Hangover-less wine (and other stories)

There’s a rumour going round in the outré world of artisanal alcohol consumption that natural wine won’t give you a hangover – presuming of course that you drink a hangover’s worth of the wine in the first place.

I have to tell you that it’s just not true.

It is not true because it contains alcohol, a toxin, which if ingested in sufficient quantities dehydrates the body and consequently impairs its proper functioning.

That said, natural wine may just give you more of a fighting chance of recovery on those dreadful Dixonian days than a bog-standard supermarket bottle would.

Why so? Because of its relative absence of sulphur dioxide.

What is sulphur dioxide?

Sulphur dioxide is a chemical compound. It is widely used as a preservative in the food and drinks industry. It’s used in the preservation of dried fruits; it’s even used to keep fresh fruit looking fresh. Those little packs of sliced apple in the supermarket – have you ever wondered how they stay white rather than oxidising and going all orangey-brown?

Sulphur dioxide (as in ‘contains sulphites’) is also used in winemaking. It has been for centuries. As long ago as the Roman era winemakers would burn sulphur candles in their amphorae wine vessels before filling them with wine; although they didn’t know how it stopped the wine from spoiling, they knew it did. The practice was then adopted by 16th century English and Dutch importers who did the same with their oak barrels.

Nowadays it’s usually added in synthetic, powdered form at various stages of the winemaking process – just after the grapes have been crushed, after fermentation, or just before bottling. These are the stages when the wine is most likely to oxidise and spoil.

Less scrupulous or more risk-averse winemakers will add it at all three stages. Natural winemakers distinguish themselves by adding only a minimal amount of sulphur during the whole operation, usually at bottling.

Some diehards use no sulphur at all. From a commercial point of view this is tantamount to madness. From a natural winemaking point of view, it is almost the Holy Grail.

How does this relate to the bastard behind my eyes?

Experiments have shown that sulphur dioxide messes with the action of a compound called glutathione. When the body processes booze, one set of enzymes converts alcohol to acetaldehyde. Glutathione then kicks in to convert acetaldehyde into acetate, which the body find easier to excrete.

Sulphur dioxide inhibits glutathione, which means acetaldehyde hangs around, which is not what you want: it’s up to 30 times more toxic than alcohol, hence the bastard behind the eyes, the nausea, the insuperable sense that your family and friends “are leagued in a barely contained conspiracy of silence about what a shit you are”, as Kingsley Amis puts it.

So, all other things being equal, if you want to keep the risk of the unpleasantness outlined above to a minimum, you will assuredly fare better with wine that is ‘natural’, rather than ‘conventional’.

One place you can do this in the very near future (assuming that you’re reading this before December 3), is at the William Morris Gallery Late event co-hosted by the Vine Collective:


This is an edited version of an article that appears in the Winter edition of Root + Bone.

The Vine Collective at William Morris Gallery Lates

What do natural wine, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Seahawks, poetry, harps and films about supererogatory clowns have in common?

Answer: the Vine Collective at the William Morris Gallery Lates.

Kirsteen McNish and I are co-curating the next three William Morris Gallery Late events as part of our little Vine Collective venture – although she’s doing almost all of the important work; my main job is to make sure we have a plentiful supply of good natural wine to pour throughout the evening.

This is shaping up to be a pretty special event, one that builds on the buzz of our sold-out night at Blackhorse Workshop in E17 a couple of months ago – a night where we brought together such bright stars as Rob Auton, Will Burns, Michael Smith, Gareth Rees, Leo Smee from Chrome Hoof and folk duo The Cat’s Knickers. And lots of good natural wine.

Our next foray, at the William Morris Gallery on October 1, includes a DJ set from illustrator and Seahawks deckshoegazer Pete Fowler, along with two films by the brilliant Shelly Love and a set from poet-harpist Miriam Nash. The gallery will also be presenting its own entertainment offering. Check the gallery website for full details.

We’ll also have these wines. I’ve included the descriptions below:


Cos Frappato 2014 (SICILY, frapatto) – Frappato is an indigenous Sicilian grape. The vines are worked biodynamically Tasting note: Intense, clean aromas of violets and fresias with cherries and cranberries. The mouth is fresh and lively with savoury red fruits and sweet tannins.

