Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Natural wines: the backlash

It's inevitable given the amount of publicity that's been accorded to natural wines lately that some will be less enraptured than others. This latest post from wine writer Quentin Sadler being typical of the sceptics' position.

I haven't got time for a considered response today but two quick points.

The term 'natural' I agree does have its downside. It puts up the back of conscientious winemakers who don't choose to engage with any certification scheme but still make good wines, with care. But it engages the public in a way that 'organic' alone never did. And it's easy to get bogged down in semantics.

Finding wines you don't like at a tasting is normal. Every tasting I go to that happens to me - conventional wines as well as natural ones. So I don't think that makes natural wines especially unreliable.

I'll return to all of this when I have a moment

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Le Blanc qui Tente

If ever a wine was well named it's Le Blanc qui Tente - the tempting white - a really stunning semillon we picked up in Wholefoods Kensington a couple of weeks ago then managed to mislay.

It's made by Stéphanie Roussel of Chateau Lasolle in the Côtes du Marmandais in the south-west of France apparently just next to one of our other favourite producers Elian da Ros. It's also described as a vin de nature and is exactly that - biodynamic, no artificial yeasts or added sulphur, unfined and unfiltered. But it's the taste that's so amazing - classic rich lush waxy semillon: it could be a top white Bordeaux.

The only problem is I'm not sure which vintage it is. As it's a vin de table it hasn't got a date on the bottle. The current release seems to be 2007 but Aubert & Mascoli the importers seem to have the 2005. I'll update you when I find out.

Although the vintage Wholefoods has - whatever it is - is ace, I'd be inclined to pick it up in France if you can where it only costs €10.70 rather than the £16 odd it costs here

Interestingly we tried another 2007 last night, Catherine and Pierre Breton's Beaumont Chinon which was very disappointing - oddly tarry, earthy and lacking in fruit. I just tried it again, hoping it would have improved overnight but it hasn't (despite the fact it's a fruit day for what that's worth. Yesterday was a leaf day). I guess it's designed to be drunk young and has just passed its 'drink by' date. Not good though.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Blacks: a London club with natural wine

I've recently revived my membership of Blacks , not on the basis that I needed a London club living out of town - useful though that is - but for the somewhat frivolous reason that they have an extensive natural wine list.

They probably did when I belonged to it a few years ago except no-one talked about natural wine in those days. The wine, chosen by Giuseppe Mascoli was always good though - usually from small (in capacity not size) Italian producers.

Mascoli is also the other half of Aubert & Mascoli who are one of the leading importers of natural wine and one of the participants in the recent Natural Wine Fair. He also created the highly successful mini pizza chain Franco Manca.

Most of the current Blacks list is now organic and a number of wines sulphur free including the very attractive and reasonably priced Terragno Dolcetto, Colli Tortonesi from Valli Unite we had at lunch today. (It could have done with being a shade cooler but when we asked if we could have an ice bucket they mysteriously brought along a bucket of cold water without ice. Maybe they regard ice as unnatural?)

They also produce a very well-designed free newsletter called The Carafe with profiles of their producers and - this appears to the food and wine matching geek in me - suggest pairings for each course on the main dining room menu.

The place is wonderfully raffish and decadent. I love it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Natural Wine meets Cantillon

Those who like to keep up to speed with the growing natural wine roadshow may like to know there's a natural wine fair in Belgium the week after next, at Wijnfolie in Aalter on Sunday June 5th and the Cantillon brewery in Brussels the following day - full details on the Wijnfolie website here. You can also follow them on Twitter @Wijnfolie.

I like the idea of holding an event at Cantillon. There are strong parallels between natural wines and gueuze I've been thinking about for a while and to which I'll return.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Alice and Jancis talk natural wine

Having whizzed off to the Jura this week I've not yet had time to go through my notes on the wines I tasted at the Natural Wine Fair but here's an interesting short video from Jancis Robinson's website of her interview with US natural wine champion Alice Feiring . . .

And you'll find Alice's own thoughts on the difference in attitude between Britain and the US towards natural wine here.

Her main point is that the UK trade and critics are too influenced by formal wine education such as the MW and WSET qualifications, a criticism from which she absolves Jancis. Quite rightly. I've noticed she is notably open-minded on the subject.

And there's more! Alice also interviewed Jancis on video. This is getting positively incestuous . . .

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Six things that struck me at the Natural Wine Fair

I’ve spend a good part of the last two days at the Natural Wine Fair and frankly would have spent a third if I hadn’t got so much else on. It’s going to take a few days to pull together the highlights but here are a few immediate thoughts.

