Critics say it tastes like stale cider, but fans of natural wine are here to put the record straight. The most vocal of them all is Isabelle Legeron, also known as That Crazy French Woman, who returns to London this May with her artisan wine fair RAW
Natural wine divides opinion: some experts dismiss it as a fad while others are quick to remind us that once upon a time, wine used to be made simply by crushing fermented grapes. It was natural.
To add to the confusion, the natural wine movement has no strict definition. As a rule, you can expect natural wines to be hand-harvested, made with wild yeasts and free from additives such as sugar, enzymes or vitamins.
We caught up with That Crazy French Woman, also known as Isabelle Legeron, France’s first female Master of Wine, co-founder of RAW (the artisan wine fair) and driving force behind natural wines, to find out why the critics are wrong and which bottles you should be drinking.
What is ‘natural wine’ and how does it differ from organic and biodynamic wine?
“Natural wine is wine that is grown organically or biodynamically in a vineyard, but is then made without the additives and processing that's permitted in modern winemaking, many of which are even used in organic and biodynamic wine.”
As sugar and acidity in natural wines are not artificially manipulated, does the wine actually taste good?
“Of course! Wine makes itself. If grown healthily and harvested when ripe, a grape is naturally balanced with acidity, sugars, wild yeast, good bacteria and the like. It contains everything you need to transform it into delicious wine.
"To put it simply, as I say in my book, 'If you pick grapes and squash them in a bucket, you will, with a little luck, end up with wine.'"
Why do you think some people dismiss natural wine?
“It depends on the person – it could be because they feel confronted by something they're not used to or feel they don’t understand. It could be prejudice created by hearing others make generalisations about what natural wines are, which really is a shame since some of the most well-established, famous traditional producers – revered even by the conventional world – are in fact natural.
"Or it could even be that they had a bad bottle or a bottle by a not-so-great grower. Remember, not every natural wine is delicious and nor are all natural wines alike so you are sure to find ones that you love and others you hate. Just like with conventional wines – you probably don’t like every wine you’ve ever drunk, so why would you like every natural wine you come across?”
Will they give you less of a hangover?
“Yes – at least that is what I have found and what anecdotally other people tell me, too. It's likely down to the elevated sulphites in many conventional wines. Having said that, natural wines are still alcoholic drinks so should be consumed in moderation, even if they are more drinkable!”
Which bars should we go to for natural wines?
“I live in London and there are lots of great natural wine watering holes all over the capital. I consult for a few myself and my latest is a brilliant neighbourhood bar and restaurant by Brett Redman (the chef and patron behind Elliot’s Cafe in Borough Market) that has just opened in Hackney called The Richmond. The food is amazing – it's £1 an oyster during happy hour which is incredible pricing, particularly for London – and they make delicious cocktails. The wines are obviously brilliant, too. Others I’d recommend are Antidote near Carnaby Street, Victualler in Wapping, Terroirs and Remedy both in central, and Naughty Piglet in Brixton.”
What should we be drinking at home?
“White: Semplicemente Vino Bianco 'Bellotti', Cascina degli Ulivi, Piemonte, Italy 2013
"Orange: Testalonga El Bandito Skin Contact, South Africa 2013
"Medium-bodied: Cascina Tavijn, Bandita, Piemonte, Italy 2012
"Fuller reds: Domaine Gauby, Côtes du Roussillon Villages Rouge, Vieilles Vignes, France, 2011 and Frank Cornelissen, Rosso del Contadino, Sicily 2011
"These wines will all be at RAW, alongside hundreds, if not thousands, of other wines to taste (all free with your entry ticket) so I guarantee you will find something that you will love.”
Tell us about the wine you produce
“I am currently working on a project with Hungarian friends in Serbia and we have made four bottlings using indigenous grape varieties. I did not personally make the wine, but worked with the grower Ozkar Maurer to guide him through the process.
“The idea behind the whole thing was to help growers who already farm cleanly (using organics, biodynamics, permaculture or other) to make wine more naturally without feeling they have to go it alone. It was born out of the idea that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ so we help them shoulder the risk.”
Photo: Tom Moggach
Critics have said that the natural wine movement has peaked. Do you disagree?
“Completely disagree. We are only just beginning!”
At RAW this year, you’ll taste Tony Coturri’s aged natural wines. Can natural wine age?
“Yes, of course. There is no need for sulphites or any other preservatives to ensure ageing potential. It is a big myth that sulphite-free wines don’t mature. The proof is in the pudding so again, it's best to check for yourself. We’re very excited to have Tony’s 35-year-old cabernet sauvignon and a zinfandel from 1987 at the show.”
What are the most important factors in ageing natural wines?
“Great quality, healthy grapes that are farmed organically at a minimum. You also need the yields to be balanced so that the vines are not stressed by over-production – if the farmer thinks of them as living beings and treats them as such, with the respect that life demands, then you’re already on a pretty good track.
“The quality of the site where the vines grow is also very important. And last but certainly not least, time. Shortcuts just aren’t possible for truly great wine. They need to be raised like children, which is probably why in French the same word (élevage) is used for both.”
What do you have planned next?
"Last year we took RAW to Vienna and it was a huge success so we’re very excited to be continuing our European tour to Berlin in November. RAW Berlin will take place 29-30 November at Markt Halle, a covered market in the city that’s developed a fantastic reputation as a real foodie hub."