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What is ‘real’ wine? And why is the ‘real (natural) wine versus all other wines’ such a consistent part of the global wine narrative?

I spent last Sunday afternoon at the Real Wine Fair in London in search of answers.

Held at the Tobacco Dock in the Wapping area of East London, the Real Wine Fair is a two day event celebrating ‘artisan growers who work with minimal intervention in the vineyard and the winery.’

imageOrganized by UK-based importer/distributor Les Caves de Pyrene, this year’s event featured 150+ winegrowers (presumably those that consider themselves part of the real wine movement) from around the world, local food vendors featuring oysters, local meats and cheeses, a pop-up wine shop of the wines poured at the event, and a series of educational seminars.

According to the event website, real wines ‘are made organically, biodynamically and naturally. By no means precise nor prescriptive it serves chiefly to highlight growers who work with minimal mediation, ideally to obtain the purest articulation of terroir, fruit and vintage.’ Not mentioned is whether or not ‘real’ and ‘natural’ are synonymous. (I consider real and natural wine synonyms for this piece.)

While I do respect winegrowers’ commitment to ‘natural’ environmental farming practices and minimal intervention in the winery, the haughty dogmatic tone of many ‘natural wine’ evangelists and dismissive attitude toward winegrowers (and wines) that may not subscribe to the same approach is tired.

Yawn.

Despite my skepticism (indifference, actually) of the ‘movement’ — in particular the loudest evangelists — I entered the fair with an open mind in search of education and new finds.

I asked several vignerons to share their definition of ‘real wine’ (‘natural wine’ considered a synonym).

The answers ranged from, ‘natural wine is only about following Biodynamic practices’ to ‘natural wine means using no chemicals in the vineyard and no sulfur in the winery’ to ‘no chemicals and only native yeasts’ to ‘it’s wine without the industrialism.’ And, my favorite from a young Loire winegrower (who makes a kickass Savennieres), “I don’t really know, I just make wines I like.”

Clearly I’m not the only person unsure of exactly what ‘real or natural wine’ really means. No shortage of selective room for interpretation.

Though my view of the natural wine ‘movement’ was not changed on Sunday afternoon, I did leave the Fair with a deeper respect for those growers that practice their version of ‘natural’ winegrowing without the hubris so closely associated with the movement.  

 

As with any other ‘normal (not natural?)‘ large wine event, I met many thoughtful and passionate winegrowers (the same thoughtfulness and passion held by many ‘non-natural’ winegrowers) and tasted a number of unbalanced, funky (in a bad way) wines with lots of volatile acidity, which confirmed my belief that a few in the ‘movement’ use all this talk of natural whatever as an excuse for bad winemaking.

I was impressed with how many American winegrowers made the trip over to share their wines with the London wine trade and local wine enthusiasts. Deirdre Heekin from Vermont’s La Garagista and Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope were among the dozen winemakers from the U.S.

Some of the more thoughtful winegrowers I met on Sunday and interesting wines I tasted include:

La Garagista — Vermont:
First, American wine rock star Deirdre Heekin who is helping lead the resurgence of wines made from hybrid grapes. I first became aware of Ms. Heekin and La Garagista from my friend Todd Trzaskos, author of Vermont Wine Press, and more recently from Eric Asimov’s article The New York Times.

 

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Caleb, Deirdre, Will, making Vermont proud!

Situated on Mount Hunger in the Piedmont chain of hills in Barnard, Vermont (yes, Vermont!), their land has been part of homestead farming for over 200 hundred years. Heekin and her husband Caleb Barber focus exclusively on growing hybrid grape varieties and follow biodynamic farming practices. All grapes are picked by hand, destemmed, and foot stomped and make their wines without filtration.

I loved the cherry inflected, fizzy 2015 Grace and Favour Pet Nat made from 100% la crescent grape but my favorite of the five La Garagista wines was the 2014 Damejeanne Rouge. A blend of 90% marquette with 10% la crescent (in the style of a Côte-Rôtie), the wine was bright, juicy, and fresh. Abundant cherry notes with cranberry and forest floor on the edges.

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Central Vermont may not seem like a likely place for amazing wines but these distinctive cuvees are worth seeking out.

Forlorn Hope — California:
The ever-interesting Matthew Rorick of Napa’s Forlorn Hope was sharing some fantastic juice a few tables away. I’ve been a big fan of Rorick’s wines for some time and the 2011 Nacre Semillon may be the best Forlorn Hope wine I’ve tasted. Made from 100% Semillon, this wine could easily be mistaken for some of the amazing whites coming out of Australia’s Hunter Valley. Light, round, wonderful texture offering notes of melon, pear, and saline. 2011 is the latest release. A delicious, rare creature indeed.

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Domaine de la Borde — Jura:
I was delighted to find a new-to-me producer from the Jura (Arbois-Pupillin), Julien Mareschal’s Domaine de la Borde. Mareschal is one of just a few vignerons making wine in the Côte de Caillot area. He farms organically and makes Chardonnay in the ‘ouille’ style, meaning the foudres are topped up to prevent oxidation, with indigenous yeasts.

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The 2014 Chardonnay Cote de Caillot was amazing. Beautiful, light, driven by mineral and melon with lovely acidity. This is the type of wine I could drink daily. For local wine fans, I believe these wines are available at Weygandt wine in DC.

Ganevat — Jura:
A couple tables away were the wines of one of the best-known Jura producers, Jean-Francois Ganevat. This table had the largest crowd of tasters throughout the day. A real treat to taste ten Ganevat wines, from his gamays, trousseaus to Chardonnays. Jean-Francois was not there but his sister Ann and her husband were there sharing the Ganevat wines and story.

