June 08, 2012 2 comments
–by Doug Wregg
The Math(s), The Aftermath & The Aftermyth
or leave your baggage behind…
“People need to get out more often”, said a Vin Nature sceptic who had admirably screwed his courage to the sticking-place – and got out. “I didn’t expect to find so many wines I could drink”, he continued enthusiastically. A hit, a palpable hit. And one of many.
Random Facts and figures
Venue: B1, Victoria House, Holborn… going underground, going underground
Sunday: Bright, cool, a touch of breeze
Monday: Mild, cloudy with sunny intervals
Tuesday: Warm and sunny
Marie Thun: Root, root and more root
184 growers from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Croatia & Australia…
Over 800 wines…
The vast majority certified organic and/or biodynamic…
240 restaurants participating in the Natural Wine Fortnight…
30+ associated dinners & masterclasses…
A world of flavours to discover…
To 180 + growers for donating wine and time
Passione Vino, Vine Trail, Indigo Wines, Carte Blanche Wines, Portuguese Story, Pacta Connect, Roberson, Les Caves de Pyrene, Aubert & Mascoli, Vin Authentique
And… Viniveri (Italy), Green & Blue, East Dulwich
Food & drink
The Modern Pantry, Ottolenghi, Morito, The Ham & Cheese Company, Caravan Coffee, Camden Brewery, Sipsmith Distillery, Sacred Microdistillery, Androuet Cheese, Hansen & Lydersen Smoked Salmon, Bath Pig, Mr Trotter’s Pork Scratchings, Bread Bread, Melrose & Morgan, Pixley Berries, Perniga Olive Oil
Michel Tolmer, Louise Sheeran
PR & website
Christina Pickard (website, media), Natasha Claxton (R & R Reamwork), Rosamund Barton ( R & R Teamwork), And all the others at R & R who helped, Janko Matic (website design), Nathan Nolan
The Terroirs gang – Ed, Pascal, Oli & Cecile
Jonathan Nossiter x 2, Alice Feiring x 2, Monty Waldin, Jamie Goode, Max Allen, Olivier Cousin, John Wurdeman, Tom Lubbe, Craig Hawkins
Amy Morgan (organiser-in-chief), Vanessa Woodfine
What they said about the Real Wine Fair
“Thought the Real Wine Fair was brilliant; good to see you again, hear Alice Feiring’s talk, try the ‘new’ Aussie stuff and Craig Hawkins less mainstream wines, along with the Loire ‘Mavericks’ all exciting. Also really enjoyed the dinner. Food and wine were memorable nonetheless – an ‘embarras de richesses’.” – Piers Markham, Whistle Wines
“Congratulations on an excellent event – serious, comprehensive, extremely well organised, and I discovered some new wines!” – Jason Miller, wine merchant Twenty Gauloises
“The Real Wine Fair was the best tasting I have attended for a long time” – Rachel Higgins, Corks of Cotham, Bristol
“Great wines… discovered loads of new things” – Peter Bamford, Modern French Wines
“Amazing, eclectic, characterful wines from lovely people!! Why we’re in the wine biz!!” – Douglas Lowe, merchant Origin Wines
“The London Wine Trade Fair could learn a thing or two from this show.. Real people, real friendships.. Real wine” – Fiona Sims, Caterer & Hotelkeeper
“Dinner was fantastic!” – Richard Bouglet, L’Art du Vin, Scotland.
“It wasn’t just that the food was delicious – and generous – but the way it was served on big sharing plates. Just the way things should be at a wine dinner.” – Fiona Beckett, The Guardian & Wine Naturally
“Merci beaucoup pour ce super salon, ambiance géniale, super organisation…j’ai beaucoup apprécié ces quelques jours à Londres” –Adrien, Mas Foulaquier, Pic Saint-Loup
Anti-Semantic – The final word?
What’s in a name? You could either seek to legitimise the words “real” or “natural” by introducing a strict code to describe natural wines, a set of commandments that dictates whether growers are allowed to be part of the natural tribe. And attract opprobrium for being extremist and exclusive. Or you can be more relaxed in the terminology, allow a broader definition of the wines and invite opprobrium for being woolly and non-prescriptive. We understand what a natural wine refers to and we pretty well know what real wine indicates – the playground antics of word fetishists are irrelevant to the nub of the argument which is simply that wine can be better for having less done to it.
Participants in the fair included growers certified every step of the way, some who have abandoned appellation and are anti-establishment, some making zero intervention wines and others who make low-to-moderate intervention wines. We need to recognise the needs of the individuals every bit as much as promoting an inflexible ideology. I am for rainbow alliances, for dialogue, for bringing people on board through rather than setting up a movement in isolation. The instant you try to determine behaviour by creating command structures and laying out rules, is the instant you begin to deny individual freedom and exclude those who should be included.
