Monday, September 23, 2013

Terroir wine bar, San Francisco

Read any list of the world’s best natural wine bars and Terroir in San Francisco is sure to be included so I was determined to take it in on my 2 day visit to the city the week before last.

To anyone used to natural wine bars in Paris it’s comfortingly familiar - unsurprisingly as it’s run by a Frenchman Luc Ertoran together with his Italian business partner Dagan Ministero - hence the scattering of Italian wines, mainly from Sicily, among the largely French list.  There’s even a sandfilled trough outside to stub out your Gauloise.

Rather over-optimistically I was hoping to see what California had to offer by way of natural wines. There were only two open that day - an Enfield Syrah from Hayes Vineyard in the Napa Valley - fresh, stalky and about as un-Napa a wine as you could imagine (GREEN TO AMBER) and the Trowbridge ‘Four Horsemen’ from Lake County, a somewhat tarry blend of Portuguese varieties that was less to my taste (the same rating)

It was at this point things went pear-shaped. The girl on my left, clearly unaccustomed to natural wine was saying “I keep tasting something that reminds me a bit of vinegar‘ so I pitched in without thinking, concerned that she thought her tastebuds in some way defective and said it was the wine not her and that natural wine took a bit of getting used to.

Unwise. From that moment on Luc clearly decided I needed to be taken down a peg and proceeded to pick an argument about everything from natural wine aficionados who suggested that this was somehow a better way to make wine to whether natural wines fell apart on opening. (They did he insisted, pouring me one to prove his point)

The fact that I detected redcurrant flavours in a Domaine de la Tournelle Uva Arbosiana provoked an even more forceful explosion about how ridiculous tasting terms were. "If you want to analyse do something worthwhile like be a philosopher" he snorted.

I asked if he treated all his customers that way. Not, if they were there to learn, it appeared. It was clearly my presumption in pronouncing on the subject that got his goat.

Eventually he calmed down and we got on OK. He poured a Julien Sunier Fleurie (delicious though Luc said I must simply say I liked it and not pass judgment on it) and a beautifully fragrant Domaine des Sanzay 2008 Les Poyeux from the same vineyard as Clos Rougeard. I presumably knew about Clos Rougeard? No I didn’t. Much eye-rolling and ‘call yourself an expert’ expressions.

Maybe relenting (or deciding I was in need of further education) he said he thought I might be interested in a book called Terroir et L’Humanisme (another one to add to Trevor’s reading list) and refused to take any money for the wines he’d poured. I left $20 anyway.

So - a great place to drink natural wines kept in top condition. Just go in the evening when they’re busy and Luc doesn’t have time on his hands to pick a fight. Oh and if you know anything about natural wine don’t let on. And for goodness sake don’t mention redcurrants*.

* Or - worse still - that a wine reminds you of candied violets in a salad as one customer had been rash enough to do. “I mean, come onnnnn, when have you ever tasted candied violets in a salad. . . . “ See what I mean? Just watch it.

For a fuller report on Terroir read this recent post from Bertrand Celce of Wine Terroirs who obviously got off more lightly than I did.

Terroir is at 1116 Folsom St, San Francisco (on 7th) +1 415-558-9946

Friday, September 13, 2013

Le Rouge et Le Blanc natural wine magazine

One from Trevor*: "If you haven't come across it before the quarterly wine magazine "Le Rouge et le Blanc" is an invaluable resource. (Unfortunately only published in French!).

It's been going for 30 years now and for all that time without advertising income of any sort.

Unusually for the French it recognises the existence of wine other than that produced in France - for example issue 108 had an in-depth piece on South Australia. The same issue had a typical wide range of material which ranged from a piece on the stellar Côtes Rôties of René Rostaing to a peasant winemaker in the Valais with one and a half hectares. Including full tasting notes on what he produces!

Of course its all about "natural wine" (whatever that means) and for Le Rouge et le Blanc that is a very broad church indeed. In their 100 plus issues they've covered just about everyone who's anyone in the natural wine world and made a fair few discoveries on the way.

The magazine is sold by subscription but is also often available at the classic natural wine bars dotted around France. If you subscribe (which costs 58€ in Europe or 70€ in the rest of the world) they'll send you a list of all the back numbers that are still available - which is most of them - and they also list the contents of each edition.

