When is a wine not a real wine? And no, this is not a “how long is a piece of string” type of nonsense question with no answer; nor is it a reference to the disturbing “wine-style beverages” that you sometimes find lurking in the dark corners of the supermarket wine aisles, that bear almost no resemblance to anything I’d call wine. The answer, in fact, depends on which side of the real/natural wine fence you choose to stand on. Although you may view all wine as a natural product, especially in comparison to, say, a fizzy energy drink, the truth is that most wines that are produced in sufficient quantities to land on our shelves in UK stores are by necessity produced on an industrial scale, using industrial processes to ensure continuity year after year. To aid fermentation and add flavours, yeasts are purchased that do not naturally grow on grapes; fermentation takes place in huge clean, clinical stainless steel tanks; and the wine is chemically stabilised so as not to change too dramatically in the bottle once it leaves the winery. Although for most of us, this makes no difference and we rather like some consistency in a wine brand, proponents of “natural” winemaking have decided that it is time for us to return to our winemaking roots.
In a nutshell, so-called real or natural wines are wines that have been made with minimal chemical intervention, from the management of the growing vines, right down to the fermentation process. They are usually labelled as organic, biodynamic, unfiltered or unfined – or some combination of the above. Although I usually fall into the camp of not really being too bothered by the industrial process, others feel a lot more strongly about it, which is why the Real Wine Fair, hosted by Les Caves de Pyrene, is taking place for the second year this year in London. The Fair takes runs from 20-22 May, with a consumer even on 20 May plus two trade days. It’s all part of Real Wine Month, a national promotion highlighting organic, biodynamic and natural wines made by artisan growers and winemakers which will be poured by glass or featured on wine lists and catalogues in over 200 restaurants and independent retailers countrywide, including a list of events in London.
As part of this series of events, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a food and wine matching dinner with natural wines at Corrigan’s restaurant in Mayfair. The dinner took place in a private dining room downstairs which was very dark (so apologies about the photos!) but did have a picture window into the kitchen, where you could watch the staff do the delicate dance of people who have worked together for a considerable time in a small space. Canapés were served as we all stood around chatting and included a gurnard maki roll (why do we not see more lovely sustainable gurnard used in sushi??); a blue cheese fritter sprinkled with Parmesan; and a teensy slice of delicious rabbit pie. These were all paired with a Paul Déthune organic Ambonnay Grand Cru Champagne which was toasty with a clean lemony finish and a lovely delicate mousse.
Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene, one of the major stockists of natural, organic and biodynamic wines, was to be our host for the evening and a more enthusiastic host and proponent of natural wines you could scarcely ask for. After sampling some herby breadrolls and excellent creamy yellow butter, we were presented with our first course: goat’s curd croquette, heritage tomatoes and kalamata olive tapenade served on a clear tomato jelly. This was a lovely, fresh dish packed with umami and beautifully plated. The flavour of the tomatoes was pretty intense and worked well with the mild cheese croquette. This was paired with two wines: first up was a 2010 Buisson Pouilleux, Clos du Tue-Boeuf (Sauvgnon Blanc). The grapes are picked late so they have a high sugar content, and there is no steel tank fermentation. It’s slightly cloudy appearance and has a totally atypical nose for a Sauvignon – almost a Riesling-style kerosene nose with hints of pears. The palate was quite subtle with hints of fruit – more pears and fresh apricots and some cinnamonny notes. But overall I found this a little flabby, with not enough acid to balance the fruit flavours for my taste. The second wine was the 2008 La Pointe Chenin from les Vignes Herbels (a Chenin Blanc made from 90+ year old vines – only 800 bottles are made). The nose was almost like fino (dare I say showing signs of bottle-age?) and the palate was heavy on the acid – sharp and palate-cleansing with not much discernible fruit but a very long finish. It’s definitely a food wine though – when paired with the tomato starter, the acid seemed to tone down, as if it had met its match in the tomato’s own acidity. So on balance, I would say that the second wine was the better match with the food – but I can’t say I was a huge fan of either of these wines.
Our next course was a fish course: a slice of shellfish crêpe with beurre blanc sauce and oscietra caviar, served on (I believe) some sort of seaweed and microgreens. I loved this – the crepe had been grilled to a lightly crisp exterior and was then served in individual slices, topped with the decadent beurre blanc sauce, and with the seaweed and caviar lending a tangy note of the sea. I only wish the portion had been a little bigger as it was truly a weensy little morsel. The two white wines selected to go with this were a 2007 Muscadet Excelsior, Schistes des Goulaines, Pierre Luneau. This was so clear and pale that you could easily have mistaken it for still water! The nose reminded me of apple fizz pop sweets that we used to eat as children – a kinf of sherbetty green apple smell, turning distinctly apricotty when you left it in the glass for a while. But the real surprise lay in the palate – oh how glorious the palate was! The wine had a rich, creamy mouthfeel and almost butterscotchy flavours, without ever being cloying. My only criticism would be that it had a clean but extremely short finish. The second wine with this course was a 2009 Les cailloux du Paradis Romorantin (the latter being an obscure old grape variety). This had a great, golden colour (the result of extended skin contact) and a rather unusual nose – fruity but not real fruit. More pear drops than fresh pears, if you see what I mean. The palate was as if you had poured an apple and pear crumble into a glass – packed with flavours of cooked fruit and cinnamon spice. I thought the fruit was adequately balanced by some acid backbone, and the wine had a long but clean finish. Of the two, I would again say that the second was the beter match – probably as a result of the balancing acid.