There has been so much blah-blah written about natural wine and I am conscious of jumping down people’s throats when I feel that they have pronounced airily and fairily (or unfairily) on the subject without sufficient evidence for their assertions. I suppose if your sole experience of vins natures is the odd, isolated crook bottle you taste in a bar, or buy in a shop, you are probably not best equipped to generalise, although it might be natural, as it were, to assume the worst. By getting a hundred and eighty plus growers to exhibit their wines we provided a comprehensive context for the wines to flourish. There will always be badly-made wines because winemakers are human (so sue them), but a big tasting provides a more accurate overview of the wine scene. And that scene is throbbing with energy and innovation. And add RAW into the mix you have 380 + growers in London simultaneously; if the sheer quality wasn’t enough, the depth and breadth was utterly impressive.
Tasting aside, a fair is ultimately a celebration, for friends to catch up and an opportunity for some craic.
Our abiding impression is how friendly the Real Wine Fair was. Built on the co-operation of small wine merchants, small independent-minded growers and the energy of the people involved in the organisation such events are not blunt tools to inculcate the trade and the so-called consumer; they exist to reveal a grass-roots movement of diverse, highly individual growers and drinkers, and they present an exhilarating new choice to the inward-looking conventional wine world.
The Fun of the Real Wine Fair
“Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths ~ Colossians 2:16
Après le deluge, the cacophony of silence, some emotion recollected in tranquillity, some bouquets in water, some brickbats in bins… No triumphalist press summaries here, just liquid memories and rest-and-be-thankfulness.
The Real Wine Fair was held in a subterranean bunker where the very ceilings might have been hanging with icicles of perspiration such were the vagaries of the air conditioning. Fairs are, by definition, organised chaos; though confined to their space they are fluid events, changing according to demand, to motion and emotion. The grower or winemaker creates the context, the story, the mise-en-scène, the ancillaries – food, art, talks, music – make the event so much more than a one-dimensional tasting. Overall the buzz was palpable; as Ernest Thesiger allegedly said when someone asked him what it was like to be on the front line in France during the First World War: “Oh, my dear, the noise! and the people!”
Yes, I am going to abuse the word “real”, I’m afraid. And how.
The consensus was that the overall quality of the Real Wine Fair was very high. Conventional tastings tend to be transactional, commercial dumb-shows. Wine is poured, wine is evaluated, pr is generated. Tastings are an opportunity to engage with those at the cutting edge of wine to coin a cliché; assuming a frosty objectivity defeats the purpose of going and diminishes the aesthetic/hedonic/social aspect of tasting. Any critical taster who thus exalts his or her critical objectivity gives the zero-benefit of the doubt to the wine or the winemaker.
Do wine tastings materially shift opinion? By their numbers shall ye judge them? By and large the reaction to the wine fair was extremely positive, niggles about the venue notwithstanding. Using oenomancy and the flimsiest of straw polls I believe that 80% of the attendees left the fair enriched by their experience. A further 15% would have discovered some enjoyable very high quality wines but may have reserved overall judgment, whilst the final 5% would probably leave the tasting with the same preconceptions they had brought. Any tasting that bats over 50% satisfaction can claim highly impressive credentials. Moreover, tastings can germinate into something more widespread; look at the critical mass achieved by La Dive Bouteille, a tasting that eventually spawned the wine bars and cavistes and became the groundswell for the Parisian natural wine movement.
Quality is the aggregate number of “wow moments” a tasting generates. The Real Wine Fair had plenty of wow.
There’s choice and real choice.
Aimlessly trawling the web-o-sphere the other week I came across the Tesco wine site. OVER 40 Pinot Grigios on their web pages including a low alcohol version, one made by Black Tower as well as a Merlot Pinot Grigio blend and something called Pinot Grigio Grigio Rose (so good they named it twice). How reassuringly… crap. I had not thought that death had undone so many. If how they reach a total of 1,000 is by populating the shelves with zombie wines, then I think they should change their slogan to “Every little… HELP!!” Never mind the diversity, feel the replication.
Conformism leads to homogenisation with wine becoming no more than a product aimed at the mythical consumer. The patronising way we talk about products needing to be consumer-friendly suggests we view humankind as a herd that responds to simple operant conditioning, that we are part of a collective mentality that is incapable of thought, of questioning for ourselves, of personal development. Absence of engagement (from wine merchants, from restaurants, from the wine press) and presumption of ignorance is as dangerous as it is facile and leads inevitably to levelling down of taste. Novelty challenges preconceptions and keeps the wine trade on its toes.
For us the spice of wine life comprises different wines from different indigenous grapes, the product of different cultures and backgrounds and stylistically different approaches. Growers in certain regions (Loire, Beaujolais, Roussillon, Friuli) have the support of neighbours and friends and this unity breeds confidence and assurance to push the boundaries yet further. These are the natural wine movement root systems, if you like. In other countries and regions vignerons must often work in isolation, and against the prevailing wishes of the interprofessional organisations, the whims of appellation tasting panels and even the received wisdom of other local growers. Their desire to make the wines they are proud of pushes them to become true innovators and defenders of a cultural tradition. So, although globalisation in macro terms deflates choice, it also serves to spawn counter-cultural responses, which are not formulaic movements but constant declarations of individual identity.
