Yesterday was the first of two days of the Real Wine Fair, which was held at Tobacco Dock in East London. This is a great venue, with wonderful natural light and a good atmosphere.
The Real Wine Fair is one of the two significant natural wine fairs held each in London year, along with RAW. Both are great, but the Real Wine Fair is better, in my opinion, because it isn’t so fundamentalist (RAW requires producers to put their sulfur dioxide levels in the catalogue next to each wine), and the wines tend to be more interesting (Real is signed acts imported by one of a select group of UK importers, while RAW is lots of unsigned acts – anyone who wants to pay to take a stand and passes the naturalness test). But I think it’s great for London that we have two such fairs.
What I loved about yesterday, in addition to trying some excellent wines, was the buzz of seeing so many people enjoying these wines. And many of them were young. And cool. It must drive Robert Joseph, Bruce Palling and Jay Rayner crazy to see consumers having such fun drinking these natural wines. The future of wine is bright, I reckon. Let’s leave the ‘natural’ tag aside for a bit: there was just a spectrum of very interesting wines from all over the wine-producing globe on show. ‘Natural’ has been a banner under which these producers have gathered, and as such it has been a useful category. It’s a shame that the term has become divisive, and some of the cheerleaders of natural wine are at fault here by classifying the world in such a binary way: natural versus ‘chemical’ or ‘manipulated’. Promote natural wine through its virtues, not by bashing the opposition (or what you perceive to be the opposition).
The wine world can’t be neatly divided into two camps like this. Nor does a wine producer’s choice not to join the natural camp mean that they are adding lots of chemicals to their wine. There exist a spectrum of approaches to winemaking, and some are more natural than others, and most fine wines would probably be counted as natural if a sensible and slightly broader definition of the term is used.
I tried a few faulty wines yesterday. The main fault was mousiness, which is a strange fault that you can’t smell, but which you experience as an aftertaste once the wine has been in your mouth. It’s a deal breaker for me. In the right context I can live with a bit of brett, some oxidative notes, elevated volatile acidity (when it’s acetic acid and not ethyl acetate) and some reduction, but cork taint and mousiness are always bad.
But we need to learn to accept the odd fault, if it’s the price of beauty. And I think the occasional fault might well be the price of beauty: working more naturally does seem to be the path to making compelling interesting wines, but it’s a tough journey for many, with some failures as well as some successes. I really respect those who choose this road less travelled over a safer, more conventional approach.
We owe a lot to the natural dudes. Natural wine seems to have really changed the flavour spectrum of wine. It is a new aesthetic system, with new rules. For those who have been educated in the old system with its rather different benchmarks, it can be quite a challenge to adapt when more natural styles are encountered. The community of judgement that decides what is good and what is bad in wine has to ask lots of questions and enter into a discussion. Not all natural wines are good. How do we assess wines that are quite different in style to what we are used to? It’s hard, and for this reason some refuse to engage at all. Settle for the comfort of the familiar. It’s interesting that some have made a similar journey with food – branching out into experimental cuisine with an open, critical mind – yet when it comes to wine they simply aren’t willing to engage, and reject the unfamiliar as bad.
The best way forward is to embrace the new while retaining what is good of the old. And for wine producers, there’s a lot of cross-fertilization among the different camps. What was revolutionary or crazy a decade ago is now mainstream. And much of the progress is a return to the past. I’m enjoying being a small part in this world and watching the emergence of ever more interesting wines. It’s a good time to be a drinker.