Like a Kid in a Sweetshop at RAW

Two things resounded for me from the 2015 RAW fair: 1) the generally high standard of natural wines now on offer and 2) the alarming number of young blokes wearing the same blue workman’s blazer – so many that it almost came as a surprise when I looked down and saw that I wasn’t wearing one.

RAW is truly the hipster’s wine fair, housed within the whitewashed warehouse walls of the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, it teems with egregious facial hair, tight trousers and tattoos, and lording it through it all is what you might call the wine hipster’s deity, the Sicilian amphora winemaker Gabrio Bini, unmissable with his silky, snow-white locks and moustache, lilac-tinted glasses and psychedelic shirt.

Bini is no mere fashion icon, though. His wines, which were guzzled up long before the wines of the rest of the 100+ winemakers at the fair (similar story for the wines of Frank Cornelissen and Elisabetta Foradori), are extraordinary creations: long skin-maceration in amphora which are buried in the soil for several months at a stretch. The resulting wines have a structure and spicy exoticism that is rarely found anywhere else. They aren’t cheap, but demand for the wines of this flamboyant silver fox clearly outstrips supply.

RAW definitely seems to be creating more of a buzz among young wine drinkers with every passing year. It’s been my favourite fair from the very first time I attended; I can still remember how bedazzled I was by the variety of flavours and aromas in these wines.

These are experiences that can shape a passion for wine, so the growing popularity of the RAW fair is something the organisers should be proud of. Thanks and congratulations to Isabelle Legeron and her team.

Here are my highlights from this year, based on the usual, inevitably selective, sampling. I wonder, in passing, if there’s something delirium-inducing about tasting for three hours under that hothouse roof. Maybe it was just the wine…

Seresin pinot noirs (all of them): Seresin is a biodynamic estate in Marlborough, NZ. I’m not at all keen on their sauvignon, but their pinots have a poise and elegance and fruit-oak balance that’s quite special. (Available through Armit Wines)

Ezibusisweni Chenin Blanc 2012: Angus Mcintosh is a cattle farmer in Stellenbosch. He makes amazing biltong. He also has some chenin blanc vines, from which he makes a very limited supply of this outstanding wine:

20150518_141749This is biodynamically farmed chenin, very small-scale. The grapes are basket-pressed and barrel-fermented and then aged for up to two years. Wild yeast, no additives, no racking, no topping up, no fining or filtering. I tried the 2012-14 – all very lovely but the 2012 was definitely the best: apricoty, bready, even caramely, yet still fruity and fresh. The straw wine on the left of the picture is from 2009 and is also absolutely wonderful. We’re going to have to go to Stellenbosch to enjoy it though because, so far, no one imports it. Damn shame.

Om Oliver Moragues Possessió D’Om 2014: A Mallorcan red made from indigenous manto negro grapes grown on clay-limestone soil. Similar to a pinot in fruit profile but with a bit more tannic structure. Lovely bright fruit and a mineral streak. They make a couple with oak as well but I think they mask the fruit too much. Not yet imported.

Vignaioli Contra Soarda Marzemino. These are Contra Soarda‘s wines:

20150518_152830 (1)They’re made from grapes grown on volcanic soil on a hillside just outside Bassano del Grappa, where vines and olive trees have been grown for centuries. They use mainly indigenous grapes (marzemino nero, plus the white vespaiolo), grapes are gravity-fed into the winery, wild yeasts are used for fermentation and there is no filtering. This red has such bright fruit and mineral tension. I love it. I love all their wines, actually – their merlot included. (Available from The Winemakers Club)

Cà del Vent Franciacorta Brut Blanc de Blanc Pas Operé 2011: Every year I seek out the Cà del Vent table to taste their gorgeous franciacorta.

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This stuff isn’t cheap, but I’d rather drink it than most champagnes I can think of. So fresh and vital, yet with depth and complexity. Stunning sparkling wine. (Available from The Winemakers Club)

Cupano: Lionel Cousin is a charming whitebearded Frenchman who makes wine in Montalcino, Tuscany. His 2006 Brunello reminded me of a 20 or 30-year-old Pomerol. Amazing stuff. His 2008 and 2009 were also memorable: so earthy and complex. He also makes some wonderful Supertuscans. (Available from Swig)