Diversity also encapsulates transformation such as the development of organic approaches in the vineyard and how the winemaker eventually arrives at a more profound understanding of his vines and his wines. I have seen the quality of natural wines improve dramatically over the past five years, little touches that lift the wine here and there. This blend of intuition and pragmatism has improved winemaking. Drinking natural wine now offers greater diversity (and excitement) than ever with less risk attached.
Truly, madly, deeply, really…
The Real Wine Fair showcased wines from 14 wine producing countries. There was one grower who fermented wine underwater, various who aged them in clay jars in the earth, or worked with horses, or let the vines grow wild, whose vineyards were by the sea, or on the slopes of volcanoes, who were the only cultivators of a particular grape variety, who made yellow wines, amber wines, orange wines and every shade and hue in between, who matured their wines for 5, 7 or 10 years before release, some who worked under the yeast voile, others who employed extended skin maceration (for whites), who worked oxidatively, who made wines as clean as whistle, whose yields might be 5hl/ha, whose wines came from 150 year old vines, or planted on French rootstock, who never used sulphur on certain wines (but might on others), who made 50 separate cuvées from different plots, or those who made only one wine, those who played music to their wines, those who observed biodynamic rituals, those who viewed wine as a sacramental product. It was the best of times; it was even better than that.
Quirk, strangeness and charm alone doth not a tasting make; they do, however, make an already colourful pageant thrillingly exotic!
The view outside reality
Yes, some might aver that such diversity is cute but doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world and that the primary purpose of wine is excellence. What does Aristotle say? “Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” Excellence and natural wine are only mutually exclusive concepts to those who dislike natural wine and view it purely as the embodiment of lazy-faire winemaking. Evidently, there are a lot of bad nat wine dudes out there not being excellent unto themselves. Although preaching excellence is like arguing for motherpie and applehood the term is a loose rhetorical trope that needs to elaborated. Excellent is mooted as a platonic concept in what is surely a relativistic world. Who, after all, establishes the irrefutable hierarchy of excellence; his excellency, Mr Parker, the man who peddles his pickled peck of points, or perhaps we are referring to the excellence of the supermarket buyer’s palate, he or she who seeks icily regular, splendidly null wines for brand utopia?
I suspect a few visitors ventured furtively into the bunker of doom half expecting to see roosting cuckoo winemakers pouring pickling fluid out of lava lamps. They forget that winemakers drink wine (their own wine - and, in Olivier Cousin’s case, pallets of their own wine) and are unlikely to labour without a degree of diligence. Human beings can only bear so much pickling fluid. Wine, after all, when not vinegar at one end or chemically inert and denatured at the other, is meant to be fundamentally delicious. One argument uttered in the confessional of one trade seminar I attended, and repeated ad nauseam in the blogosphere, is that working naturally is tantamount toworking against drinkability and typicity. This is a classic inversion of the truth – politicians do it all the time. The proof in this statement is definitely not in the drinking – but in the lazy catch-all stereotyping of a couple of thousand winemakers. What undoubtedly unites the hundreds upon hundreds wines at Real Wine and RAW - and makes them real for me – is that (much more often than not) I want to drink them. And not just drink them, but finish the bottle. Excellence should be digestible rather than gestural. Unencumbered by winemaking tropes, sans oak, sweetness and overall extraction, with edges intact and natural acidity in abundance, one can appreciate the raw wine, the real wine, the naked wine – sometimes earthy, sometimes wild, sometimes fine, always mineral. The polished machinery of winemaking is noticeably absent; removing the minor flaws severs the final connections between the wine and the vine, whereas the truly natural wine is one that shrinks the gulf between the glass and the original grape.
Not everyone would agree with my kalokagathic view of these wines. There is a type of taster, or self-styled guardian of good taste, who might be classified as an oxymoron, a glib walking fault clinic, predisposed to see any slightly yellow liquid as oxidised, regardless of the nature of the wine and the intention of the winemaker. Quis custodies custodiet? No-one. There is a fine line between analytical tasting and tasting through a filter of prejudice masquerading as good taste. The taster must be as balanced as the wine he or she professes to judge, but the taster should also give a little, rather than establish his or her palate as the unyielding standard by which all wine should be measured. More on this anon.
What will I take from the fair?
The Monday dinner symbolised everything that is good about the natural wine movement. Growers from all over the world sat down with importers, retailers, restaurateurs and journalists. No table plan, sit where you can, talk to your neighbours and drink with them. Much laughter, indiscretion, mutual respect, toasts and arm-wrestling (!). Hundreds of bottles and magnums (donated by the growers) arrayed on tables, swiped as the thirsty fancy took people. The food was simple, rustic, generous and colourful and utterly tasty. Yes, the Fair was a celebration and a coming together, something more important than propaganda, natural wine commandments, snippy criticisms. Artisan wines, artisan winemakers, an artisan event – homely, rough around the edges, seriously fun. What’s not to like?
Eat, drink and be very merry