They're based in Paris - where else? - and they have a website

Try them - they are a mine of dispassionate non-commercially-influenced information.

* For those new to this blog Trevor (Vibert) is my husband, immensely knowledgeable about natural wine and will be posting whenever I can persuade him to!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Is Sager & Wilde set to be London's hippest wine bar?

Given the high profile casualties (Artisan & Vine and Green & Blue) that have befallen the London natural wine scene over the past couple of years it's not surprising the city's newest wine bar, Sager & Wilde, doesn't use the N-word. But it's a place in which any natural wine lover would feel at home.

The bar, which started as a pop-up last year, is run by husband and wife team Michael and Charlotte Sager-Wilde with the aim of giving customers a chance to drink top-end, often hard-to-find wines at affordable prices.

They have impressive CVs - Michael was previously the bar manager at Milk & Honey and wine director at Quo Vadis before moving to California to run RN74 while Charlotte has worked for Jamie Oliver, Terence Conran, Sketch, Milk & Honey, The East Room and Hawksmoor. 

The basic idea is that to have a constantly changing selection of wines by the glass - "the best we can currently lay our hands on." I tried a selection including a rich flavoursome (am I really saying this of prosecco?) Zucchetto Valdobbiadene prosecco, a deliciously citrussy 2009 Heymann-Löwenstein 'von Blauern Schiefer' Mosel, a  classy English sparkler Sugrue Pierre (from Swig), a 2008 François Cotat Sancerre Les Monts Damnés (maybe a touch over the hill) and a gorgeous vivid Bergerac Les Sens du Fruit 2010 from Isabelle Carles and Franck Pascal one of the cheapest options at just £6 a glass. Oh and a sip of 1998 Chateau d'Yquem Les Saluces. Yep, that was quite a lot of wine. It's easy to get carried away.

Having just lunched at the admirable Otto's I was too stuffed to do justice to the food but a nibble of my neighbours' charcuterie showed that the Sager-Wildes devote as much attention to sourcing their ingredients as their wine. And I hear great things of the grilled cheese sandwiches.

Drinking at the bar is often second best but the bar is the ideal place to be at Sager & Wilde. A great addition to the East London wine scene.

Sager & Wilde is at 193 Hackney Road, London E2 8JL and is open from 5pm-11pm from Wednesday to Sunday - and now Monday and Tuesday nights too! The bar is on the 26, 48, 55 bus routes and the nearest station is Hoxton.

PS And good news about the former Green & Blue site in Dulwich. It's now reincarnated as Toasted and run by the Terroirs group which also owns Brawn, Soif and Green Man, French Horn.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Could the Bergstrom fire have been caused by biodynamic treatments?

I was gutted to read about the fire at one of my favourite Oregon wineries, Bergström, that destroyed much of Josh Bergstrom's equipment and personal wine collection. It's good to know the local community has been rallying round according to this report in Wine Spectator but the wines are gone for good*.

There was an interesting hypothesis about the cause of the fire from the Dundee Fire District Chief John Stock who suggested, according to the Spectator report that "the combustion may have been a reaction between a leaking container of Stylet Oil, a mineral oil used to control pests and mildew, and copper hydroxide powder, which is used as a fungicide. Both products are commonly used in organic, biodynamic and sustainable viticulture."

I Googled Stylet and came across this report from the Texas A & M University Department of Entomology which specifies that you should not mix oils with sulphur or copper-based pesticides which suggests that might be the case and there are some pretty fearsome warnings about storage of copper sulphate in this datasheet from Santa Cruz Biotechnology including the tip-off that containers may burn. I'm no scientist but it sounds like something that those of you using biodynamic preparations should be aware of. Anyone able to shed any more light on this?

* His current releases and wine library are, fortunately, stored in another building.

Fire hazard symbol © Jehsomwang -

Monday, September 2, 2013

A grape called Humagne

This blog is not just about the hardcore 'natural' wine world, it's about the esoteric byways of wine drinking and you won't stray much further off the beaten track than this wine I was sent by Swiss specialists Nick Dobson.

