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 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.

The Finest Wines Available to Humanity IV: Bressan Schioppettino

I’m in a wine bar just off Regent Street in central London and choose a Schioppettino 2007 from the list. I don’t know the winemaker, Fulvio Bressan, but the one time I tried schioppettino (means ‘little shot’; also known as ribolla nera) before, at a Friuli tasting, it was really, really good.

I take a big sniff of this Bressan 2007 and it’s breathtaking, one of the most perfectly poised and distinctively perfumed wines I’ve had the pleasure to try. The nose has something like pine singing over the fruit, then it’s more like pungent oregano oil.

Then it does that thing that all special wines do, namely having you climbing up the wall in frustration at not being able to connect an aroma to some long-undisturbed memory, an agonising something “that should be firm but slips, just at the fingertips”.

Is it frankincense? I imagine a priest swinging his clinky thurible down the church aisle (though I’m not a Catholic and never went to church). Then these aromas resolve into something… more homely – and I have it: lavender bags – those muslin lavender bags placed on pillows in certain impossibly cosy and settled homes.

These were the aromas rising so hypnotically from this glass of Bressan 2007 Schioppettino.

Really amazing.

Then I googled ‘Bressan wine’.

The first word you see in connection with ‘Bressan wine’ is ‘racist’.

It turns out that Fulvio Bressan is a very intense man with military pretensions and rabidly racist tendencies. In 2013 his grotesque social media tirade against a black Italian politician caused such outrage that some wine industry people called for a boycott of his wines. One London chef, Jacob Kenedy, of Bocca di Lupo, even made a social media show of smashing his entire stock of them:


Several commentators, Guardian restaurant critics Jay Rayner and Marina O’Loughlin among them, expressed their support for Kenedy’s actions. It caused a big stir in the normally staid world of Italian wine.

So we have an amazing wine and a morally repugnant winemaker. Tricky. It’s funny that this comes just after I’ve written about another disgusting racist, Philip Larkin, and about the importance of separating the man from his art.

I would like to say that the same applies to Fulvio Bressan. It does to the extent that I can call his Schioppettino 2007 one of the finest wines available to humanity, but not to the extent that I will be drinking it again soon.

Disgusting public outbursts like this (note that Larkin’s racism was not public and he’s dead now) and what they represent, do call for a sort of protest, no matter how fine the wine is.

Bronze-Age Booze – It’s the Future

Reflecting on this wine love/wine obsession/thinly disguised alcoholism – call it what you will – of mine, I realise I tried some pretty amazing stuff in 2014: the 1990 Château Margaux, ’55 Latour, and ’42 Castillo Ygay I tried at The Sampler over Christmas stand out as howlingly good. Same goes for that birthday bottle of ’96 Château Armailhac…

These superstars were eclipsed, however, by the discovery of this extraordinary bottle:

The COS Pithos Rosso, a Sicilian red blend of rich, juicy nero d’avola and light, faintly herbal frappato. What distinguishes this wine – apart from a mouthwatering fruity freshness, scintillating clarity and a subtle, expansive textural richness – is that it is made in amphorae.

What are amphorae? These are amphorae:


They are clay vessels, of ancient design, made for carrying liquids like oil and wine. Standard amphorae are relatively small-volume and have handles for carrying them around, but they also come in the shape you see above. This type of amphorae has been used for making wine for approximately 8,000 years – since the Bronze Age.

The home of amphora winemaking is Eurasia – specifically the Republic of Georgia. Here, in 1965, archaeologists discovered an ancient settlement at Shulaveri Hill, 50km south of Tblisi. They unearthed grape pips of vitis vinifera sativa DC (the forbear of modern cultivated grapes) that dated back to 5,000-7,000 BC, giving Georgia the distinction of being the cradle of wine… at least until they dig something else up somewhere else.

In Georgia, where the clay vessels are known as kvevri, the winemaking process is as natural as can be: crushed bunches of grapes are packed inside the kvevri (skin, pips and stems – the lot), which are then sealed and buried underground (a sort of Bronze Age temperature control) for several months during which time natural fermentation, filtration and maturation happen.

