Choosing and selling natural wines

20 May 2011 by
Choosing and selling natural wines

An increasing number of winemakers are producing natural wines, with no additives, but they can be very different to conventional varieties, both in taste and appearance. So how can you entice your customers to try them? Fiona Sims reports

There's something up in the world of wine. An increasing number of winemakers are trying to do as little as possible to their products. I'm talking natural wines - those made with little intervention, eschewing chemicals both in the vineyard and the winery, and using the bare minimum of additives, or none at all.

It's the next stop past organics and bio-dynamics, and a poke in the eye to Robert Parker, the powerful US critic, and his love of big, show-off wines. It's winemaking laid bare, faults and all.

And natural wines are quietly working their way onto UK wine lists, from pubs and bars to fine-dining restaurants. This week London played host to the inaugural Natural Wine Fair at Borough Market. Five natural wine importers brought their products to the wider public, showing over 500 different wines from 120 growers, from France to Australia.

People want to drink less and better
One newcomer to the business that took part in the event is supplier Aubert & Mascoli, which started selling natural wines two years ago and now has 70 restaurants on its books. It reports a significant increase in interest since last summer.

"It's not just about where food comes from and how it's produced that's interesting people now; it's about wine, too," says co-founder Guillaume Aubert.

"It was tricky to sell these wines at first, but I think people want to drink less and better. When we sell wine, we sell a story. It's not just about whether it tastes of chocolate or smells of bananas; there's the human story, which is often intense, and people like that."

Spearheaded by the country's largest natural wine supplier - Guildford-based Les Caves de Pyrene, which is credited for putting natural wines on the map in the UK - the Natural Wine Fair attracted plenty of interest, not least from dozens of participating restaurants, from Glasgow to Cornwall, who agreed to carry natural wines by the glass over a fortnight.

This is a big step up for natural wine. Until now, it's mostly been a London thing, as a growing number of natural wine bars have popped up around the capital, garnering rave reviews, from Green and Blue in East Dulwich, Artisan and Vine in Clapham, to Bar Battu in the City, and trailblazer Terroirs in the West End, and its newly opened sibling, Brawn, further east.

They were inspired, in part, by the natural wine bars of Paris. The French capital is an obvious hub for the country's natural wine producers, which far outnumber those in the rest of the world. And they sell the full gamut of natural wines, warts and all.

It's the warts - or rather the funky, feral aromas and oxidised palate of the more extreme natural wines, that have prompted wide debate in the wine industry. Critics dismiss them as faulty and undrinkable, with the harshest words reserved for the whites. They're not cheap, either, with many between £7.50 and £12 per bottle (ex-VAT), and a few topping £100 per bottle.

The spectrum of natural wines ranges confusingly from cloudy, earthy and feral to vibrant, fruity and elegant, and many are just there for glugging, made with the sole purpose to express the most primary fruit possible. To the converts, it's the so-called faults that imbue the wine with its character.

"There is a preconception that all white wines should be clean and frisky, like newborn lambs. Well, some of us prefer mutton," says Les Caves' Doug Wregg. "Oxidation is not necessarily a fault when it is part of the winemaking process, and wild yeast fermentations can provide signature flavours to a wine."

There's the issue of sulphites, too, or rather the lack of them. Natural winemakers use the bare minimum, and in some cases none at all, which increasingly appeals to the health conscious.

Sulphur dioxide is used by 99% of winemakers, mainly as a preservative. The disadvantage is that it can whiff a bit, and is blamed for causing many a hangover, and it can, claim some, even trigger an asthma attack, though the scientific evidence to support this is rather flimsy.

But natural wine is moving beyond the geeky wine bar to upscale brasseries and fine-dining restaurants. The latest chef to make the switch is Claude Bosi, of two-Michelin-starred London restaurant Hibiscus, who announced recently that his new wine list is almost entirely devoted to natural wines.

Bosi had a Damascene moment - during a visit to renowned Italian natural wine producer Josko Gravner in Friuli last summer. "These wines are alive, and they make my food taste more alive," he declared.

Bosi drafted in French sommelier and natural wine enthusiast Romain Henry, who has built up the 320-bin list with a mix of organic, biodynamic and natural wines, including an eight-strong section dedicated to orange wines, the most hardcore of natural wines, deliberately oxidised and delivering challenging flavours for the natural wine novice.

"I've not taken a bottle back yet. It's all about giving the customer confidence," reveals Henry. "But not every sommelier can sell these wines. They are scared how customers might react when faced with a glass of something funky, fizzy or oxidised. But if you explain to the customer that there's a little drawer in their brain that is not yet open to these wines, which is full of flavours they have yet to recognise, they grow more confident and leave here surprised and excited."

Henry also advises anyone who wants to start selling these wines that it helps if they get to know the winemakers first. "Little anecdotes you can share make all the difference," he suggests.

Another Michelin-starred restaurant increasing its listings of natural wine is Angela Hartnett's Murano. Head sommelier Marc-Andréa Lévy offers a large selection of natural wines - albeit the less hairy ones.

"For me it's a quality issue. I'd say 300 of our 500-bin list are now organic and biodynamic, though I only have six that are completely un-sulphured," he confesses. "While I personally like some of those wines they aren't right for Murano - they're just too rustic, often with earthy, farmyard aromas that aren't acceptable in a fine-dining restaurant," he reasons.

