On an otherwise grim, sometimes overcast, Sunday in the Essex-hinterland that is Brick Lane, I made an effort to find the RAW Natural Wine Fair in the Truman Brewery (which incidentally was filled with nasty old clothing and a great deal of “street food”, served indoors and at decidedly non-street prices).
It was a breath of fresh air – I arrived at 10.30am, and found 5 long tables of animated, occasionally a little tipsy, mostly just mad, winemakers, babbling in tongues ranging from Provencal to Georgian. The show was organised geographically, Italians in one set of rows, French in the other, Georgians with a massive clay amphora, and Austrians and Germans nestled in the middle. Without a map, you could divine provenance just by looking at clothing and manner: the green trousers and red-rimmed glasses of the Piemontese and Tuscans, the ample proportions and generous gesticulation of those from Rhone and Languedoc, and the ruddy yet anxious faces of the Germanic peoples. Up and down the rows were cardboard boxes filled with a mix of sawdust and what looked like tobacco leaves (but obviously weren’t), and as the day went on, these filled up with purple spitoon-juice. Occasionally, the more experienced tasters, particularly from the trade, would vigorously slosh the wine around in their mouths and spit, all in one motion, from a great height, with considerable noise and velocity. Mostly they were admirably accurate in hitting the box, but a wise newbie would do well to keep distance.
The tasting itself, as always, was a matter of discipline – faced with some fantastic, hard-to-find and expensive wines, it was hard to spit out, but nothing could be worse than peaking early, or worse, dropping one’s glass or flattening an elderly fair-goer. Speaking of which, there were a great number of florid gentlemen of a certain age, copiously making notes, and I never did actually see one of them avail themselves of the boxes.
The winemakers were super-friendly, even to retail visitors (distinguished by blue wristbands as opposed to the red of trade and journalists). It reminded me, by way of contrast, to commercial contemporary art fairs like Frieze. There are also similarities: newish wine (which a great deal of the wine at RAW was), like new art, has a greatly evolved technical jargon, extreme differentiation, a high level of subjectivity underpinned by a certain rigour, and a healthy sprinkling of frauds and charlatans.
My favourites are below but with a slight caveat: my experience and taste are mostly confined to Italy and Friuli Venezia-Giulia (FVG) at that.
A couple of notes: “natural” has a quite precise definition (available on the webiste http://www.rawfair.com), but the long and short of it is: organic/biodynamic cultivation of the grapes; hand-harvesting of the grapes; no yeasts or additives, except for sulfites, which should be (far) below EU levels and more imporantly, documented by lab tests; limits on mechanical processing/manipulation, chemical processing like acidification and chaptalisation. In practice (looking at it postively), this means the wines more distinctively express their terroir and altitude/temperature conditions when the grapes were picked, with minimal influencing post-picking to achieve a “house” or “international” style. Some detractors would say the wines are highly variable, vintage-to-vintage, even bottle-to-bottle, are unstable when opened, have weird smells (“farmyard” is the euphemism), and in the worst cases, are indistinguishable from homebrew or vinegar. Indeed, certain of the offerings would have done my accomplice’s father’s vintages proud (albeit his are made with rhubarb or elderflowers).
A particular interest are orange wines: these are made from white grapes (such as Friuli’s Ribolla Gialla or Malvasia), which after pressing, are held in contact with skins and sometimes stems, for 1-30 days. In some cases (as in certain Georgian wines), the wines are even crushed/macerated in clusters, so have a massive amount of skin/stem contact. This contact gives them tannins but also the distinctive orange (or “amber” as Gravner prefers to call it) colour. So one gets a wine that has the fruit or perfume of a white wine, but with the slight firmness (of flavour) that tannins provide to balance the often-intense aroma, as well as often the mouthfeel of a red. I believe the tannins also allow the wine to age better without sulfites. Certain orange wines (though this is by no means confined to orange) are aged in clay amphorae, which allow the wine to breath without imparting oak flavours.
Orange wines have very little similarity, other than perhaps a morphological one, with rose: the latter are made from red grapes that are macerated without skins (so the colour is coming from the pulp of the grape not from skins or stems). Roses generally aren’t especially tannic and only some have any noticeable complexity.