Hegarty Chamans 2010 (MINERVOIS, roussanne, marsanne) – A hard-to-find biodynamic white from the Montagne Noire in the Minervois. A blend of roussanne and marsanne. Rich and full-bodied, with notes of honey and stone fruits.

Casa Belfi Colfondo Prosecco 2012 (VENETO, glera) – ‘Colfondo’ literally means ‘residue at the bottom’. This is a naturally cloudy prosecco with sediment. Fermentation is with wild yeasts in stainless steel. Ageing on lees, then bottling on a flower day (a propitious day in biodynamic calendar) without filtration. No sulphur added.

Radford Dale Thirst Gamay 2015 (SOUTH AFRICA, CAPE OF GOOD HOPE, gamay) – Gamay is the Beaujolais grape. This is a rare South African example. Tasting note: crunchy strawberry and cranberry fruits, bracing acidity and light, supple tannins. Think of this as somewhere between a light red and a traditional rosé.

Tragolargo Monastrell 2013 (SPAIN, ALICANTE, monastrell) –
From Alicante, south-east Spain. Monastrell = mourvedre. Organic. No racking, no added SO2, no enzymes, no fining or filtration. Tasting note: Very fruity and complex: spicy, herbal, liquorice, juniper, raspberry, strawberry, fresh tannin and a touch of minerality.

If you’re in the east London area next Thursday, come and have a glass with us.

You can find out about the rest of our William Morris Gallery Lates programme by following us on Twitter – @vine_collective.

I’ll also post updates here when I get a chance.


WM Lates

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.


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:
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)

The Vine Collective at E17 Art Trail

If you’ve come here wanting to know about the Vine Collective, good – you’re very welcome.

Here’s what the Vine Collective is, and is doing…

The Vine Collective is me, Darren Smith, and the marvellous Kirsteen McNish. I work in wine and organise events where I sell good natural, organic and biodynamic wine. Kirsteen comes from the wacky world of arts consultancy and has done loads of good work organising arts festivals, including the Richmond Literature festival.

We collaborated for an successful wine/food/performance event at L’Entrepot in Hackney Downs late last year, called Hackney with a Twist.  That event involved lots of wine drinking, John Keats, stuffed pumpkins, the dark and wonderful Shelly Love, the gutter romanticist Michael Smith and loads of other stuff too verbal to mention.

We enjoyed that and since then we’ve been wanting to find a special venue in E17 where artists to perform. Blackhorse Workshop was the obvious choice.

So, on Friday June 12 from 8pm-11.30pm, we’re inviting you to join us at Blackhorse Workshop, E17, for a special curated event of poetry, book-readings, live music sessions and DJ sets, all lubricated by a selection of natural, organic and biodynamic wines, and locally brewed ales. Oh and some good British cheeses. 

Our launch night takes place in the home of practising artists and craftspeople within the striking industrial architecture of Blackhorse Workshop (now a whole year old!). Our aim is to plant roots in this flowering space and create a regular performance event – always with interesting wines available.

We’re doing this as part of the annual E17 Art Trail, whose theme for 2015 is storytelling. So we will be telling stories through a variety of artists and musicians, encouraging you to share your Friday night with us and toast all that’s wonderful about East London’s places and people.

We are proud to announce our first ever line-up at Blackhorse Studios. Drumroll, please:

– Poet and comedian Rob Auton (here’s Rob’s film about yellow)

– Psychogeographical author Gareth Rees (unofficialbritain.com)

– Writer and broadcaster Michael Smith (Giro Playboy/Unreal City/Culture Show; here’s a trailer for Michael’s film, Unreal City)

– Faber New Poet Will Burns

The Cat’s Knickers with a rare live set

All this and a special DJ Set from Leo Smee (Chrome Hoof). This is a line-up we are sure will keep you entertained over the course of the night.

The theme of Art Trail this year is storytelling, and just as all our performers have weird and wonderful stories tell, so do our wines. I’ve carefully selects a range of great wines all made according to the same ‘natural’ ethos – ie, small-scale producers farming organically or biodynamically, practicing minimal-intervention viniculture (wild yeast fermentations, minimal sulphur, no fining or filtering), to produce wines that are as natural as possible and full of life and goodness.

