This post also appears on our Real Wine Fair website. Head there fore more info about the fair, which is taking place in London on the 17-18th March.
A pure hand needs no glove to cover it. ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Why real wine? Is it a name that cocks a snickering snook at something called unreal wine? What’s in a name – that which we would call a red, white or rosé by any other name would smell as sweet/earthy/funky (delete as appropriate) if we termed it natural, naked, artisan, authentic….
Real Wine brings together a group of artisan growers who work similarly but not identically, and posits that the whole process of vine-growing and winemaking is an integral one. The work in the vineyard eschews chemicals, cherishes the environment, is sensitive and hands-on; the work in the winery respects the quality of the grapes and aims to minimise interventions in order to capture the integrity of those grapes and the typicity of the vintage whilst venerating the primacy of terroir.
The Real Wine Fair itself is a moveable feast with different vignerons and different attractions each year. Primarily revolving around the growers and their wines it aims to introduce the public and the wine trade to unique (and sometimes unusual) flavours, indigenous grape varieties, traditional and modern cultures of winemaking. Every grower has his or her own story to tell and every wine tells the story of that grower and the vintage. We are so used to pr hype, the allocation of points, the notion of wine hierarchies, the idea of a product targeted at consumer approval, that we forget that wine has always been a simple artisan product, the simple and signature expression of the land with grapes harvested by hand for the express purpose of drinking. The Real Wine Fair celebrates the purity and deliciousness of these authentic wines.
Facts and figures: The Real Wine Fair 2013 in a nutshell
*Consumer & trade days
*Around 120 growers
*Approximately 600 wines
*Food prepared by top London restaurants
*Artisan food and drink producers
*Pop up restaurant in the evening
*Wine seminars & master-classes
*Wine shop run by Roberson Wine Merchant
*Part of Real Wine Month (March 2013)
The Rationale of Real Wine
This quotation perfectly captures the commercial spirit (imperative?) of the world of wine today.
Last year we put together our inaugural tasting which we called The Real Wine Fair, inviting small independent growers from all over the world to display and discuss their wares. Few trade tastings have a focus so we decided to look for a specific theme. All the growers seemed to be very much “growers” rather than “winemakers”. They would rather talk about the particularity of their region and their vineyards than discuss vinification techniques although they would never underestimate the importance of accurate decision-making and the nature of physical interventions. All eschewed chemical treatments in the vineyard and many were active in various organic and biodynamic movements. To call them organic growers, however, would not be strictly accurate – “organic” has become a quasi-political buzzword and the sometimes vacant intellectual property of bureaucratic agencies – without proper certification, even if they were purer than pure and holier than thou, the term wouldn’t legally stick for several, nor be discriminating or rigorous enough for others. Besides, the word organic may diminish rather than elevate the enterprise in question as a grower might still farm on an industrial scale, for example, moreover use flavoured yeasts, enzymes and other additives in the winery. Organic can be a proscriptive rather than dynamic term; most of the growers exhibiting were considerably more proactive in the vineyard with truly sustainable methodologies promoting biodiversity. A very large number worked en biodynamie. But then biodynamics is a complex philosophy and set of tenets from which even its most ardent proponents tend to cherry-pick. So whilst organic and biodynamic approaches would always crucially underpin the vineyard work of our selected growers, we were looking for a term that was broader and inclusive – in the best sense – as well as more holistic, wherein the implied transition was inevitably being made from minimum impact farming to minimal intervention winemaking.
The word “natural” was bandied about. I have written elsewhere that I don’t have a problem with the term, but some growers and wine merchants would prefer not be pigeon-holed thus, since they associate it purely with zero-sulphur wine. Which is not what it’s about, however, to avoid confusion, we settled eventually on the slogan “real wine”, which had positive connotations and, moreover, proffered an important distinction between the wines we believed in, and the ocean of standardised, over-manipulated products in the market.
So what is real wine? In one sense real wine is the antithesis or antidote to mass-produced, branded wines and the still-prevalent pretentious modern style of over-manipulated, over-flavoured, over-acidified, over-harvested, over-filtered and over-oaked wines that seem to dominate the shelves of the supermarkets and high streets.
