This is an extended version of an article from the Irish Times, 28th April, 2018
Mere mention of the words natural and wine is still guaranteed to start a row amongst wine lovers, although less so than in the past. This is partly down to critics being won over, but also because the wines are improving every year. There are fewer wines that smell of poo or taste like cider.
I like the comparison of natural wine to punk rock. Punk burst on to the music scene in the late seventies and early eighties, an antidote the mega bands that used three drummers and an entire orchestra to produce a concept album. Instead you had three or four piece bands playing simple (often very simple) three minute rock songs. It was a breath of fresh air. For the first time, you could go and see your favourite bands locally. I am old enough to have experienced it all; in the first few heady years, I saw The Jam, the Stranglers, The Clash, The Ramones, and even a few of the Sex Pistols, and many many more.
In the same way, the natural wine movement brought wine back to its roots. Small producers making tiny lots of wine, generally from unfashionable areas, using local grapes. Instead of hugely expensive ‘luxury’ wines pampered and cosseted every step of the way by a large corporation, or cheap mass-produced wines that had been made in a laboratory, you had simple wines, made with minimal interference. You can take the punk analogy further; many of the bands were truly awful. The ability to play an instrument was considered optional, and a host of ‘artists’ deservedly sunk without trace. Others went on to achieve international stardom, wealth and, in time, joined and improved mainstream music. You can say exactly the same about natural wine; along with some thrilling fresh fruit-filled wines, you have others ‘that taste like they’ve been filtered through a porcine duodenum’, to quote Observer food critic Jay Rayner. I suspect the natural wine movement has obliged mainstream producers to question their production methods, while commercial realities may have reined in the more extreme natural winemakers.
My first encounter with natural wine was back in the mid-1990s while on a wine-buying trip in France. Looking for a supplier of Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage, we visited Dard & Ribo, a producer we had heard good things about. The wines were incredible, fresh and invigourating with superb fruit and an amazing vitality. Monsieurs Dard and Ribo explained in French their new way of working with low or no added sulphur. Thrilled with our new discovery, we asked for samples to be sent to Dublin. There they languished in my office for a month or so. When we finally go around to tasting them, it was a massive disappointment. The wines were dull, some oxidised, others stinking of Brett. We didn’t buy.
Fast forward twenty years to April 2018, and I tasted a Crozes Hermitage Rouge Les Baties 2016 from the same Dard & Ribo at the Le Caveau spring portfolio tasting. It was stunning; fragrant and bursting with fruit, charged with that same wonderful vibrancy and life. Obviously, this natural wine producer has changed for the better and Le Caveau know how to store them.
Two high priests of the movement visited Ireland recently. Both gentlemen are very French in very different ways. Thierry Puzelat is enthusiastic and passionate, Jean Foillard is less effusive and initially withdrawn. Both paid homage to ‘the Pope’ the late Marcel Lapierre, a producer in Morgon who started it all back in early 1990’s. ‘Lapierre was the father of it all’, says Foillard. ‘He converted a small group of people (his youngest friends) and the message spread out from there. It (natural wine) seems obvious today, but it was very lonely back then. Everyone, even your neighbours, told us we were doing it wrong.’ However, Lapierre in turn was a disciple of Jules Chauvet, a traditionalist who railed against much of what was happening in Beaujolais throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. Foillard was joined by Jean-Paul Thévenet in Mâcon, and Guy Breton in Beaujolais. Lapierre passed away in 2010.
Jean Foillard also owns vineyards in Morgon in Beaujolais, and Thierry Puzelat in the Loire valley. Inspired by Lapierre, they began to take wine back to it’s roots. ‘We did not invent anything, We simply returned to what our grandfathers did,’ says Puzelat. ‘I went to school where I learnt to make wine in the normal way, using all the standard treatments. Then one day I tasted a glass of wine and thought s**t! That’s what I want to drink; and to make.” Neither uses organic or biodynamic certificates or symbols on their labels, but say the have all the certificates. ‘It is all about the quality, not the signals’, says Foillard. Both say they prefer less ripe vintages. With his father, there were only a few ripe vintages in a lifetime. Now they are commonplace and less interesting to make. 2014, Foillard says, was a long slow maturing vintage that doesn’t have the richness or power of the 2015, and had higher yields, but the wines are good, (his are excellent).
There is no legal definition for natural wine. Many argue that all wine is natural, yet that ignores the level of manipulation, – additives and treatments – that are standard in a great many ‘normal’ wines, inexpensive wines in particular. These days, many prefer to use the terms low-intervention or light-touch instead of natural. The basic tenets are organic or preferably biodynamic viticulture, but certainly never using herbicides or fungicides. In fermentation there is no indigenous yeasts, no enzymes, filtering or fining, no chaptalisation or acidification, and most controversial of all, little or no sulphur. A winemaker walks a tightrope when they under-sulphur or don’t add any at all. Sulphur (a natural byproduct of fermentation) has been used since Roman times to prevent bacterial spoiling and oxidising.