We’ll also have some locally brewed ale and lovely British cheeses from the East London Cheeseboard.

Come and join us for the merrymaking and storytelling, on a night that we hope will whet your appetite for more at this new creative destination. You can book a ticket here.

When? Friday June 12, 8pm-11.30pm

Where? Blackhorse Workshop: www.blackhorseworkshop.co.uk – 1-2 Sutherland Road Path, Walthamstow, E17 6BX

Why? Because you want to.

Nearest Tube: Blackhorse Road, a 10 minute walk or 158 Bus to Waltham Forest College stop (see Blackhorse Workshop sign to Sutherland Path). Limited parking.

Anyone for supper?

This should be rather good. I’ve written recently about my new wine co-venture – Wine and Vinyl. We (my good friend Ben and I) have been involved in a couple of very successful events so far, bringing exciting natural, organic and biodynamic wines and vinyl music to the discerning gentlefolk of East London.

Now we’re signed up to our third, a very special three-course dinner event, with carefully chosen wine pairings and craft beer options, in collaboration with VOL and The Fermentarium.

It’s called the Blackhorse Friday Supper and the first is on Friday evening, February 27 at Blackhorse Workshop. We’re aiming to make it a regular thing after a couple of trial runs.

If you’re in East London, I would recommend you save the date. The food is going to be fantastic. Amir from VOL has trained in Michelin-star restaurants and is a very skilful cook. His three courses for £15 must be one of the biggest food bargains in London. Then there’ll be what I intend to make a wonderful selection of wines available by the glass for a fiver each, all designed to make each course sing (I’ll be posting the menu on the blog late next week), plus a live DJ and The Fermentarium providing a range of excellent quality local craft beers.

Should be fantastic. We hope you can join us. You can reserve your place by emailing blackhorsefridaysupper@gmail.com.

This is Wine and Vinyl…

There is literally nothing to dislike about good music and good wine. This is a truism my friend Ben and I had pored over umpteen times until, I suppose on the umpteen-and-oneth, we decided to do something about it.

We launched Wine and Vinyl at Blackhorse Workshop market in Walthamstow, East London, just before Christmas last year.

We source the best natural, organic or biodynamic wines and the best new and pre-loved vinyl records we can find, then enthuse relentlessly about them at markets, parties, special events – anywhere that works.

We offer try-before-you-buy tastings and listen-before-you-buy, er, listenings, we play DJ sets and generally try to have/facilitate a good time.

We’re lucky to have linked with Blackhorse Workshop at just the right time. Walthamstow is buzzing with the overspill of young creative types from Hackney and its environs, and many of them converge on Blackhorse Road.

The Workshop, run by the Barbican Arts Group Trust, is home to loads of talented artists and craftspeople, while the market gives people in E17 loads of good food-and-drink options – excellent coffee from Wood Street Coffee, good-quality beer, bread and wood-fired pizza from The Fermentarium, locally made cheese from The East London Cheese Board – these are all things we love, and we’re glad to be able to add good wine and good music to the mix.

Last Saturday, as well as hosting the regular monthly market (it’s always on the first Saturday of the month), Blackhorse Workshop was celebrating its first birthday – and Wine and Vinyl was there. It was a fantastic night with a brilliant atmosphere.

We have to congratulate Harriet, Rob, Toby and the rest of the Workshop team for putting on a superb show. Your hard work really paid off and we hope there’ll be many more parties like it.

Here’s a profile of the wines we were selling on the night. All of them went down really well. We practically sold out, as did Simon the beermaker (The Fermentarium). Stow folk can really put it away…


The next Blackhorse Workshop market will be on Saturday March 7 (if you can, do come along. It’ll be brilliant) but Ben and I are also planning a special food and wine event for the end of September with these talented Dutchmen. It’s going to be a gourmet treat for Walthamstow. Details to follow on this blog, and on our Wine and Vinyl Facebook and Twitter pages

Finally, here are a couple of tunes from Ben’s set. Hope you like them.

Happy birthday, Blackhorse Workshop!