Natural wine is a broad church
The fair should have finally blown the myth that all natural wines are cloudy and cidery. There were wines of every description there from the utterly conventional to the wild and whacky. Something for everyone in other words. It was also fascinating to see how different the French and Italian approaches to winemaking were and how even a single winemaker could make wines in a number of different styles (the much derided Sébastien Riffault (above) comes to mind)

It arouses a lot of antipathy
Yes, still, judging by the talk by American wine writer Alice Feiring (below) and what I gather was an even edgier panel discussion on natural wine in restaurants. People get extraordinarily het up about natural wine for reasons I don’t fully understand. Does anyone get furious about the presence in shops of unpasteurised cheeses or castigate someone who likes a runny Brie or a stinky Epoisses?

Sceptics regard natural wine fans, I suspect, as bandwagon-jumpers, unable to identify a wine fault when it hits them in the face. Natural wine fans regard sceptics as blinkered and narrow-minded, expecting all wine to conform to an accepted paradigm. A gulf that shows no sign of being bridged at present.

Consumers seem to be ahead of the trade in this respect
Judging by the turnout of over 800 on the public day, the public have fewer issues with natural wine than the trade. Considering it was the first natural wine fair and not advertised in the national press I thought that was an impressive turnout. Maybe we all need to tiptoe less gingerly around natural wines and shouldn’t feel the need to ‘explain’ them.

Natural winemakers are not afraid of tannin . . .
Again, against conventional wisdom which says all reds must be rendered soft and fruity. The Italians in particular produce wines that are unabashedly tannic. Maybe because they wouldn’t dream of drinking them without food

. . . or colour
Ever seen a Pinot Grigio like this?

Or labels like these?

. . . or afraid of a little sly humour
I love the punning labels like this Boisson Rouge from Emile Heredia of Domaine de Montrieux (a pun on the French poisson rouge, the name for a goldfish). Delicious wine, actually

Natural wines are fun to drink
Maybe it was the outdoor - or partially outdoor - location and the fact that it didn’t rain but there was a really festive feel about the whole event. Just people enjoying wine and discovering new flavours. Isn’t that what wine is supposed to be about?

And just as a footnote and a sign of the times: I spotted one of Marks & Spencer's wine buyers at the fair on both days. Straw in the wind . . .

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How to sell natural wine

I've been meaning to go to the Wholefoods store in Kensington for a while having heard it had a good range of organic and natural wines and finally made it this week which is part of Natural Wine Fortnight in the UK.

Like many other shops and bars they had a couple of natural wines open to taste - a Roagna Langhe Bianco and Dolcetto d'Alba, a bargain at £3.99 a glass and £13.99 a bottle, but it was their overall approach to natural wine that really impressed me.

First, they keep bottles with no added sulphites in the fridge.

They explain what natural wine actually is

And best of all, they flag up bottles which are low in sulphur which manager Peter Hogarth defines as under 50mg per litre with a Low SO2 label. This excludes a few bottles, he admits, which are natural in style but finds it a practical working definition.

He must stock about 30-40 wines that could be classified as natural but he's not doctrinaire about it and says there are several that he hasn't taken on that he knows would be too hard a job to sell. And he encourages customers to ask him or his colleagues if they're thinking of buying a natural wine so that they can explain what to expect and how to handle it.

I tasted a few others from their range of which I was particularly impressed by the Domaine de l'Ocre Rouge Pinot Noir 2009, a really gorgeous Pinot which had just come into stock and which I believe will sell for £17.99.

There's also a nice little wine bar where you can drink any of the bottles in the department for just £5 corkage with a plate of cheese or charcuterie from the next door counter - or a tartine. Apparently it's known as the Hidden Gem wine bar. With good reason.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Frank Cornelissen: a winemaker who doesn't 'make' wine

Thanks to my colleague Simon Woods for the photo.

I’d heard a lot about Frank Cornelissen - a bit of a bogeyman for those who are sceptical about natural wine (you can see Victoria Moore’s account of her visit to him here) so was interested to get the opportunity to meet him at a wine dinner at the south London wine bar Artisan & Vine last night.

From a wine point of view I didn’t find his wines that extreme - well, his reds anyway. His whites are quite challenging. But that probably says more about the way my tastebuds have changed since I started drinking natural wine.

But he is quite an extreme person, given to making didactic pronouncements such as that 95% of all vineyard land is unsuitable for growing grapes. He doesn’t use any chemical additions or treatments including biodynamic ones (interesting) “as these are all a mere reflection of the inability of man to accept nature as she is and will be". And no products during the course of what he describes as his (non)winemaking including sulphur. “You don’t need to add things. I want to make 100% wine”.

