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Drink: Au naturel: backwards to the future

The natural wine movement, which began in France in the 1970s, could be seen as retaliation to all the taste-free, insipid, mass produced brands that litter our shelves. Although it has taken some 40 years to gather momentum, today natural wine is the buzzword on the lips of most sommeliers. Natural wines are now produced all over the world, but Italy and France are particular hotbeds of activity. But what is unnatural wine?

Until 50 or so years ago most wine was made traditionally (without the helping hand of science). Some was good, but a lot of it was faulty – over-sulphured, rancid, oxidised, dried out, dirty…..the list goes on! In the 60s new world pioneers in Australia and California started producing technically perfect wines through the appliance of science and today most wine is made in this way.

Natural wine makers believe that much of modern wine is too manufactured and processed, with a reliance on winemaking and chemicals. Natural wines are made in the vineyard and most natural wine vineyards are farmed biodynamically, which takes organic to another level. However biodynamic doesn’t a natural wine make. What earns these wines their stripes is the policy of non-interventionist wine making (letting nature take its course), using wild yeasts rather than cultivated strains and very little or no sulphur dioxide (used in most wines as an antioxidant and preservative).
So far so good. But what do they taste like? A bit like that girl with the curl: when they are good (expressive, pure, vibrant) they are very good, but when they are bad (fizzy, oxidised, rancid) they are horrid! The problem is that the word bad doesn’t exist in the natural wine making vocabulary and faults are often lauded as character. Make no mistake this are not wines for beginners and people need to understand what they are buying into to appreciate the sometime strange flavours and aromas. Therefore I would suggest that the safest way to get to grips with these wines is by the glass. Les Caves de Pyrene are the main UK importer of natural wines and they have recently opened two wine bars that specialise in the path less trodden. Terroirs (5 William IV St, London WC2N 4DY) and Brawn (49 Columbia Rd, Bethnal Green E2 7RG) offer an unparalleled selection of natural wines by the glass. Why not go “au naturel” this summer? You might just like it.
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