Grape expectations: Is au naturel the King's new clothes?
Here's a new vinous buzzword that may not have reached you: 'natural wine'.
"Eh," you say. "Isn't all wine 'natural'?" Not according to the proponents of this latter-day philosophy. Natural wine is made with as little chemical and technological intervention as possible, either in the way the grapes are grown or made into wine. How does this differ from organic wine? Organic wine is organic in the sense that it is produced from organically grown grapes, but there may be subsequent technical manipulation during wine-making.
The concept of 'natural wine' is extremely controversial. There is no certification body and the term has no legal status. Wine-makers claiming to be 'natural' differ widely as to what they consider an acceptable level of intervention. As a general rule, adherents demand the wine be made from hand-picked, organically or biodynamically grown grapes from low-yielding vineyards. Yeasts are wild or cultivated within the winery. Proscriptions include fining; filtration; adjustments of acidity; addition of sugar or other additives; technological tweaking such as micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis (which lowers alcohol levels) and adding sulphite (or, at least, no more than a microscopic amount) as preservative.
Five years ago a young Belgian wine writer, a devout believer in natural wine, organised a tasting. "This is the wine of the future," he said. "One day all wine will taste like this."
Afterwards I told him: "If it does, you'll find me drinking beer." Thin, cloudy, acetic, a sort of 'wine cider', every one was the antithesis of the wine I'd grown to enjoy. My Belgian buddy was adamant these were good wines, despite the presence of brettanomyces, oxidation, volatility and almost every other winemaking fault known to man.
London's inaugural Natural Wine Fair will be held at Borough Market on Sunday, May 15. Organiser Isabelle Legeron MW recently re-orientated the wine list at Hibiscus, a Mayfair Michelin two-star restaurant to major on natural wines. So is natural wine this season's haute couture or the King's new clothes? As far as I'm concerned the jury is still out -- at least until I find a natural wine that pleases me, which I haven't yet. Samples are welcome.
Portugal's reputation continues to climb. The Corkscrew still have a few places left on their wine trip (May 3-6), in conjunction with Grace Campbell Wines. They will visit top producers Herdade dos Grous, Casa Santa Victoria and the wonderful Malhadinha Nova estate. See www.thecorkscrew.ie or contact Paul Foley on 01 674 5731.
Finally, to wine of the week. Marks & Spencer's Australian Shiraz, €7.95 is supple, subtly charming, plummy, food-friendly and modest in alcohol (13.5 ABV).