In case you’re not familiar with his wines his are grown on the north slopes of Mount Etna and no, with that name he’s obviously not an Italian but a self-taught Belgian who used to be a wine trader. His newer vineyards are planted ungrafted alongside fruit and olive trees - he doesn’t believe in a monoculture (I’m with him there) - and the wines are harvested late between October and November.

We tasted about 10 of his wines along with 2 olive oils and 3 grappas from different terroirs, a process which is pretty hard to follow as he numbers his wines in a particularly confusing way. Or maybe it had just been a long day.

His simplest wine is the Rosso del Contadino a base of 70% Nerello Mascalese with up to 15 other white and red varieties including Alicante Bouschet. We tried the no 4 2006 and no 7 2009 which showed to my mind how the wines benefit from ageing although he says he’s now bottling them earlier. These I would say are a vin de soif - though I'm not sure Frank would approve of that description - and the sort of wines he prefers to drink with food. Refreshing but with a distinctive smokey edge.

Then the Munjebel Bianco no 4 2007 and no 6 2009, a true ‘orange’ wine made by leaving the grapes (Carricante, Grecanico Dorato and Coda di Volpe) in contact with the skins for three months. The 2007 was delicious with a rich dried apricot flavour and almost sherried nose, the ’09 much more of a blank canvas though it did go better than the 07 with its matching course of octopus and potato salad.

The Munjebel Rosso is pure Nerello Mascalese blended from two vintages - usually two thirds the younger vintage, one third the older - and aged for 6-18 months in lined amphoras

The no 6 (2008/9) was quite smokey - almost cheesey - but went well with a sweet-sour dish of Tamworth pork, caponata and wild asparagus (the pairings from chef James Robson were brilliant). The no 7 (2009/10) was much brighter and more vibrant with a ripe cherry flavour while the 03, a single vintage made in 2005 that was 80% botrytised, was so rich it was almost Amarone-like. Cornelissen reckons the no 6 won't be at its best for another 4-5 years.

Finally Magma Rosso, Frank’s icon wine which carries a registered trademark, costs over £100 a bottle retail and is only made in selected years (not in 2005 or 2010). Again Nerello Mascalese made from high altitude ungrafted plots, left on the skins for 3 months followed by 6 months to a year in amphoras.

It lived up to the hype. The no 5 (2006) was very exotic and scented - my tasting notes say ‘romantic’ and I think this is a wine you could fall in love with. The no 7 (2008) was quite sweet and floral - obviously with a long way still to go while the no 4 (2004) was at its peak - really magnificent, powerful and brooding. And very good with the cheese, dried fruit and nuts it was served with though Frank says he likes to drink it on its own.

I asked Frank what I think many people would wonder which is how he feels about the ever-present danger of a massive eruption on Etna and he simply shrugged and said that he, like the locals, live with it. “If it happens, it happens”

I really liked the wines though am not sure they’re worth the prices they fetch - but there are admittedly very little of them (about 500-700 bottles in the case of the Magma) The man? Not easy. Heavy as the hippies used to say. But who says winemakers have to be smooth-talking PR men?

Oh, and the meal was exceptional. I’ll return to that on my main site matchingfoodandwine.com

Saturday, May 7, 2011

2011 Natural Wine Fair Masterclasses

It's just over a week till the UK's first Natural Wine Fair takes place in Borough market in London - a great occasion for those of us who are already into natural wine and a terrific opportunity to try it for yourself if you aren't. The first day - Sunday May 15th - is open to the public. The second two are trade days.

Details of the Masterclasses have just been published and are listed below:

Sunday 15th May
1:30 – 2:30 ‘Understanding what makes Natural Wine special’
Speaker: Isabelle Legeron MW (that crazy Frenchwoman)
This will include a tutored tasting so please bring your wine glass.

3:00 – 4:00 Alice’s Adventures in Natural Wonderland
Speaker: Alice Feiring (author of ‘The Battle for Wine and Love’)
This will include a tutored tasting so please bring your wine glass.

Monday 16th May
11:00 – 1:00 ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about Biodynamics’
Speaker: Nicholas Joly (La Coulée de Serrant)

3.00 – 4.00 ‘Selling Natural wine in the On-Trade’
Speakers: Doug Wregg (Les Caves), Gerard Basset MW MS (TerraVina), Romain Henry (Hibiscus Restaurant), Xavier Rousset (Texture & 28-50)

Tuesday 17th May
11:30 – 12:30 ‘Natural Wine, a New World perspective’
Speaker: Ron Laughton (Jasper Hill, Australia)

2:30 – 3:30 Monty Waldin & The Meaning of Biodynamics
Speaker: Monty Waldin (author of ‘Monty Waldin’s Biodynamic Wine Guide 2011’ and star of Channel 4’s ‘Chateau Monty’).

