Raw Wine was held last week in London, presenting labels from 150 natural, organic and biodynamic winegrowers to both consumers and trade professionals. It was the ideal occasion for Imbibe to catch up with Raw Wine's founder Isabelle Lageron MW and discuss natural wine, its supporters and how to set standards for the nebulous category
What’s the current state of Raw Wine?
It’s growing. We get a lot more people that want to come to the fair, both in terms of attendees and of growers. We really have a lot of applicants but many don’t get through because of our selection. They have to abide to certain standards.
Really? What do producers have to demonstrate when they apply?
They have to be either certified organic or biodynamic, or recommended by someone who is already a trusted producer. We may check the vineyards and each wine they present needs to have an independent lab analysis so that we know that, for instance, sulphites are in line with our standards.
Total sulphites cannot be more than 70 ppm, but most wines here [at Raw Wine] are under 50 ppm because from 50 or 60 you start to lose much of the life that’s in the bottle. Basically I’m after wines that are alive. Then grapes can’t be harvested by machine and have to be fermented with indigenous yeast. Mechanisation has to be kept to a minimum. Finally, I taste everything, looking for authenticity, wines that have personality, that speak of a place.
It’s a lot of wine to go through… Did you set the criteria yourself?
Yes, I’ve based my criteria on experience and on certain elements I think are crucial. The farming is definitely the most important, for instance, harvesting by hand because of soil compaction...
Are you thinking of putting these criteria on paper and making them official?
I thought about it, but implementing it would be a challenge. But yes, it’s in the back of my mind, and at least with the fair we’re doing quite a good job, and to be fair some people already use our standards for low intervention.
Is natural wine growing?
Definitely. Natural wine is more an on-trade thing. I think the growth is driven by restaurants. These wines need to be hand sold [when compared to traditional wines]; you need to be able to tell the story, justify the price, and that’s possible only in a restaurant. Also, they tend to go really well with food.
Somms are getting more and more into natural wine, but in my experience, chefs and back of house in general really support natural wine. Chefs are accustomed to working with quality ingredients in the kitchen so they understand authenticity of taste. That kind of philosophy should be applied to wine lists, because often it isn't.
If you think about it, sourcing the wine can be the same as sourcing a piece of meat... You would encounter the same problems you would find in a kitchen, the same sustainability issues.
How would you overcome the challenges of stocking and serving natural wine in a restaurant?
When you decide that you’re going to build a very diverse wine list and add natural stuff, the sommelier's job is going to be much more complicated. The somm might present the bottle to a guest that has never heard of the grape variety or the producer; also, they won’t know where the wine is from, it might be a bit hazy or orange or whatever, so there’s a lot of communication involved. You really need to have a committed wine team. And you have to keep abreast of all the vintages because vintage variation is very important!
It’s just about communication: most people would still think that wine is simply fermented grape juice, while in fact many are made with additives and contain pesticides residues. People don’t know it because there is no regulation when it comes to putting ingredients on the label.
Anything natural wine's champions should be worried about?
Natural wine is getting very popular, so some producers are trying to jump on the bandwagon by making so-called ‘natural wines’ where the grapes aren’t even farmed organically, or they might make one ‘natural cuvée’ where they replace sulphites with something else… That doesn’t make it natural. So maybe we need a definition, we need to set the boundaries so that people know what a natural wine is.
What’s the future of natural wine?
The lifestyle sector, fashion and food industries are more interested in natural wine than the drinks trade. People who are into natural wine tend to be interested because it fits within their ethos, food habits and lifestyle. If you see recent food trends you see people that are going back to tradition, doing things really well… We represent the wine element of that.