Sunday, March 27, 2011

Goutte d'O

One of the grape varieties that I think responds best to natural winemaking is Chenin Blanc and here is yet another dry Chenin from the Loire (Anjou), described simply as a 'vin artisanal'

It's not as fine as the Chenins I've tasted recently from Frantz Saumon or the late Stephane Cossais but it's an appealing wine with pronounced appley (but not cidery) aromas, and a beguiling touch of quince and honey. Quite similar to the flavours you get from an aged Chablis, in fact. (It doesn't contain any sulphur).

You can read about the winemaker Sylvain Martinez on my colleague Jim Budd's blog here and here. It's stocked in the UK - almost inevitably - by Caves de Pyrène.

I'm still mulling over a way to categorise wines, favouring a simple three tier 'traffic light' division into green, amber and red. Green being virtually indistinguishable from a conventional wine, amber being a little more challenging and red really only for natural wine aficionados. I'd class this as an amber!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Natural wine out of London

Given how glorious the weather's been this week I was gutted not to be able to make it to the organic and biodynamic wine and cider dinner this week at the Porthminster Beach Café. And even more so when I saw the menu which I shall torture you with below.

However the good thing is that it shows that some interesting things going on outside London which is always welcome. (There's nothing that frustrates readers more than you banging on about what's going on in the capital - or not even the capital if you live in Scotland or Wales ;-)

More impressive still there was a full-blown vegetarian version of the menu. What's striking about both options is how fresh and seasonal the food was - and I'm sure this is the style of cooking that shows off natural wines best. (I plan to come back to that subject . . . )

Anyway, the wines were provided by Ellis Wharton a Cornish wine merchant that seems to have an interest in natural wine. Read on and drool:

Sweet and Sour Rhubarb Cone
Parmesan ice-cream
Polgoon Sparkling Aval Cider

Purple Gnocchi OR Battered Cod Cheeks with Almond
Darjeeling tea gel, salted grapes and wild sorrel
Casa Coste Piane, Prosecco d Valdobbiadene Frizante sur lie NV

Cucumber and Tomato Tian
Pickled sea asparagus and lemon verbena
Scallop and Cucumber Tian
Pickled sea asparagus and white crab dressing
Chateau Tour des Gendres ‘Cuvee des Conti’ Bergerac Sec 2010

Haloumi and Orange
Fennel, rose salt and hazelnuts
OR Pork and Pear
Rose salt, hazelnuts and crackle
Cullen “Kevin John” Chardonnay 2007 Margaret River

Beetroot Sorbet
Sumac and feta cheese
Blow Torched Mackerel
Sumac, cured ham and beetroot sorbet
Chateau Cambon, Raisins Gaulois 2009

Red Wine and Rosemary Risotto
Wild spring herbs and rosemary
Spring Lamb Cannon
Wild garlic, nettles, parsnip and plum
COS, ‘Nero di Lupo’ , Nero D Avola

Specialties and surprises
Chateau de Hauteville Poire Granit 2009

Also the Bristol based wine bar and restaurant Flinty Red is having a 'foraged supper' with natural wines on May 3rd with Caroline Davey of Fat Hen. And - drat it - I'm away for that too!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Bermondsey natural wine mafia

One of the most interesting things about the brilliant new clutch of artisanal stalls and warehouses in the Druid Street and Maltby Street area is that it includes two natural wine shops - Gergovie Wines and Aubert & Mascoli - both with first class foodie pedigrees.

Gergovie (pronounced jer-go-vee) is a partnership between Harry Lester, founder of the Anchor & Hope and Raef Hodgson, son of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Randolph Hodgson (the name Gergovie comes from a plateau in the Massif Central where Lester has an auberge).

They have a few bottles open for tasting on Saturday mornings. Last week there were two whites, a quirky Pignoletto from Alberto Tedeschi near Bologna and a fragrant Durello called Montemagro from Daniele Piccinin in the Veneto that tasted oddly like a dry dessert wine.

Then three vivid young reds - a 2009 vin de pays de l’Herault Cinsault from Catherine Bernard, Les Orgues from Frédéric Gounand of L’Arbre Blanc in the Auvergne and Viti Vini Bibi a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan from Domaine Benjamin Taillandier in the Minervois.

A couple of doors down you can find Aubert & Mascoli which also specialises in French and Italian wines and supplies the members’ club Blacks which Mascoli founded (and also, I discovered from their site, the highly successful Franco Manca pizzerias).

My star wines there were a lush Bourgogne Aligoté Vieilles Vignes from Jean Fournier and another bright breezy red with a delicious bitter cherry flavour - Le Rouge 2008 from Domaine de l’Ocre Rouge just north of Nimes (a blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah)

And yet another natural wine merchant Six Wines Eight has set up in nearby Bermondsey Square though I haven't had a chance to check them out yet.

Druid and Maltby Street are just south of Tower Bridge about a 10-12 minute walk from London Bridge station.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Natural wine on the Food Programme

I spent an hour at Terroirs this morning discussing natural wine with Sheila Dillon of The Food Programme and Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrène. I was quite amused when Sheila asked him how she should refer to him and he said sales director. He’s the least pushy salesman you could imagine. Even ‘director’ seems a misnomer.