What’s totally headflipping is that this is still the way most wine is made in Georgia – that’s a continuous 8,000-year-old winemaking tradition. This tradition has inspired many modern winemakers who aim to produce 1) wine that is as far as possible natural (most modern-day amphora winemakers use organic or biodynamic methods), and 2) wine that preserves as well as possible the typicity of the grapes they are using, the ‘purity of fruit’ that has become the thing I love most about the wines I drink (as it has for a few wine obsessives I know).

That purity of fruit is increasingly seen as the holy grail by wine professionals, and clay amphorae are increasingly seen as the right way to achieve it, as a sort of ‘third way’ beyond oak ageing and steel vat ageing.

This may need some explaining…

Ageing wine in oak barrels is good because wood is permeable, which allows a bit of oxygen in (the technical term here is micro-oxygenation), which the wine often needs to help it soften and develop. It’s bad because it distorts the fruit element by imparting sweetly spicy, smoky and vanilla flavours.

Ageing in steel vats is good because it does not distort the flavour at all. It’s bad because the steel is impermeable, which poses a risk of something called reduction. This is basically the opposite of oxidation, an oxygenless state which can trigger certain reactions that generate off-flavours and aromas.

Amphorae combine the flavour neutrality of steel and the permeability of wood – with neither of the drawbacks.

What I’ve found over the past year or so is that these amphora wines can be of incredible quality. I prefer the reds to the whites. With the whites, because the juice goes into the amphora with the skins, you get a lot of extraction, a lot of tannin. This can be lovely, but also be a bit weird – and turn certain amphora whites into a drink reminiscent of flat Lucozade.

With the reds, though… well, put it this way, I have never had an amphora red that was anything short of stellar – and the COS Pithos has been the brightest star in the firmament.

Harvest 2014: Deep in Beaujolais

I spent this year’s harvest in postcard-beautiful Beaujolais, where I hoped to get closer to the wine I love so well. As the photo shows, mission accomplished: I couldn’t have got any closer short of swimming in the stuff (maybe a goal for harvest 2015).

This image is of the just-picked gamay grapes from Château des Moriers, headily fizzing in the early stages of fermentation in the winery’s cement vats, or cuves. There they’ll continue to roil and bubble – as destemmed but uncrushed berries – for ten (for Fleurie) to 14 (for Moulin à Vent) days. My bedroom was actually above these vats. It felt like I was living inside a fruity burp for a week…

The process of turning those ripe gamay grapes into refreshing, fruity, appetite-stirring red wine was something I wanted to get a better understanding of while out there. With the help of the winemaker, Gilles Monrozier, I was able to do that. Gilles was kind enough to share his winemaking process with me, which I explain here for anyone who’s interested in the ins and outs of winemaking.

La Méthode

The method for making Moulin à Vent at Château des Moriers goes like this (this is the method for a vin de garde – in other words a wine made for ageing; not a Beaujolais nouveau):

Manual harvest >>> destemming (egrappage) of 50% of grapes >>> vatting (encuvage) into cement vats >>> adding of sulphur (sulfitage) >>> heating (chauffage) to 33°C >>> adding of cultured yeast (levurage) >>> pumping over (remontage) of juice from bottom to top of vat for one hour >>> grillage (submerging of the top layer of fermenting grapes, or ‘cap’, in the juice to extract colour and tannin) >>> pumping over for 10 minutes, twice a day >>> semi-carbonic fermentation for 14 days >>> délestage (draining, or ‘racking’ the fermenting juice and pouring over the grape solids. This is similar to pumping over, except here the liquid is totally separated from the solids for a time. Without getting to complicated, it’s a way of 1) aerating, which ‘softens’ the harsh bits in the wine, and 2) extracting colour and tannin while avoiding extracting the harsher elements on the grape solids >>> sweetening (chaptalisation) >>> maintaining temperature at c.25C >>> Pressing of grapes (pressurage) >>> cooling (refroidissement) to 18C >>> revatting/decanting >>> barrelling (etonnage) >>> malolactic fermentation (natural process that turns lactic into (softer) malic acid >>>  fining (collage) >>> filtration >>> adding of sulphur (to c.60mg/l) >>> bottling (mise en bouteilles).

