–By Francisca Jara V.
Translation by Amy Morgan.
In the world of wine, almost everything can be controlled. From the temperature of fermentation to its colour. But last May, 170 producers from 20 countries gathered at The Real Wine Fair to show the world – in 700 wines – that it’s also possible to use little or no intervention. This is the story of a journey through London and the natural wine bars that must not be missed.
It’s 10 in the morning and the 18 degrees forecast for this May 7th haven’t yet appeared. But the cold breeze that gets right to your core even in summer, reminds me that I am in London. In the East of the city. I walk quickly to warm up. But above all, I want to get there on time. “This opportunity won’t come around again until 2019”, I think to myself. I make my way through streets filled with Arabian bakeries and Made in India clothes shops where there are more migrants than Brits. It reminds me of Patronato but cleaner and more modern. Until I reach the first signs that I’ve arrived. A brick wall with large, blue letters on the roof saying ‘Tobacco Dock’. In this hundred year old building, a short walk from the iconic London Bridge, on May 7 th & 8th we experienced the latest edition of The Real Wine Fair. One of the first natural wine fairs in the world and surely, today, the most important in Europe. Not only because it gathers 170 winemakers from 20 countries under one roof to present over 700 wines. But also for its excellent natural light, unlimited wifi and ample space, all of which combine to make it a place where the winemakers themselves want to be. For them it’s a wonderful environment not only to show case their wines but also to gather amongst peers. For consumers, it’s the perfect opportunity to meet the winemakers in person, try their wines, hear their stories and ask questions. Among them, sommeliers, trade press, wine buyers (predominantly importers), bar and restaurant operators. All in, a community. To explain it better, and in its own words, The Real Wine Fair is “an independent festival of those who make wine naturally, comprising those who work organically and/or biodynamically, and with very little or zero intervention in the winery”. Accordingly, the wines are made in small quantities, by artisans or producers who work without chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides), in low yielding vineyards, who vinify without artificial yeasts or enzymes and without correction. The only additive occasionally added, for the preservation of the wine, is a tiny amount of sulphites. In simple terms: wines made with minimal intervention.
From Orange Wines and Indigenous Grape Varieties
While wandering through The Little Gallery (the area of the show for wines from France, Spain and Portugal), the first thing that grabbed my attention was the colour of the bottles. From the amusingly illustrated labels to the liquids contained within: yellows, ambers, oranges, pinks, sparkling, reds and purples. Some clear, some cloudy. Drawn in by a visual desire, I found myself at the stand of legendary French winemakers, Catherine & Pierre Breton, who presented – among other things – a light, playful cabernet franc with smooth tannins, freshly pulled from an ice bucket. To be drunk by the litre. As unusual for the grape variety as for its origin, the Loire.
Further along, a producer from Rioja, famous for his robust tempranillos, presented the indigenous varieties viura and malvasia riojana (both white), macerated on skins for 12 months, producing wines with tannin and an orange colour. “A decision that almost lost us our DOC status”, winemaker of Bodegas Honorio Rubio, Alberto Pedrajo, told me. Opposite him, Nicholas Marcos from Dominio Urogallo let us taste his wines from Asturias, a lesser known and mountainous wine region, also made from salvaged local varieties: white grapes albarín and albillo, and the red verdejo rojo. The outcome? Wines of excellent quality.
The rest of the European winemakers and those from the New World could be found in The Great Gallery. I headed for Italy. There, Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti, who made a name for herself with her delicate expressions of nero d’avola and the indigenous frappato, cultivated on organic soils; the project of her uncle, Giusto Occhipinti, COS, who has been vinifying native varieties in amphora and concrete tanks since 1980; Elena Pantaleoni from La Stoppa; Stefano Bellotti, producer from Piedmont and the biggest exponent of biodynamic cultivation in Italy. All clear examples of how the natural approach looks to bring wine back to its purest form. Back to its roots.
And without needing to go much further, next was Georgia, the oldest winemaking region in the world and birthplace of natural wine, represented by 5 winemakers. One of these was Pheasants Tears, who have revived the practice of vinification in Qvevri (clay or terracotta amphora buried in the ground) and rescued some 500 native varieties, such as the red saperavi. In Georgia wines are always fermented on skin, regardless of whether they are red or white (the latter of which result in orange wines), without temperature control or added yeasts. But the orange wine movement was really born on the borders of Italy and Slovenia. Viña Cotar for example, from Slovenia’s coastal region of Karst, showed me what malvasia is really capable of. A fresh, summery, orange wine with 11.5% alcohol and the perfect partner for seafood. Just as they do in the town where it’s made.
In amongst all the history, however, the New World was also getting people talking. So I headed off to taste some chenin blancs from South Africa, where I came across the project of Craig Hawkins who makes wine in Swartland, eight under his Testalonga label and three under the name Baby Bandito. From the former, his cloudy Bandito chenin blanc caught my attention with its dry, honeyed notes and high acidity; and from the latter, a carignan more akin to strawberry juice. Next up came the runway of US producers. There were 14 exhibiting, predominantly from Oregon and California and another, super-interestingly from Vermont, La Garagista: A farm and vineyard in one, with three different soil types where they grow hybrid varieties (not vitis vinifera) such as crescent, Marquette and Frontenac gris, to name but a few. Using methode ancestral, a petillant naturel (or pet nat, made by bottling the wine before fermentation has finished so that it ends in bottle and results in gently sparkling wines). A difficult process and one, in this case, with remarkable results. I couldn’t resist buying a couple of bottles of their white (they also make a rosé), Grace and Favour.
