“Natural wine” is the kind of term that makes me suspicious. It sounds like a euphemism for something unspeakable. And to be fair, a lot of the time, that’s exactly what it is. But there are excellent exceptions, as I found on a recent visit to London’s hippest drinks fair, Raw Wine, a two-day showcase of more than 150 organic and biodynamic growers from around the world. The emphasis at Raw is on small-scale outfits, so much so that the people pouring your wine are often the winemakers themselves.
The first sign that this is no ordinary wine tasting is the venue, which is a brutalist arts space on the Strand. The crowd is also unusually fashionable – there are a lot of directional haircuts and gender-neutral clothes going on. But there are a lot of top sommeliers too, because a smattering of natural wines is increasingly an essential part of any well-curated wine list (there’s now also an offshoot of Raw in New York, with one in LA to come). But tasting natural wines is an extreme sport – for every unequivocal stunner I tasted at Raw, I had to wade through at least a dozen total stinkers.
Among the gold were Greece’s Domaine Ligas, Austrian grower Claus Preisinger and the wonderfully poised fizz of Champagne Fleury. I would drink all of these with pleasure, halo or no. They were enough to convince me to take the plunge and book a table at east London natural-wine specialist The Laughing Heart in Bethnal Green. Since it opened last autumn, this cosy two‑floor restaurant, wine bar and bottle shop has been a hub for London’s new-wave wine scene.
The feel of the place is all laid-back east London cool: exposed brickwork, flickering candles, big-bearded staff clad in aprons. But the passion for what they’re selling is sincere, which makes exploring the often-out-there wine list a pleasure. Highlights for us included a tangy Riesling from Serbia’s Francuska Vinarija and a glass of Lamoresca Rosso 2015, a red from Sicily with inky tannins a mile wide. I clanked home with two bottles of it.
Wine with this much personality needs flavoursome food, and The Laughing Heart obliges – we grazed on herb-spiked, pork-stuffed olives and sourdough spread with brown crab butter that was downright wicked. It’s probably worth mentioning that The Laughing Heart also has a Rottweiler called Hugo who spends his evenings sprawled on the stairs. Stepping over a huge Rotter was, even for this dog-lover, a bit alarming at first. But he turned out to be very nice. Rather like natural wine in fact.