Curating luxury for the discerning traveller

NATURAL WONDERS

beaucastel_landscape.jpg

"London has always been a hub for the world’s wines,” says Tom Harrow, director of Honest Grapes, a premium retailer with tiered wine clubs, including an invite-only Grand Crew Classé for fine wine drinkers in the capital and abroad. “This city might not be the most significant when it comes to volume but it is the most important in terms of prestige and influence,” he explains inside members’ club 67 Pall Mall, where we are gathered for a tasting of sparkling wines from the Franciacorta region, Italy’s answer to Champagne. Like the famous French appellation, Franciacorta is made using the ‘classic method’ of second fermentation in the bottle. Infinitely more complex than a Prosecco and with a Champagne-like finesse, Franciacorta sparklers are gaining a lot of attention at the moment, not least because Franciacorta aims to be the world’s first fully organic wine-growing region by 2020 – an ambition that many of the oenophiles in the room welcome, and they are not alone.

Natural, craft, slow... whatever you choose to call it, the wine world is undergoing a sea change in its approach, with many producers, even in the Old World, converting to organic practice both in the vineyard and cellar. Why? “The results are self-evident,” says Harrow. “Pontet-Canet, Domaine Leflaive and M. Chapoutier, three of the top producers in three of the world’s greatest regions, have already converted to biodynamic, a more extreme approach to organic farming] and are making better wines than ever.” Some might argue it was only a matter of time given the world’s progressive desire for provenance. But this is a movement driven by more than fashion, health and environmentalism. “As ever with wine, the proof is in the tasting,” says Harrow. Both wine producers and drinkers are switching to organic because the product, quite simply, tastes better.

Dining

ORGANIC, NATURAL OR BIODYNAMIC?
Despite being in vogue, organic wine is not a new concept. People have been making wine organically for thousands of years. It wasn’t until the early-20th century, following an intensification in farming and an increase in man-made synthetic treatments, that ‘organic viticulture’ was coined as a way of explaining the alternative to modern farming practices. Today, the world’s certifying bodies continue to debate what ‘organic’ means and the rules and regulations vary, but largely these vineyards are ones that eschew pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilisers in favour of plant and mineral products to combat pests and disease. Natural wine, sometimes referred to as raw wine, goes further than this by avoiding fining agents, filtering and added sulphites if possible, resulting in some occasionally cloudy looking and even funky-tasting wines.

Biodynamic viticulture, meanwhile, takes the whole idea of organic farming to a more holistic, ecological and ethical level. All biodynamic wines are, by definition, also organic, but biodynamic winemaking goes further by taking into account the lunar and celestial cycles. While organic vineyards treat problems and avoid harming the environment, biodynamic vineyards strive to prevent problems before they arise and improve the health of the farm’s entire ecosystem with the use of polyculture (mixed crops) and animal husbandry. “To our modern way of thinking, this all sounds quite insane,” warned scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who founded biodynamics in the 1920s, and he was right.

For decades, many dismissed his ideas as nonsense, but almost a century on some of the world’s most revered wines – including Domaine LeRoy, Château de Beaucastel (Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and Domaine Zind-Humbrecht – are made using his methods.

“From a technical perspective, biodynamism toughens up vines and enables them to be productive for a longer period,” explains Harrow. “You might lose your first three years’ harvest to pests and rot but the vines learn to cope and become more resilient as a result.” With time, these producers say soil biomass improves, roots grow deeper and stronger, indigenous plants and wildlife return, and the grapes become more receptive to climate and weather. These are the ingredients that go into creating a wine’s flavour profile, and with minimal intervention and low sulphur – the cornerstones of any good organic winemaker – critics argue you can actually taste this living environment, the wine’s ‘terroir’.

celler_2-1.jpg

A MATTER OF TASTE
“Initially it was the flavours that attracted me to natural wines,” agrees Doug Wregg, a sommelier-turned-buyer for award-winning supplier Les Caves de Pyrene. “The wines possessed something that I would characterise as real or raw ‘energy’. The flavours would ricochet around the palate. They were also mutable, forever changing and developing. This seemed to suggest that they were alive.” For Harrow, that ‘extra energy’ is found more readily within biodynamic wines, while natural wines can be more savoury, feral, barnyard. “None of which sounds attractive necessarily,” he admits, “but only because we have come to associate wine with a more limited spectrum of aromas and flavours.”

Not surprisingly, the best way to truly understand organic, biodynamic and natural wine is to taste them for yourself and in London you’re spoilt for choice. Established in 1698, Royal Warrant Holder Berry Bros. & Rudd reigns as the ultimate London wine shop, with regular tasting events and dinners, while Natural Born Wine at Primrose Hill Market (every Saturday) offers a story behind each of its bottles. At Jason Atherton’s Social Wine & Tapas in Marylebone, where all the waiters are sommeliers, the restaurant’s executive head sommelier Laure Patry estimates that at least 70 per cent of her wine list is biodynamic. “Biodynamics is a lot of work but it brings much more to the wine: purity, authenticity, the wines are more alive and not masked. It also shows respect for our planet and it is better for us. I couldn’t sell a wine I didn’t believe in.” Proving, perhaps, that there is already a thirst for a healthier, more sustainable and honest glass of wine.

www.bbr.com 
www.honestgrapes.co.uk 
www.lescaves.co.uk 
www.naturalbornwine.com
www.socialwineandtapas.com 

More

FROM THE EARTH

A cluster of pioneering restaurants are looking beyond meat, fish and dairy to champion plant-based cuisine. Lois B-E samples a new way of eating

COLOUR, POWER, SPIRIT

With foodies in raptures over the stories Martha Ortiz creates with her exquisite dishes, Kathryn Conway meets the woman intent on changing perceptions of Mexican food

A QUEST FOR PERFECTION

As Zuma celebrates its 15th anniversary, Beatrice Squires meets the chef who continues to delight diners with his flair for superlative Japanese cuisine