March 27 2011
It is a trend that started in Paris and is now all the rage in London. Maverick artisans, frustrated by the narrow conformity of the major houses, have started fashioning their own decidedly outré creations. Some are effervescent by nature, some distinctly funky; many redefine boundaries of taste. Any of the Paris or London boutiques that specialise in such creations will sell you something long and flowing at a very reasonable price.
This is not couture, however: this is viticulture. “Natural” wines, and the wine bars that champion them, are finding an appreciative audience on both sides of the Channel.
What, though, makes a natural wine? The definition, like some of the wines, lacks clarity – there is an anarchic streak to many producers that defies codification – but, roughly speaking, a natural wine is likely to be made from organic or biodynamically grown grapes, fermented with wild yeasts, unfiltered, and very low in sulphur: not mucked about with in the cellar, in other words. Some are exciting and memorable, others are barely drinkable: my advice is try before you buy.
In natural wine bars, this artisanal approach to winemaking is invariably reflected in the menu. I recently sat at the bar in Brawn, Ed Wilson’s splendid local wine bar in Columbia Road, in London’s Shoreditch, sipped a gamey Gamay from the Auvergne (my tasting note: “wild strawberries and wet goat”) and sampled some silky homemade pork rillettes, a dish of clams cooked in sherry and garlic, chanterelles sautéed and plonked on toast with a runny duck egg yolk, some terrific cheeses and charcuterie, and a rich, crumbly wedge of prune and armagnac tart. It was a fine lunch, one of those lazy lunches that could easily have stretched until dinner.
Wilson nurtured his love of natural wine at the buzzy, excellent Terroirs, just off The Strand: other places to try include Bar Battu in the City, and Artisan & Vine in Battersea, which also sells wine in the shop and online. In Paris, natural wine pioneer Pierre Jancou, late of Racines, has just opened a new restaurant in the 10th arrondissement called Vivant, a short cab ride from Gare du Nord.
These wines and the bars and bistros that sell them will never be mainstream, although I suspect some of their ideas will be absorbed by the big boys, just as one can buy organic carrots in Tesco. What refreshes this rather jaded palate is to drink wine made by philosophical farmers, not chemists.
Natural wine is improving year on year, and it is finding a natural home, too, in casual, laid-back bars where food, wine and conversation are equally esteemed. It is a fashion, yes, but it is also a quiet revolution. Roll on the next vintage – or should I say, the next autumn collection.