Our third course was probably my favourite of the night: poached chicken roll with spring vegetables and a shard of crispy chicken skin. I can’t say for sure, but it seemed that the chicken had been deboned and the dark meat had been shredded and rolled into a roll enclosed by white meat before poaching. It meant that everything remained moist, and the more flavourful dark meat had a chance to lend some of its flavour to the white meat. The vegetables (peas, chanterelles, spring onions and carrots) were crisp and cute – but the absolute showstopper was that chicken skin. It looked as if it had been generously seasoned with salt and pepper before being pressed in an industrial chicken skin press (do these even exist? I’ll bet Heston has one!). The result was a sheet of pure, salty crispy indulgence. Unusually, the chicken course was matched with red wines – the first of which was a 1995 Bourgueil Les Galichets, Domaine de la Chevalierie. This had a deep garnet colour and stemmy nose with hints of white pepper. The palate was pleasant but somewhat lacking in fruit and with a strange metallic, mineral undertone; medium tannins; and a short but clean finish (although that mineral taste lingered longer than I would have liked). The second red was probably the most intrigung wine I tasted all night: a 2009 Sancerre Rouge “Raudonas”, Sebastien Riffault (Pinot Noir). It was a cloudy shade of red, rather like freshly pressed strawberry juice – the legacy of the fact that it is unfiltered and unfined. It tasted like wine tasted directly from the barrel before fermentation is quite done – quite an acidic tang that hits the palate initially. But this soon gives way to an interesting fruit salad of a palate packed with strawberries and fresh apricots, both of which flavours linger tantalizingly on the long finish. Just lovely. To drink on its own, I would choose the latter, although I think the former probably had a slight edge in terms of matching the food.
And so, the dessert course rolled around. This consisted of gariguettes with buttermilk cream, elderflower jelly and honeycomb, with two sweet crumbly biscuits on the side. I absolutely loved the presentation of the dish, especially as the colour of the jelly in the bottom of the glass neatly matched the colour of one of the wines! In terms of flavour, I was less sure. Pretty as it was, I thought the elderflower jelly was too tart and needed more sugar. I thought the slightly off-sweet buttermilk cream and the sweet crispy honeycomb were a good combo though – and the strawberries were fabulous. To match this, we were served a 2003 Vouvray La Revillerie from Domaine Lemaire Fournier. This had a glorious pale amber colour and a nose like haybales and honey – just glorious. The nose promised a lot and the palate did not disappoint – a lush mouthful of dried peaches and beautifully balanced acid, with a terrifically long finish. My favourite of the night, by a mile. The other wine with dessert was a 2010 Ritournelle Pet from Catherine & Pierre Breton. This had a delightful Turkish delight colour that perfectly matched the shade of the elderflower jelly in the dessert! On the palate it had the delicate bubble that its name suggested and as Doug explained, this fizz is natural and can wax and wane in the bottle – open this year and it may be flat; open next year and the warm summer may have kick-started fermentation and the bubbles will be back. On the palate, it was equally charming and full of cherry and almond flavours with a palate-cleansing touch of greenness on the finish. A truly enchanting wine in every possible way.
On a balance, I thought the evening was wonderful. The surroundings and service at Corrigan’s are designed to make you feel cosseted and the kitchen certainly knows what it is doing (I would go back for the crispy chicken skin alone!). I must admit that I had arrived with some misgivings about wines made by technology-fearing hermits living off the grid in remote cabins in the hills, and I will admit that some of the wines were just not to my taste at all. But all the wines were made with obvious passion and all provoked interesting and lively discussion around the table. And in the mix there were some true gems which I would certainly buy again, should they cross my path. If you are similarly hesitant about the whole natural wine movement, it may be time to suspend your cynicism and pop in to the Real Wine Fair consumer event on 20 May to challenge your preconceptions – or to attend a tutored dinner at Corrigan’s Mayfair.
Essential info: Real Wine Month runs until the end of May with events and tastings countrywide. The Real Wine Fair takes place in London from 20-22 May, with 22 May being the consumer day (tickets available via the website). Corrigan’s offers regular tutored tasting dinners, with the next one taking place on 15 June 2012 (£120 per person including Champagne, canapés and a tutored 4-course menu).
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of the Real Wine Fair and Corrigan’s
28 Upper Grosvenor Street
Tel. 0207 499 9943
Fax. 0207 499 9321