Chile ‘Au Naturel’
Next, I obviously went to see what my native country had to offer. But sadly, Chile’s presence was limited. The only winemakers present were De Martino, A los Viñateros Bravos by Leonardo Erazo and Vidacycle, a project in Loncomilla that makes rosé examples of país. Anyone who likes these wines knows that the Chilean natural wine scene is much broader than that. “When we created los Chanchos with (Louis Antoine) Luyt, it was to demonstrate wines that couldn’t be found in shops or in the big fairs. Everywhere was monopolised by the same distributor” says Sebastian Alvear, one of the creators of Chanchos Deslenguados, the Chilean natural wine fair that started off with seven exhibitors and which, on May 27th , brought together 26 winemakers for its 14th edition. “All natural wines are different because the winemakers are motivated by different things. In Chile, for example, the priority was to re-establish the use of old vinification techniques and the país grape” Alvear adds. In December 2016, the movement brought about the creation of la Asociación Gremial de Productores de Vinos Campesinos de Chile (Trade Union Association of Rural Winemakers of Chile), created by four winemakers from the valleys of Biobio and Maule (Manuel Moraga, Mauricio Gonzalez, Renán Cancino and Roberto Henriquez) along with sommelier Macarena Lladser. Together they worked with grape varieties país, moscatel, corinto, Semillon and torontel. “I work this way due to a love of traditions that are fast disappearing. There is nothing more beautiful than following the cycle of the earth which changes constantly, and seeing each season reflected in honest, real wines” explains Roberto Henriquez, who works with país in Biobio, and with moscatel, corinto and Semillon in Itata under the name Ribera del Notro. “You could say that natural wine is an acquired taste and learning to appreciate it can destroys beliefs that you might previously have been sure of” adds Alvear. “In terms of the market, the progression of natural wines in Chile is still small. Consumers of natural wines are looking for genuine products, that have a story and represent something. They want to know about the people behind the wines, not a standardised product but an honest one. The number of consumers after that ideal is growing all the time” Sebastian de Martino, vineyard manager, assures me.
Last April the English magazine Decanter published the results of their first panel tasting of natural wines. The winner, with 94 points, was orange wine, Ageno 2011, made by La Stoppa from their 50 hectares of organic vineyards in Emilia-Romagna. But in 2011 the UK’s natural wine scene didn’t yet exist. It was then that “The Natural Wine Fair” came to be, organized by Master of Wine, Isabelle Legeron, and natural wine importer Les Caves de Pyrene, although the collaboration quickly ended. While Isabelle created Raw Wine Fair, Les Caves de Pyrene – with a portfolio of natural wine icons – continued under the name The Real Wine Fair. Their next edition will take place in 2019.
Four London Natural Wine Bars Not To Be Missed
Located in the most hipster part of London, Shoreditch, and one of the preferred restaurants of English actress and wine lover, Keira Knightley. It opened six years ago as one of the first restaurants to work solely with natural wines and its list of 200 labels is dominated by examples from France and Italy, although there are also gems from Austria, Australia and South Africa, to name but a few. They always have 4 whites and 5 reds available by the glass (from £5) which change regularly. With them comes a seasonal menu designed to shine a light on the best produce available at the time, usually comprising fish, seafood and pasta. It’s not cheap and you have to book but it’s worth it.
This wine bar, shop and bistro offers everything from breakfast through to dinner and regularly runs wine events. Whether they be opportunities to meet the growers or tastings, there is always a relaxed, informal and welcoming atmosphere. The large bar also serves spirits but their list of more than 300 wines is the focus here. In addition, wine is sold from a large stainless steel tank and available both in bulk and by the glass (a glass and the daily special is available for just £10). Some of the dishes not to be missed include the beef tartare with fresh herbs and peas, or the lamb chops with smoked onion, asparagus and morels. Also, of course, their astonishing list of wines by the glass at prices that start at £3.50.
The philosophy of this wine bar is to pour wines that reflect a sense of their origin, the nuances of their vintage and the personality of the winemaker. Following this approach, they offer 350 different natural wines (also available to take away) together with plates of cheese, charcuterie, small plates and daily specials. Located in the centre of London since 2008, it’s perfect for an informal, French bistro style dinner, and offers great value for money. They also sell wines by the glass (from £4): generally 3 sparkling (always with a champagne among them), a rosé, an orange wine, 5 whites and 5 reds. The Moscatel Viejas Tinajas from De Martino and the carignan from Villalobos are the only Chilean wines listed.
Located just opposite the historic Borough Market, this little restaurant sources the best ingredients available before preparing them on a wood fired grill. This unique method concentrates the flavours of the produce, before bringing it together with a list of 80 natural wines (ranging from £27 to £78 per bottle) chosen by Master Of Wine, Isabelle Legeron. Among them, a sparkling, a rosé, an orange wine, 4 whites and 4 reds are offered by the glass. They are famous for their dry aged beef burger which, to give you an idea, along with a glass of wine comes in at about £15.