Humagne Blanche 2009, Giroud Vins, Sion

According to their website Humagne Blanche is the oldest known white grape and originates in the Valais area of Switzerland, where it was first known, in the late 14th century as "Humani" or humany' according to Jancis Robinson et al's encyclopaedic Wine Grapes. Robinson's co-author ampelographer José Vouillamoz claims it's identical to two other wildly obscure (see note below in correction) grapes Miousat which you find in Jurançon and Monein in the Pyrenées Atlantiques. At one point it nearly became extinct but there's now about 30 ha of it in the Valais.

It was believed to be particularly rich in iron and used to be recommended as a tonic for pregnant women though Vouillamoz says this is a myth and most probably the herbs they added to it.

The flavour is certainly quite curious. Appley, though not cidery - cooked apple rather than fresh - richly honeyed, with a crisp, lemony finish.  It reminded me more of aged Vouvray than anything else though without the cabbagey notes that sometimes afflict it. It's even better a day after opening.

There wasn't much on the site about how the grapes were grown but the Girouds' own site reveals they follow biodynamic practices and are in the process of phasing out chemicals in the winery. They don't mention yeasts but the wine tasted pretty natural to us. The wine is aged for six months in large oak vats, is a modest 12.5% and is recommended with mousses, terrines, cold cuts and Alpine cheese*.

It's not cheap at £19.50 but why should it be if there's so little of it? A real curiosity.

Rating: AMBER (see my traffic lights system to the right)

*According to Nick Dobson the Giroud family are "enthusiastic supporters of other traditional skills and trades in the Valais, from cheesemaking up in the alps to the traditional "combat des reines" or 'cow fighting'. Though given that cows sometimes refuse to take part according to this Wikipedia report it sounds more like cow shoving.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Wine Naturally is back!

You might well have wondered if I’d given up on natural wine since it’s been a year since I last posted. The answer is no - I’ve quietly carried on drinking it, every so often thinking I must write about it but getting side-tracked by other projects and commitments. Let’s call it an unannounced sabbatical.

The commitments (mainly my website) still exist so why restart a blog that had quietly died the death? I do ask myself that and shall probably live to regret it over the coming weeks but here are the reasons:

* The debate over natural wine hasn’t died down. It’s still resented and vilified, caricatured as faulty and undrinkable. Some is, of course but that is true of conventional wine. There are wines on supermarket shelves I wouldn’t drink if you paid me. (Well, perhaps if you paid me enough and I could spit it out.)

* Natural winemakers - and organic and biodynamic ones - need the public support of those who drink and enjoy their wines. As one Chablis winemaker, Thomas Pico told me the other day. “You do feel at times as if you’re the only one out there.” If this blog goes some small way to make them feel there are wine critics who appreciate what they do I’ll have done my job.

* I think there’s an audience for it. OK, a small one but a passionate one. A couple of people I respect have asked plaintively what’s happened to the blog. I couldn’t give them a reason - other than lack of time - for not keeping it up.

* Natural wines are growing in popularity, despite the naysayers. The three very good restaurants* we ate at on our way back from Languedoc last month all had natural wine lists. Natural wine has become the 'talk of the town' in Sydney and 'mainstream' in Tokyo, according to bloggers I'm in touch with on Twitter.

* I still find the subject fascinating. I was in Germany last week looking at organic and biodynamic vineyards and talking to the world’s only professor of organic viticulture at Geisenheim university. There’s no danger of running out of things to write about.

* My husband Trevor says he will post too. I’m holding him to this. It’s the only reason I’ve started the blog again, T.

So here we go with a bright - OK, garish - new look which I’ll try and do something about if I can find someone to apply one of the more stylish Blogger themes. Any offers?

Next posts coming up on the extraordinary Jean-Pierre Robinot, Pico, this year's Chassignolles wine fair, the German organic wine scene, yeasts and Trevor’s review of Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking. He promises . . .

* the Auberge de Chassignolles though that is closing for the summer, hopefully not for good, the brilliant Les Grès at Lindry which I’ve reviewed on my website and La Cour de Rémi at Bermicourt, a great stop-off before taking the Channel Tunnel.

Oh, and the photo at the top? Not me but a striking picture I found in Johan Reyneke's tasting room in Stellenbosch. That's another great domain to write up.