Super NATURAL

There are many elements of the wine world about which I know little or nothing about. One of these is natural wine.

My time in the wine trade was spent working for a huge national retailer and an international producer. Natural wine didn’t have a place in either of these worlds and was often viewed with suspicion and scepticism. This is not an uncommon stance when it comes to natural wine. Along with the terms “organic” and “biodynamic” it can spark controversy and a varied response depending on your audience.

And, indeed, depending on the wine!

Things are changing though and natural wine is becoming more and more accessible. Not only is it more widely available than it has been before – even Oddbins have announced this week that they are rolling out a range of natural wines in selected stores – but winemaking practices have improved and natural winemakers have harnessed a deeper understanding of their craft.

For those of you who, like myself, lack experience in this field then here is a brief description of what natural wine is:

  • Like conventional wine, natural wine is made from grapes, which are crushed and then fermented into wine.
  • Fermentation takes place spontaneously using only yeasts that are naturally occurring in the vineyard rather than cultured yeasts.
  • Minimal intervention in the winery allowing the wines to follow their own natural course as much as possible.
  • SO2 levels are either extremely limited or not used at all except for those that come naturally from the vineyard.

What you’re left with at the end of this process is a wine that is completely stripped back to nature. We have been making wine for thousands of years and it is only recently that science and man have intervened to the extent to which we have all become accustomed.

One of many criticisms of this process is that it regularly results in an unstable wine full of faults, which masks the things that we have come to know wine for such as the grape variety and terroir. But I suppose this depends on your definition of ‘fault’ in a wine. Another is that it is a practice which is still largely unregulated. This is something that will undoubtedly change in the near future and will certainly go a long way to gaining the confidence of both the consumer and the trade.

I was lucky enough to find myself at a portfolio tasting last week full of almost exclusively natural wines. As with any tasting there were some that struck more of a chord than others and some that were just altogether not my bag. But a good handful were some of the most startling, expressive and exciting wines I’ve tried in a long time.

I would urge you to keep an eye out for natural wines when you’re out and about. And if you ever tire of drinking the same old bottle of reliable Malbec then rest easy in the assurance that there is a whole world of arguably more interesting wine out there.

 

Further reading – www.rawwine.com, www.isabellelegeron.com

Further drinking – Duck Soup Soho, The Winemaker’s Club, Terroirs, The Remedy

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Salon Brixton

Salut tout le monde! I appreciate that you may be a little surprised to hear from me after almost 3 years of silence (!!) but I just have to tell you quickly about the completely delicious dinner I had at Salon in Brixton last night.

Salon has been around for a little while but I don’t get out much these days so am a bit behind the times. The upstairs dining room sits above what used to be Canon & Cannon on Market Row and is a shabby-chic sort of set up with about 25 covers. The focus here is on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients supported by a cracking wine list that would benefit from a few more offerings by the glass.

We were encouraged to take the set menu but settled on ordering a selection of things to share a la carte. Crispy and spicy ‘Nduja croquettes (I didn’t know either but ‘Nduja is a spicy type of sausage) with aioli were an excellent beginning followed by pork rillettes – one of my faves! A beautifully cooked plate of skate balanced perfectly with the appley tang of kohlrabi and the subtle delicacy of samphire. Alongside this some grilled asparagus with almond sauce and wild garlic and a dish of heritage tomatoes with black olive and basil. All these plates were beautifully presented and executed and completely and utterly delicious. Pudding was a total showstopper – strawberries with a balsamic jelly and black pepper sorbet.

The Weissburgunder Pinot Blanc that went with all this was a cracking accompaniment. I would have liked more time with this wine list – a definite old world focus but an imaginative offering nonetheless and it is lovely to see a Portuguese white as the second wine on the list rather than the predictable Sauvignon or Pinot Grigio and a Spanish region such as Mencia being represented rather than Rioja.

I will definitely be back here again, and soon.

Watch this space… you may be hearing from me again!

Nyetimber

Nyet Lineup

I really love the English wine industry. I find it both intriguing and charming and I never tire of hearing, normally with a note of surprise, how someone or other had a bottle of English fizz the other day and how delicious they thought it was. Because it is Sparkling Wine on which we are solidly building our reputation as a country that is able to produce a high quality product, capable of competing with the best that Champagne has to offer. One such producer is Nyetimber who have been making fizz for over 20 years. They are based in West Sussex near Pulborough, about 15 minutes away from where I grew up.

The reason that English fizz can be compared directly with Champagne is because it is made in exactly the same way; the same grapes are used – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – as are the same vinification techniques. Perhaps most importantly the exact same strain of chalk that runs through the soils of Champagne continues under the channel and through the vineyards of Kent and Sussex meaning the terroir can be almost replicated. You will no doubt have heard rumours of blind tastings where an English Sparkling Wine has beaten the best of what Champagne has to offer and fooled all the experts into thinking it was the real deal! Well it’s all true!

Nyet MagNyetimber produces a Classic Cuvee, Blanc de Blancs, Rose and more recently a Demi-Sec. Interestingly each Classic Cuvee is made as a vintage wine rather than the more common non-vintage (NV) in Champagne. This is a brave move as although it means you can end up with an outstanding wine in a good year, it means there is nowhere to hide in a bad one. And there are plenty of bad years in the UK! In fact last year Nyetimber (and I believe they were alone in doing this) scrapped the entire vintage and publicly announced that they would not produce any wine from 2012. As I said, a brave move.

What sets Nyetimber apart is that they have pitched themselves at the luxury end of market. Having gone through a recent rebranding their products certainly look the part and have price tags to match. They, perhaps wisely, have chosen to compete with high end, well recognisable Champagne brands rather than trying to slip in as the cheaper offering. I will be very interested to see how this works out for them as sadly the vast number of Englishmen and women would rather spend their hard earned money on a Champagne they have heard of (which therefore must be good) rather than an arguably better quality English Sparkling Wine.

