. I just can't get my head around who would buy these wines in a commercial setting and as such, why these producers would cripple their opportunities in the marketplace by making it. Based on my experience at the RAW Fair, I certainly wouldn't be confident in selling any natural wine at The Wingerworth. I'd say that at least half of the wine that I tried was oxidised to the point of being undrinkable (or certainly unsalable). I'd say that an extremely generous 5% was mildly enjoyable. The rest had an underlying oxidised taste of wet cardboard [thanks to my principal wine supplier, Peter Bamford of Modern French Wine for the tasting note!]. Aside from the "wet cardboard" note, Peter also suggested that "bruised apple" is a good indicator of oxidation. Very interesting - looking back at my notes I saw that particular descriptor had cropped up an alarming amount. In fact, our "wine guy" Simon suggested that for the most part if they had been put next to a decent scrumpy from Devon, he wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.

Indeed, after returning home a lengthy and surprisingly passionate debate on the event and natural wine in general ensued via email between myself, Peter and our Simon. Similarly, a slightly shorter and less intense discussion fired up on Vivino. Generally I think people "get it" - "it" being the idea and reasoning behind natural wine. It's all about going back to the basics of winemaking, using techniques used before science and technology [dare I say it] improved production methods. The process of winemaking has evolved over hundreds of years and I was actually surprised to learn that the wines of the previous century were generally far more heavily sulphited than modern wine. The problem is that although the intention is good, the wine is generally just not good enough.

Dare I quote Peter? I'll quote Peter. I have his permission...

"This sort of wine is insane. It goes off if it ever goes above 15 degrees C. For even the apparently-tasty ones, age them a few months and they'll have gone off too. For restaurant environments (warm storage), they're all the more insane. Therefore you shouldn't worry about getting these sorts of wines from me - I avoid them like the plague! They're a horrible blight on the industry though; particularly afflicting many good growers in my beloved Beaujolais. What a terrible waste!"

Based on my limited experience of natural wine at this event, I honestly can't say that I disagree.

Now just to provide balance, I did mention that there were a handful of enjoyable wines on display. The pick of the crop for me were two Californian producers and Seresin Estate from New Zealand. That said, one English producer that I liked did mention that they hadn't been entirely truthful with regard to the entry requirements for the event - I'd have like to include them in my Top 5, but if they're not legit...

5. Balciolo, Valdonica Toscana Riserva, Tuscany, Italy, 2012
Dr Martin Kerres founded this winery "by accident" when searching for a Tuscan summer home. He fell in love with the small town of Maremma and now aims to produce the best wine in the region. His young Sangiovese wines were planted in 2009 and have a surprising depth of flavour and character. The vineyard's location high on a Tuscan hillside overlooking the Mediterranean benefits from plenty of sun as well as cool sea breezes. Cherry, raspberry, redcurrant and cranberry on the palate, with a peppery, spicy, vanilla finish and chewy tannins. The wine is biological and organic, but does benefit from 28mg/L of sulphites and filtration - possibly explains why I liked it.  Previous vintages have raked in awards and to be honest, the bottle would look pretty sexy on a shelf. That said, I'd have probably scored higher if their representative (I believe Director of Sales) wasn't the most miserable man I've ever come across.

4. Blanc de Noirs, Weingut Georgium, Karnten, Austria, 2012
Everyone should know by now that I like a cheeky BdN and this was the pick of the event for me. I headed over to the Georgium stand after a recommendation from our GM James, who said this wine was worth a taste. Aside from the wine being good, it looks from their website as though the winery would be a great place to spend a weekend! Producing purely from Burgundian varietals, their BdN contains no sulphites and is produced using only traditional methods. The red fruit comes through in the form of tart raspberry and a hint of under-ripe strawberry. High acidity also gives a citrus and gooseberry edge, creating a wine that would be perfect to sip outside under the warm summer sun.

3. Estate Zinfandel, Coturri Winery, Sonoma Mountain, California, USA, 1996
The age of this bottle goes against everything I've discussed earlier in this blog - if truly un-sulphited how do they do it? It was actually very enjoyable! The vineyard was first planted in 1967 and its unique position high on Sonoma Mountain ensures slightly cooler temperatures in the summer and conversely slightly milder winters due to the South-Easterly exposure. Incidentally, we also tried their 1987(!) Estate Zinfandel and 1980(!!!) New Vine Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which would have made my Top 10 had there been one, but for my palate were slightly too old to hit the Top 5. Being used to relatively young Zinfandel, the palate took me by surprise. This Zinfandel was smoky and slightly earthy, with a honeyed raisin nose. The palate had more raisin, along with plum, red cherry, raspberry, and herbs, leading to a slight spice on the finish, with a hint of old leather, more smoke and cured meat. The tannin was medium to high and slightly chewy. All round a very interesting and interesting aged Zinf. It's true that sulphites will have dampened all of these flavours that were bursting through - a great example of how to do natural wine properly.

2. "Rachel" Pinot Noir, Seresin Estate, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2012
The guys at Seresin had four Pinot Noirs on show and the quality was evident throughout, but the "Rachel" blend really stood out for me. Robert Parker has actually given the 2010 vintage 90 points and the wine has stood up well with all of the top critics. Located in the Wairau Valley near Marlborough, we get all of the expected nuances of wines from this corner of New Zealand. Light in body, with high acidity and lots of fruit. Whereas the "Tatou" PN was bigger, deeper and more earthy, I thought that the "Rachel" was more approachable, easy-drinking and fruity - the things I guess most people look for in a New Zealand Pinot. The nose was sweet and fruity, predominantly ripe strawberries with a touch of plum. More strawberry on the palate, along with red cherry, redcurrant and a touch of pepper and lots of spice from the oak. Seresin's range is currently for sale at Wine Direct, but at the price I wouldn't say they are exceptional value for money.

1. Zinfandel, Old World Winery, Russian River Valley, California, USA, 2009
Is it just coincidence that another Californian Zinfandel has made it into this list - is it where my tastes lie, or is it just that the guys over in Western California are leading the way in this style of wine? Either way, I thought this wine was delicious. In fact, it was the only wine of the day that I went back for a second taste. The winemaker, Darek Trowbridge, was such a character and extremely eager to tell us about his wines. His whole selection was great and I need to particularly mention the 2010 Abourious, which at $55 on his own website shows how regarded these wines are. His Zinfandel, however was the star of the show for me. Fresher and fruitier than the 1996 Coturri above, the palate was full of darker blackberry and black cherry flavours, along with sweet tobacco, baking spice and rounded with nice, chewy tannin.

Natural wine really isn't for everyone. It's a gamble, but I suppose everyone loves an occasional gamble and in the instance of the above examples it really paid off. It's interesting, it's different and it's raw, just as the name of the event suggests. It has attracted a whole new audience to the world of wine - a younger audience, and that's not a bad thing. Unfortunately the wine itself is also incredibly fragile, it's temperamental and it's too often, well, bad... I leave the RAW Wine Fair with a much greater knowledge of natural wine and although I'd never turn down a taste or a sample, I feel that it's just too much of a risk to buy, whether for myself or for the pub. Whilst I understand the concept and though process behind natural wine, I just can't get my head around why anyone would actually produce it.

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