I can taste the special banana-flavoured yeast used in this wine
Real wine, however, is not simply a broad counter-blast to intensive farming and industrial winemaking; it is a set of ideas underpinned by particular ethos. Although the practices in the vines and the cellars might never be codified in a strict charter, there can be a rational attempt to tie together essential common practice. The priorities are: the life of the soil; a search for terroir; selection massale; the attachment to historic grape varieties and the refusal of the increasing trend to plant standard varieties; the use of organic treatments; the search for good vine health through natural balance; the refusal of GMOs; the prudent use of chemical plant treatments (if at all); the search for full maturity; manual harvests; the respect for the variability of vintages; the refusal to chaptalize systematically; natural fermentations; a sparing or zero use of SO2; minimum or no filtration; the refusal of standard definition of taste of wines by certain oenological or market trends; the refusal to rely on technical oenological tropes; the move away from extraction; the possibility of experimenting and questioning different aspects of work; respect of history, of roots.
“Realing us in”
It seemed a good idea to unite growers who practised (most of) these principles under one flag, but what was initially a feel-good notion began to assume clearer intellectual shape over the course of the next few months. Such crystallisation linked into and was reinforced by a clearer understanding of the nature of our wine epiphanies; those sublime moments when you are drinking something and are pulled up short by the sheer deliciousness of the wine and emit an uncritical joyful wow! The simplicity of the reaction somehow testifies to its immediacy: “You would want to drink the whole bottle” as our Eric saliently observes, or, as a winemaker famously said: “The best bottle on the table is the empty bottle”. In a certain respect we were beginning to taste wine in a more intuitive and less evaluative fashion and enjoying it for what it was and not what it should be.
We began to identify certain organoleptic similarities between our favourite wines. Displaying lightness and purity of the fruit and recognisable natural acidity, these were nutritious wines that skated lightly and brightly across the palate as opposed to the mesomorphic, lignified, indigestible specimens designed to acquire trinkets at tastings. In an age where many wines were attaining high levels of alcohol, we were discovering that some wines could be lean, fresh, mineral and utterly satisfying, and that certain growers, by using plot-by-plot knowledge of their vineyards and by having an acute awareness of their diverse microclimatic subtleties, could produce gentle, restrained, expressive wines no matter how difficult the vintage. The true grower was also one who would restrict or eliminate invasive interventions in the winery and we increasingly identified with vignerons who would use oak sparingly (or not at all).
We began tasting wines that were either protean, shifting according the mood and the weather, or were vital, prickly, tricky, edgy. Of course, you could identify technical flaws if you were so minded: some volatility here, some reduction there, but they tasted real and alive with their own blood pumping through them as opposed to the pinchbeck wines that we had grown accustomed to and somehow formerly revered as stylish and polished.
Once you get over the notion that wine has to be somehow perfectible and can be pieced together by laboratory clinicians like a chemical jigsaw puzzle then you can accept the wine for what it is. Human beings are not flawless – they would be robots if they were; where is the rule that says that wines should be?
Partisan about the artisan…The winemakers, sorry, vignerons, under the gossamer real wine banner, are as part of an extended family. But they are part of other families also. Some are aligned with natural wine fairs; others are paid-up members of organisations like Renaissance and Biodyvin. Unlike movements which promote only narrow sectional interests these farmers are creating a substantive alternative ethical platform. They are passionate in their conviction that real wine is made in the vineyard and the result of their endeavours is kind of natural truth: to restore true knowledge and to bring terroir back to life so that winegrowers and consumers can rediscover the pleasures of authentic flavours in wine. The growers can be quite prickly about the critics, consultants and wine-buyers whom they view as apologists for globalism and consumer acceptance panels that reduce everything to the commercial imperative . One understands their antipathy; they see an incestuous relationship between corporate interests and the media and read about spoofed up, manufactured wines that receive critical plaudits, whilst their own wines are often dismissed patronisingly as being “quirky”, “commercially irrelevant” or “badly made.”
It was fashionable to debunk terroir for decades. Some scientists still think it’s a myth because it is not quantifiable and yet educated consumers and producers are finding out that the taste of wine, its harmony, its beauty and its elegance stem from a qualitative world whose origins are intangible. These qualities cannot be slapped onto a wine as one replaces a layer of paint. “Quality comes from an organised and intangible whole, which extends to the grapes only when certain laws that generate life on earth are respected. It is the aggregate of all the things that are not done to the wine with nature’s sublime genius (if you will) that makes the wine more real”. (Nicolas Joly) Real wine is about the respect for the processes of nature and the vignerons who interpret the vineyard material and facilitate its transformation into a drinkable and delicious product.