Walk into any wine shop and you can see the bottles that sell, placed strategically in the fridge or in attention-grabbing piles close to the till. The wall flowers are easy to spot, too: hidden away on a bottom shelf and invariably coated with a dowdy patina of dust. Oddbins is only listing the 2006 Pétillant Naturel from Thierry Puzelat in ten of its stores, but it looks like something that could be tough to shift.
Just consider the disadvantages it faces. It’s comparatively expensive at £19.99, it’s made from a grape variety that few people have heard of (menu pineau) and it’s as cloudy as a volcanic dust storm, having completed its fermentation in bottle. Tasting it blind, you might mistake it for an organic cider: dry, appley and honeyed, with the colour of sun-burnished straw. Commercial it isn’t.
And yet that bottle of sparkling Loire white is something to be celebrated. To my knowledge, this is the first time that a so-called “natural” wine has been listed by a national retailer. Even more significantly, it is not alone. The Pétillant Naturel is one of nine such bottles at Oddbins, with the promise of more to come.
This is controversial territory. If you listen to their detractors, of whom there are many, natural wines are an excuse for bad winemaking. As one Aussie told me recently: “Listen, mate, anyone idiot can make a natural wine. All you have to do is produce something that’s oxidised, full of off-flavours and unstable in bottle. The job of a winemaker is to intervene at the right moment, not leave the wine to make itself.”
The problem with natural wines is that there is no official definition. Most of them tick a number of boxes in the vineyard and cellar, however. They are made from organic or bio-dynamically grown grapes, are fermented with indigenous yeasts rather than something from a packet, are unfined and unfiltered, use no additives such as oak chips or tartaric acid and have little or zero sulphur dioxide, which is good news for asthmatics and people who don’t want to wake up with a sore head.
As Thierry Puzelat says of his Pétillant Naturel: “My objective is to let the grapes express themselves naturally. The result creates a wine that is alive, digestible and of defined character. We can’t pretend that they will please everyone, but we find lovers of our style everywhere.”
Natural wines have developed a small, but committed following in the UK, thanks to retailers such as Green and Blue (www.greenandbluewines.com), Les Caves de Pyrène (www.lescaves.co.uk), Artisan & Vine (www.artisanandvine.com), La Trouvaille (www.latrouvaille.co.uk), Zelas (www.zelas.co.uk), Dynamic Vines (www.dynamicvines.co.uk) and now Oddbins. Serving these wines with food — the first four own restaurants, too — has helped people to appreciate their qualities.
Kathryn O’Mara, an evangelist who used to work in the oil business but fell in love with natural wines and opened Artisan & Vine two years ago, says that their “smelly, manure-like image” is misplaced. “A lot of my customers have no idea that they are drinking a natural wine. They just think it’s a great bottle made by someone who cares about wine. Punters love the stories behind the labels.”
Where do I stand on natural wines? I’d certainly like to see some sort of official body to give the movement some structure and credibility, but I’m already a fan of many of the wines. As a rule, these are not particularly aromatic, yet at their best they display remarkable texture, balance and intensity of flavour. I don’t want to sound like the New Age eccentric David Icke, but these are wines with an inner vitality.
Natural wines are the opposite of mass-produced wines, of “spoofulated”, personality-free beverages that could come from almost anywhere. These are hand-crafted products, mostly from France and Italy, but occasionally from Spain, Chile, New Zealand and Australia too. The bad news, alas, is that whatever their origin, they are expensive to make and rarely sell below £9.
All I can say is that the best examples are well worth the money. Natural wines won’t become a consumer craze overnight, but thanks to Oddbins they have entered the commercial mainstream at last. Buying one could change the way you think about wine for ever.
2009 Vin de Pétanque, Mas de Libian (£7.99, 13%, Les Caves de Pyrène, 01483 554750; www.lescaves.co.uk)
Even if you don’t play pétanque, you’ll love the wine. It’s like drinking a glass of freshly fermented grape juice: frothy and packed with quaffable syrah and grenache fruit. Brambly and soft, this tastes great chilled.
2009 Vin de Table Gamay, Raisins Gaulois, Marcel Lapierre (£9.79, 12.5%, Les Caves de Pyrène)
Lapierre is one of the superstars of the natural wine movement. This is made from declassified Beaujolais grapes and it’s a total charmer. Light and refreshing with slightly tart red cherry and redcurrant fruit.
2009 Verd Albera, Emporda (£9.90, 13%, www.artisanandvine.com)
From the area of Emporda in northern Catalonia, this is a very Mediterreanean blend of garnacha blanca, garnacha gris and muscat. It’s perfumed and unoaked with citrus and orange peel flavours and crisp acidity.
2008 La Granacha Côtes du Rhône (£13.99, or £11.19 by the mixed case, 14.5%, www.oddbins.com)
The label might look like a spelling mistake, but this blend of grenache and 10% mourvèdre is beautifully articulated: light, perfumed and refined with notes of violet and red fruits and an earthy undertone.
2008 Clos Ouvert Huasa, Maule (£23, 14%, www.artisanandvine.com)
It doesn’t happen very often, but once or twice a year, I taste a wine that blows my mind. This old vine, unirrigated Chilean red, made from the local país grape by a Burgundian ex-pat is silky and fine with incredible complexity.
2006 Montlouis Sec, Le Volagré (£29.99, or £23.99 by the mixed case, 13.5%, www.oddbins.com)
Dry Loire Chenin Blanc is not a punters’ wine, but this partially barrel-fermented example is palate-bogglingly good. Honeyed and complex with bracing acidity, a touch of vanilla spice and impressive concentration.
Originally published in The Times