I’ve always been eager to learn more about wine since Colm McCan brought the subject to life for me in Ballymaloe. Food and wine go hand in hand. So I’m working my way through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust exams, now studying for Level 3. It’s like the Leaving Certificate of wine and it’s gotten a bit serious all of a sudden.
I’m drawn to natural wines, only a tiny section of my WSET syllabus. Natural wines are made the way all wine used to be made 8,000 years ago, before we modernised viticulture with chemicals and machine-harvesting. It makes perfect sense to want to drink a naturally made wine when we go to so much trouble to make sure our food is produced to a high standard. Soon, I believe we will try to source natural wines the same way we value free-range organic chicken. We are now keenly aware of what food is processed and how minimum intervention means maximum nutrition and taste. In that respect, wine is no different to any other food or drink we consume.
Recently, I travelled to London to the Raw Wine Fair, founded by Isabelle Legeron MW, France’s first female Master of Wine. Raw Wine celebrates wines with living presence. Wines presented at Raw have to fulfil strict criteria, among them being that the entirety of the domaine from which the grapes are issued must be certified organic and/or biodynamic. They must be hand-harvested and malolactic fermentation must not be blocked.
These criteria would be a nightmare for a large-scale commercial wine maker who relies on controlling those wild yeasts where the grapes are doused in sulphites to prevent any fermentation occurring until it can be tightly controlled. Not that making natural wine is not controlled – in fact, it requires even more precision and attention. The grower needs to listen to the land, plant only what is suitable for the terroir and work with nature to produce perfect grapes before any winemaking can even begin.
These wines are an authentic expression of a place. I was recently at a talk by Bronwen Percival, cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard. She spoke of how cheese should also be a reflection of where it was made and the unique system that farmer is operating. Different types of cheese like brie, camembert and cheddar should only be made in specific places. A Comte from Ireland will never be like a Comte from France due to weather, terrain, soil and the breed of cow that provides the milk. Natural winemakers are acutely aware of such sensitivities, especially when it comes to biodynamic farming.
There were more than 150 growers featured at the fair. They stood chatting and pouring behind brown-paper-covered tables, laden down with the fermented juice of the fruit of their labour, some with colourful wax dripped over the corks and hand-drawn labels. One producer had photos of the beautiful cattle that roam around their vineyard. An Italian grower had bottles of pure unfermented grape juice so we could taste what perfect raw material he begins with.
These are all living wines and have texture. They represent the entire vineyard – soil, stalks, pips and all. The wild yeasts have been tamed and bottled by the winemaker. One of the first wines we tasted was Col Tamarie, a white wine from San Lorenzo, on the highest hill in the Prosecco area of Italy. The wine is made from more than six varieties of grapes, cured with homeopathy and refermented in bottle. I asked if the varieties were all fermented separately and then blended as they would be in regular winemaking to achieve the exact same blend in each batch. This wine is different though, and the grapes are all grown next to one another in alternating rows and are picked by hand and fermented together. Biodiversity is so important. I was shown photos of the vineyard. It’s idyllic with butterflies, sunflowers and rolling hills. The wine was effervescent, dry and elegant with notes of citrus and pear.
A real surprise
One of my favourite wines, and a real surprise, was Triomphe Pét-Nat from Ancre Hill Estates in Wales. Triomphe vines produce plump black fruit filled with dark juice – they’re a sturdy variety and produce a good yield of sweet grapes in Wales’ cool climate. Their Pét-Nat is a sparkling red wine with ripe dark fruits and swirls of cherry. It’s very fresh, alive and drinkable.
I spotted quite a few Pét-Nats or Pétillant-Naturel, which literally means naturally sparkling. These are wines made in a very old, natural way or methode ancestral. They are bottled before primary fermentation is completed and finished without the addition of secondary yeasts or sugars. They’re often cloudy and unfiltered. They usually have a crown-style bottle cap for safety reasons. It’s a very exciting alternative wine for a summer celebration and one I’d choose over prosecco or champagne.
Another Pét-Nat of note came from Peter Wetzer. The soil is dominated by slate on the 2.5ha he works in north-east Hungary. The grapes for his white wines come from 100-year-old vines on a volcano. His pale pink Pét-Nat was refreshing, with watermelon and strawberry fruitiness but none of the sweetness that was promised on the nose.
A Greek orange wine, Kamara Pure Nimbus Ritinus, brought me right back to my grandad’s tins of snuff. The very slight menthol aroma was due to the pine resin they add to the must during fermentation. I loved almost everything I tasted. I see a bright future for natural wines, fizzing and brimming with life.