We had the pleasure of trying the Classic Cuvee 2005 and 2004, the Blanc de Blancs 2003 and 2007, the Rose 2009 and the Demi-Sec. As suspected the difference in vintage really shows – for me the Classic Cuvee 2005 was the best; it had a creamy nose with a lovely round body and without the overwhelming acidity you can sometimes find with English wine. The 2004 was much more citrusy and just not quite as good. Similarly the 2003 Blanc de Blancs was way better than the 2007 and had great fruit concentration and a very good length. Apparently it won ‘best Sparkling Wine in the world’ in 2009 which is quite an achievement. The Rose was pleasant enough with a nice body but lacked any real depth of flavour which was a shame as I have really liked this wine in the past. The Demi-Sec was popular with everyone; a nose of passion fruit and a lovely nutty sweetness that balanced well with the acidity.

Nyet with glasses

Overall I though Nyetimber were very impressive and they are obviously running a very slick operation. I wish them well against the big guns in Champagne and look forward to many more years to come of an English Winery winning the best Sparkling Wine in the world.

Two delicious whites – a Pinot Gris and White Rioja

I popped into Vagabond this week and tried a couple of delicious whites – the Bodegas Ontanon Vetiver white Rioja and the Awatere River Pinot Gris from New Zealand.

Vagabond

The Rioja region in Spain is of course better known for its reds. Indeed the production of whites is pretty minimal in comparison. The grape variety is Viura (known as Macabeo elsewhere in Spain) and the traditional style of white Riojas would often be extremely heavily oaked with an almost oxidised aroma to it. The Bodegas Ontanon Vetiver has none of this; it is relatively restrained and paired back for a Rioja allowing its fresh fruit characteristics to shine through. The nose is lovely and creamy due to the 6 months spent in American oak; a very well-balanced wine. The suggested food match would be a crab lasagne or paella.

tasting notes

The Rioja was good but the Awatere River Pinot Gris was fantastic. Hailing from Marlborough in New Zealand it had a luscious, apricot nose with a hint of spice. The body was full, off dry with a wonderful intensity of flavour and a very good length. It also came with the most brilliant food match suggestion – pork fillet stuffed with apricot and spinach – which I have to say, sounds like it would go perfectly. So much so that I bought a bottle (not cheap at £13.95 but worth the money I thought) and will have to imagine up said dish some time soon.

Vagabond – I’ll let you know how it goes!!

Roses – June Wine Club

Summer hasn’t really happened yet. We optimistically decided at Wine Club last month that by mid June we would be sitting outside on someone’s terrace and so Rosé seemed the most appropriate theme. The terrace part didn’t really happen but we soldiered on with the Rosés nonetheless.

Rosé sales in the UK have been steadily on the rise over the last several years. Despite its popularity I am always amazed by the poor selection generally on offer in supermarkets. The options usually consist of the deeply pink (and often deeply unpleasant) brands – Echo Falls, Blossom Hill etc – and the Pinot Grigio Rosés. Unfortunately since everyone finds dark Rosés so off putting it drives up the price on the much paler Pinot Grigio Blush which means you end up paying a lot more than you should for what is essentially a very mediocre wine. I’m happy to pay £6.50 for a Pinot Grigio Rosé but £8.50, which seems to have become the norm now, is a bit of a joke.

For the sake of education we started with the original wine brand and hero of the 1980’s Mateus Rosé. I was quite surprised by how easy this was to find – £4.99 in Tesco – which presumably means it’s still relatively popular. Not quite my scene – deep pink, a very unsubtle spritz, off-dry and fruity – but a good starting point. Apart from giving us nostalgic flashbacks of Albufeira 2007 where we drank an unseemly amount of it over the course of a week in Portugal, it didn’t really do much for us. Next up was the Pinot Grigio Rosé which went down much better. Still for me not terribly exciting but extremely easy drinking and as such ticks a significant box.

We blew past what I thought was quite a good White Zinfandel Rose by Fetzer – I have to admit that no one else seemed to agree with me though. White Zinfandel tends to hail from California and is always medium-dry and again quite a deep pink – it’s this sweetness which put everyone off although as a style it’s really quite popular. I thought this was a good quality example of what it was, although I have to admit not what I would necessarily choose to drink myself on a day-to-day basis. The famous Chateau de Sours Rose took us back to the drier styles again; I’ve never really quite ‘got’ this wine. It was always a firm favourite with the slightly older generation when I was working in wine shops but to me was a bit overpriced.

Provence has it all for me when it comes to Rosé.  That perfect salmon-pink colour and a light, fresh palate of strawberries and cream with a bit of orange peel. Although subtle, these tend to be wines that actually taste, unlike the Pinot Grigio Rosé which I challenge anyone to differentiate from a white Pinot Grigio if drinking it with their eyes shut! We tried the M de Minuty Rosé and this delivered on every level. Granted, they’re not always cheap, normally around £10, but for the elegance and flavour you get it’s totally worth it.

The final wine of the evening was actually a bit of a disappointment for me – the Château Romassan Rosé by Domaines Ott. I’ve wanted to try this wine since forever. Also from Provence it has everything you’d expect for a good quality wine and it looks beautiful but coming in around the £25 mark it’s a lot of money and in my opinion just isn’t worth it.

I don’t think Rosé is something that can take itself too seriously. It can be delicious and refreshing but rarely has much depth or complexity; but then again that’s half the charm of it. Sometimes it’s nice to drink something without feeling like you have to think too hard about it, something that can just be drunk for the sheer pleasure of drinking it. And as soon as the sun comes out again I’ll be drinking  a lot more Provence Rosé this summer.