Natural wines have no sulphur dioxide, sugar or foreign yeasts and are making their way onto a wide range of wine lists, everywhere from small independent bars to Michelin-starred restaurants. Fiona Sims explains how to select and sell them
My glass of red wine stinks a bit - but in a good way. Think sour cherries mixed with well-hung game, dusted in cocoa. And it's a bit fizzy - it's unlike any other wine I've ever tasted before and I'm hooked; so are a growing number of people. Welcome to the world of natural wines.
Natural winemakers are producing wine with little or no sulphur dioxide, no added sugars or foreign yeasts, and you can forget filtering. It flies in the face of modern viticulture.
Sulphur dioxide is used by over 99% of winemakers as a preservative and a disinfectant. It's often added to freshly picked grapes and during the winemaking process to kill any bacteria or wild yeasts. The disadvantage is that it's blamed for causing hangovers, and can, claim some, even trigger an asthma attack.
To their enemies - of which there are many - natural wines are an excuse for bad winemaking. They'll tell you that anyone can make a natural wine - all you have to do is produce something that's oxidised, full of off-flavours and unstable in a bottle.
Some natural wines are a challenge - the whites can taste too cidery, the reds too funky. They're not cheap either - they are made with low yields, picked by hand, by small producers. But at their best they have an astonishing purity of fruit, and an ability to pair even the most delicate flavours, much to the satisfaction of a growing number of top sommeliers.
Restaurants such as Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester and Angela Hartnett's Murano in Mayfair, plus more informal eateries such as La Trouvaille in Soho have embraced natural wines.
You can also add Chris and Jeff Galvin to the list. The brothers, who won Independent Restaurateur of the Year at the recent Catey Awards, have just relaunched the bistro part of their Galvin La Chapelle eaterie as Café a Vin, focusing on natural wines.
"I first tasted these wines a few years ago. The more I learned, the more they made sense to me," says Chris.
The 50-bin list sits mostly in France, but visits Italy and Spain, with lower mark-ups on the more expensive wines in a bid to encourage customers to try them - which they are, he reports, by the ice bucketload.
A GROWING MOVEMENT
Artisan & Vine declared itself the country's first all-natural wine bar when it opened its doors in Clapham, London in July 2008. Owner Kathryn O'Mara got hooked after a biodynamic wine tasting at natural wine enthusiast Green & Blue in East Dulwich, also in London.
Then Terroirs opened its doors a few months later. The restaurant and wine bar, located just off the Strand, has queues snaking down the street for its gutsy grub, cooked by head chef Ed Wilson, and for its wine list packed with natural wines.
Owner Eric Narioo, who also owns Guildford wine supplier Les Caves de Pyrene, has been championing this style of winemaking for the past few years and now offers the largest selection in the country. In fact, Terroirs has been so successful that Narioo is about to open his second place, in East London. "But this will be more hardcore - we will be a bit bolder there," he promises.
The new venture (yet to be named) will open in October and will have up to 70 seats across two rooms, with a daily changing menu chalked up on a blackboard and an all-natural wine list, using the natural wine bars in Paris as a model, says Narioo.
"I think London is getting behind the natural wine scene. There are a few more of us importing these wines now and they are becoming more available in restaurants. I think it's the right time for us to do this," he ponders.
Paris, you see, is natural wine central. At the last count there were over 50 natural wine bars, many clustered around the 9th, 10th and 11th arrondissements, and many more restaurants listing some natural wines.
Pierre Jancou declares himself a natural wine militant. The owner of Racines in Paris got into natural wines seven years ago after exploring organic produce for his previous restaurant, and then started going to natural wine fairs. There's no official movement as such; just a loose association of growers who show their wines at regular gatherings.
There is a high percentage of Japanese customers at Racines. The Japanese have taken to natural wines in a big way - it works well with their food, where modern, over-concentrated blockbusters wouldn't; plus they often aren't as influenced by traditional wine culture as most Westerners are. Natural wine is also gaining ground in the USA, principally in New York and San Francisco.
CLOSER TO HOME
Let's not forget Bristol. The Three Coqs Brasserie opened in May, in Clifton, with an all-natural wine list. Owned by Chris Wicks, chef-patron of Bell's Diner; David Daly, ex-Harvey's and Bordeaux Quay; and Jonathon Mackeson, also from Bell's Diner, it offers 60 natural wines - and nothing else. Wicks is a huge fan and he thinks these wines suit his food best.
You can blame ex-sommelier David Harvey, an old friend, who now imports natural wine through Raeburn Fine Wines, who won over Wicks a few years back with a quirky Bourgueil. "These wines can be scary at first, but keep tasting and you get it, then you're hooked - I can't drink anything else now. It's actually changed the way I think about food, and how it feels in the mouth," explains Wicks.
He reckons he doesn't need a sommelier to sell it. "You just need someone who is interested, and we've found that in our Italian bartender, Andreas, who was a blank canvas, so to speak."
Wicks keeps mark-ups modest - a maximum of £10 per bottle. "I always do cash mark-ups on the top end of the list. We want people to come and we don't want it to be scary. We want them to taste through the list, to discover the wines like we did."
NATURAL WINE AT A GLANCE
Pioneered in the 1960s by Beaujolais enologist Jules Chauvet, whose books on the subject remain hallowed text, there are more than 400 natural winemakers in France, spread throughout the country. And in case you are thinking natural wine is a French thing - it's not. Italy is producing a fair number of natural wines now, and Spain is also showing interest. In fact, you can now find the odd natural winemaker in various parts around the vinous globe, from South Africa to Chile.
HOW TO SELL NATURAL WINE
Ex-sommelier Frederic Grappe started selling natural wine four years ago through his company Dynamic Vines. Back then there was no interest or understanding in these wines but now there is a definite curiosity, he reports. "But they need to be handled carefully. It's important to get the right message across to customers," warns Grappe.
He believes that they should not be kept separately on a wine list, but they do need explaining. "It's about changing people's mindset. They won't always deliver the same emotions. One day they will be great, the next week they may taste a bit under the weather because they haven't been sterilised," he explains.
And Grappe doesn't think they should be priced on the list any lower than conventionally made wines. "They represent good value for the quality. The drinkability is huge so in theory you can sell more. Plus, they are a selling point on their own. I even believe that these wines create a better atmosphere in a restaurant, such is their energy."
FIVE NATURAL WINES TO TRY ON YOUR LIST
2009 C'est le Printemps, Crozes Hermitage
R Dard & F Ribo, France
(£12.95, Les Caves de Pyrène 01483 538820)
"Soft, juicy sour cherry and raspberry fruit with vibrant acidity"
2008 Clos Ouvert Vino Puro, Maule, Chile
(£16.50, Dynamic Vines 020 7287 2179)
"A pure blackcurrant hit - soft, fresh, luscious fruit"
2009 Le Clos du Tue-Boeuf, Cheverny, France
(£8.90, Les Caves de Pyrène)
"Gamey and bloody, with a touch of Marmite savouriness"
2009 Val de Loire, Domaine de Veilloux,
Michel Quenioux, Cheverny, France
(£11.80, Dynamic Vines)
"Quince, apples and honey on the nose with a fresh, crisp finish"
2008 Masieri, Angiolino Maule, Italy
(£7.55, Raeburn Fine Wines 0131 343 1159)
"Preserved lemons and fresh almonds with great minerality and pairing potential"
All prices quoted are ex-VAT