Le Clos de la Meslerie Vouvray: Peter Hahn is an American romantic making Vouvray chenin blanc. His first vintage, in 2008, was picked out by the standard-setting Revue du Vin de France as one of the country’s best 100 wines and he’s been going from strength to strength since then. (Available from dynamicvines.com)
Domaine Jean-Philippe Padié Fleur de Cailloux 2014:
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This is an outstanding white, a blend of grenache blanc, grenache gris and macabeu – but nothing like the intense, boozy whites I am used to from Roussillon. This has a lightness and minerality that puts me more in mind of the cooler climes of the Loire. I could drink this all day, as indeed, one of these days, I will. (Available from Swig)
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Wine, the Universe and Everything

What’s it all about, Douglas? Four-and-a-half billion years ago, some pointless lump of rock hurtling through the disorder of the early solar system crashes into a larger pointless lump of rock at great speed, explodes, then partially re-coalesces and slips into an orbit around the larger lump of rock in a senseless, irresistible spiral. Thence biogenesis, microbes, yeast, plants, winemakers, wine drinkers and all that jazz.

How does is all happen, really? Okay, let’s stick to what’s answerable. What, in this bullshit-benighted age, does ‘terroir’ mean? Many a rhapsody has rung out over ‘terroir’ – the idea that the wine we drink is an expression of the specific geology and climate of the land the grapevines are grown on – but let’s face it, most are based on nothing more than a commercial interest in that land.

The winemaker’s craft is almost always a matter of interfering with natural processes. Chaptalisation, acidification, deacidification – the list of -ations that are part of the typical commercial producer’s routine goes on and on. As does the list of additives used in these processes. From the time the grapes are picked to the moment the bottles are corked, wine producers in the EU are allowed to use more than 200 (that’s not a typo) additives to make their wines ‘just so’. In other parts of the world the number is even higher.

The use of these additives makes a nonsense of the idealised notion of ‘terroir’. If you’re buying your wine from a supermarket, forget it: fancy labels, probably written in fine italics, with airy references to “enduring philosophies”, “faithful traditions” and “unique expressions”. It’s basically bullshit.

There is one place, though, where use of the term ‘terroir’ is not at all bullshitty (though the soil the vines grow in may be). That is in the world of natural wine.

What on earth is ‘natural wine’? Natural wine is wine made organically or biodynamically (more on this in a moment) with minimal intervention in the vineyard (no synthetic fertilisers or pesticides) and the cellar (only low levels of sulfites (max: 70mg/l)). The RAW Charter of Quality also insists that no yeasts be added, except in the case of the second fermentation of sparkling wines, when neutral yeasts can be used (in other words, wines must be fermented spontaneously by ambient ‘wild’ yeasts).

What about biodynamics? Biodynamics is a funny one. It emerged in 1924 as a general agricultural method. Worried that industrialisation had weakened their soils and enfeebled their crops, European farmers turned to social reformer, esotericist and all-round Enlightenment man Rudolf Steiner.

Influenced by the holism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, astrology and occultism, Steiner came up with a way of cultivating crops that did away with the synthetic chemicals and mechanisation of large-scale agriculture. Instead it was guided by the phases of the moon and the positions of other celestial objects, and used only natural aids – organic compost, biological green manures, herbal treatments – to grow crops.

Steiner’s aim was to produce a sustainable system of agriculture that would enhance the quality and flavour of whatever was grown – and make people feel healthier in body and mind. The methods are inarguably bizarre from an uninitiated’s point of view. Filling cow horns with manure and burying them for six months before dissolving the resulting fermented material in homeopathic solutions to spray on crops, ‘dynamising’ these solutions by stirring them in an infinity-symbol pattern – and that’s before we move on to spiritual interstellar beings that transmit generative forces to the earth or to super-sensory consciousness…

Scientific rationalists like me have trouble accepting such ideas. But whatever you think of them, they do overlap with a) a basic cosmological awareness and b) a sense of ecological virtue, which is concerned with promoting life, health and sustainability.

They also overlap with the making of some extraordinarily good wine. So much so that a Decanter magazine debate concluded that the wine trade should promote biodynamic methods. So much so that Tesco and Marks & Spencer now only hold wine tastings on auspicious days in the lunar calendar. So much so that they have created the biggest consumer buzz around wine in recent years.

So what does it all mean, really? Yes, some of this is sheer trendiness, the latest buzz for the Crunchy Granola Set, but then it just might be part of something more fundamental, something more elemental, something more… listen to me – it’s funny what drinking three glasses of artisanal wine under a full moon will do.

Photo: Thangaraj Kumaravel (acquired under CREATIVE COMMONS LICENCE).