Capturing the imagination
While listings of natural wine are creeping up around the country, the South West has become a particular hotspot. "I think it's because we are particularly focused on the environment and local sourcing down here," ponders Oliver Gibson, food and beverage manager of the Scarlet Hotel in Cornwall, which has 12 natural wines on its 130-bin list.

The Scarlet Hotel won the AA Guide's Eco Hotel of the Year and Gibson was keen to make sure that this philosophy extends to the wine list. "We have no New World wines on the list and most people think it's because we are concerned about food miles, but it's more that we wanted to highlight some of the exciting things going on in the Old World, with its small, crazy growers. There's a move back to more traditional ways when people didn't add so much and we're interested in minimal environmental impact," he explains.

To help sell the wines, Gibson and his team impart as much knowledge about the producers as they can, explaining natural wines at every opportunity, even including them in a weekly tasting for guests, and on the wine-pairing menu. "It does require a lot of selling but once they get it, they're hooked. There's something about these wines," he says.

The Scarlet Hotel's wines are supplied by Cornish supplier Ellis Wharton, who is also taking part in the Natural Wine Fair. "It's something we are moving into more and more - though we've always been drawn to organic and small growers," says Ellis Wharton's Lucy Cornes. "It seems to have captured people's imaginations. It fits in well with the eat local and eat organic philosophy, plus people are only just realising what is added to wine."

Natural wines may have a way to go before they become mainstream, but then mainstream is probably the last thing that these winemakers want.

How to sell natural wine

â- If you can tell the story behind the wine it helps to sell it
â- Remember (and accept) that wines (especially natural wines) will show differently on different days
â- Always store and serve natural reds on the cool side
â- Carafing the whites is a good idea, especially those with long skin contact
â- Reds also need to breathe - some can be reductive on the first sniff but this should dissipate in the glass
â- Virtually all the wines are unfiltered - don't be surprised to see deposits or crystals in whites or reds
â- Virtually all the wines are unfined and therefore may be cloudy - this is not a problem
â- Suggest appropriate food and wine matches to enhance the experience
â- If a customer doesn't like a wine take it back and suggest an alternative

Biodynamic wine Over the moon
The term ‘biodynamic' translates roughly from Greek as ‘working with life energies'. Biodynamic wines are made from grapes grown following the principles of biodynamic agriculture, which stems from a series of lectures delivered by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), linking man, the earth and the cosmos.

A biodynamic farmer sees the farm in the context of a wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms. They don't use any synthetic fertilisers or pesticides; instead, they use a range of special preparations - from oak bark to the more crazy-sounding yarrow flowers fermented in a stag's bladder - to boost the soil, which are diluted, then applied in homeopathic quantities according to the position and influences of the sun, moon and stars.

Confused? Often so are the winemakers. "It's like Japanese if you jump straight into it - it's too esoteric, too strange," offers renowned biodynamic winemaker André Ostertag, in Alsace, which isn't very helpful.

It sounds mysterious, but grape growers who have embraced it report huge improvements in the health of their vineyards, while winemakers claim cleaner, more vibrant wines.

"At first, you can't believe the stories that you hear, but once you see for yourself what is going on in the vineyard you are more ready to accept it," adds another convert, Dominique Lafon, from the great Meursault estate of the same name.

It certainly helps that these superstar winemakers have converted their vineyards to biodynamics, lending weight to the legions of small unknown growers who are also embracing the movement.

Many natural winemakers work with biodynamic or organic grapes. However being certified doesn't apply to the techniques or products the winemaker may use back in the winery. This is where the term natural wine comes in - it means the winemaker minimises intervention and manipulation during the winemaking process, with reflecting ‘terroir' the main aim.

Though your natural winemaker also has far less control over the finished product, which increases in a difficult year, so conventional intervention may come into play to prevent the wine from spoiling. In short, they have to be very clever winemakers - and a little bit bonkers.

Five natural wines to consider for your list

2009 Cos Rami Bianco, Vittoria, Sicily
£11.15, Les Caves de Pyrene
01483 538820
"A weighty blend of indigenous varieties Inzolia and Grecanico, it offers fresh almonds and straw on the nose, with a powerful pear and citrus finish"

2009 Les Grenouillères, Montlouis sur Loire, Domaine La Grange Tiphaine, Loire, France (medium dry)
£13.10, Wine Story
07921 770691
"This proves why Chenin Blanc deserves greater recognition - especially with a bit of residual sugar, delivering a blossomy, mineral mouthful with balancing lime and honey"

2009 Gamay La Boudinerie, Noella Morantin, La Tesniere, Touraine, France
£9.30, Les Caves de Pyrene
01483 538820
"The intense purple rim gives way to surprisingly delicate red fruits on the palate, with a spicy, herbaceous kick on the finish"

2007 Cahors "Le Combal", Domaine Cosse Maisonneuve, Cahors, France
£9, Dynamic Vines
020 7287 2179
"This 100% Malbec offers a big pruney, liquorice hit but with elegance and balance"

Rosé des Sables, Vin de Table, JoÁ«l Courtault, Touraine, Loire, France
£12.39, Aubert & Mascoli
020 7734 5399
"There's much fun to be had with this pink Cabernet fizz, which offers crunchy sour cherry and raspberries and a soft, generous mousse, with a minerally finish"

All prices quoted are per bottle ex-VA

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