Our first ‘tell us what you think so you can help us chose which new wines to stock’ tasting went well so the plan is to repeat the process on the last Thursday of every month. Wine companies seem to have enormous marketing and sales budgets so we might as well all benefit from a free glass at their expense. We were pretty taken with an old vine Garnacha and a ‘wild ferment’ Verdejo from Bodegas Piqueras in Almansa, South East Spain. There will also be a crisp, dry Riesling and, possibly, red Dornfelder and Pinot Noirs, from Weingut Theodorus in the Pfalz winging its way to the BWT shelves.
By coincidence, Thursday, May 30th happens to be in the middle of English Wine Week so we’ll be focusing on the results of the much heralding 2018 UK grape harvest. I know Sharpham will have bottled their 2018 Wild Ferment Pinot Grigio so winemaker, Duncan Schwab, will be coming along to tell us what makes Sharpham wine so good. We’re hoping for other ‘surprise’ guests – as well as yourselves of course. Because it’s so local, Totnes is a bit of a one wine town and that wine is Sharpham but there are many more producers in the south west, particularly in Dorset. The further west you go, the more chance there is of the grapes being imported from Kent – which slightly defeats the purpose of the exercise. Sharpham too, look east – all the way to Stoke Gabriel on the other side of the Dart estuary.
The whole English wine thing is still a bit ‘new kid on the block’ and struggling to find its place in the wider wine world. Unquestionably, they’re coming on leaps and bounds and we’ve all read about the fizz giving Champagne a run for its money. But they still only cover a tiny part of the whole flavour spectrum and that part only pairs with a limited range of food. There are exceptions and Harry, Paul and the tapas bar team will be coming up with some wine friendly, English style, small plates. I can hear the asparagus calling in the wind.
We’re also pleased to welcome Kiwi winemaker, Fiona Turner of Tinpot Hut, Marlborough, for a quick taster session from 4-6pm on Thursday 16th May. She will be on her way to a New Zealand Epicurean evening at Glazebrook House so it’s early doors at BWT. Tickets for the Glazebrook event are £60 but you can taste the wine for free at BWT. You just don’t get a dinner but it’s the wine that matters. At present, we don’t stock the wines but we’re open to persuasion. I’m told the Tinpot Hut vineyard is pretty much next door to Cloudy Bay who kick started the whole Marlborough Sauvignon all those years ago and, not surprisingly, its the Sauvignon she tends to be judged on – fairly successfully judging from https://www.tinpothut.co.nz/Our+Wines/SauvignonBlanc.html.
We don’t have much planned for June but one wine region that’s definitely under represented is Tuscany so we’re hoping the last Thursday in June will be all about Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Montepulciano, Vernacia and Vin Santo. Then in July, to drown those Wimbledon sorrows, we’re planning a rosé fortnight.
NATURAL WINE, NO ADDED SULPHUR or JUST GOOD WINE
Even the most out of touch food/wine-ster will have heard something about the neo-religious doctrine of natural wine (https://www.rawwine.com/the-wine/what-is-natural-wine/). In essence, natural wine is wine made with the minimum of intervention, either in the vineyard or cellar, which seems pretty close to our core belief in good food (and drink) from good farming. Good ones, made with care by people who know what they’re doing can be stupendously good. Bad ones tend to be, in ever-polite wine industry jargon, a bit funky – and I’m not talking Herbie Hancock. Even the good ones tend to be variable and, almost as a precaution, they’re usually made to be drunk young. It (natural wine) tends to be viewed with suspicion by the conventional wine business, to the extent that many have weeded anything purporting to be natural from their lists. At the same time, in East London and trendy areas of Paris, bars and eateries have lists of nothing but natural wines – including ‘orange’ (another subject). They just about work in restaurants where people can try before they buy and higher margins mean the odd return isn’t the end of the world but in retail, they’re a disaster. Even the slightest pétillance (usually intended) is viewed with suspicion so when certain proteins combine with oxygen to turn a white Crozes Hermitage cloudy within minutes of opening (as happened with one of our rare forays into natural wine a few years ago) that bottle is going straight back! End result; dissatisfied customer and higher prices because whether it’s retailer, wholesaler, importer or producer, somebody has to cover it.
There’s more than a touch of emperor’s new clothes about natural wine. It reminds me of me, thirty years ago – ego bolstered by a few early successes I convinced myself that if I made it, it must be good. Oh how I learnt my lesson. But, at the same time, a bit of TLC rarely does any harm – if, of course you know what you’re doing.
When I say minimal intervention, I mean everything from pesticides to herbicides to non-indigenous yeasts to added sulphites. Sprays and fertilisers are pretty much covered by the organic regulations and the vast majority of our wines are either certified or produced by people with a proven record of good sustainable farming. Yeasts are tricky. Cultivated yeasts can make grapes taste of anything from grapefruit or lychee but, although I’d prefer naturally occurring, indigenous, yeasts, I can’t see massive issues with adding ‘flavour neutral’ strains where necessary to insure correct fermentation. But it’s the whole sulphite question that has become inexorably linked with natural wine. SO2 is used, firstly, to keep grapes fresh before pressing and, secondly, at bottling to sterilise and stop further fermentation. As with nitrites in charcuterie, sulphites do occur naturally and a no-added-sulphur wine would normally contain 20-30 ppm (parts per million). So no wine is sulphur free. Depending on a number of factors (colour, sugar content etc) conventional wines can contain a total (natural and added) up to 300ppm, organic 150ppm and low sulphur wines 50-75ppm (about twice the natural level). The smallest amount of added sulphur dioxide (as low as 50ppm total) seems to make a difference but once you start adding none at all, you’re dancing on thin ice. It can be done but not, generally, in a traditional, farmyardy, natural wine sort of way. Scrupulous cleanliness appears to be the key with the result that, all too often, the wine tastes as though it was made in a laboratory rather than a farm. I imagine even a wooden barrel is a risk and it feels as though, to achieve a natural product, some of the principles of natural, low intervention, winemaking are being ignored. One of my mother’s favourite sayings was ‘you’ve got to eat a peck of dirt before you die’ and she would definitely have argued that too much industrial cleaning product amounted to non minimum intervention.
But there are exceptions. By far the best NAS (no added sulphur) white wine I’ve come across is the Castello di Tassarolo ‘Spinola’ NAS, Gavi. Made by a charming, obsessively biodynamic and more than a little eccentric Anglo-Italian Henry Finzi-Constantine, it’s a real artisan wine made with precision and love. Cutting back on the sulphites has taken years, not always with success, and certainly hasn’t involved excessive bleach and chemicals. It’s £14.49 in the shops – (no wine from Piedmont comes cheap) and it’s certainly not out of the way for a decent Gavi. Hopefully, there’s also a red Barbera on the way. I’m fairly sure Henry wouldn’t object to his wines being classified natural.
At the same time, in the same way that organic success forced many conventional farmers to clean up their act, there are thousands of small to medium, farm based winemakers out there who’ve turned back from the Robert Johnson/crossroads dilemma and not sold their souls to the agrichemical industry. They just don’t call it natural wine. Capezzana’s Barco Reale Carmignano Sangiovese/Cabernet blend is certified organic, uses only natural indigenous yeasts and contains a trifling 22ppm of sulphites. It’s a stunning glass of wine (one of my favourites) made by a family near Florence where vines have been grown for over a thousand years but there’s no way they would call it natural wine – even though it is.