I came across an interesting article about bread in The Guardian by Joanna Blythman. Much of what she writes could also apply to wine. “Others prefer to stick with tried and tested “natural” foods made by traditional methods because they quite legitimately interpret the presence of multiple additives in products as signifiers of debased factory food, mainly used for purposes of fakery….proponents of our industrial food system slur defenders of traditional food standards and practices as luddites, hopeless romantics, scientifically incompetent scaremongers railing against technological progress. They would love to tie us up in a never-ending philosophical debate about what “natural” means. She writes that our own Food Safety Authority of Ireland has tried to define the word natural (alongside three other debased terms – ‘Artisanal’, ‘Farmhouse’ and ‘Traditional); “The ingredients are formed by nature and are not significantly interfered with by man.” Obviously this is open to all sorts of interpretation, with many food (and sometimes wine) producers using all sorts of ‘natural’ flavourings, and additives as well as complicated processes that can hardly be described as natural. Blythman finishes ‘We live in a world where big food manufacturers and retailers constantly use our food vocabulary to fit their own agenda. The word “natural” is in the frontline of our battle to reclaim it”.
Natural wines are a mixed bag. Some are clearly faulty, or at least, have aromas that have little to do with wine (or ‘terroir’ as some claim). Others taste more like cider. Puzelat agrees: For the first five years, we made a lot of vinegar’, he says, adding that it takes a decade or more to convert your vineyards to sustainable viticulture. But the good natural wines have a wonderful freshness and purity, a liveliness not always found in everyday wines. They are a joy to drink.
While it is easier to farm organically in warmer, drier climates, wines from cooler regions have higher acidity, which acts as a natural antiseptic. It may be no coincidence that the highest concentration of natural wines are found in the Loire and Beaujolais, both regions that produce wines high in acidity and low in alcohol.
The natural wine movement has gathered momentum over the last five years and generated huge in interest in wine amongst younger consumers who may have been put off by a perceived (or real) stuffiness in wine drinking. It has also brought focus back to genuine artisanal growers. I believe that generally, the best, most interesting wines come from small producers who care for their vineyards and often work organically or biodynamically. They also use as few treatments as possible in the cellar. Some may describe themselves as natural, but others clearly are not. Pascal Rossignol of specialist importer Le Caveau probably got it right when he argued it is not just about levels of sulphur. ‘Honest wine is about trust; wine that is made by good growers, working with good importers and sold to wine drinkers who care’. ‘Natural wine is not the aim’, says Puzelat. ‘It is not enough. We have to make good wine naturally’. Few could disagree with that.
Soave Colli Scaligieri Castelcerino 2015 Filippi
A delicious light Soave with a waxy touch, some peach and yellow apple fruits mixing in with marzipan and a lively streak of mineral acidity. Made from biodynamically grown grapes with minimal sulphur, it has a pleasant leesy touch too. Drink by itself or with lighter seafood dishes.
Stockists: Le Caveau, Kilkenny lecaveau.ie; 64 Wine, Glasthule, 64wine.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, thecorkscrew.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, grenmanwines.ie; Bradley’s, Cork, Bradleysofflicence.ie
Thierry Puzelat Le P’tit Blanc du Clos Tue-Bouef 2016, Vin de France
Sauvignon with a difference. Organic, low-sulphur wine, lightly aromatic with clean apple and quince fruits, a refreshing texture, finishing dry. By itself or with creamy goat’s cheese salad.
Stockists: Le Caveau, Kilkenny, lecaveau.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham St, thecorkscrew.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; 64 Wine, Glasthule, 64wine.ie.
Laderas del Valle Malbec 2015, Barbarians, Tupungato, Argentina
Malbec with a difference; light, vivid, mouth-watering dark fruits with hardly a tannin in sight. Instead of steak, go for lightly spicy pork or lamb kebabs.
Stockists: Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, jusdevine.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; Deveneys, Dundrum; Redmonds, Ranelagh, Redmonds.ie
Morgon ‘Le Classique’ 2016 Foillard
Superb fresh crunchy red fruits, all cherries and blueberries, with a cleansing backbone of acidity. Drink now or keep for five years. Perfect with all manner of charcuterie or a grilled pork chop.
Stockists: Le Caveau, Kilkenny, lecaveau.ie; Bradleys, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham St, thecorkscrew.ie; Baggot St. Wines, baggotstwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, blackrockcellar.com; MacGuinness Wines, Dundalk, Dundalkwines.com; Green Man Wines, Terenure, Greenmanwines.ie; Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer St, D2, fallonandbyrne.com; Mitchell & Son, IFSC, Glasthule & Avoca Kilmacanogue and Dunboyne, mitchellandson.com; 64 Wine, Glasthule, 64wine.ie; World Wide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie
A sulphur-free wine. Light and fruity with a slight fuzziness that did not detract from the freshness or the stewed green fruits. A lovely summer glass.
Stockists: Mary Pawle Wines, marypawlewines.com
An amazing full-on floral nose, rich vibrant fruit cut through perfectly with a streak of citrus acidity. Wow! Biodynamic, low sulphur.
Stockists: SIYPS.com; Sheridan’s Cheesemongers.
A fascinating truly exciting wine with floral spicy aromas, funky marzipan and luscious ripe peaches finishing on a saline note. Low sulphur, Organic.
Stockists: SIYPS.com; Sheridan’s Cheesemongers.
No added Sulphur. Concentrated dark plums with real depth and length. It has a lovely lightness and freshness that make it dangerously easy to drink.
Stockists: Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; 64 Wine, Glasthule, 64wine.ie; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, jusdevine.ie; Quintessential Wines, Drogheda quintessentialwines.ie