Monthly Archives: May 2013

As natural as it gets – the RAW wine fair

The London International Wine Fair is held every year in May. I’ve only been twice, to be honest, but I felt I had seen enough. This year I wanted to try something different, so I went to the counter-expo instead: RAW, the artisan wine fair. It was a great decision! Not so much because the wines were great but for a number of other reasons.

First of all, the scope of the whole thing was much smaller (although a lot larger than I had expected). I still had over 170 stands to visit and in the range of 700 wines to taste. I didn’t manage… In any case, smaller is better because there is a much more personal feel to the whole event. You could see the people who were behind it all. You could talk to the producers themselves (some producers are also present at the LIWF but here I only met producers behind the stands.

Hungarian Kadarka, organic, from very old vines; producer Oszkar Maurer

Hungarian Kadarka, organic, from very old vines; producer Oszkar Maurer

Secondly, I had a sense that these people really take their wine business seriously. In a nice sort of way. ┬áThe quality of the wines is a separate question, although I don’t think there was any reason to complain. But the commitment, the motivation, the greater ideals behind these wines clearly showed, and it warmed my heart.

Third, I learnt a lot. The wines, at least some of them, were so different, they forced you to think outside the box. Some of the regions, for example, Georgia and Slovenia, were totally new to me. I was exposed to wine-making philosophies, colours, aromas and flavours that I had never known before. I’m not saying I loved everything I saw or tasted, but the wines, and the whole event, had a character, and I felt engaged, even provoked. I loved this.

The sulfur conundrum

And now about the, to me, most challenging aspect of this whole natural wine phenomenon: the question of sulphites. In my understanding natural wine, in its strict definition, cannot contain any added SO2. This doesn’t sound so terrible in principle, but when I tasted the wines, I was shocked. My palate didn’t know what to do. I’d like to put it down to the flavours simply being unfamiliar, and I am trying to be open-minded about the whole thing, but if I want to be totally honest I’ll just have to say that some (in fact, most) of those wines were simply bad. Bad, off, smelly, oxidized, out of condition, vinegary, unbalanced, shall I continue? Now of course one can learn to like any bad smell of flavour – the pungent, rotten cheeses of the world come to mind. Still I feel there is a difference here. I sat through a session on the topic, listened to people raving about the wines (and how they age well and travel well, which may or may not be true, to me it’s beside the point), and came to the conclusion this was a religion, and those speakers were preaching to the converted.

One thing, however, I must give these wines credit for. They are impressively alive. Natural wine experts say, and in theory I agree, that SO2 kills the fruit, wipes out all life from the wine, freezing it into some kind of sterile, soulless, paralysed existence. Certainly, none of this is true for sulfur-free wines. They have a dynamism about them that surprised me. But then I am reminded of my garden at home. It’s a mess, it’s a jungle. Everywhere is covered in weeds. I just don’t have the time to tend to it. This is its natural state. It’s alive, it’s bursting with life; it even has a rough romanticism about it. But would I call it beautiful or pleasant in comparison to the well-groomed garden of my neighbour, whose lawn is mowed, whose hedges are trimmed and whose flowers are not suffocated by dandelions? I would not.

Wines of Jura: rotten apples rock!

Last week I went to one of the most exciting and unusual tastings I’ve ever been to. Not sure if you’ve heard about Jura, but if not, here’s a bit of information. Jura is a nice single malt made on a Scottish isle – but that’s not what we’re going to talk about here. There is another Jura, in eastern France, right next door to Switzerland. A small region with its own local grape varieties and winemaking traditions. Lots of very unusual stuff.

At the tasting I was lucky enough to participate in a masterclass led by Jura expert Wink Lorch, who called Jura ‘the world’s most complicated minuscule region’. It runs north-east to south-west, a narrow strip of land, roughly 80 km long, with no more than 2,000 hectares of vineyard area. If this doesn’t mean anything to you, the Margaux appellation in the Bordeaux wine region is about the same size. Jura used to be much bigger, I am told, but with world wars and phylloxera infestations and general late-twentieth-century competition it’s gone down to one-tenth of its original size.

What makes Jura so interesting? First of all, its varying soil types. Many different soils in a single area will mean that the same grape varieties will produce wines of different character – and that’s exciting! Secondly, they have only 5 grapes that they allow you to grow in this appellation, and most of them varieties you won’t find elsewhere: Chardonnay is the boring one (you would think, until you taste the Chardonnays they make around here. Unrecognizable! But I’ll come to that later.) Then there is Savagnin, a white variety, and Poulsard, Trousseau and Pinot Noir are the permitted black varieties.

The region has four different appellations: Arbois, Cotes du Jura, Chateau-Chalon and L’Etoile. They also have two product appellations – Macvin and Cremant du Jura. More about these below.

Rule number 1 in Jura is that you taste red wines before the whites. The reason for this is that the reds are made here in a very fresh, light style, whereas the whites typically undergo oxidative ageing, which leads to a much more complex, heavy-going style. True enough; my general impression was that almost all the whites I tasted were characterized by a pungent rotten apple (or, to be more precise, off apple juice) flavour. Now you might think rotten apple is not what you’re looking for in your white wine, but this is precisely what makes Jura unique and interesting: flavours that you need to get used to, that you need to learn to appreciate. Any novice can cope with a Pinot Grigio – but Jura whites are challenging. And believe me, they do grow on you.

The best-known speciality of Jura is, of course, the vin jaune (literally, yellow wine, thanks to its deep golden colour). Vin jaune is made from one grape variety alone, Savagnin. The winemaking doesn’t differ from the standard practice with white varieties, except when it comes to maturation stage it is kept in barrels that are not completely filled up. The layer of air sitting on top of the wine will do interesting things: it will lead to the formation of a layer of yeast, similar to that which makes sherry so unique. After one or two years of maturation under this veil of yeast the wine may be withdrawn and blended with Chardonnay to produce a table wine, which, they say, is a newcomer’s best introduction to the oxidative winemaking style. Or the wine can be left to mature even further and then be bottled – in the compulsory traditional 620ml Clavelin bottles – as vin jaune, but only after undergoing some rigorous tasting. All this takes 6 years and 3 months; no vin jaune may be bottled younger than that.

BT-Clavelin

Vin jaune should never be served chilled, only slightly cooled, to 14-16 C. Do decant well in advance, experts say. It’s best when accompanied by cheese and walnuts.

Macvin, another local speciality, is a liqueur wine made from mistelle, i.e. grape juice with added alcohol, and the local marc, a spirit made from grape juice. So your macvin will have a recognizable aroma and taste of Grappa, if you know what I mean. Macvin can be made from any of the five permitted grape varieties. I tasted one made from the red Poulsard – or as they call it here, Ploussard – grape. It had a very pale salmon colour, an alcohol level of 16.5%, and not enough acidity for my taste. Another one of those Jura drinks that take some getting used to.

Vin de Paille, a luscious dessert wine, on the other hand, is an immediate charmer. Again, it may be produced from any of the five varieties, and it is made from early-harvested grapes that are then dried in boxes, or sometimes with the bunches suspended, in well ventilated attics. The minimum ageing required here is three years, out of which a minimum of 18 months must be in oak. The alcohol level is set by the regulations at 14% abv. It’s typically a light amber or golden colour, with notes of honey, dried fruit, nuts, and sometimes a medicinal character.

If you’d like to find out more about Jura wines, visit Wink’s website, http://www.jurawine.co.uk