Natural wine…..a phrase that excites some and positively disgusts others. It may be all the rage, bringing swathes of new interest into the world of wine, but for many wine lovers it is to be actively avoided. Hallowed wine writer Hugh Johnson recently voiced his lack of interest, dismissing it as a “fad”.
I have friends in both camps, but I am pretty indifferent about it all. I have tasted good ones and bad ones. I’m not turned on or off by it. If it tastes good I’ll drink it. If it tastes bad I won’t.
Natural wine, as far as I am concerned, is when organically farmed grapes are made into wine with no added chemicals, specifically it has no Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) added (SO2 does naturally occur during the fermentation process, emphasis on the word "added"). I have heard some winemakers tell me they make natural wines, at which point I clarify, “no sulphur?”, to which they respond “just a little bit”. This is not a natural wine in my book.
Traditionally winemakers have added SO2 during bottling, when they take samples from barrels or any other occasion during winemaking when it comes into contact with oxygen. It helps preserve the wine and prevent bacteria and “bad yeasts” spoiling the wine. The downside of added SO2 is that too much can kill the “good yeasts” in wine which effectively dumb down the wine and remove some of its flavour profile, creating a bland, less complex beverage. It is the fear of this downside that has led to the increased popularity of natural wine making in recent years.
I get why people make natural wines. But I am pretty risk averse in nature. I am a believer in organic viticulture but I also think little skoosh of sulphur doesn’t detract from the flavour of a wine, as long as it is done in moderation. It also reduces the risk of the wine being a bit too funky and less enjoyable to drink.
Not using sulphur is a bit like me deciding not to wear anti-perspirant. Some days when the weather is mild and I don’t have to rush around all day I’ll probably smell fine and people around me can enjoy my natural scent instead of Lynx Java. But on a sticky July day after travelling to and from work on the tube, I am going to smell pretty rank and the unfortunate guy sitting next to me is going dry wretch all the way home.
Natural wine is much the same. By not adding sulphur the risk of the wine going bad is increased significantly as does the need for meticulous cleanliness. The famous Sicilian natural winemaker Frank Cornelius is renowned for his obsession with the cleanliness of his cellar, spending lots of Euros on state of the art equipment to ensure the safety of his wine.
If I was a winemaker I'd probably use a little sulphur and save the cash and stress. But if everyone was as risk averse as me life would be pretty boring. And I can't make wine anyway so time to stop this pointless analogy.
Someone who can make wine is Michael Voelker. He makes fantastic wine under his 2Naturkinder label in Franconia, Germany. He farms organically and believes in minimal intervention in the winemaking process, generally adding no sulphur.
I met him a few weeks ago at my local natural wine purveyors, 161 Food and Drink in Sydenham, South-East London. The owner of 161, Alex, also runs a wine importing business called "Wines Under the Bonnet", specialising in natural wines, primarily from the Loire Valley but he is expanding and Michael is one of his latest finds.
Michael’s wine making story is an interesting one. He’s only been making wine for about four years, although his estate has been in his family since 1843. He told me his family are not really wine lovers, more business people who hired a winemaker to make some money from the estate. The wines made before he started are apparently rather dull, commercial wines.
Even now he makes his natural wines alongside the family’s winemaker who does things more “traditionally”, so there are two completely different sets of wines coming out of the cellar. The traditional stuff is sold locally but the locals don’t want Michael’s wines. “Too expensive and too funky”.
He sells 95% of his wine outside Germany, mainly to bars and restaurants in Paris. Fortunately, as of this year a small allocation comes to the UK via Wines Under the Bonnet after a chance meeting at this year’s RAW Wine Fair in London. There should be more available next year when the 2016s are released. His output has increased from 20,000 bottles in 2015 to 40,000 in 2016.
Based on the barrel samples I tasted of these you need to get hold of some. They are fantastic.
