French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed that cultural commonalities and differences and similarities are based on everyday opposites such as raw and cooked. I was reminded of that in attending the annual RAW Fair in London March 12th and 13th. It too served up some opposite emotions, to mix my metaphors a game of two halves.
RAW was formed by Isabelle Legeron whose book “Natural Wine” would be the best starting point for anyone who wants to find out about low intervention wines. On its website it describes itself thus: “RAW WINE (rɔː) – adj in a natural state; not treated by manufacturing or other processes.”
There begins my reflection of opposites after attending. Yes there were many wines there which were not treated by manufacturing or other processes but there were also many which, to my mind, are about wines being manipulated by various techniques and by additives, as up to 70 mg per litre of added sulfites are allowed for RAW. Are these natural wines? As there is no actual binding definition then I suppose they are but I doubt that some of the wines at the Fair are truly in the spirit of natural wine. During the posts which I will write about the event, the most important Fair in the UK based on natural wines, I shall be writing about different categories based on the amount of SO2 used.
The game of two halves? Well, that refers to the two days. Sunday was open to the public as well as press and trade and it was very, very busy. Crowds around the tasting tables, wines running out, no seats for eating, very warm conditions do not make sense of for an optimal tasting experience. Plans for the day (to taste everything bar France, Italy and Spain) were put aside as it was more a case of find a table where it was not necessary to barge through to the wine. The effect was that I was probably too harsh in judging the wines that day, my mood was affected. Monday was much more like it, more opportunity to access the tables, talk to the producers and, it was when I tasted my favourite wines of the weekend.
- Amphorae. It is THE most trendy winemaking technique, ferment and age your grapes in clay amphorae, usually 800l or bigger. I have tasted and enjoyed quite a few amphorae wines but generally I am not partial to the drying effect they have on wines (in my opinion). They do seem to give a sense of licking the clay container before drinking the wine ( a description given to me by my friend David Crossley). Winemakers do add a manufacturing process to their wine and quite rightly experiment to make the wines they want, but I don’t necessarily always enjoy the results. I prefer my wine truly raw rather than cooked earth.
- Young and old. The natural wine movement is growing. Producers from all around the world, traditional producers experimenting with lesser amounts of sulfites (it was interesting to see a big name from Burgundy at RAW) and most of all amongst younger wine drinkers. It seems to be true that younger wine drinkers, perhaps less weighed down by conventional expectations of what makes good wine, are attracted to natural wines. Those who predicted its demise are being defied by this growing band of supporters. I heard accents and languages from all around the world, long may it continue. And, meanwhile, older wine enthusiasts like myself can appreciate the energy and life in the wines and the people linked to them.
- Faults. Critics of natural wines most often levy accusations of faulty winemaking. I tasted several hundred wines during RAW and I found faults in less than a dozen, mainly mousiness and two corked wines. Some are a little volatile and acidic but personally I enjoy such wines if the volatility is not completely out of control. The winemakers should be praised for their skill, the % of faulty wines was certainly a lot less than the % of dull wines I taste at many conventional wine tastings.
The two days were very enjoyable overall despite the crowding on day one. I was able to get round most tables and to taste some excellent wine. The next posts will describe some of those and some conclusions I drew from the event. The RAW website has excellent profiles of the producers and the wines on show, I will provide links to this site whenever I can. Let me start with my favourite range of the weekend which epitomises the feeling of opposites I had after RAW.
The Scholium Project (California) RAW link
Abe Schoener is a winemaker who pushes the boundaries, restless in trying to improve his wines. The wines are superb, very drinkable yet with great complexity. They made me smile, gave me great pleasure but also made me think. By accident as much as design it was found that by not topping up the barrels and not using pigeage the juice protected itself, the cap of skins helping rather than hindering. Indeed the Chardonnay, Michael Faraday 2014, developed a flor like sherry does. The result was pure juice, no hint of off notes either in aroma or taste. I liked all four wines on show, but especially the 26 day skin contact, no SO2 added Sauvignon Blanc, The Prince In His Caves 2015, and the Petite Sirah, Babylon 2013, which spent 3 years in barrels, again not topped up. I would normally be put off wines aged for so long in wood, I am not a great fan of too much skin contact yet here the wines were full of life and energy. Truly outstanding wines.
See what I mean about contradictions and opposites! RAW played with my expectations and prejudices.
Next time: the sulfite free wines which pleased me.