Frank Cornelissen: we had the honour of an extensive tasting by Frank (courtesy of Tutto Wines and Noble Fine Liquor), who is one of the most revered winemakers of the Italian natural wine world. He’s a Belgian who set up a vineyard on the shoulders of Mount Etna in Sicily, and has made some fantastically distinctive wines, usually challenging, but made with great passion. See below for his site/blog, other tasting notes, and retailers/importers. My favourites were his orange, Munjebel Bianco 8 (2011), and his entry-level red, Rosso di Contadino 9 (2011). Both are using Sicilian autochthonous (the lovely word for indigenous, from the Greek – in fact the archaic Greeks believed their were “autochthonous”, borne directly from the earth, ie. not settlers from elsewhere, therefore not foreigners nor barbarians) grapes. I believe “Munjebel” is the old Arabic name for “mountain”.
Stan Radikon: Radikon’s wines have gravitas, particularly the orange wine with its strong tannins. The first time I had his wine, upon opening the bottle, I was convinced it was skunk – and then over an hour the wine evolved beautifully. This doesn’t mean it necessarily went well with food, this was very much a conceptual wine, a Duchampian experience (food for another post – conceptualism in food & wine). There were 6 wines in the tasting, but I still lean towards the austerity of the Ribolla Gialla. Incidentally, his vineyard is near the Gravner estate in Oslavia – though Gravner wasn’t at the fair, his wines are probably the most famous of Friuli, and he’s done the most to bring the old (Georgian) winemaking back and has done a great deal to market the wines of FVG.
Gabrio Bini: Bini is another iconoclastic winemaker who produces on the tiny Sicilian island of Pantelleria, closer to Africa than it is to the Italian mainland. His white, with the Zibibbo grape, is aromatic, while the moscato, made with the Moscato di Alessandria grape, is amazingly perfumed, yet the slight sweetness and aroma blend into a full finish, that is never cloying. He’s also a great person to talk to, and in between greeting visitors, he stopped by the Georgian stall and waxed lyrical about how his grapes came from Georgia via the Levant and Egypt to Sicily.
Lagvinari: This was a great pleasure of a stall – there were 3-4 Georgian wines available, and one winemaker made the long journey to talk to visitors. This gentleman I think was from Lagvinari, and spoke with great pride about Georgian winemaking in general (said to be 8,000 years old and therefore probably the oldest in the world) and the specific characteristics of the various wines on offer, his own and others. Two macro observations: the orange wines and natural processes, particularly skin contact and amphora-ageing, that are fashionable in Italy and other places, clearly have historical antecedents in Georgia (hence are less likely to be a twattish fad that one might at first think). In fact, Gravner imported his amphorae from Georgia. Secondly, the Arab and Georgian influence was richly but subtlely intertwined with wines in the fair – most obviously in the names (Munjebel, Moscato di Alessandria, etc.). The Arabs acted as excellent conduits in bringing the gift of Dionysius to the modern world, before foreswearing the whole business in more recent times, and the Georgians provided a model for a particularly poetic and attractive method of wine-making. The winemaker talked of one wine, called “Colchis”, after the mythical land where Jason and the Argonauts went to find the Golden Fleece.
Although these wines aren’t that easy to find in London, they’re worth seeking out; I last had Georgian wine while living in Moscow (before the embargo after which it was a black market luxury), and it goes splendidly with the gutsy, spicy, outstanding food of the country.
Others: There were also some lovely wines from other producers, particularly the Austrians Weingut Sepp Muster (near the Slovenian border, in Styria/Sudsteiermark); Strohmeier (from Weststeiermark). Of the Italians, I liked the Tuscan Macea (northern Tuscany, not far from the sea and Carrara); the Venetian Daniele Piccinin (Verona zone); Le Coste (from Viterbo, nearer the sea than Rome, overlooking the Lake of Bolsena); Quarticello (Emilia Romagna) is one of our favourites on a value basis, particularly their two Lambrusci, which have an awesome acidity that makes them delicious for drinking with food, while their Le Mole is one of the most reasonably-priced orange wines we’ve had.
I would add an honourable mention for Stefan Vetter of Germany (northern Bavaria) with his Sylvaner wines, for his enthusiasm and effort in making it to RAW. The wines perhaps need a little more work, and we look forward to seeing next year’s production.
Lagvinari: their link (www.lagvinari.com) appears to be broken, Dynamic Vines are the UK importer
Daniele Piccinin: email@example.com.
Sepp Muster: http://weingutmuster.com/
Le Coste: firstname.lastname@example.org
Incidentally, Gergovie have an very good enoteca/restaurant, 40 Maltby Street.