Micahel's winemaking epiphany came when living in London, working as a publisher. Regular visits to the Theatre of Wine wine shop in Tufnell Park opened his eyes to what could be done with wine made with minimal intervention. The wines of Sicilian wine producer Arianna Occhipinti were a key inspiration. By discovering these wines, he made his own discovery about what was possible at his family estate, “just don’t do a lot, that is the discovery”.
It has not all been plain sailing. He has had to learn from mistakes. In his second year he lost a whole batch of red wine, “twenty litres was vinegar”. Another tank was “a bit nail polishy”. But as he says, failure is the best way to learn, “embrace it and you learn quicker”.
Whatever mistakes he’s made on his journey, he certainly seems to have learned from them. The range of 2015 wines I tasted were consistently good and two barrel samples of the yet to be released 2016s were an absolute delight. Amazing juice. Here are my thoughts on the wines in the order I tasted them (apologies in advance for the quality of the pictures, it was a bit dark and moody in the bar):
2015 Bacchus Dreck & Speck – a private blend that’s not commercially available. Pear drops and plastic on the nose, with flavours of almonds, sweet pears and polish. Tastes almost fortified, a bit vin juane-esque.
2015 Bat Nat – a pet-nat style red made from Pinot Meunier. 900 bottle made and only 24 bottles made it into the UK. Pinky crimson in colour, with flavours of blueberries, redcurrants, followed by a biscuity savouriness to the finish. Really interesting and fun to drink. The bat-themed name and bottle art points to the fact that the vineyard is fertilised with bat shit. There are some huts in the vineyard housing hundreds of long-eared bats who like to litter the vines. Michael thinks the bats add something to the mix.
2015 Fledermaus – 80% Muller-Thurgau, 20% Sylvaner. The Muller dominates the flavour with a very open, floral, apricot-rich bouquet.
2015 Heimat Sylvaner – 100% Sylvaner and a highlight of the tasting. This is his most expensive wine at just under £40 but it is really good. Ten days of skin contact, but its more cloudy than orange. Spiced stewed apple nose with tartness on the tongue and you can feel the tannins bite. This is serious, delicious and long. A complex wine that makes you look a bit vacant as you ponder what it all means.
2015 Drei Freunde – the three friends being Bacchus, Muller Thurgau and Sylvaner. Seven days of skin contact, this is half the price of the Heimat due to the higher yield Michael gets from his MT and Bacchus. It is aromatic with flowers, apples and a burst of freshness. Great fun to drink.
2016 Sylvaner RK – the first of the 2016 tank samples that has had two weeks on the skins. Aromas of pear drops fill the room and then a smack of fruity sweetness hits your palate and the fantastic texture coats your mouth in sweet and then tart fruit. Absolutely delicious, just bottle it now Michael and fill the boot of my car, I’ll take the lot!
2016 Fledermaus Rot – the second barrel sample is a Pinot Meunier and its just as good as the Sylvaner. Delicious bubble gum fruit flavours with a really refreshing tart tang. This is dangerously gluggable stuff.
2015 Kleine Wanderlust – A blend of Dornfelder and Regent. Delicious, light, sour black cherry and blackcurrant flavours. A great burst of energy on the tongue. Another highlight of the tasting.
2015 Spatburgunder – Michael’s top red from 30 year old vines. It has earthy flavours of cherry and leather, with great tartness on the finish. Although I really enjoyed this, it was reminiscent of other German Spatburgunders I have tasted and didn’t quite startle and delight me in the way many of his other wines did.
So, a fantastic tasting and a great discovery for me. I hope to taste many more of his wines in the future. Hats off also to Alex and the Wines Under the Bonnet crew for finding these wines. As Alex admitted to me, meeting him at RAW is not quite as romantic a story as stumbling into him in his local pub on location in Germany, but who cares, the wines speak for themselves.
And as for the natural wine debate, as I said earlier, I don’t really care. If they’re good I’ll drink them. And based on my cloudy head the following morning I drank a lot of them in 161 Food and Drink that night. I suggest you try to do the same sometime soon.