All the masterclasses will take place at Elliot’s Cafe, 12 Stoney Street, Borough, London SE1 9AD and are free of charge to those who have bought a ticket for the fair. Admission will be on a first come, first served basis - capacity is 'limited' apparently so get there early!

Monday also sees the start of Natural Wine Fortnight when restaurants and bars all over the country will be featuring natural wines. You can find a full list on the website here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Open day at Calce

It was a bit frustrating to drive through Calce on our recent trip only days before an open day on May 7th when all the local wineries open their doors. The village houses some of the best known names in organic winemaking in the Roussillon, including Domaine Gauby, Olivier Pithon and Domaine Matassa. As you can see the title of the event is Les Caves se rebiffent which losely translates as the cellars hit back.

If you're in the area it's a great opportunity to taste their wines and see what makes this particular spot in the Roussillon so distinctive.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Le Pichenouille, Maury

Another good natural wine bar and shop, this time in Maury, run by negociant Jean Pla - or it was when we went there on Saturday. Apparently he’s handing over to someone else this week.

Unlike the Xadic del Mar Le Pichenouille is more of a restaurant with two long shared tables, one inside and one outside. The menu is simpe with a choice of 2 dishes - 15€ for two courses 19.50€ for three.

The food is simple but well cooked and based on good ingredients - I had a tartine of goats cheese, my husband serrano ham and pan con tomate then we both had slow braised pig’s cheek which went well with a dark brambly Clos d’Origine Les Quilles Libres (l’equilibre - geddit?), a local, organic blend of grenache, syrah and carignan we picked off the shelves for 20€. (They list wine at the same price they sell it in the shop.)

Despite the fact they decanted it it had some pretty tough tannins though was fine with the pork - and better still when we drank it, lightly chilled, the following day.

33, ave Jean Jaurès, 66460 Maury.
Tel: 04 68 59 02 18

Incidentally it was thanks to this guide by Michel Tuz and Alice Feiring which lists both natural wine producers and wine bars that we found the Xadic del Mar and the Pichenouille. Well worth getting if you're travelling around France.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Visiting Le Casot des Mailloles

Having been blown away by the bottle of El Nino I tasted at Hibiscus a couple of months ago I was particularly keen to visit its producers Alain Castex and Ghislaine Magnier of Le Casot des Mailloles when we were down in Collioure last week.

They produce their wine from a tiny chai in the backstreets of Banyuls, just up the road from the natural wine bar El Xadic del Mar and are the real deal. Completely natural. No sulphites.

It made the 2010s we were tasting quite hard to read at this early stage (the current releases tend to be 3-4 years older than this) but there was a live quality about them and an intensity to the underlying fruit that gave you a sense of the experience to come.

The easiest to appreciate was a wonderfully fragrant bottle of El Nino 2010 which had been open 2 days - a blend of Carignan, Grenache Gris and Syrah. We immediately thought of the food we’d like to eat with it - a grilled Gloucester Old Spot pork chop, lamb and beans, veal or Camembert Fermier . . . it's a wine that makes you hungry.

The next three wines were still in tank or cask:

Soula 2010 - 100% Grenache Noir. Still quite funky - almost cheesy - but lovely wild plummy fruit. What Castex described as a microvinification.

Visinum - Syrah, Grenache and Carignan with lipsmacking syrah spiciness. Slightly cidery on the nose but spread out like a peacock’s tail in the glass. Very warming.

Le Poudre d’Escampette - Grenache Noir, Carignan and Mourvèdre (from round Lac Canigou). Very lush and exotic - the Mourvèdre, one of my favourite grapes, dominated.

We also tasted their Blanc du Casot 2009, a rich creamy white with touch of caramelised apple peel, apple pie spices and just a hint of petillance. 60% Grenache Gris, 30% Grenache Blanc and another 10% of assorted varieties like Carignan Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne, which had been planted the traditional way all together.

Having been refused an AOC twice they now don’t bother and simply label their wines vin de table.

We’d been advised to go up to the vineyards if we got the opportunity and fortunately the rainy weather that day broke long enough to drive up there They’re up on vertiginous schistous slopes above the town which they work themselves with a traditional pick called a Xadic.

Everything has to be worked by hand which means they do most of the work themselves. "A lot of people feel that manual work like that is beneath them but for biodynamics you to have contact with the earth" says Castex. “If you drop a cows horn by helicopter there’s not much point, is there?”. Indeed there isn't.

The wines are distributed in the UK by Dynamic Vines.