Anyway you can discover for yourself what we said if you listen to the programme at 12.30 on Sunday or 4pm on Monday on Radio 4 or catch up with it on iPlayer

We also tasted a couple of wines on air - a quite challenging 2007 Don Chisciotte Fiano which just about fell into the orange wine category and a more classic 2004 Roagna Asili Barbaresco. Doug and I disagreed about the former. He thought anyone would be converted by it, I reckoned that you needed to have acquired a taste for natural wine to enjoy it. Shame we won’t have listeners at home with a glass in hand to give us their feedback.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Vino di Anna Jeudi 15 2009

We were back at Brawn for supper the other night, trying out wines by the glass. My favourite was this delectably dark smokey Italian red* from Sicily which turns out to be made by flying winemaker Anna Martens, aka Mme Narioo (the wife of Caves de Pyrène's founder Eric Narioo).

This is what Cave's Doug Wregg says about it:

"Anna Martens (our Anna) trained with Brian Croser for eight years before becoming a flying winemaker and plying her trade in various countries. She eventually settled in Sicily and has been making natural wines from grapes harvested on vineyards about 1000m above sea level in the Etna region.

The red grape of choice is Nerello Mascalese supplemented by a field blend of all manner of red and white grapes including Nerello Cappuccio and Alicante. Nerello combines a certain muscularity with good acid structure from the poor, ash-rich soils.

Jeudi 15 is described as a peasant wine and made in a way to enhance drinkability. The grapes are hand-harvested, 2/3 whole bunch and fermented in an open wooden vat, pressed after one week and transferred into stainless steel. The ferment finishes in July. After a period to settle the wine is bottled without filtration, fining or sulphur"

I also liked the 2009 Alsace Riesling from biodynamic growers Audrey and Christian Binner. Softer and slightly more appley than a typical Alsace riesling but very fresh and appealing.

* it costs £13.14 retail from Les Caves de Pyrène.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mas Conscience Ciel-Cieux 2009

My most interesting find on my trip to the Languedoc last week was a producer called Mas Conscience I discovered at a wine bar and shop in Marseillan called La Taverne du Port.

They grow their grapes organically and biodynamically near St Jean de Fos in the Terrases du Larzac but are not certified.

The bottle we bought was the oddly named Ciel-Cieux which apparently has something to do with hopscotch but I can’t exactly work out what as the French word for hopscotch is marelle. It’s a bright fruity fresh-tasting red - but not actually that light at 13.5% - quite like a Gamay but 100% Cinsault. A great wine for charcuterie or even for seafood.

I see that Berry Brothers & Rudd imports two of their other wines Le Cas (Carignan) and L’As (Syrah and Grenache) which they sell for around £12-£16 - quite a bit more than we paid for this cuvée which was around 8 or 9 euros if I remember rightly.

The cooking at the Taverne du Port isn’t brilliant - stick to the excellent charcuterie, cheese or local seafood - but it’s in an idyllic situation overlooking the port and has a great winelist. And you can buy bottles from the shop to drink for a corkage charge of 9 euros.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Natural wine festivals

One of the most endearing aspects of the natural wine movement is the number of natural wine festivals it seems to spawn. I keep coming across them - regretfully as for the most part I can't make them.

The one I'd particularly like to go to is Vini Circus which takes place in Rennes from the 15th-18th of April and includes most of France's big names. I'm particularly sorry to miss the sessions on how natural wines inspire chefs. There also seem to be two splendid repas de vignerons using local produce from the Rennes markets, a couple of concerts and various artists showing their work. It all seems very joyous and celebratory - a far cry from the formal masterclasses at so many wine events (though there are debates which I imagine will be lively). They've even invited brewers and cidermakers along.

I hope the London Natural Wine Fair which takes place from the 15th-17th May will be as all-embracing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Living vineyards

I've been down in the Languedoc for the past 10 days sorting out a family funeral which is why there haven't been any posts. But it was quite striking how different the vineyards were looking at this time of year.

I would say about half were carpeted in wild flowers and plants and the rest immaculately plant- and weed-free. This wouldn't have happened even five years ago when the health of a vineyard was judged by how tidy it looked.

The shot above was taken in the vineyards running down to Puissalicon - they could well have been those of Domaine Bassac who I was writing about the other day.

Below are the vineyards of Clos Roche Blanche in Touraine I visited last October and whose Sauvignon no. 2 I re-tasted with great pleasure the other day. Interestingly it was better 24 hours after it was opened than the first day but I failed to note what type of day it was on the biodynamic calendar.

You can't help but feel the vigour and diversity of these vineyards translates into the live quality of the respective wines.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

That Crazy Frenchwoman: a great new natural wine site

Just to flag up the launch of Isabelle Legeron's new site That Crazy Frenchwoman which she told me about the other day. She was the one who drew up the Hibiscus wine list I wrote about here in the Guardian.

At the moment there seem to be a few glitches - I can't get mine to scroll horizontally and some of the sections don't come up - but it looks like there will be a lot of good content. I found an interesting video on Jasper Hill for a start

And I like her description of natural wine as being like 'walking on a tightrope without a safety net'.