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The Ganevat family has deep roots in winegrowing, dating back to the mid 17th century. Today, Ganevat’s eight and half hectares of vines (planted to seventeen different varieties) are farmed biodynamically. Of the ten wines poured at Ganevat’s table, the 2008 Chardonnay Cuvee du Pepe was by far the stand out. Oxidative (of course) with intense aromas of hazelnut and pear with flavors of almonds, baked apple and light caramel. A nutty finish for days. A wine to spend some time with. If only we could find them in the U.S. more often.

Mosse — Loire:
During my trip to the Loire Valley last May, I visited several notable winegrowers in and around St. Lambert du Lattay in the Anjou region (most notably Jo Pithon). The area is known for schist and sandstone soils. My only regret from my time in the area was not visiting Richard Leroy and the domaine of Agnes & Rene Mosse. I was pleased to find their sons, Joseph and Sylvester, at the Fair pouring five of their wines.  The future of Mosse vineyards and winery is in good hands with these two.

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The family farms organically and uses biodynamic preparations in the vineyard. The stand out of the five wines they poured was the 2014 Savennieres Arena. Wow. Big mineral and honeycomb nose with honey, overripe apricot and hints of citrus in the mouth. Stunning texture. What Savennieres should be. I will be visiting the Loire again next April/May and hope to visit Mosse.

Foillard — Beaujolais:
For years, some of the best wines from the Beaujolais have come from Jean Foillard. A second generation winegrower, Foillard took over the vineyards from his father in 1980, which are located on the famed Côte du Py slope, considered by many to be the best site in the region. Foillard is a student of famed Beaujolais winegrower Jules Chauvet, a traditionalist know for organic (no herbicides or pesticides) farming practices and stringent sorting. 

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The 2014 Morgon ‘Côte du Py’ was one of my favorite wines of the day. Made from gamay vines 10 to 90 years old, this wine is fresh, lush, and vibrant. Unfined, unfiltered and no sulphur added. If there was such a thing as liquid stone, this wine would be it. Stone, cherry, and some spice with racy acidity. Unbelievably delicious. Available in the U.S. Find it, buy it!

De Martino Winery — Chile:
Wow! Perhaps some of the best and most exciting wines I’ve tasted in a long time from Chile were being poured by fourth generation winegrower Sebastian De Martino. Located in the Maipo Valley region of Chile, De Martino was founded by Italian Pietro De Martino in 1934. The family converted their vineyards to organic in 1998. Sebastian told me he makes his wines in traditional ways that includes organic farming, wild yeast fermentations, and no new oak to age wines. The De Martino lineup included delicious, well-made, value-driven Carmenere, Chardonnay, and Cinsault but the gem was the 2015 Muscat Viejas Tinajas (means ‘old amphorae‘) from ~40 year-old vines in the Itata Valley (about eight miles from the Pacific Ocean). The juice spent six months on the skins in old clay amphorae. No yeast added. Delicious, with intense aromas of quince, flowers and apricots with hints of almonds and hay. A fantastic value at around $17. Overall, De Martino offered the best values of the producers I tasted at the fair.

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Mas de Daumas Gassac — Languedoc:
Although I am not as familiar with the wines of the Languedoc region as I should be, I am quite familiar with the wines of Mas de Daumas Gassac. Widely considered the ‘first growth of the Languedoc,’ the wines Mas de Daumas Gassac can only be labeled ‘Vin de Pays’ because of the numerous grape varieties used to make their wines that are not permitted by local AOC regulations. The roughly 90 acres of vines are farmed without chemicals or pesticides. Each wine poured was excellent but the 2007 Cuvee Emile Peynaud, named in honor of renowned professor and oenologist from Bordeaux who provided viticultural guidance early in the winery’s history, was the standout by far.

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Mas de Daumas Gassac red wines are 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with the remainder 20% a blend of many different grapes, but this Cuvee is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the first block planted in 1972. An amazing, complex wine as one would expect with a price tag of about $150. Youthful, needs time, will peak in several years. I spent some time walking around the fair with this wine in my glass. Notes of cassis and leather dominate initially, giving way to licorice, cherry and herb as the wine opened up. A special wine.

Occhipinti — Sicily:
Based in the Vittoria region of southeastern Sicily, Arianna Occhipinti is a force in Italian wine. The niece of noted winemaker Giusto Occhipinti of COS wines, the wines bearing her name speak for themselves. Occhipinti studied oenology at university in Milan, started farming one hectare of abandoned vines in Vittoria, and released her first vintage in 2004 at the age of 21.

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She currently farms 22 hectares of Nero d’Avola and Frappato and a hectare and a half of white grapes varieties.

Elegant may be the best way to describe all of Occhipinti’s wines but the 2015 SP68 Bianco, a blend native varieties, 60% Moscato di Alessandria (aka Zibbibo) and 40% Albanello, was my favorite. Made from 15 year-old vines, the Bianco is fresh and crisp, offering notes of white flower, orange peel and hints of mint. SP68 is named after County Road 68, which was a narrow stone path that connected the area of Gela to Kamarina 3,000 years ago.

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These were just a few of my favorites — there were too many producers to taste and mention them all.

The Real Wine Fair was one of the best organized (large) wine events I’ve attend in a long time. Wineries were organized by region, which is how all large tastings should be organized, the food was delicious and reasonably priced, and the event tasting book provided relevant information one needs (winemaker background, wines poured, price, and table number) to plan one’s day.

Congratulations to the team at Les Caves de Pyrene for a great event!

A big thanks to Wink Lorch, author of the definitive guide to the wines of the Jura region, ‘Jura Wine,’ and Brett Jones for spending the day with me sharing their expertise.

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