Opinion: Natural wine nightmare before Christmas

Christine Parkinson

Christine Parkinson

07 December 2015

We had a nightmare before Christmas at Hakkasan last year: our most important wine by glass (a Sancerre) suddenly developed a serious fault. We managed to source a replacement, only for that to develop a fault too. The timing could not have been worse, right in the mid-November early Christmas rush. Both wines were from well-respected producers yet these were not accidents: both faults were caused by deliberate winemaking decisions.

Wine 1 had been on our list for years, so when we started getting complaints it was a surprise. When we found some of the wine was fizzy, the penny dropped: malolactic fermentation had started, right there in the bottle. There’s nothing wrong with malo in the right place, but a busy restaurant is certainly not that place.

Wine 2 arrived late-November. Everyone loved it, for a few days. Then it started to throw a colossal amount of tartrate crystals. Guests complained if we served it by the bottle, and when we served by glass the last 175ml was so full of crystals it was crunchy. With all five restaurants booked solid we were in serious trouble. I still can’t believe we managed to find a third wine in time for the December rush. I certainly hope we never, ever, have to do it again. But what had caused these problems in the first place?

There’s nothing wrong with malo in the right place, but a busy restaurant is certainly not that place.It turned out that the new, young winemaker of Wine 1 had cut the SO2 level back, to 'let the wine express itself'. It had expressed Sancerre brilliantly for years, and now it was mainly expressing lactic acid and bubbles, but I understood the intention. The young, enthusiastic winemaker of wine 2 was also keen on vinous self-expression, so he had decided against cold stabilisation, despite the high level of tartaric acid. He had overlooked the fact that most Sancerre is chilled before service.

Neither wine was sold as being 'natural', so why did both winemakers suddenly allow their methods to be influenced by 'natural' winemaking? Was this about fashion? Bear in mind that Wine 1 is so well-known it could even be called a brand. Both producers were glad to have our by-glass listing, yet both of them threw it away by selling us staggeringly unstable wines.

There are times when I’m keen to buy a natural wine – some of them are great, after all – but I would never knowingly choose a low-sulphur or unstabilised wine for our main by-glass listing. Yes, I know I could spend several hundred pounds having the wines tested at a laboratory. But I bought these wines through respected merchants, who sold them in good faith, with no idea the winemaking had changed.

My point is, shouldn’t the winemaker have said something? Most producers are keen to tell us if they have used new oak, hand-harvested or introduced a sorting table. It seems they are less keen to tell us fundamentals like whether the wine will survive December in drinkable form. If the sulphur level has been cut, or the wine isn’t cold stabilised, I want to know.

Most of all, I don’t want to give our sommeliers another nightmare before Christmas.

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