Another good link I picked up on today was this post in Palate Press about 'bio-logic' viticulture, a pragamatic approach to grape growing which combines elements of organic and biodynamic methods without wholly subscribing to either. A philosophy I guess a lot of winemakers pursue without putting a label on it. But maybe it's better than talking about 'natural wine'. . .

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why most wine isn't natural: a guest blog from my other half

Confession time. It wasn't me who first got into natural wine it was my husband Trevor. He started taking an interest in it a good couple of years ago and to be honest I wasn't that impressed by some of the early bottles we tried - a reaction I see again and again in people coming across natural wine for the first time.

I actually tried to get him to blog about it, as he's frankly read a great deal more than I have about the subject but he's somewhat sceptical about the virtues of blogging. But yesterday, completely out of the blue, he said he'd pulled together some thoughts on why natural wines is so distinct from conventional winemaking. And here they are. My first guest blog. Who knows he may write more . . .

"On the face of it it's pretty easy to say what natural wine is. Natural wine results from processing grapes that have been grown without the use of chemical herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. These grapes are then processed with the absolute minimum intervention possible. There are no added yeasts, only yeasts that are natural to the grapes. No further chemicals are added, no mechanical processes are used and little or no sulphur is added at the bottling stage.

That's all true and measurable. But having said that you haven't really said anything special. Because most people would think that was pretty much what happened in all wine making  - by and large. None of that description of the natural wine making process seems particularly extraordinary. “What's the big deal?”

But the fact is that the bulk of winemaking worldwide is totally and utterly different to the natural process, and it is only by getting to understand just what is involved in non-natural wine making, that you can see how the natural winemaking movement's prospectus and objectives are so truly revolutionary.

The natural wine makers have as an over-riding objective to make the best wine possible in the terroir where they are working within the limitations imposed by the climatic conditions in any given year and with the minimal possible intervention. Whereas the objective of the wine business worldwide is to produce a uniform standardized product at the lowest cost year in year out by whatever means possible.

To produce the required result worldwidewine drenches the vineyards in chemical products. This is cheaper and simpler than the labour-intensive process required to create a balanced eco-system within which a healthy and natural equilibrium between insects, plants, nutrients, micro-organisms and, of course, the vines can be established and maintained. If you just slather the vines in chemicals you don't have to worry about any of that – there are no insects or plants or micro-organisms. There are just fragile denatured vines hanging on to a chemical wasteland by the skin of their teeth, And you can lay off a lot of agricultural workers.

When ripe, these grapes are then picked – mechanically usually - and carted away to the processing shed. And all of the grapes - in whatever condition they are in, however affected with rot or bruised or dessicated, are all put to ferment. Not a scrap has to be wasted as that would reduce yield and therefore profitability. And chemical additives exist to “rescue” fruit in whatever condition it finds itself in .  Any fault  in the basic fruit (and any other faults in the subsequent stages of the process) can be put right by chemical or bio-chemical or mechanical intervention. Like a fond parent “Daddy Chemistry” can always make everything alright . 

Or that's how it seems. For just as the poet Philip Larkin said  “They fuck you up your Mum and Dad.” And the resultant product is indeed truly “fucked up”. A Pan-European study of 2008 tested 40 different red wines and the results showed that the level of contamination by pesticides was 5800 times higher than that permitted for drinking water, And that was just the level of pesticides never mind insecticides and fungicides – all potential neuro-toxins and carcinogens,

By contrast the natural winemaker refusing chemical intervention will scrupulously cut out and jettison all but fruit in prime condition, as to leave it in would compromise the quality of the resultant wine. So no need of chemicals at this stage either. In every part of the process their objective is simply quality – the best quality that can be obtained with the fruit at their disposal from their chosen terroir in the  prevailing climactic conditiones. It is a matter of respect in the last analysis – respect for nature and the vinyards and respect for the consumer."
Trevor Vibert

And I'll get him to answer any comments you have on his post ;-)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Le Domaine du Moulin Pivoine 2008

As opposed to the last wine I reviewed this is the real deal.

A vin de pays from the Loire (du Loir-et-Cher) from Hervé Villemade it's predominantly Cot (aka Malbec) and 10% Gamay. I'd have said there was more Gamay on tasting it - it had some very bright, clear, pure fruit. A little stinky on the nose but that evaporated.

It's imported by the ubiquitous Caves de Pyrène and costs £11.94 which I think is very reasonable for a wine of this quality.

According the epic Caves de Pyrène list, which I shall save you the trouble of sifting through, Domaine du Moulin is an estate of 25 hectares in Cour-Cheverny which was founded by Hervé’s grandfather in 1939. Hervé took over the estate in 1995 and was influenced both by Thierry Puzelat and Marcel Lapierre to go down the organic path. (There are certainly shades of Lapierre in this wine).

It's fermented with wild yeasts and aged in 30hl oak barrels before bottling with only 2mg of sulphur

Pivoine apparently means peony, a reflection of the vivid colour as well as the taste of the wine. Just charming.