As some of you might know, last week I went to a Gambero Rosso wine event together with fellow wine lover Emi. After the tasting we headed to one of Emi’s favorite wine bars, Sarfati which only serves so-called natural wines. A natural wines bar? Yes!
I don’t know how the situation is where you live but in Germany natural wines are a hot topic these days and are becoming more and more trendy. Before I give you my tasting notes on the two natural wines that I tasted at Sarfati I want to briefly discuss the topic of natural wines.
What exactly is a Natural Wine?
Natural wines are a difficult subject and to thoroughly explain them could take days if not weeks. Why? Because the term has neither a legal status, nor is it there an established certification body. So any and all winery could, if they want, call their wines natural wines. This is problematic because different individuals and groups may have different definitions of what a natural wine is. There are some unofficial organisations like the French Association des Vins Naturels (AVN), the Italian Vinnatur, the Spanish Productores de Vinos Naturales (PVN) and many others that all have their own definitions but most of these definitions are more or less identical. In Italy alone there at least four organisations representing the interests of natural wine producers. For simplicity, I will give you only the definition from Vinnatur:
The natural wine is produced in low rather than industrial quantities by an independent producer. The vineyards have low yield per plant and grapes are healthy and free of pesticides; lands are suited to the production of grapes which are harvested by hand with special attention to the integrity of bunches. The grapes do not undergo any chemical treatment nor weeding, no added sugar, enzymes or additives. The fermentations are spontaneous, without the addition of selected yeasts in the laboratory but only yeasts naturally grown in the vineyard; acidity adjustments are excluded as well as micro-oxygenation and reverse osmosis treatment.
To put it simple, natural wines are produced without or with minimal technological intervention in the vineyard and the cellar. While many these wines are certified as organic or biodynamic, they should not be confused with organic or biodynamic wines. Not all organic and biodynamic wines are natural wines and not all natural wines are from certified organically or biodynamically farmed grapes. Makes sense?
Natural wines often look, smell and taste very differently than their conventional counterparts. This is why the wine world is heavily divided when it comes to natural wines. Professionals, retailers and consumers are fighting over the term and of the end product.
Opponents argue that the term natural wine is misleading and that the these wines taste and smell often very bad. In 2013, Bettane & Desseauve, two French wine critics, claimed that natural wine is “bad wine whose only intention is to give you a headache”. Bettane & Desseauve are verbally attacking producers of natural wine and its advocates on a regular basis saying that their wines are faulty or oxidized. Some opponents go as far as claiming that natural wines are an excuse for poor winemaking.
On the other side of the spectrum we have Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron who is one of the most vocal advocates of natural wine as well as founder and organiser of RAW, an annual artisan wine fair held in London. The 2015 RAW takes place from May 17-18. In Legeron’s opinion “only natural wines “can be truly great”.
It appears unlikely that either side will give in any time soon and so my recommendation is that you try natural wines yourself and not just once before your judge them as a whole.
Because natural wine producers do not add yeast, among other things, it can be difficult to predict how the finished wines will taste. The influence a cellar master has on the finished wine is minimal.
- Natural Winemaking Stirs Debate – NY Times
- Natural Wine Community Enraged By Gambero Rosso – Wine Searcher
- Only Natural Wines Can Be Truly Great – Wine Searcher
- What is Natural Wine? – RAW
- Natural Wine: Weird of Wonderful? – FoodandWine
- Terroir, Unaltered – Talk-A-Vino
My experience at Sarfati Natural Wine Bar
We arrived at Sarfati after having tasted about dozens of wines at the Gambero Rosso event (I am a professional spitter). We started with a white wine as aperitif. Emi offered me to choose the wine but since I was completely unfamiliar with Sarfati’s extensive wine list I let Emi pick the bottle. Emi is a regular at Sarfati and knows their wine list much better than I do. He ordered a bottle of NV Feudi d’Ugni – Lama Bianca – Vino Bianco VdT , a Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, but warned me about the wine’s high acidity.
Like many natural wines, this one is classified as table wine. The reason behind this is simple: It gives the wine makers the most possible freedom and consumers who purchase natural wines are said to care less about appellations. Lama Bianca’s appellation is Italia VdT (vino da tavola/Italian table wine). In Italy, producers may not put a vintage on the label if the wine is classified as table wine. The friendly staff at Sarfati assured us that the vintage is 2013.
Lama Bianca is produced with 100% Trebbiano. After a brief maceration with the skins the wine underwent a fermentation and further aging in terracotta amphoras. 13% is the label-listed alcohol by volume.
After pouring a glass I noticed immediately a turbid color which reminded me of freshly squeezed lemon juice. I know on the photo it might be difficult to spot but there was lots of yeast in the bottle/glass, too. A mix of mature fruit and herbs on the most unique nose. The wine had definitely oxidized but I was told this a quite normal behavioir for natural wines. Dry and fresh with a present acidity on the palate. Highly mineral with notes of candid fruit and herbs. Good length. Lama Bianca had a most-interesting smell and taste.
I freely admit that I have not tasted that many natural wines in the past and so I am a slightly undecided on my rating and will hold off rating it until I have more experience with natural wines but here comes the problem: I was told by the Sarfati staff that two bottles of the same natural wine could very well taste completely different making the whole process of rating natural wines even more challenging.
After our aperitif we decided to have dinner at Sarfati and Emi went looking for a red to pair with our main course which was baked pigeon with asparagus and eggplant. We went with a 2010 Guttarolo -Joha – Primitivo Puglia IGP. This proved to be a highly interesting wine because the Sarfati staff explained to us that after a fermentation in amphora the wine aged in parts in stainless steel tanks and in parts in oak. The wine has a indicated ABV of 14.5%.
Joha had a garnet red color with ruby red shades in the glass. On the nose, fruity and spicy with aromas of blackcurrant, raspberry jam, nutmeg, cocoa and pepper. In the mouth, very dry, warn and medium-full-bodied. Good balance, smooth tannins, slightly sapid and well-structured. Notes of blackcurrant and dark chocolate.Lingering aftertaste.
This wine tasted less “unique” or “odd” than other red natural wines which I have tasted in the past. I liked it this one a lot. Joha was an excellent pairing with our baked pigeons.
Let’s talk money. The bottle of Lama Bianca was priced at €33 at Sarfati and Joha at €32. Their corkage is reasonably priced and they also sell all wines without corkage for take-away clients. I’d pay any time €32 at a restaurant for such a well-made Primitivo but I felt that the Lama Bianca was too expensive for what the wine offered.
I find natural wines interesting but I reserve judgment on whether I really enjoy this stylistic or not until I have tried a few more. So far, the majority of natural wines which I have liked were reds. I am curious what your standing on natural wines is.