No walk in the park, is it?

You may be wondering about semi-carbonic maceration. Carbonic maceration is one of the three defining things about Beaujolais (along with the gamay grape and its distinctive granite and limestone soils). It basically means that fermentation happens automatically inside the whole berries (activated by yeasts that occur naturally in the grapes) in an atmosphere in which the oxygen has been replaced with carbon dioxide.

What this does is to encourage the bright berry, floral and, sometimes, slightly banana-like flavours and aromas for which Beaujolais is so well known (particularly in the Beaujolais nouveau style). It also results in less tannin extraction. Almost no fermentation is fully carbonic because when large quantities of grapes are kept in vats, gravity does the job of crushing the grapes towards the bottom of the vat, and this juice will tend to ferment naturally, or, in Gilles’ case, will be prompted into fermenting with the addition of cultured yeast.

The home of natural wine

I’ll admit I didn’t know this before my trip to Fleurie, but Beaujolais is widely credited as the place where the modern natural wine movement began. Jules Chauvet (1907-1989), a winemaker, research chemist and negociant from down the road in La Chapelle de Guinchay, started it. As an interesting aside, he also invented the International Standards Organisation tasting glass, which is used around the world to this day.

Chauvet’s books on the subject have become the go-to manuals for the new generation of natural winemakers working around the world today, but it was his influence of a selection of producers in the nearby commune of Villié-Morgon that shows just how crucial Beaujolais is to the story of modern natural wine.

If the names Jean Foillard, Marcel Lapierre,  Guy Bréton and Jean-Paul Thevenet mean nothing to you, and you’re interested in exploring natural wines, it would be worth making a note. This is the so-called ‘gang of four’ – so the American wine importer and writer Kermit Lynch dubbed them – whose elegant, complex wines, all of them Morgons, all of them the product of grapes, air and nothing else, are some of the most talked-about in the wine world today.

It’s the source of some rancour among winemakers though, and the tension between natural winemakers and conventional winemakers is probably greater in Beaujolais than anywhere else. Conventional winemakers think the idea of natural wine is nonsensical – after all, wine doesn’t happen in nature, it requires human engineering – and that it’s the marketing, and not the wine, that’s good; natural (and organic/biodynamic) wine producers see their methods as the most logical for anyone wanting to produce quality wines sustainably and that reflect their specific terroir.

It’s an argument that will run on and on. I don’t have any conclusions. But one conclusion I have reached is that Beaujolais is a really dynamic wine region – a thought was driven home when I dropped in on Xavier and Kerrie at Château de Lavernette towards the end of my trip.

Xavier’s family has been making wine in Leynes, on the northern edge of Beaujolais, for 14 generations. He and Kerrie, his partner, studied oenology in Napa, California, before returning to Xavier’s family estate to make wine biodynamically. Kerrie explained to me how the culture of winegrowing is changing in and around Leynes.

When she arrived just over five years ago, none of the local vineyards was organic. Now, close to 15% of them are. Kerrie puts it down to a gradually shifting mentality, from one formed in the post-war era of scarcity, when any method for increasing productivity was grasped with both hands, regardless of long-term sustainability, to one of sensitivity to the land and the environment.

Ultimately, as Kerrie pointed out, it’s not even about choosing biodynamics in order to create superior wines (although that’s often an outcome), it’s about changing one’s way of thinking. The Lavernette wines I tried suggest Kerrie and Xavier are on the right track.

Did you know…

  • Historically Beaujolais has been more than a match for the best Burgundy or Bordeaux wines. A 1911 wine list Gilles showed me showed a young Moulin à Vent selling for THE SAME PRICE as a premier cru classé Haut Brion Bordeaux!
  • Traditionally Beaujolais was made to be drunk when very mature – a far cry from the Beaujolais nouveau that has so tarnished its prestigious reputation.
  • The best recent Beaujolais vintages were: 2011, 2009, 2007 and 2005

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).